Sunday, December 19, 2010

Final Approach

Tonight, coming back from a holiday get-together in Bakersfield, Brenda and I drove through the Grapevine, she already asleep with her head against the passenger window in need of a blanket and a pillow, and me, with eyes wide open, listening to the radio, and pushing through this rare “Pineapple-Express” Pacific storm in our Jeep.

As we began our final decent down Violin Canyon from Templin Highway towards the town of Castaic, sporadic sheets of rain continuously thumped the windshield as tufts of fog began to reveal the shimmering lights of the city of Santa Clarita sprawled out below.  I felt like I was in the cockpit of a small airplane lining up for a distant runway, descending through a storm’s lower cloud ceiling.  It was a neat few moments.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mission Impossible in the Brady Bunch House

This is Mission Impossible's, "Double Dead," being in the Brady Bunch living room.  Peter Graves needs to be Leslie Nielsen, and add a little Brady score in the background; then you've got a classic!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Polyester Monkey Suite Surprise

No, it's not a recipe.  Or if it is, it's one of silly mindlessness.  My buddy, John, and I at some point during my Freshman year in high school (his Sophomore year) discovered that we both had suites hanging in our closets from various affairs our respective parents had made us attend at that age, and we thought it would be fun to ask a couple of girls out and show up unexpectedly in our three-piece formal-wear.  John and I always got a laugh about things just outside of the boundaries of what was normally socially accepted and appropriate.  It’s always been a core part of our humor. 

One time, we both went to a medical supply company and bought ourselves those soft, wrap-around whiplash braces for your neck and decided to take them to Disneyland and take a ride on the Matterhorn while adorning them. We thought, how funny would it look to outsiders walking around the park to see two people on the Matternhorn being thrashed around tight roller coaster corners rigidly wearing whiplash bands?  We got turned away about two-thirds of the way through the cue by astute Disney cast-members who realized that we had probably lost our minds.  But laugh ourselves to near hyperventilation, we did.

In the case with the suites, I got in touch with two very attractive brunettes, bless their sweet souls, who were high-school mates of ours named Karen and Jenny.  They were good friends with one-another at the time.  This was during the height of the Valley Girl craze; the torn sweatshirts, Flashdance look, and the time of,  Moon Zappa’s, “Oh my God…gag me with a spoon” lore.  Valley speak was alive and ubiquitous.

In fact, Karen was known to say, “Oh my God,” about anything even remotely surprising or new.  “Hey Karen, I saw a movie this weekend.”  “Oh my God, what’d you see?” Or,  “Well Karen, I’ve got to get to third period.”  “Oh my God, I’ll see you later, Fred.”  This trait was endearing to me because she was such a sincere sweetheart of a girl, and we’re talking about a tall, slim, dark haired, with long-legged lady, so she was quite a looker too.  She had a great sense of humor, and apparently a lot of compassion because she always laughed at all of my nonsensical jokes.

And I had originally met Jenny through a mutual friend of ours and had always liked Jenny’s quick-firing assessments of the world.  Also, a brunette, and with big, beautiful dark eyes.  She didn’t hesitate in having a comeback to just about anything, and she was always well-grounded.  Only much later did I learn that her step-father was a musical genius; maybe that’s where she got her strong sense of self  I’ve always found smart and witty gals attractive.  So I had a sense that they would be sport for our silly prank; or at least they wouldn’t kill us.

I called them up and asked if we all could all four go to dinner one Saturday night.  They accepted and I solidified the plans of picking them up.  As it turned out, we would need to pick them up one at a time, and as a result, we realized that we could enjoy their individual reactions a little bit longer.

So Saturday night came, and when my doorbell rang, John arrived at my parents’ house in his brown, three-piece, polyester suite.  Polyester was completely out of fashion by then, but we had somehow convinced ourselves otherwise. Maybe it was because these were the only suites we owned.  I had a really good laugh at how formally dressed up John was in his fancy threads and his Sherlock Homes shaped pipe.  He reminded me of some young, British Earl, freshly arrived into the country, wet, dapper and ready to pontificate with diplomats at some high society event.

