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Monday, January 30, 2006

ATWATER VILLAGE TVs

Every few Sundays, Cindy and I get take out from Rick's Burgers in Atwater Village at Riverside and Fletcher. Across the street is an Arco station and behind that is a hill that has concrete pilings from the long ago retired Red Car. For some time now, some one has been setting televisions on the pilings. The screens bear random thoughts painted in red.

Click here for the big picture.





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Saturday, January 28, 2006

FOLKSY CEO/P/F

A couple times each year Andrew, the CEO/President/Founder (CEO/P/F) of the company I work for addresses the company in what he terms a "Town Hall Meeting." Why he calls it this I have no idea since the essence of a Town Hall meeting is to let the people have their say. Yesterday, we had the latest installment.

As I listened to his assessment of the company's past accomplishments, current endeavors, and future goals, I imagined Andrew drawing up an outline for his presentation the night before.



00:00 - 00:05
Have the employees assemble in a cramped corner of the building. Squeeze them awkwardly between fire exits and cubicle walls. It's important to make everyone uncomfortable from the get-go to keep them from prolonging the meeting with a lot of pesky questions. Position portable podium such that I have a clear sight line to every employee to facilitate a heightened sense of personal connection...also, to make note of anyone that tries to leave.

00:05 - 00:06
Commence folksy self-deprecation by way of the following reference:
"I hate to sound like Columbo. Anyone here old enough to remember Columbo? No? Well, if I said Dragnet, I'm sure no one would know what I was talking about."
Chuckle convincingly.
00:06 - 00:45
Mention each and every department in the company and commend them on something specific they have accomplished in the last year. IMPORTANT: MAINTAIN FOLKSINESS. Use of the following phrases is recommended:
"Pretty neat stuff. Y'all should be proud."
Note: use of "y'all" is specifically recommended. If anyone asks, tell them I used to live in the South even though the truth is I only went to tennis camp at Hilton Head for two weeks the summer I was 15.
"I'll tell you a funny war story..."
Follow with fabricated story of dinner with bank executives who were envious of our account portfolio.
"...like a duck on a june bug."
No one will know what this means but it radiates folksiness.
00:45 - 00:48
Wrap up by misquoting the old Virginia Slims slogan:
"It's like the old Virginia Slims ad. 'You ain't seen nothin' yet.'"
If anyone tries to "help" by pointing out that this is actually the name of a Bachman Turner Overdrive song, just chuckle (convincingly) and say something about Columbo rather than explain that the actual Virginia Slims slogan was "You've come along way, baby" which sounds too slutty to be folksy.
00:48 - 00:49
Ask if there are any questions. When there aren't, thank everyone for coming and remind them to fill out the questionnaire and return it to Alena by next week.



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Thursday, January 26, 2006

CORPORATE PUCKERING, PART II
INGRATIATION CAN BE DANGEROUS

PREVIOUS:
CORPORATE PUCKERING, PART I

NO LOVE IN THIS ELEVATOR


Rob, the new boss of my boss called a meeting last week of the entire department. He'll be attempting to double the size of the department in the next year. Before the meeting started, we all sat around the conference table in the boardroom enjoying a rarity, the company-provided lunch. My associate co-colleague Kevin sat next Rob. I sat across from them. I hadn't had a real conversation with Rob yet but I gauged that the time was right for a little risk-free ingratiation. I knew Rob was, as am I, from Ohio. Perhaps this subject was my entree to a good first impression.

"So Rob, you're from Ohio, right?" I began.

"Yep, Yep, I am." He nodded, not really looking up from the iceberg leaf speared on his plastic fork, dripping with inexpensive vinaigrette.

"I'm from Shaker Heights." I said this wistfully, like I had a strong fondness for Shaker Heights when the truth is we moved from there to La Jolla, California when I was six and the only lasting memories I have of Ohio are of J.D. Lazerik from next door throwing rocks at my head and a surprisingly passionate two-day love affair with J.D.'s kid sister Lynn. I can't say that the clumsy kisses of a six-year-old outweighed the rocks bouncing off my noggin, so I would have preferred we skipped Ohio altogether and jumped right ahead to the skateboards and surfboards of sunny La Jolla.

"Really. Huh." I couldn't get a read on that reaction. Shaker Heights meant something to him but I couldn't tell if that thing was good or bad.

"Yep. We lived on Maplewood Road just a few blocks from Cedar," I babbled.

