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Saturday, April 29, 2006

BRACE YOURSELVES: TV ISN'T AS FUNNY AS YOU THINK

Check out PART I: WHAT IT'S LIKE TO SEE A SITCOM TAPING

Sitcoms: a fact of life. I've been watching sitcoms since the Brady Bunch were busy breaking each other's noses and having allergic reactions to flea powder. And I've been listening to the accompanying laugh tracks and live studio audiences for just as long.

When I hear the term "laugh track" I immediately think of something John Waters pointed out on David Letterman years ago. The networks have been using the same recordings of laughter for so long that in all likelihood, the people you hear laughing have been dead for years. That factoid fundamentally changed the sitcom viewing experience for me. That Girl became That Girl and Those Dead People, Gilligan's Island became Dead Island and Happy Days became Dead Days. Of course, that's only true of the first two seasons of Happy Days. After that they made the leap to filming before a "live studio audience."

You can always tell when a show is filmed before a live studio audience. The actors react more, there are spontaneous rounds of applause, there are hooting responses to sexual references of any kind, but mostly there is the voice of one of the actors laid over the closing credits: "[Insert Show Title Here] was filmed before a live studio audience." My favorite of these voiceovers was performed by Isabel Sanford at the end of The Jeffersons. She sounds so proud.

I always wondered about those studio audiences, who comprised them, how they arrived there. Did they hold their favorite shows in such reverence that they felt compelled to travel to Hollywood just to witness the production process? Was the act of merely watching the shows at home somehow unfulfilling, and so required the viewer's actual participation? Or were these audiences just a bunch of Hollywood locals looking for an evening's worth of cheap entertainment? And most importantly, were all those laughs real?

My questions were answered last week when I found myself in a chilly 20th Century Fox studio along with 180 other willing participants seated in front of a row of TV show sets –the coffee shop, the living room, the kitchen, the doctor's office. There we were, the live studio audience.

What an uniquely odd experience. Having watched so much TV in my life and heard the laughter of thousands of studio audiences, I was acutely aware of our collective response to the performances on stage. In fact, I was as focused on us as I was them.

The show itself was a half hour situation comedy pilot entitled My Ex-Life produced by Richard Appel, directed by Kelsey Grammer and starring Tom Cavanagh (Ed) and Cynthia Watros. The plot was predictable. A divorced couple tries to prove how well adjusted they are. A deception is created and then foiled forcing the couple to confront their feelings in a MOS, a Hollywood acronym for "Moment of Shit," that brief part of the comedy, usually in the second to last scene in which the characters get serious, bare their souls and achieve some level of closure. This pilot actually had two MOSes, a dramatic double-whammy. The writing was tired, the 4,902nd rehashing of familiar material by familiar characters in an all too familiar setting.

But from my perch in the third row of the live studio audience, all that was irrelevant. I was there to provide laughter. My laughter. It was to be believeable, enthusiastic, and properly timed. That is your purpose as an audience member. That's why you are there. That's why they have studio audiences in the first place. That's why the show is emceed by a stand up comedian/cheerleader who keeps reminding everyone to "amp it up" and "really sell that laughter" throughout take after take after take.

Despite the material's flatness, I dutifully inserted my laughter in the appropriate spots. I noticed how I could do this without even listening that closely to the actors. I might be distracted by the acrobatic maneuvers of the key grip but I was quite capable of mindlessly contributing my giggles at the appropriate moments, kind of like how you can read a sentence when you can only see the top half of the letters.

Take after take after bloody take. The same punch line again and again. Hour after hour. A headache. Numbness alternating from left cheek to right. I think I delivered my last halfway believable guffaw towards the end of the two and half hour point. After that I kind of zoned out which gave me time to put this experience into a bigger context.