I was dressed in my light blue, three piece, polyester suite, and after seeing him with a pipe, I managed to scavenge a pipe of my own from my parents’ house.  It all might have looked somewhat presentable but for my unruly mushroom-shaped hair dominating the ensemble.  Both of my parents, and I think John’s parents, knew what we were up to that night and told us to be respectful of the ladies; there was no reason to play a prank of up-dressing a couple of high school girls on a date, especially at that age when girls are just “slightly” sensitive to social dress-codes.  So of course we didn’t take their advice. 

Yet, at the same time, I know that my parents got a good chuckle out of their son garbed in something other than torn jeans and a sweatshirt; an anomaly to say the least.  My dad even took out his Nikon from the family room cabinet and ambushed us with a spattering of snaps and flashes while inside the house, and then one more photo of us outside by the car as we were departing.  We both felt regal in our upscale threats.

John drove a little brown Chevy Chevette, which had a little more power than a moped, an example of which is seen to the right here.  But the Chevette got us around, and at that age, that alone was pure magic.  I was a few months shy of getting my license, so John was transportation captain for the night, and I was in the navigator’s seat.

So on we went, to pick up Karen.  When we arrived at her doorstep, Karen answered the door and immediatlly upon seeing us she exclaimed, “Oh…Muh….God,” I believe she said this about six times.  Karen was dressed in blue jeans and a trendy white top of some sort.  We said, as simultaneously planned, “Are you ready to go?”  Her response; “Oh…Muh…God.”  The payoff was great because her declarations had gotten more emphatic and rhythmic.  Wow, she was REALLY surprised.  Karen disappeared for a few minutes, then, came back with her handbag looking at little confused and concerned for her safety.  She took a moment or two to determine if she actually wanted to risk getting in the car with us.

We three drove the ten minute drive to Jenny’s house with Karen still chanting, “Oh…Muh…God” from the back seat.  When we arrived at Jenny’s house, same surprise, though I think during Karen’s momentary disappearance back at her house, she had called and tipped off Jenny to make her aware of the wardrobe insanity that had broken out among the males.  So Jenny’s reaction was more of wanting to see the spectacle herself, rather than unadulterated shock.  She was dressed in black pants and also a trendy top of the time.  These two girls, sweet as they could be, got into that little brown Chevette, honored our date, and we went on forward with our evening as previously planned.

The money that John and I earned from our after school jobs, John and the Hollywood Bowl, and me bagging groceries at Hughes Market, allowed us such outings as Dupar’s Diner in Studio City, Shakey’s Pizza, and Golf Land in the Sepulveda basin.  So it would seem that we would have taken them to one of those "classy" valley hot spots.  But on this night, John vaguely remembers that we drove to a permanently closed Farrell's Ice Cream store on Van Nuys Blvd., which might well have been the original destination of our foursome date, and then, with plans foiled, we proceeded to drive around aimlessly, ending up in Westwood without a real plan.  It's hard to recall the exact details of that night; it was such a long time ago. 

In any case, here were four teens bopping around the valley that night; two beautiful girls trendily dressed in cute outfits, and two boys inappropriately dressed in monkey suites.  At some point, I remember thinking to myself how lucky we both were to have such pretty girls by our sides, and I wondered why we had felt the need to do this elaborate garb get-up.  It was a palatable, yet fleeting moment of psychological clarity for my young, undirected and foggy mind.

But thinking back, it was, well, strangely hilarious for us at the time (therapy was obviously needed), but it was also a lesson in how accepting these girls could be to put up with such a silly thing, and to go with the flow with us.  I hope Karen and Jenny had fun that night too.  I’m trying to recall if they ever spoke to us again.  I think they did.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Old Dad

I visited my dad today at the assisted living community where he stays.  I stop by there usually once or twice per week.  He has adjusted seemingly well to the facility, which offers a lot; activities, a lot of staff and outings.