Some distraction took place at the table. Someone asked for a Diet Sprite or something, unwittingly forcing a break in the conversation. Rob, finished with his salad, put down his plastic fork and wiped his mustache-mouth-goatee assembly with his paper napkin, looked me in the eye for the first time and said, "Well, I'm from Parma."

"Oh. Parma, really." The search through my memory for all things Parma only produced the theme song to "The Drew Carey Show." Typical. Thanks, brain.

"And, I don't know if you know this," Rob wound up, clearing his throat slightly and wadding up his napkin. "But Parma and Shaker are rivals. See, our view of Shaker was that it was very affluent and kinda snobby whereas Parma was considered more blue collar, much more real."

Two things happened at this point. First, I thought to myself well, I blew that. I tried to create some sort of bond between us and instead I gave Rob a reason to resent me, a resentment, by the way that goes back to his childhood and therefore one that I have no chance of eliminating.

Second, a spin-off conversation started among nearby co-workers including associate co-colleague Kevin. They were joking about high school rivalries and cliques and how there were the brains and the nerds and the stoners, etc. Meanwhile, Rob continued to describe to me how his family had always been poor because his father worked in a factory. The two conversations were going on simultaneously. And just as Rob asked me what my father (a doctor, of course) did, someone else asked Kevin to which group he belonged in high school. Before I could answer, sealing my fate, a small miracle happened.

"I was a stoner!" Kevin proclaimed loudly and proudly. Everyone had a good laugh, myself especially since all the attention had shifted to Kevin, who quite clearly is no ass-kisser, God-bless him.


PREVIOUS:
CORPORATE PUCKERING, PART I

NO LOVE IN THIS ELEVATOR





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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

CORPORATE PUCKERING, PART I
NO LOVE IN THIS ELEVATOR

Workplace ass-kissers. I hate them.

Damn. I try not to use the word "hate." I don't want to be a hateful person. Hate breeds more hate and I don't want to be that kind of guy.

I will rephrase without the "hate."

I find the willingness of some people to kiss the asses of others unfortunate at best and unforgivable at worst. When someone kisses someone's ass, it demeans not just the kisser, but the rest of us, too – the rest of us who twist the balls of our feet into the soil every day to stake a claim for our human dignity by refusing to participate in the tired, tribal ritual of the lowly grunt paying homage to the mighty chief by plying him with hollow, saccharin-encrusted blandishments. A whore will tell you whatever you want to hear just to get paid when she's done. It's a duplicitous agreement between the powerful and the less so, each fully aware of the underlying deceit.

I don't play that game and I have no plans to in the future. I may have to a certain extent in the past but quickly realized that there was nothing in it for me except a lowered sense of worth and to be honest, I had that program covered in my after-hours activities. Back then, my self-destruction needed no reinforcement between the hours of 9 and 5.

Nowadays, my perspective can be summed up thusly: people are people. If they deserve a compliment then I'll give it to them. But if they suck, then fuck 'em.

See how I'm not hateful?

That said, I'm not stupid. I realize that it's generally better to be on friendly terms with the people you work with than not and if that means overlooking certain personality kinks, then that's cool, I can do that. And if it means making small talk with the "higher-ups" then I'll even try to do that.

Occasionally. The truth is I'm just not that good at it. When I get in the elevator in the lobby and in walks the president of the company for that long trip up to the 14th floor, I try to be casually and confidently conversational. I try to have a genuinely friendly exchange not because this guy deserves to have everyone lining up to be friendly to him, but because we're both human beings. We're both in this elevator together. Is there any reason we can't spend the next 20 seconds assessing the weather or the traffic or just the general level of life satisfaction we're presently enjoying?

But often I fall short of the mark. I usually start out strong with a full smile, eye contact, a pleasant greeting. If I'm lucky there's not too much of a pause before I think of some minutia to comment on. Thank God for giving us minutiae to comment on during awkward elevator encounters with corporate executives. Usually, I get through the greeting and through the first pass of banter before stalling abruptly. A momentary lapse in concentration instantly snowballs into full-on blankness. I become hyper-aware of the moment itself. It pushes me out until I see nothing but a couple of guys standing in an elevator with nothing real, nothing of any value to share with one another. To proceed with the charade seems futile and worse, false. Now I'm hopelessly outside the moment with no chance of re-entry. I just have to wait it out, the numbers above me sequentially illuminating a countdown to my escape and relief.