When Joe Meatball and Suzy Housecoat sit in their Barcaloungers and watch a show like Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond and they hear an audience laughing heartily at Joey's endearing naivete or Raymond's hapless pluck, the show's producers are making a statement: OTHER PEOPLE THINK THIS IS SOME FUNNY SHIT. Joe and Suzy are so conditioned to blindly comply with mainstream media's commands – "buy this," "eat that," "dress like this," "fuck like that" – their atrophied decision-making skills flacidly surrender to a zombic group response: WHY, YES. INDEED THAT IS SOME FUNNY SHIT. I BELIEVE WE'LL TUNE IN NEXT TIME TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN RAY TELLS DEBRA HE NEEDS MORE SPACE. Joe and Suzy tell their friends at work and next thing you know, Harry Smith is spending a week interviewing all the parents of all the Friends because it's the #1 rated show in the country. At that point, the show is defining what is considered funny for an entire nation.

But if we backtrack, back through the ratings, back through the Barcaloungers, back through the pilot and back to the studio audience, what we see is that the original laughter, the one that started the whole process, is fake. It's manufactured just like the sets and the scripts and the actresses' boobs and the actors' hairlines. The laughter is just one more component in the assembly line of the entertainment product. The entire enterprise is one big fantasy, one big lie.

And now, having added my fake laughter to the sounds of a tired, cold, often frustrated group of 180 strangers, I am now officially complicit in that lie.

Maybe the pilot of My Ex-Life will air. Maybe it will get picked up. Maybe it will catch on and enjoy a run long enough to lead to syndication and be rerun for years and years, becoming a part of the future pop culture of America. And maybe decades from now, someone will be watching that pilot episode and hear the laughter, my laughter and think, "Man, this is some funny shit."



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Thursday, April 27, 2006

THE NAME GAME

I'd be more upset at my office mate Rajneesh, whom I've known for over a year now, for thinking my name is Tim when it's actually Tom, except that it wasn't until this week that I noticed his mistake. And since few things irk me more than hypocrisy, I'm keeping my mouth shut. I'm waiting the Indian out. I'm dying to know just how long this can go on. I'm recoiling into a stealthy crouch where I'll watch and listen and wait.

Surely, he's heard others call me by my actual name. It happens several times a day. Curiously, he's never emailed me, something that would require the accurate spelling of my name. And it's not as if we don't speak. We've had many in depth conversations about the weather, the office temperature and American history. Until recently, Rajneesh was under the impression that the United States was established as a penal colony under the rule of Great Britain. Fortunately, I was there to set him straight by telling him that America was in fact founded by a group of cockney teens who, sick of being told what to do during their expected life span of 22 years, stole a motorboat from the London docks, sped across the Pacific and landed on Plymouth Rock 14 hours later. No longer oppressed by the King's taxation without representation, they quickly signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law and America was born.

"Thank you so much, Tim. I can believe how misinformed I've been this whole time. I must tell you, I'm quite embarrassed," Rajneesh said.

Right on, Rajneesh.

And speaking of names, I was recently informed that Rob, my boss's new boss, who has an unfortunate habit of calling all male employees situated below him on the organization chart "Dude" (as in "DOOOOODE!"), has escalated the absurdity in the office by referring to my associate co-colleague Kevin as, gulp, "K-Dog." I feel compelled to remind Rob that he is not black nor 20-something nor a current member of any morning drive time Zoo team.

And yet I hold my tongue again. I am in my stealthy crouch. Waiting and watching. Waiting to see what happens next.



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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

EATON CANYON ADVENTURE

Eaton Canyon is just a bit north of the 210 Freeway in Pasadena, just up N. Altadena Drive. It's about a 1.5 mile hike through the canyon along the river wash to get to the waterfall. The water is crystal clear and icy. To get all the way to the falls requires rock hopping skills as you cross back and forth across the water. The scenery along the way is stunning and the sight of the falls at the end rewards you for your labor.

I made the trek with my nephew a few days ago and took these photos.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

WHAT IT'S LIKE TO SEE A SITCOM TAPING

After a hike to Eaton Canyon Falls in Pasadena and an invigorating dip in the Pacific Ocean at Zuma Beach, nephew Sam and I met up with the wife at 20th Century Fox Studios in Century City. We had tickets to be in the studio audience for the taping of the pilot episode of My Ex-Life, a comedy directed by Kelsey Grammer and starring Tom Cavanagh (Ed) and Cynthia Watros. Here are some notes from our first experience as studio audience members.