When I arrived, he was in a group, which consisted of about eight other residents and a staff member who was walking them through the various news items of the day.  The staff person had a dry erase board and was putting news items into categories onto the board.  The columns included, “politics,” “environment,” and “finance,” among other things.  

I sat down in a couch on the perimeter of the room and the instructor noted to my dad that he had a visitor.  He got up slowly and creakily, and eventually made his way over to the couch I was sitting on.  He has difficultly understanding sentences and needs them repeated for clarity and he forgets that I know the staff and asks if I’ve met them each time I visit.

Seeing him now makes me think of when I was a kid trying to imagine what my parents would be like when they were old.  I think I got the physical part right; the slowness, the rigidness and the hard of hearing.  But I never really imagined such a cognitive drop off in both of my parents.  It's just not something I would have thought of as a child or a teen.

And so I look at my dad, sitting there on the couch with me at age 82, and I think to myself, he’s very sweet, he’s very gentle, and he’s, well, very old.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Animation Tug of War

I was at an animation expo this weekend, and sometime during the course of the few days, a veteran animator and his wife happened to be in a conversation with another ex-Disney employee and me.  The discussion had started around the recent death of Roy Disney and his pet project, “Fantasia 2000,” which I worked on.  We talked about the freedom that working on the bite-sized segments of “Fantasia” allowed us in adjusting schedules as needed, moving plans around, and letting the artists expand their creative abilities. 

We were in a separate building for most of that production, and as a result, were not in the midst of the heightening pressure and the rabbit-breeding paced growth of VP’s in the division at a time when the feature animation department ballooned to about 2000 employees over two huge buildings.  The bottom line is that we were protected by none other than Roy Disney himself.  Roy wanted the project to be finished the way he wanted it, which was carefully, and not to anyone else's pocket watch, and Eisner knew not to push back.  There was even an artist who used to bring his dog to work with him. 

The animator said in our conversation that he missed those days of having that kind of freedom, and he mentioned a philosophy he developed in his many years of working on projects.  He framed his experience of a balance needed in production in this unique way: 

“In animation, there is always a struggle between the artists, who want to take as long as they like doing their work and putting forth their opinion into a project, and the management, who want to quantify every bit of the process and finish as soon as possible while putting their opinion into a project.  That conflict is necessary; both sides need to be pulling equally, but not winning.  If one side wins, then everyone loses.  Right now, management has won.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this animator whom I respect a great deal.  If you imagine the artistic extreme, that is, a slow, meticulous animation department that is compulsive about not letting the artwork continue down the pipeline, but rather keeps re-doing scenes an ignores scheduling guidance, the enterprise becomes unworkable. 

And then if you imagine the other extreme, in which artists are so rushed to make a weekly quota that they lose all enjoyment of the creative process and are unhappy with their own product, the conditions become unbearable.  It seems that the pendulum has swung well over to the latter since about 1995. 

Hopefully, with a market more saturated with so many varying forms of animation, and not just two companies fighting it out to dominate the industry as was the case just before year 2000, a healthier balance can be attained sometime again in the future.  I hope so.  I want to be there on the day that dogs are allowed to hang out in animation buildings again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rocky Mountain High, Colorado

In 1994, my friend Eric had planned to do high-altitude snow hiking and tenting with a group he had recently found.  He asked if when his week of trekking was over, I might join him for some skiing in the town of Telluride, Colorado.  We would stay at a hotel and just enjoy the few days.  I said, "yes."

As the trip arrived, I packed my skis and polls into a black flight bag and left my little Manhattan Beach apartment.  I had a trick at the time for parking at LAX.  I would drive to a neighborhood in El Segundo, park my car, and then take a taxi for five dollars to the airport.  None of the taxi drivers were very crazy about this scheme of mine, especially on the return trip when these drivers had waited quite a long time in the airport taxi pool to find that their customer was going 2.1 miles.  But rest assured, I tipped them all well at the time.

I flew from LAX to Denver, and then took a small prop plane to a local airport outside of Telluride.  I remember stepping out of the plane and into a diorama of snow covered mountains and feeling very cosmopolitan. 