NEXT:
CORPORATE PUCKERING, PART II

INGRATIATION CAN BE DANGEROUS




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Monday, January 23, 2006

COSBY INSERTION

This woman is a beautiful and talented actress. She works very hard perfecting her craft. I wish Cos would stop trying to horn in on her success.



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Saturday, January 21, 2006

JUST TRYING TO MAKE IT IN THIS WORLD

LOW RENT POOL GUY
I see this a lot on the way to work...small business owners just starting out.





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Thursday, January 19, 2006

SAN FERNANDO VALLEY BEAUTIFICATION

The other day as I drove up to work I saw that the curb in front of our building had been painted red. How nice that the city is maintaining itself, I thought. As I walked from the car into the building, the true story revealed itself.













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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A NEW YORK SATURDAY AFTERNOON RIGHT HERE IN LOS ANGELES

I've never lived in New York City but I've visited enough to know its vibe. The city holds an endless supply of potential events. It's a fountain that never stops bubbling. For adventure all one need do is step onto the sidewalk and start walking. And the shear abundance of, well, everything, means that whatever you desire, whatever whim floats into your mind, you’re never more than a few steps from turning it into a reality. The limits of your experience depend only on those of your imagination. At least that's the mythology of New York. That's the allure. While it's true that nothing comes easy in the New York, it's also true that everything is possible. It's all there, in all the storefronts and all the cafes and all the bookstores and brownstones and bricks and in the very mortar that holds those bricks together. The city breathes in great heaves and with each exhale asks the people who wonder if they'll find what they're looking for, "Why not?" People may get sick of New York but they never get bored.

Los Angeles is not such a city. Whereas New York challenges the people to go out into the street and make their dreams happen, Los Angeles tells us to relax, take a deep breath and look within for happiness and fulfillment. We put all our energy into surrounding ourselves with the things that make us comfortable while blocking out the noise of the outside world. We do this in our cars and in our homes. We isolate ourselves in an attempt to create our own little spot of sense, a dot of happiness on which we close our eyes, cross our arms and squat.

But sometimes the opposing sensibilities of the two metropolises unexpectedly bleed into one another and we find ourselves enjoying the hyper accessibility of New York with the slow paced slack of Los Angeles.

Last Saturday was just such a day.

It started out with an early morning run through the neighborhood. The music in my earphones kept me from hearing the hello’s and good morning’s of my neighbors but I waved and said hello back. More Los Angeles insular behavior. I followed up that physical activity with several hours of concentrated inactivity involving a couch, an ottoman, a remote, coffee, eggs and toast.

Then Cindy and I picked up friend Chris and headed out to Cafe Tartine, a French spot at the corner of Beverly and Martel, reputed to serve a mean open-face salmon sandwich. Looking out the cafe’s oversized street level window at the cars and people, it all seemed remarkably clean. It had rained earlier in the day but did they sweep the streets between now and then? Occasional hipsters strolled in and out and the sun peeked out from behind the gray cloud cover, unusual for January. Approaching the precious, we each sat with our own press pots in front of us while we tried to make our salads and proscuitto and melted cheese last as long as possible, but this meal, like all others before it, eventually came to an end.

Off to the Forum Gallery up Beverly a few blocks west of Fairfax to see ten or so paintings by Davis Cone, realistic paintings of Art Deco movie theatres mostly in New York state but from elsewhere as well. We marveled at the detail, the precision, and the artist's powerful command over light. Someone offered, "The realism is so shocking it kinda takes away from the composition of the painting. It almost becomes a distraction. The artist and not the art becomes the star of the exhibit.”

We proceeded farther up Beverly to Blueprint, a mid-priced furniture store that has a fairly large showroom filled with cool-looking if suspiciously crafted furnishings. Searching for the perfect day bed, Chris considered a few upstairs and filed them away in his memory bank under "Maybe."

Across the street, the Kings Road Cafe supplied us with espresso, lattes, biscotti and a peanut butter cookie. We stood on the street and consumed our consumables as late afternoon was rapidly giving way to dusk.

One more stop while in the neighborhood - to visit friend Julia at the modern furniture store where she works. Nothing suspect about her wares, the furniture here is nice, nice and nice. And so is Julia. After speculating on how certain items in the store might fit into a fantasy world in which Cindy and I are millionaires, we said goodbye to Julia and wandered back into the night and the car.

