Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Declining Latitude, Attitude

My trip comes to a close. Now, I've never taken any truly long and adventurous journeys, but even after only a week in a city that was my home for three years, I'm waiting for my flight (delayed an hour) in a shallow valley of depression, a floodplain slowly soaking up a sense of something lost and questions about what comes next.

This trip was on the horizon for so long, and now I have nothing like it to look forward to for a long time. Hawaiian organic coffee farm in April 2008? I'm looking forward to that like I'm looking forward to retirement. Tonight I'll get home and tomorrow I'll wake up, assuming I sleep at all tonight, and go to work and start it all over again, my escape thwarted by the all too efficient prison guards of work-a-day reality.

Leaving Vancouver tosses me deep into the throes of postpartum depression. There are problems with the city, for sure, as with pregnancy, but when I leave, I realize that I'm not just leaving my friends there, I'm leaving a piece of myself that has permanently attached itself to the city - a ghost of myself that's been sucked into the enduring cloud cover forever haunting the skyline. Is this what Tony Bennett meant when he realized his heart was still in San Francisco?

Los Angeles, on the other hand, only alienates. Maybe it's just too much metropolis for me to handle. Maybe it's too complicated and too glorified. When the nation, and even the world looks in your direction to be entertained...isn't that a little too much pressure for anyone else? Every time I start to feel close to L.A., it finds a new way to push me away. I don't feel pressured to perform in Vancouver. It allows me to move at my own pace rather than only at the speed of schmooze or the crawl of freeway traffic.

Of course, the longer I remain here in the South, the more attached I become. I have great friends and family here and it seems no matter where I go, I will leave someone behind. This is why people follow jobs, geography, and climate - because people are everywhere and, though distant sometimes, have a tendency to stick with you regardless. Best then to find a city that sticks to you, with or without its inhabitants, so that when you leave to visit those you love, you can return to a home you love just as much.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Terrorist Wait List

Scene: 7:00 am, February 14th, 2007. Valentine's Day. But this story has nothing to do with love.

I'm attempting to check in at the Los Angeles International Airport, at an electronic self check-in kiosk with Alaska Airlines. After having to start over a couple of times because of the conspiracy launched upon me by Travelocity and my printer to cut off the last and most important third of my confirmation e-mail, I finally find my flight on the system and swipe my passport. But then, as I think it's all over, instead of printing out a boarding pass, the screen reveals a message in big, red letters:


Other people might not have seen that last phrase, but only because they weren't reading hard enough! These surface-dwellers might only have read an innocuous message about seeing a counter representative instead of using the machine for a non-specific reason. But my reading was quickly justified upon progressing to the counter.

"Would you hold on a moment, sir? I need to clear you with the authorities."

The clerk walks offstage, my passport in hand, to "check something," as others might have heard it, naively enough. But then, finally, upon returning, the truth spills out in plain English that even the most innocent could understand. She hands me a poorly photocopied sheet of paper that seems to explain something about TSA and Federal Watch Lists.

"Is this because I 'partially matched' some name on the terror watch list?" I casually suggest.

"Yep, that's it, sir!" she jovially replies.

We chuckle about it for half a second, or until I realize there's nothing funny about it, and then move on with our business. This has happened to me the last three times I've flown, as well as being pulled aside two of those three times for "random additional screening." Yes, I have an unkempt beard. Yes, I often travel with a guitar case that must inspire thoughts of mafia hit men. And yes, I probably usually look suspicious because I'm always tired and make weird faces to keep myself awake. Do these things make me terrorist?

Possibly. I suppose as much as anyone, and possibly just a little bit more so. That's the sad truth about profiling. It's not always about skin color or whether or not you happen to have the Qur'an sticking out of your butt pocket. Sometimes, you really can just look shifty and attract all the wrong attention.

However, even more disturbing than my seemingly constant annoyances at the gate, is how easily I was cleared at the check-in counter. I didn't do or say anything, but apparently my name matched something somewhere, and then, with a mere gesture, I was magically absolved. Of course, I speak mostly here out of an inborn sense of civic paranoia, though, and I so realize that I have no idea what goes on backstage and how thorough and solid a process it may or may not be. Maybe it's actually a series of occult motions.

"But...no! If all the new security measures aren't making us any safer, what oh what are we to do?!"