The road to the hotel was not short, but it was enjoyable.  I decompressed from my big-city life during that ride.  As I arrived at the hotel before Eric, I noticed kids on the ice-covered asphalt hanging onto car bumpers as they drove by, allowing them to sneaker-skate down the road.  It was something I hadn’t seen before.  “I’ll be they do this a lot in the Mid-West too,” I said to myself.

I checked into the hotel and was given a key to a room that was on the second floor, and whose corridors were on the outside facing the street.  As I unpacked my bags, Eric arrived looking tired and a bit on edge.  I asked him how his week had gone, and he said that it was very exhausting.  Eric had always had a plan in his mind at that time to become a mountaineer and ice-climber.  So he did a few of these trips where he could feel like he battled the elements.  My idea of a vacation has always involved a hotel in some form.

No sooner did Eric settle in than he started looking truly bad and uncomfortable, and he reported feeling light-headed, and then nauseous.  He became panicked that something was really wrong with him.  I thought he was just overtired.

After a time and his insistence in finding a doctor via the hotel room yellow pages, we walked to the local medical building just three blocks over, where somehow on a Sunday night at 6:30pm, there was a doctor there.  She was just finishing up and was able to take Eric in after a bit of waiting.

Eric had to sit atop a gurney while I sat in a chair.  It was a strange set up.  I recall that he kept making these short, downward sigh type sounds, and I felt for him because he was so anxious.

As it turned out, the doctor deduced that Eric had descended too quickly off of the mountain that afternoon for being somewhat dehydrated throughout his excursion; this group he was with had been ice-camping at some very high altitudes.  But in addition, Eric thought he might have had a reaction to having eaten out of aluminum pots and pans for a week.  I came to the conclusion that it was probably all of these things along my overtired theory, mixed some anxiety he had had about something over the past few days; I never figured out what it was all about. 

The remainder of our trip went well though, I am happy to report.  Eric became more relaxed and regained his normal sporting and humorful demeanor.  Together we skied on some of the most beautiful country I have ever been in.  I recall looking down one slope onto the little town of Telluride below and feeling that I was in any number of storybooks.  It was a very enjoyable few days. 

On the afternoon of our departure, Eric and I went to the airport together, but were on different flights.  Eric was living in San Francisco at the time, and his flight would leave about an hour later than mine.  He planned to do some reading in the tiny airport waiting area.   And so as my plane was ready to board, I shook Eric’s hand goodbye with a bit of melancholy as we did after all of our mini-adventures, and I boarded my aircraft.

As the light propeller plane gained speed, and then altitude, I watched the snow-packed, tree speckled mountains drop away as I sailed into the sapphire blue Colorado sky.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Awaiting The Green

I was walking out of a copy store with some fliers I had gotten done the other day, when I noticed drivers on a busy street during rush hour sitting in traffic in front of me.  I had a perpendicular view of everyone halted during a red light; each person forced to stare at the back of the car, truck or van in front of them.  All were probably lost in thought of what they still had to do that afternoon and what they were planning for the evening, the week, whatever.  It’s amazing how much of this momentary thinking goes on while gazing mindlessly at a well-worn black plastic license plate frame with “Sun Valley Dodge” emblazoned on it.  Or a bumper sticker that says, “Jerry Brown for Governor,” "McCain/Palin," or on some very dusty cars, "Ross Perot," that's partially peeling off.

And so I wonder, with this opportunity of accumulated millions of hours of people's staring, spacing out, and potentially having ideas suggested into their minds by all sorts of companies wanting to advertise to them while stopped in traffic, how long will it be until advertising is sold on the back of vehicles?  Not with just those big car decals we’ve all seen for companies where people get paid to drive around with a huge Domino’s Pizza logo on every surface, or ads in the back windows of taxi cabs, but rather with full-on moving text and light displays, akin to those you might see in Times Square or Tokyo, appearing on the back of cars’ windows via some translucent electrical technology.  Additionally, global positioning satellite knowledge of where you're reading it, making the content more pertinent to you logistically, could be baked into the ad instantaneously.