Reflecting on the afternoon later, it occurred to me that it was a New York kind of a day right here in Los Angeles. Everything seemed within reach - good food, good art, good friends, all connected by the pavement and asphalt. The day felt like it could go on forever, carelessly leading us from one random stop to the next. It was a soothing, reassuring feeling like the city itself had swaddled us in its concrete and palm trees, telling us everything was going to be alright. Standing on Beverly Boulevard dunking our dolce in coffee while the sunset beamed its orange cast across the cars and buildings, we were at peace and we knew it.

Cities are at their best when they speak to us, whether to shame us or to comfort us.



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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

OVERHEARD TODAY AT STARBUCKS

GUEST EILEEN: "I'll have a Venti Ice Water and also, can you tell me what a Iced Shaken Coffee is?"

BARISTA ZULEMA: "Um that's coffee with ice that's shaken."

GUEST EILEEN: "Ooooh."



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Monday, January 16, 2006

MORE ON ROB

A brief update on who this guy Rob is...

He most likely will play some role my life for the forseeable future. I'm still not sure whether it's a starring role, a supporting role or just a bit part. It does not, however, appear to be an uncredited walk-on.

His gung-hoism continues to be a distinguishing characteristic resulting in a lot of very purposeful and loud interoffice walking. It borders on stomping although it doesn't quite approach the gait of another former employee who coupled his clomping with incessant rubberband chewing. Trust me folks, that's a sound you don't want to hear.

Also, I peeked in Rob's office and took note of a train whistle on his desk. Stamped into the side of the whistle is the phrase, "Commissions arriving daily!"

Sigh.



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Saturday, January 14, 2006

ENTERTAINMENT AT TRADER JOE'S

I was entertained yesterday at Trader Joe's.

Trader Joe's, in case you don't know is a chain of grocery stores that, how shall I say, leans more toward the unprocessed, organic and green side of agribusiness. What does that mean? Well, instead of 48 different kinds of laundry detergent, they sell maybe two, one scented and one not but both made without chemicals and without being tested on unfortunate, defenseless bunnies. Instead of half an aisle devoted to paper towels, they have half an aisle devoted to nuts. In other words, they may not always have everything you need, but you'll feel a lot better buying and using their products than you would using those of the bigger supermarket chains.

A couple other things about Trader Joe's that must be mentioned.

1. Because their marketing seems to be limited to an occasional direct mail flyer printed on recycled paper, their prices are much, much lower than the bigger chains'. Yesterday, I bought five bags of groceries including three bottles of wine and one bottle of hootch and it only cost $117. I know that seems like a lot for the rest of the country but for Los Angeles, that's a bargain.

2. Trader Joe's is the cleanest grocery store in Southern California including the higher end Gelson's. [caveat: I've never been in a Whole Foods. Have you? Tell me what it's like.]

3. If you're ever in need of confirmation that an acceptable level of customer service still exists somewhere in the world, go to the nearest Trader Joe's. It doesn't even matter which one because apparently Trader Joe's has some sort of skilled employee breeding program that uses only the finest and most competent cashiers, stockers, and managers as studs, keeping all stores supplied with only the best help possible. They're like McDonald's fries. They taste exactly the same no matter where you are. Friendly, able, smart, witty, even hip without being pretentious (the untouchable goal of so many here in Los Angeles), these people are simply the best at what they do. Trader Joe's has cornered the market on excellent customer service.

And as if that weren't reason enough to shop there...

4. No one, and I mean no one, bags groceries as expertly as the cashiers at Trader Joe's. As a former bagger myself (Roche Brothers, Linden Street, Wellesley, Massachusetts, 1978-79), I understand that proper grocery bagging is a true art form. At Trader Joe's, each bag is prepared for its journey like a perfect little package, always a manageable weight and balance, always with the most efficient use of space, bags always doubled using bags made from, of course, recycled paper. And each packed bag can pass the ultimate test: it can be placed on a flat surface and sliced down the side with a razor without causing the contents to topple.

OK. Enough already. Let's get to the entertainment portion of the story. Like I said I bought five bags of groceries yesterday so I had plenty of time in the checkout line to do some people watching. It was crowded, as every place in Los Angeles is perpetually crowded. No sooner had I positioned my cart so that Dusty could start unloading and scanning my items did I hear a loud voice and its possessor entering the store.

"No, I think it's fine the way it is. I think it just needs some punching up is all and I guarantee you that Emil is on board with that. Woodruff, too."