Fear not, fellow citizen. The good thing about mice and mousetraps is that better inevitably begets better. Take comfort that, in these chaotic times, we can still maintain balance with something.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Pedestrian vs Refrigerator

For the past week, I've been proctoring for a training class at work. I've taken this class before, so I was tapped to be a passive party to make sure that our conference call remains loud and strong, and our screen-shared projector remains bright and clear. It requires very little of me, yet I have to arrive earlier than usual. For some people, this would mean an earlier bed time. For me, it simply means less sleep.

Just now I found something fun as I was browsing around my computer to stay awake in an attempt to finish up this week with some small amount of dignity, which would be completely lost if I were to suddenly drop my head and start snoring and drooling all over my keyboard. This was my little transcript of a story one of the nurses told me when I was working in the ICU in San Diego recently:

In Emergency Rooms, car crash victims are classified by the dynamic of their collision. Usually you see things like "Automotive vs. Cyclist" or "Pedestrian vs. Bus." Occasionally there is an exceptional case like "Cyclist vs. Curb," but even that could never prepare Nancy, my story-telling nurse, for her first and only "Pedestrian vs. Refrigerator."

Living in San Diego, you see a lot of poor families moving one way or the other across the border, to or from Tijuana, with all of their belongings packed haphazardly into a car ill suited to the purpose. This particular family was moving South, their rusty old pickup filled to the brim, the cab stuffed with children, the bed piled upon with boxes, mattresses, and the occasional appliance - including their undoubtedly almond colored, 20 year old refrigerator.

Somewhere along the way, on Interstate 5 just North of downtown, something happened that loosened the refrigerator. Maybe a bungee cord snapped or lost its grip on the steel rim of the truck bed. Maybe the car ran over one too many ridges or one too many cracks in the road and the ties that held the fridge down gradually slipped from its frame, eventually letting it loose. The refrigerator teetered briefly on the rough road, then the wind caught it fully and it flew from its place in the truck bed and onto the blacktop behind.

The driver realized what had happened almost immediately, and just as quickly moved over to the far right shoulder of the road and stopped. He then backed up to where the refrigerator was lying, flipped on the hazard lights, and stepped out of his vehicle. Luckily, the traffic was not so bad, (probably a weekend morning), and he was able to dodge his way out into the middle of the freeway with the intention of dragging his refrigerator back to the side of the road where he could refasten it.

When the accident happened, he was probably examining the appliance, attempting to find leverage so that he could do just that. Unfortunately, one car of the many on the road did not see the refrigerator or the man and did not steer away from them when it should have. The car collided with the refrigerator which then flew up, still horizontal, into the man's stomach and chest, knocking him flat on his back. His head slammed against the blacktop, whereupon his mind also went black. The car was thrown off its direct course by the impact with the refrigerator and swerved away from the man, now lying unconscious in the middle of the 5 freeway.

Now, from here I don't know where the story goes except that he eventually got picked up off the pavement and then delivered to a San Diego emergency room, where he was fixed up and eventually recovered just fine. Doesn't really matter. The important thing is that we can now all look back when we're falling asleep in a meeting or in a class and remember the man who got hit on the freeway by his own refrigerator, and lived to tell about it.

American Idol or American Idiot?

As everyone with access to electricity now knows, Anna Nicole Smith died yesterday because of something having to do with drugs, it seems. Why not an overdose? I don't think any official reports say so yet, but would anyone be surprised? Not to say that it would have been intentional, but it could have been. The possible reasons have been piling up - the death of her son, postpartum depression, the several lawsuits she was involved in at the time of her death, and just generally irresponsible drug use. Considering all this, was anyone else not surprised that she's dead?

Because I sincerely doubt her death will remain any large mystery for much longer, let's move on to the more pressing question: Why do people care so much? A friend of mine commented that on the Today show they spent more time on Anna Nicole, even though nothing is really known about her death yet, than they did on the casualties in Iraq - by the way, that same day there were two car bombings in Iraq that killed at least 27 people and wounded dozens more,
according to CNN. Not to mention the 13 suspected insurgents killed later that day. Nor should we get carried away and talk about all the other bodies that were undoubtedly found unresponsive in their hotel rooms, homes, or in the streets that day. Is Anna Nicole more important than all these people?