The light display might scroll, "Here you are sitting at Sepulveda and Wilshire Blvd at 4:15pm on a Wednesday afternoon - did you know that your auto insurance likely doesn't sufficiently cover you? Have you even checked lately? Make your next right and stop in at ABC Auto Insurance for the lowest quote anywhere," followed by a simple GPS map and art of a happy driver waving his hand.  The law would probably prohibit these things from illuminating when cars are in motion, but perhaps they could kick on when the auto’s brakes are locked and engine idling for more than ten seconds, such as at traffic signals.

I’m not advocating this at all.  Like we need more distractions on the road and additional input into our already overwhelmed brains about how to get your teeth and undies to be the whitest they can be, why the Nasdaq has plummeted in the last forty minutes, or which law firm will get your ass out of trouble if you happen to be reading the ad intoxicated, and then subsequently get pulled over by police; "If you've been drinking and are reading this ad, we'll be expecting your call in about ten minutes.  866 555 BAIL...remember the number 866 555 BAIL!"  But it does surprise me that so much time is spent staring at the backs of other people’s treasures and heaps and yet, no one is really taking advantage of this open advertising space (and time) financially.  Or maybe I should just say that I’m thankful for it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cedarmont Kids - Rise & Shine (Arky,Arky)

Waking up this morning, I thought of this song, which we used to sing in the mornings on the bus ride to day camp. Our counselor, an energetic young woman, would lead us in it with gusto and lots of clapping.  And we were indeed woken up by the time we got to camp.

Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord
The Lord said to Noah:
There's gonna be a floody, floody
The Lord said to Noah:
There's gonna be a floody, floody
Get those children out of the muddy, muddy
Children of the Lord

So Noah
He built him, he built him an arky, arky
He built him, he built him an arky, arky
Built it out of gopher barky, barky
Children of the Lord

The animals, the animals,
They came in by twosie, twosies
The animals, the animals,
They came in by twosie, twosies
Elephants and kangaroosie, roosies
Children of the Lord

It rained and poured
For forty daysie, daysies
It rained and poured
For forty daysie, daysies
Nearly drove those animals crazy, crazies,
Children of the Lord

The sun came out and
dried up the landy landy
The sun came out and
dried up the landy landy
Everything was fine and dandy, dandy
Children of the Lord

Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord

The animals they came off
They came off by three-sies three-sies
Animals they came off
They came off by three-sies three-sies
Grizzly bears and chimpanzee-sies zee-sies
Children of the Lord

Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord.

That is the end of,
The end of my story, story
That is the end of,
The end of my story, story
Everything is hunky dory, dory
Children of the Lord

Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Perspective Smash-Up

With all of the discussion about the missile launch or airplane condensation trail that was left behind this past week, I was reminded of something that happened several years ago. But before I tell this story, let me explain first, why I could see it as very likely to be an airplane condensation trail, for this will lead into my memory.

If you sit in your living room and look up at the junction of where a wall opposite you meets the ceiling on the other side of a room, and then imagine a toy airplane coming in your direction along the ceiling from that intersection, the plane will look like it’s taking a path towards you and over you.  Your three-dimensional vision, with enough light, will describe to you it’s true path.

Now imagine that there is a large piece of clear glass between you and the toy plane, positioned on a parallel plane to the opposite wall (meaning that the glass is flat in front of you as you are sitting up), and that while the toy plane is moving as described above, your job is to draw it’s path using an erasable marker or your color choice on the glass.  As the airplane gets a good number of feet from where it started, your drawing will look like a line going up, and maybe slightly sideways if the plane’s path isn’t perfectly angled towards you.  There's just no other way to draw the perspective of an object coming towards and over you onto a two-dimensional surface, but "up."