• You are not there to be entertained. You are there to work. In exchange, you will receive a granola bar, a small bottle of water, and the opportunity to see entertainment professionals of varying degrees of celebrity. The biggest celebrity we saw was Hugh Jackman standing off stage.

• Your work consists of consistently providing realistic human laughter on cue over a period of several hours. Regardless of how many times you have a heard a particular punchline or seen a particular facial expression, you must deliver a believable guffaw of appropriate proportion. As the emcee (that's right, emcee) repeatedly reminded us, the laughter should be the best on take two since "we know where the laughs go."

• It was suggested that we "amp it up."

• Upon admission to the studio, audience members should be given a bundle of wood, some kindling and some matches so that small bonfires for warmth can be built every few seats. The temperature in the studio is kept at a crisp -14° F. I believe the Hollywood rule is that given enough BTUs, any script can be made funny.

• Kelsy Grammer is in charge of all things.

• The lovely Rena Sofer (who appears in this pilot as the single ballet teacher) is a true professional who has done enough of these to know the drill. She also seemed quite skeptical of the hypnosis portion of the between scenes entertainment by the emcee (that's right, emcee).

• As an audience member, most of your time is spent listening to the emcee, a comedian whose purpose is to keep the people distracted while they wait for the shooting to start and restart. This is done using a variety of impromptu audience participation activities including tattoo contests, dancing contests, barnyard animal imitation contests, copulating barnyard animal imitation contests, magic tricks, and, of course, the aforementioned hypnosis. This continues throughout the entire evening. The emcee is occasionally amusing, frequently distracting, and always loud. Bring Tylenol.

• Applause is another requirement, one that left my fingers and palms pained.

• Seeing the mechanics of mining the raw materials from which a show is assembled is fascinating.

• Tom Cavanaugh is funny.

• Kelsey Grammer is funnier as Sideshow Bob.

• Scenes are shot and reshot and reshot and then shot some more. Many audience members lack the stamina to keep their energy level up and bail early. The taping takes a long time. It's tiring to watch the same scenes over and over. We left after four hours and they still weren't done. Randy, the nice page that escorted us from the studio to the shuttle informed us that this was typical.

Read on in PART II: BRACE YOURSELVES, TV ISN'T AS FUNNY AS YOU THINK



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Friday, April 21, 2006

THE VIEW FROM MY FRONT DOOR

Last summer ended with wildfires in Glendale. Though our house was never in danger, we could see the dark smoke move across the sky. I took this photo from my front door.



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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

SNAPPED ON THE WAY TO WORK TODAY

Hey, Los Angeles donut-eaters! Are you like me? Are you disappointed in the speed with which the average donut shop worker brings you your morning donut? Have you just about had it with waiting around while Skippy fishes out your bear claw, bags it, rings you up, gives you your change, and suggests that you have a nice day? I mean, really, who's got that kind of time? When I need a donut, I NEED A DONUT!

That's why I go here.



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Monday, April 17, 2006

TOP FIVE OVERUSED PHRASES BY MY BOSS'S NEW BOSS





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Saturday, April 15, 2006

COPING WITH KATHY

Thoughts and observations form a loosely connected monologue in my mind. There they stay. I generally don't talk to myself. If I do it's usually of the "Oh, shit!" or "Godammit!" variety of comment.

Some people though, my new officemate Kathy included, talk to themselves. All the time. Throughout the entire day. By 9:13 yesterday, I'd already been informed via her random muttering that...

"This gum is stale. I hate it."

"I have that guy coming in at 9:30. I have to prepare."

"This sweater itches. It's stupid."

These are relatively brief examples. Often she maintains a more steady vocal stream-of-consciousness accounting of every miniscule event going on in her world.