This guy was loud. Something about talking into a cell phone automatically boosts the volume of some peoples voices. It's like the microwaves emitted from the device cause the nearest vocal chords to resonate twice as much. Electricity and biology are a dangerous mix.

He was about 50, short, with uncolored spiky hair. He was obviously in the industry. When we Angelenos say "the industry" we mean the business of entertainment. That could be movies, television, or music. And if you're in the industry, it doesn't matter what you do within the industry. What matters is that you are, in fact, in the industry. At least that's all that matters to those of us self-righteous, non-industry members of the citizenry. See, we like to pity the industry types, focusing on the back-stabbing, the crappy family lives, the self-absorption, the shallowness and general lack of value they place on things that are important to those of us not in the industry, things like human compassion, loyalty, and love. Focusing on those things, whether they exist or not, makes it easier to overlook the rest of it – the insane money they make, the access to untouchable people and places, and all the daily perks that must go along with being in the industry. In all likelihood, the self-righteousness is baseless and is really just a defense mechanism for those of us who feel like we're superior but lack the clout to prove it.

I immediately noticed how 99% of this guy's attention was funneled into what was happening on the other end of his cell phone, leaving the rest to take care of whatever his task was here at the Eagle Rock Trader Joe's. The empty orange basket swung from one arm while the other smushed the phone into his cheek. He was very animated and very loud. He had yet to make any eye contact with any other human in the store.

"I'll back you up on that if that's what it comes down to but I don't think there's a need for that, to be honest. I mean, we can tweak the narrative just enough to save us the money that Gerald's worried about."

His eyes swung widely across the floor as he sauntered, yes, sauntered towards the liquor stand. They used to have the liquor in one of the aisles but they moved it out to make room for more nuts. Without deliberation of any kind, he pulled from the shelf a bottle of Glenfiddich, that pricey (by my non-industry type standards) single malt scotch whisky. Old Boston friends and single malt lovers Ken Michaels and Pete DuCharmes once told me that the best whiskies start with "Glen," as in Glen Ord, Glenury Royal, Glendullan, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, and Glenfiddich. Typical for this industry dude to get the finest scotch in the store. I imagined him having a glass with a producer that evening and complaining that it wasn't as "oakey" as he prefers, something he probably read in a long ago discarded script that his studio optioned.

Now he was in at the register next to me. He wasn't even aware that he had lucked his way into a checkout line that had just opened up so he wouldn't have to wait. Lucky bastard. He plunked his basket down on the little shelf at the register, the single malt his single item. This guy was amazing. Still no eye contact!

"When it gets to that part of the story we'll go to Chicago. I mean, we'll just cut to Chicago. The bomb stuff we'll just show on the news so we won't even have to shoot it. There's no need. And besides it helps move the story along. That way it's like Woody Allen. I mean that's what I love about Woody Allen's stuff."

While praising Woody Allen, he removed a well-worn wallet from his pants, produced a credit card, swiped it, signed the screen, put the card back in his wallet and the wallet back in his pants. Ramon the cashier, typical Trader Joe's employee that he is, went about his business as usual, efficiently and quickly. The Glenfiddich was paper bagged and double-bagged and the receipt was in there too as he he handed it all off to the guy.

"It's great. It's gonna be great. Don't worry about it. It's all under control. I'll talk to Darren and if you need to talk to him then I let you know, but don't worry about it right now. It's all good."

He sauntered past the registers and out the door. During his entire visit, he spoke to no one in the store and in fact never even looked at anyone in the store. The entire transaction was completed without any human interaction whatsoever. Why? I guess because there was nothing in it for this industry type.



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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

ONE WAY TO THINK ABOUT IT

It occurs to me of late that the world is made up of two kinds of people: those who pick up dog poo and those who don't.



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POMONA MEMORIES

Friend Julia gave us prints of photos from last summer's trip to the L.A. County Fair in Pomona. Here are two. Click on them to get the big picture.

Thanks, Julia!

 



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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

NOT JUST YET, THANK YOU

You're going along through life minding your own business. Nothing happens for a while and then, something happens. You get a piece of good news or you hit a patch of good luck. Things are looking up and before you know it, you start to feel pretty good about things. You feel like everything's going to be OK, you'll be alright in the end. You start to walk a little lighter. Pretty soon you feel real good. Your head's in the clouds and nothing's going that ain't going good.

Then out of no where something else happens that knocks you right back down to earth. It's the great equalizer. It balances everything out. It's a reset button.