The short answer, is "DUH." It's celebrity culture, need anything else be said? Tough, I'm going to anyway. Anna Nicole was a high school dropout, white trash by most standards (or least my standards), who married a fry cook at age 17 and worked hard as a stripper for years before sending in pictures to Playboy and hitting it big. Naturally, she dumped the hubby, and found an elderly Texas oil billionaire to marry. Her inheritance, dubiously earned after 14 months of marriage, was still a court matter when she died. Then she dropped out of the spotlight for a few years, gained weight, got a reality show, lost weight (thank you recently discredited TrimSpa), lost her son, got remarried, gave birth to a daughter, and died.

She's this country's Princess Di. If America's aristocrats are our seedy celebrities, a comparison often made, then Anna Nicole was our own "rags to riches to tragic death" story. The main difference, a friend suggested, is that people liked Princess Di. Is that really true though? After talking to various coworkers about Smith's death, I have to conclude that people liked her too! Maybe not for her charity work or kind heart, but for some reason or another - which, I confess, completely eludes me - people really liked her.

Was she just an endearing clown or truly someone people identified with? I remember when the Anna Nicole show started, she was a complete joke. People watched just to make fun because she was constantly doped up and completely idiotic. Remember this Anna Nicole?

Was she the American people's cute, down syndrome afflicted, little cousin? Or was she just an astoundingly silly sorority girl that men wanted to use and then discard, and women could feel superior to? I don't know. Like I said, the whole thing eludes me.

You really have to look on the bright side, though, to get through these times of national tragedy. At least now her daughter has a chance at a normal life...assuming her paternity suit gets wrapped up quickly and cleanly.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Graceful Offenses: Knowing One's Place in the Workplace

Having lunch with a coworker is a fine way to expand upon a functional working relationship, possibly even bridging one into a full blown friendship. Inevitably, people expose more of themselves when outside the workplace, even if only on a lunch break. This can be interesting, and even exciting, to learn about the disparate backgrounds that produced these people beside whom you now find yourself sitting.

But where is the line? When does a coworker become a friend, and why is it so hard to abort those attempted friendships that go horribly awry? Most of these people are folks you never would have encountered in the outside world, let alone sit down to lunch with. What about workplace propriety mandates a relationship with people you find personally distasteful?

Exhibit A: A coworker of mine, let's call him "Neo," and I were assigned to the same project one day. While waiting for something to happen, I don't remember what (it's just work after all), we started talking about books and movies and such. We had fairly sympathetic taste, but not really similar. That is to say, we enjoyed some of the same things, but for wildly different reasons. I liked The Matrix for its sci-fi, post-apocalyptic perspective; he liked it... for the action. I enjoy Batman comics because Batman is an incredibly dark, tragic hero who literally struggles with insanity constantly; he enjoys them... for the action. You get the picture.

Regardless, we have lunch that day and talk some more. It turns out he's trying to start up a class-action lawsuit or something against our company for back pay because...blah blah blah - I drifted out of the conversation. It turns out he did a similar thing at his last job, and he watches Boondock Saints at least twice a week because he's obsessed with stories of righteous vindication and standing up for those who won't do so for themselves, he identifies with them. He's pretty sure he's bipolar, thinks smoking pot is the new black, and used to be in the Filipino armed forces.

Not to be too judgmental, but this guy puffs himself up so much he'd explode like the Hindenburg if you gave him a cigar for being so cool. Yet, now that we've "bonded" over all this, I'm his "friend." If this happened in any other setting, I would simply not call him and we would no longer be "friends". But in a work setting, I can't avoid running into him, and thus there is no easy way to send the message that I don't care to hear his voice unless it's about the latest memo or our work schedule. Blunt honesty isn't an option, even if I were capable of it, because that would be impolite and hinder our workplace relationship. Bully for me, huh?

Exhibit B: I went out to lunch just the other day with 6 or so coworkers of mine. I only know one of them moderately well, and he's actually a cool guy. Again, probably not someone I'd ever meet in the wild, but about as cool a coworker as you can reasonably hope for. He's writing a graphic novel right now too, so we brainstorm and such - how neat, right? He's not the troubling part of the story, though.

A girl, let's call her "Grace," is sitting next to me on my left. Cool guy, David (real name here, because he's so cool), resides to my right. We're at a Japanese place I've never been to and she recommends a certain dish. Even though it wasn't the one I had initially picked, I'm feeling diplomatic and adventurous so I go ahead and order her suggestion anyway. The food arrives, and, as I'm about to cut into my cutlets and slop up my curry, she waves her arms wide, throwing one between me and my plate, halting my advance. The she does something so simple, yet so brazen. Our father, who art in Heaven...thank you...bounty...and on and on; I phased out of her pious monologue at some point.