"I need a paper clip. Where are they? Are they in here? I can't find anything in here. It's a mess. I hate it. Every time I need something I can never find it. There's all this crap. Piles and piles of crap. Stuff hides in here. It's like it knows I'm looking for it so it hides. Here's one. No, that's not one. What is this? I think it's part of the phone. I think it fell off the phone. What a piece of junk. The equipment here is falling apart. One of these days the whole place is just going fall completely...oh, here's one of those binder clips. It's a binder clip. I'll just use this. Yeah, that'll work. Yeah. Perfect. OK. Problem solved. I just hope that, oh, see, no. No, no, no, no. This is too bulky. It'll stick out. I hate that. It's bulky, it sticks out, it looks like a fourth grader put it together. Oh, well. I don't have time to futz with this. I have that guy coming in. I'll just have to deal with it. But I hate it."

I find this behavior extremely strange. Am I supposed to respond? At first I did but then I realized that response or no, she's just going to keep on going anyway. I also noticed that Rajneesh who has been sharing this office with her for almost a year NEVER responds to any of her scattered comments. I must learn from the master.



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Thursday, April 13, 2006

EARLY 90s SCRIBBLE OF MASS SLACKERS

It seems like back in the early 90s all the parties I was invited to took place in tripledeckers in Somerville, Massachusetts. The white slacker crowd made up of musicians and former Tufts students would pack into these apartments and spend the evening smoking Camels and turning cases of beer into recycling material all the while exchanging a never ending supply of ironic pop culture references. One night I came home from one of those parties and made this scribble.



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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

SOMETIMES YOU JUST SHOULDN'T ANSWER

Occassionaly, we have vendors come visit the office for the day. You can usually spot them by their clothes. Suits and ties are not the norm, so when a natty 50-something in a charcoal wool three-button with a spring in his step and a glint in his eye bounds by you in the hall, you tend to take notice and make a mental note, "Not one of us."

Haresh stepped away from the urinal prompting the now routine honking from the toilet. He approached the sink to wash up as an unfamiliar and short, well-groomed gentleman stepped into the adjacent stall and shut the door behind himself. Haresh heard the faint clinking of metal recognizable as a belt buckle being undone, the quick zip of the zipper, the muffled rumple of trou being dropped, all commonplace sounds appropriate for the circumstance.

But then something not so appropriate. From inside the stall came a series of rapid electronic beeps roughly approximating "The Flight of the Bumblebee." What would poor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) think of his composition being used as the means to interrupt someone's bladder evacuation?

Hold on. This is where it gets weird.

"George Rendell. Yes. Yes, Rich. I'm good, I'm good. How are you?"

Haresh's indifference toward his restroom-mate took a turn for the worse. Does nothing supersede the cell phone call in life's order of priorities? Isn't it bad enough that people have these frickin' devices firing off in restaurants, in movies, while they're parallel parking, putting on makeup and smoking a cigarette all at once? Now even the bathroom stall isn't a beep free zone? Of all the...

Haresh wrung his soapy hands under the faucet when the swinging stall door in the mirror caught his eye. He looked up to see Mr. George Rendell casually leaning on one elbow against the inside of the stall, propping the phone against his jaw, hip out, utterly comfortable with the fact that his dress pants were gathered in graceful folds around his tassled loafers, exposing swaths of pale thigh, jutting patellae, veiny shins, and the beginnings of the dreaded cankles, ankles that have widened to the same width as the calves to which they're joined. Tight, royal blue jockey shorts with white piping peeked out from beneath his shirt tails. And of course, short, wiry, auburn hairs curled out from under every inch of his dermis in random, directionless bursts.

Haresh's face reddened and he froze momentarily, mouth agape, unresponsive the way plane crash survivors are as they huddle beneath their blankets. After a second or two, the "flight or fight" mechanism set his course.

"Look away, grab two paper towels and get the hell out of here," his mind told him. "No time to dry your hands; do that as you rush back to the safety of your desk. Now move! Move!"

Haresh reached for the towel dispenser but sensed that things were escalating behind him. Mr. George Rendell was now emerging from the stall, shuffling toward Haresh. Sometimes when you're on the phone you'll slowly pace around the room as you talk. That's what this was like, accept that Mr. George Rendell was doing so while half naked in front of a complete stranger in a men's room in a place of business.