The good folks at Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks & Mortuaries sent me this letter the other day.





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Sunday, January 08, 2006

UNFORTUNATE SUBJECT LINE

When I saw the subject line of this email at work, I was hesitant to open it.





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Saturday, January 07, 2006

IMPROMPTU MEETING AT 9:05

So I come in to work on Tuesday after a week's vacation. I settle in, delete all the email I've received while I've been away, open a few random files when office manager Alena comes up and says, "There's a meeting in the board room in 5 minutes so they can introduce a new member of the team."

Ah, jeez. I just want to sit here quietly and drink my coffee and try and find out why the Red Sox are even thinking of trading Manny Ramirez. I don't need any impromptu meetings this morning.

But like a good doobie, I file into the dark wooded conference room with the seven or so other co-workers who had made it in that early to be introduced to Rob. Who's Rob, you ask?

I don't know but he's pretty gung ho. I love that term, "gung ho."
gung ho
adj : very enthusiastic and dedicated
It reminds me of an episode of M*A*S*H* where an old friend of Trapper's visits the compound. After being introduced to Frank Burns, the guy turns to Trapper and says, "Pretty gung ho."

That's what I said to myself about Rob. "Pretty gung ho."

Gung Ho was also the name of a pretty lame Ron Howard movie. I never saw it but I think the gist of it was that he goes to Japan to save the auto workers from some sort of oppression.

"Gist" is a good word too. It's curt but smooth.
gist
n : the central meaning or theme of a speech or literary work
I do not however, care for the word "curt."
curt
adj : rudely brief
And not because I used to work at a luggage store with a guy named Curt who once wrote on my birthday card "Better gray than nay! Happy birthday. Curt," in reference to a patch of gray hair I had. No, I just don't care for the the word.

At 9:05 on the first day of work after New Year's, our staff was meagerly represented in the board room. Many have the habit of routinely rolling in around 10 or 10:30, something our venerable CEO/President/Founder (CEO/P/F) Andrew, who for some reason was leading this meeting, stalwartly refuses to comprehend.

He also lacks a sense of humor. When I started using one of my patented and most definitely unapproved abbreviations to refer to Associated Financial Group as ASSFINGR, Andrew was unmoved. He used to walk around with an unlit cigar in his mouth, chewing the end throughout the day until by 3:00 or so, the back third would be a soaking, sloppy mess. When irritated, he would silently twirl the cigar remains in his mouth while staring unflinchingly through your very soul.

CEO/P/F Andrew never addresses our department directly. He deals with department heads but not the worker bees like me, so it was odd to see him leading this meeting. He talked for about five minutes about "proceeding strategically yet aggressively." He promoted the idea of "growing" various things and implied that Rob was here to help.

Then he turned things over to Rob who talked about "channels" and "costs per thousands" and his twenty years of experience. He, too, promoted "growing" various things. He seemed to be saying that he was here to make a difference. What I wish he had said was that he wasn't going to change my routine at all. At one point I found myself looking at him and wondering to myself, "OK. I'm looking at this person for the first time in my life. Is he going to become a major part of my day-to-day existence for the indefinite future? Is he going to change the way I feel about my job? Is he going to make my life better? Worse? Am I witnessing the very beginning of a long, involved relationship? Or is this my presence at this meeting just a formality and Rob will be just another person I share a bathroom with here on the 14th floor?"

Then he asked if each us could tell us who we are and what we do. So we did, making slight variations to the stock descriptions and humorous asides that we've used in so many past meetings."You've been here eight years, Bob? You're a lifer! Heh, heh, heh."

It's now been four days since that meeting and I'm no closer to being able to ascertain what Rob is doing here. I don't know his title, who his boss is or whose boss he is. All I do know is that he's pretty gung ho. I'm hoping he's not my new boss.



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Thursday, January 05, 2006

BOOK REPORT: BLACK HOLE

BLACK HOLE
Charles Burns
Pantheon


Ah, teen angst. Somehow it's comforting to know it still exists. As bitchy as it sounds, now that I've plodded on through my 20s, my 30s, and some of my 40s, it's kind of reassuring to know that all these kids who act like they're so cool are suffering just as I did, just as my friends did.

The Wayana-Aparai people of Brazil have a ritual to bring boys into manhood by applying biting fire ants to the boy's back. Some pass out from the pain but after a week of recovery, they're done. They're all grown up. Enduring the pain is the rite of passage. American kids go through the same thing only they go through middle school and high school with the ants biting their backs, their fronts, their arms, their legs, their faces and occasionally their genitalia. The pain lasts for years and recovery doesn't come until college. And they wonder where binge drinking comes from? Duh.