She then crossed herself and announced that we could all "go ahead" now. Saying grace at a business lunch? Keeping me from eating to do so and then allowing me to once finished? I was stunned. It doesn't upset me that she has these beliefs, but isn't this mixing of work with religion borderline unconstitutional? God will probably hear your thanks if you murmur them silently rather than actively imposing your ritual on your coworkers. This is the kind of thing you do among sympathetic friends and family, not people you work with. I came here for curry, not crosses!

Now, this isn't nearly as permanently obnoxious as the first example, but the same in principle. I started talking to Neo because we worked together, and now the repercussions of that are personally annoying me. Nor would Grace and I have been at lunch had we not been working together, and as a result of that work-related circumstance, I was personally offended. At least with Grace, I can simply not dine with her ever again, for fear of being proselytized.

Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, there are no laws against annoying coworkers. However, hope is on the horizon as more and more socially-elite and over-legislative liberals take power. Take that to heart, non-voters - politics can affect your day to day life! Until then, though? My professional recommendation is keep to yourself as you study your coworkers interacting with each other. When you are reasonably sure you know who you want to interact with, do so. You know what they say about an ounce of prevention, after all.

Friday, February 2, 2007

My Punk Rock Evening, 2/1/07

It's been a while since I've been to a punk show. Even longer since I've really been a punk. But last night I got a whiff of nostalgia, mostly in the form of my friend, Brian's old, pot-infused, Jack Daniels-soaked, Ford Bronco on the 20 minute ride to see Ignite, Circle Jerks, and Pennywise play at the House of Blues on Sunset.

Brian, myself, and 3 others met up in Studio City, after much bad planning and long waiting, so we could carpool over the hill into Hollywood.

"Whose car are we taking?" I asked.

"Well, I wanna get drunk, so we should take my car," offers Brian, without hesitation.

It didn't sound like a good idea to me, but maybe I'm just square. It turns out his logic was that because he wanted to drink Jack and get high on the way to the show, his car, the already beat-up one, should take those punches, while someone else drives it. That was good enough for me!

The other Brian, henceforth known by last name only, Bensi, picked up the driver's seat, leaving 3 of us quart-sized people in a backseat made for 2 pint-sizers. After clearing away the Penthouse and Hustler magazines, as well as one particularly pungent old sweater, we were able to hop over the baseball bat wedged between the driver's door and seat and fall gracelessly into our loveseat for three.

The music starts: Pennywise's About Time blasting off a disc as worn as the car. It scratched and stuttered through distorted speakers, but at least it was loud enough to hear through all that. Then, as soon as we start up Laurel Canyon, the gas light blinks on. Brian insists we can make it, and why not? It's only a few miles, really. And sure enough, as soon as we crest the hill the attitudinally sensitive gas light flicks back off.

Meanwhile, another light is flickering on and off - that of the disposable BIC igniting a pot-filled pipe. Neither of the two full windows in the car work, so the only ventilation the non-smokers get comes from the cracked open rear windowlettes, just enough to keep it from being an official hotbox. I doubt this accomplishes anything.

And the show? Sure, the show was cool too. Ignite was wonderful, as was their mosh pit. They sure have come a long way since seeing them 6 years ago as caterwauling openers for Bad Religion. Circle Jerks, as always, were fun to no end. They are definitely meant to be a live band - no recording medium could capture that kind of humor and energy. Also, to my delight, they closed with a couple of Black Flag songs, which makes sense considering the singer, Keith Morris, used to sing for them, back before they found Henry Rollins.

Pennywise, the headliners, were the weakest point of the show. The energy they produced was nowhere near the level of the previous two bands, even though the fans tried to make up for it on the floor. The highlight of their set was when they asked Bad Religion, who just happened to be hanging out backstage, to come out to play a couple songs, which the audience received with twice the enthusiasm given to any Pennywise tune. It seems like the fans burned themselves out, because once Pennywise took the stage again, the energy was almost gone. Sweaty beasts were stumbling around the pit, not in a cathartic rage, but more like in a long haul cattle drive. There was no encore.

Except for the one I had getting back into Brian's punkmobile! I couldn't live like that, but it's nice to take a vacation every now and then into the life of a true punk rocker. It's like a sliding doors episode of what my life would have been like had I not gone to college. And yes, I know, deep down, that I shouldn't put so much emphasis on a car as a determination of one's being, but in this case, it was a pretty good hint.