"No, no. I'm taking the 8:45 tomorrow back to Arkansas. I want to discuss some ideas I had about using the cross-sell commission as a way to incent the agents."

Panicked, Haresh pulled a wad of towels all at once from the dispenser and turned sharply toward the exit. But like a guard setting the pick, there was Mr. George Rendell severely blocking Haresh's egress. The resulting collision knocked the slighter man with the phone against the corner of the stall. His loafers did a quick, muffled side step to regain his balance.

Burning with discomfort, a nervous Haresh offered, "Sorry," to which Mr. George Rendell responded with a sneer, one that formed on his small face with such ease and speed that one can only assume that he uses the expression quite frequently, most likely as his default response to all human contact. His eyes narrowed and his left brow descended and his lips pursed.

"Pfff," he said, looking Haresh up and down.

Haresh rushed back to his desk, flustered by the combination of shock, embarrassment, and incredulity throbbing in his head. He went over the exchange in his mind, eventually calmed by the thoughtful reduction of the encounter it to its bare essence.

"Mr. George Rendell. What an asshole."



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Sunday, April 09, 2006

THE WILD BELATZ







I assure you that the following is true.

Former co-worker and member of the Undead Belatz was relieved of his duties a few months back. Recently, he wrote our Human Resources department requesting that his mail be forwarded to his current location. But instead of providing a mailing address, he attached a photograph of a tent in the woods.



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Friday, April 07, 2006

THE ELEVEN YEAR FAST TRACK

After 11 years of working in a variety of corporate-ish jobs, I finally have an office. Granted I'm currently sharing it with two other people but it's still a much better situation than sharing every breath, every word, every coming, every going, every motion, every bodily function, every click, every email, every phone call, every thing with every body the way you do when you work in a cubicle. Apparently, it's taken me all of two weeks to become a snob about "those people in their cubes." Go ahead. Call me a cubist. Just don't forget to close MY OFFICE DOOR on your way out.

No, that's not true. I'll never lose sight of my cubicle roots. It's where I come from. It's who I am. You can take the peon out of the cubicle but you can't take the cubicle out of the peon.

I am basking, though. The quiet is broken only occasionally by phone calls to or from my officemates, Rajneesh and Kathy. You may recall an entry here featuring a textile-enamored Rajneesh fondling my shirt. Though I have yet to broach the subject, I'm certain that "thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's apparel" is not among Rajneesh's tenets. And Kathy, she of last month's bathroom exposure incident, is surprisingly easy to deal with. My repertoire of carefully apportioned, polite acknowledgments, a smile, a nod, a "heh heh heh...ri-i-i-ght," coupled with a strong foundation of pretending she's not talking has so far kept her, me, and Rajneesh happy. I actually like the two of them. I mess with them and they mess with me. It keeps things interesting.

Just keep your mitts off the threads, pal, and your eyes off my twigs and berries, missy and we'll get along just fine.



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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

DRIVING THE PACIFIC COASTLINE FROM MONTEREY TO LOS ANGELES

Into the trunk of my stale-hadn't-been-driven-in-4-days, brake-challenged, 100,000-mile-plus Acura, I loaded my overstuffed overnight bag, my laptop, and the decidedly un-me black nylon backpack with the Adobe logo stamped in white across the back pouch, one of several giveaways from the just concluded conference I attended last week in rain-soaked Monterey. The combination of losing an hour the night before to Daylight Saving Time, an hour I rarely have use for but on this day really would have liked to have had back, and having endured days of presentations by software designers, photographers, and graphic artists had rendered me dazed, weak and surely vulnerable to attack. I felt nervous but too tired to do anything about it. When I first received the invitation months ago, it seemed like such a good idea. And it was. I learned a lot, had some fun and most likely improved my chances of accomplishing some as yet undefined future goal. These events are like an investment that you hope will pay off someday. The thing is that when you sign up you never picture yourself being exhausted, hungry and caffeine deprived, heaving luggage into a musty sedan on a rainy Sunday hoping that this isn't the day the brake pads finally wear down to nothing and that this isn't the day that you fall asleep at the wheel.