Of course, as usual, I assume a great deal. I am merely assuming that things are the same for kids today as they were for me. I generally don't ask my teenage niece about the details of her life for fear that I would only add to the discomfort — "God, my uncle is such a freak. He's like asking me about school and stuff and if I have any 'feelings' about boys. I just want to die!" As of today, my understanding of women is up to about 7 on a scale of 100. As for my nephews, I recognize enough body language and facial expressions to make what I consider very well informed guesses as to their states of mind. I need not ask. One of the perks of uncledom is the precision with which one can fine-tune one's involvement.

Black Hole by Charles Burns is a deep exploration into the problem of being a teenager. This is not however, a story of what it's like being a teenager. This is a story about what it feels like being a teenager. Burns wisely steers clear of the particulars of what makes growing up so hard and instead focuses on the pain itself. Setting the story in the 1970s gives it a quality of timelessness that further removes any distractions that contemporary cultural references may create. What we are left with is just the kids themselves and their compulsory belief that every single moment has the potential to define the rest of their lives. That allows the target of Burns' story to remain locked squarely on the ultra-prickly emotions that teens experience as they teeter on a most treacherous seesaw, childhood on one side, adulthood on the other, and the abyss below.

And did I mention that this is a graphic novel? That means it has pictures. Tons of beautiful pictures rendered in black and white and nothing in between. It's also graphic in that the pictures are often of naked people. Fascinating to look at but also a little embarrassing when you're sitting on a cross-country flight with little kids sitting behind you. Apparently, you can see quite a bit between 12E and 12F.

Black Hole is the story of a Pacific Northwest town ravaged by an infectious disease that is spreading among the pot-smoking, wine-drinking teenage population. The sickness seems to be transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids making sex no less appealing, just more dangerous. The disease affects its victims differently. Some become horribly disfigured, their facial features twisting into monstrous contortions. Some grow tails. Some show just a few bumps. And some develop odd orifices on different parts of their bodies, like wounds that neither bleed nor heal. Sometimes during sleep these fleshy openings even speak, usually offering a muffled "Gaah-awah!" (Go away!)

Weird, yes, but ingenious as well when you consider that by putting these kids in such an unreal situation, Burns is allowing us to connect even more with the very real emotions they experience. Hottie good girl Chris yearns for burnout Rob and lures him away from the keg so they can have sex. When she discovers that Rob is infected she is undeterred, even after she develops a huge gash the length of her spine, the result of their coupling. Shunned by her old friends, she remains devoted only to Rob and he to her, both sacrificing everything they have in the name of love. Nice guy Keith also cares for Chris and takes great risks to protect her. The sense that no one understands and that matters must be dealt with or else all will be lost, the sense that the whole world is an adversary and to fight it is noble but ultimately hopeless, the sense that EVERYTHING IS SO GODDAMNED IMPORTANT is what is driving all of these characters. And that really is what it's like to be a teenager, isn't it?

Looking back from the relative comfort and security of adulthood, I now compile this list of facts.

FACT ONE: Some of the worst things that will happen to you in your life will happen to you when you're a teenager.

FACT TWO: Some of the best things that will happen to you in your life will happen to you when you're a teenager.

FACT THREE: While they are happening to you, you will blow the bad things out of proportion and fail to fully appreciate the good things.

FACT FOUR: You will remember most of the bad things and some of the good things.

FACT FIVE: When you are old like me, of the things you will remember, you will discount most of the bad things and enshrine most of the good things.

Do you agree?

PREVIOUS BOOK REPORT: EVERYBODY INTO THE POOL




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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

MEMORABLE MOMENTS FROM LAST WEEK'S TRIP TO GEORGIA


FINAL BITE OF FOOD FOR 2005
After a dinner of meat and potatoes, mother-in-law Helen served a praline cheesecake that was so good, I'm pretty sure it was from another planet, so good that I didn't want the experience of eating it to end so about half way through I decided to make each successive bite slightly smaller than the last. That way it would last forever, right? No such luck. So I bid adieu to the old year with a tiny little speck of rich cheesecake flavored with crumbled pralines and a graham cracker crust, a barely perceptible dollop of whipped cream perched on top.

Oh, wait. I think I had a Luden's just before midnight. Damn!


STRANGEST ANSWER TO
AN INNOCENT QUESTION


INNOCENT QUESTION: "What day do the new owners move in?"

STRANGE ANSWER: "They are a black couple."


BEST NAME
She smiled from behind the counter and asked if she could help me. Despite seeming a little bored by her duties at the Starbucks at the Jacksonville International Airport, she was in good spirits nonetheless. As her Sharpie scrawled coded hash marks on the side of a fresh paper cup, I read her name tag. I had never seen a name like this, one that included so many hints that it created its own mystery. I thanked her for the change and then did something I never do. I started a conversation with a stranger.

"How do you pronounce your name?"

"Schquondra," Schquondra answered.

"It's beautiful!"

"Thank you."


BEST CORNBREAD
Mother-in-law Helen's, served with homemade chicken soup for lunch on Friday. Straight from the package but with a little bacon grease added.





WORST CORNBREAD
At The Bulloch House Restaurant and Gift Shop in Warm Springs, they serve squares of sawdust shavings that are dyed orange and glued together. They call it cornbread. Despite my relentless slathering, these vittles were beyond hope. When we got up to leave, father-in-law Richard said, "Everybody take a good look around," indicating that our return was highly improbable.


MISSED OPPORTUNITY
As we approached SR 247, the billboards became more insistent, beckoning us to visit the Cafe Erotica at Exit 146 off I-75. "WE BARE ALL" the billboards promised, but Cindy and I decided a much more inviting slogan would be "You'll stop by for the strap-ons, you'll stay for the coffee." We were in a hurry to get to Waycross so we didn't stop in. Maybe next time.



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Monday, January 02, 2006

LAST BATCH OF GEORGIA PHOTOS

On 12/29, Cindy, sister-in-law Lisa and I drove from Waycross to Columbus, Georgia.

Here are some things we saw on the way.



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Sunday, January 01, 2006

BOOK REPORT: EVERYBODY INTO THE POOL

EVERYBODY INTO THE POOL
Beth Lisick
Regan Books


Who is this Beth Lisick, author of Everybody Into the Pool and why do I find her so compelling?

I mean, really. What's her deal? By all rights, her life should have peaked during her suburban high school years, what with her academic, athletic and social overachievement. Her 1987 record long jump of 17 feet 10 inches is a record that still stands. She was Homecoming Queen. That should be enough, right? She should have then graduated, taken a series of one-off jobs like selling raffle tickets and handing out bananas dressed as, well, a banana, all the while living not near, but positively in squalid conditions before saddling herself with a child. Upon hearing of this years later, we should be shaking our heads whispering "Oh" through a slight smile, a gesture that reveals that we're relieved that it happened to her instead of to us.

But no. that's not what happened. Well, it is in a way. The part about overachieving is true. Apparently, the plaque commemorating the longest long jump hangs in a high school near San Jose, California. And yes, she was the Homecoming Queen. And yes, her post high school life involved a fair amount of squalor and poverty in San Francisco. So what's the deal? We're supposed to feel bad for the people who didn't fulfill their potential or worse, fulfilled it by the time they were 18, right?

Well, here's the thing as near as I can tell. Lisick is to be envied for her seemingly inherent disregard for fear of the things that most of us spend our lives trying to avoid. The "us" here is privileged white folk. Here's a chick who was raised in a perfectly fine—and by fine I mean typically dysfunctional—family, did well in school and rather than taking her transfer and proceeding to the tried and true track of college-to-job-to-career-to-marriage-to-parenthood, instead sauntered over to the dark side, a hand to mouth, job to job, ghetto lifestyle right down to living with her musician boyfriend in his illegal warehouse in the Mission District among drug dealers and prostitutes. When a mayoral candidate campaigns for something to be done about San Francisco's urban blight, he appears in a photo gesturing to Lisick and boyfriend's front door.

In Everybody Into the Pool, Lisick's life is full of poetry readings (her own), touring with lesbian rock bands, a string of absurd employment ventures (to call them jobs is too broad a use of the word) and a valiant attempt to test her theory that bisexuality is just a matter of open-mindedness. You can't help but like her and pull for her. Oddly, at no point do you worry about her. You know she's going to be just fine. She's got pluck, but not in a dorky, Mary Richards way. She's the real deal. She leads a life the rest of us don't have the balls to.

PREVIOUS BOOK REPORT: COMFORT AND JOI




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