I just wanted to get home.

335 miles separated me from my wife, a cheese omelette, a pile of mail and my couch. Six hours. I knew it wouldn't be easy but I knew I had at least one thing going for me. One thing that I knew would keep me alert and awake and interested and happy. Because for the first hundred miles or so I'd be enjoying one of earth's greater pleasures, one that not everyone is lucky enough to experience, but one I now looked forward to with bleary-eyed anticipation.

Driving the Pacific coastline from Monterey to Santa Barbara to Los Angeles is truly a test of one's talents and skills. It's not just about driving. Yes, the road curves and rises and banks and sinks and winds and dips, and yes, there is just one lane for each direction and no passing is the rule. But if it were just a matter of properly executing a series of turns, the drive would be little challenge and no fun at all, the real world equivilant of the Greg vs. Marcia Behemoth Convertible Driving Contest of 1974. It's when you add to the mix the astounding variety and seemingly endless parade of earth's most beautiful tricks that you grasp the full nature of what this route is about. Breathtaking vistas, saltwater sprays, cool ocean breezes conspire to distract you from the mechanical requirements of the drive. Look, yes. How can you not? But don't get so distracted that you delay the return of your attention to the road ahead. That's the buzz.

Monterey behind me, I glided through Carmel-By-The-Sea, through Big Sur, surrounded by the huge, lush greenery that canopied around me. The sun hadn't yet crested the horizon, but the pre-dawn blue mixed with the mist to create a glow that illuminated everything. Around a curve the ocean surged below, crashing against massive crags. The passenger side window whirred down and I slowed to a crawl just so I could hear the waves smashing into the rock. When I did, a rush of salty moisture poured into the car, fogging the glass and curling my hair.

Past Big Sur and the State Parks – Molera, Pfeiffer, John Little, Limekiln – cliff after cliff, cranny after cranny, vista after vista, turn after turn. Farms with cows feeding right up to the beach. The struggle was to not turn into every turnout, park the car and get out to take a better look at the ocean. Pick and choose a few to photograph but too easily giving into that temptation would keep me from home for at least another day.

As the road dipped down and bottomed out between two mountains, a quick peek to the left revealed waterfalls cascading into creeks that wash into the sea. At first I thought they were caves because of how they carved out a dark void in the woods, but then I saw the white water gushing out of the earth.

Before San Simeon, with the mountains behind me, the road straightened out. Up ahead a beach. Something moving? Seals. I stopped and took some more photos.

Proceeding south past Santa Barbara and Ventura, the coastline stretched farther and farther away from the road until the 101 splits from the 1 in pursuit of the great populace of Thousand Oaks, Agoura, Encino, Glendale, and finally Los Angeles. Home.

Click here to see the big picture.



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Monday, April 03, 2006

MONTEREY BY THE WATERFRONT

I was in Monterey last week for a conference. Never having been there, I tried to take in what local culture I could in between sessions. My first night I took a stroll down Fisherman's Wharf, looked at a seal on a buoy and smelled lots of clam chowder. Then I ventured into the nearby section of town that I suspect is the historic district where a small farmer's market was going on. Some guy asked me if I could spare $50, a jab at how tragically white I am I suppose. Then I took in a movie, Heart of Gold the Neil Young concert film (see? tragically white) which was phenomenal, even more so since I was literally the only person in the movie theater.

I have a history with Neil Young's music.

I took a couple photos of a cool building and the Golden State Theatre. Here they are.







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Saturday, April 01, 2006

CAPITAL ONE JUNK MAIL

Last year, I received a ridiculous amount of junk mail from Capital One. Not only is it a waste of paper, it's a pain because I can't just throw it away. I have to rip it up or shred it first. It seems like a small task but day after day, I got really sick of it.



This year I'm keeping all the junk mail Capital One sends me and Cindy. I'll post monthly updates and keep a tally over in the right hand column.

MARCH

JANFEBMARAPRMAYJUNJULAUGSEPOCTNOVDEC
1031

Total pieces of junk mail received from Capital One so far this year: 14



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