Why do I use this example in talking about the missile sighting?  Well, actually, it just popped into my head as a way of describing a phenomenon I’ve seen several times before.  Driving north on the California 99 along the San Joaquin Valley, an area which can be very clear at times and in which because of how flat the land is, one can see airplanes leaving con-trails way off in the distance, I have seen con-trails that look like they are rising up, or even going in the opposite direction than I later figure out that they are headed. 

The reason is that, especially when talking about great distances, one has less ability to calculate perspective.  The eyes’ parallax is ineffective, and so any information on distance needs to be gathered from other indicators such as resolution, overlap, texture, light, shadow, haze and probably a few more things I am not thinking of.  The result at these great distances is that objects will look more flattened, as if on a piece of glass, than if they were closer.  Weather conditions and time of day can vary greatly to decrease depth perception.

In addition, and this is the part that will lead into my anecdote, the longer the lens on a camera, the shorter depth of field you end up with.  When a camera is completely zoomed in and focused on infinity on a far object, the result is a flattening of everything in the field.  Any sense of depth is pretty much obliterated.  We’ve all seen images of, say, someone on a motorcycle on a desert road heading towards the camera in sweltering, rippling heat, and yet, the motorcyclist never seems to get any closer to us, but rather appears to stay attached to the background.  Yet you know they are moving because the guy’s hair is blowing back, the cycle's tires spinning, and the bike is reacting to bumps in the road.  That’s an example of the flattening that happens with a really long lens; a telephoto lense.

The news crews on helicopters have some of the most powerful zoom lenses that are made.  One of my good friends, Chris Tyler, is the son of the man who invented the original TylerMount for helicopters and owns TylerMount Camera Systems, and another friend of mine, Stan McClain, who owns FilmTools, is a veteran helicopter cameraman, and believe me, they have both told me about the strength of the various cameras that can be attached to, or riding in a helicopter.  They have to be very powerful for shooing brush fires, freeway chases, steak-outs, and other events that they cannot get close to.

My guess is that the CBS cameraman who was shooting the images of the missile from the helicopter the other day zoomed way in on the subject at a time of day when the sun was nearing setting, which often increases flattening of things near the horizon; all of this happening many, many miles away, again increasing the effect further.  So the path of the airplane coming towards the camera way off in the distance was similar to the path you drew on the glass with your erasable color marker.

Ok, now onto my memory. 

Back in 1986, one summer when I was living in the USC dorms, it was a cool, very clear night.  There had been a dry wind blowing through the Southland.  I turned on the television, and on the news was a breaking report that the Santa Barbara Pier was on fire; like big-time on fire.  At first there were no images, but then within a few minutes, the news cut from the anchor’s face to a black screen that showed blip of what looked like fire in the center. 

The anchor said that they had gotten a helicopter with a cameraman up from the studio in Los Angeles and on it’s way to Santa Barbara.  What fascinated me was how clear the images were on my television only about ten minutes into it when the pilot was over only about Santa Monica or Malibu, albeit at a high altitude to be able to see a direct line up the coast to Santa Barbara.

The anchor periodically mentioned the location of the helicopter from which we were seeing the image, and I was amazed that when the chopper was over, say Oxnard, the image was getting about as clear as I could imagine it could get, even so much as showing fire reflecting off of the seas surrounding the pier when the chopper was still miles away.  As I said, it was a very clear, windy, and dry night, so the conditions for long distance photography were, I am certain, close to perfect, and yet, this experience illustrated to me just how powerful the news cameras were even at the time.

So again, I must think that the video camera that was used to photograph the missile, or airplane con-trail, or whatever it was the other day, was extremely powerful, and in that respect, was extremely capable of flattening images as a byproduct of that focal power.

Of course I don’t know for sure.  Maybe it was some really bad people playing with old Russian missiles from the black market, launching them from a boat or submarine into the sky just to know that they could be mischievous and stealthy.  Or maybe it was an alien entity getting a sense of where the threshold would be for igniting our atmosphere before they cook us all up (“It’s a cook book!!  IT’S A COOOK BOOOK!!!”  …did you ever see that “Twilight Zone” episode?)

But then again, it might just turn out to be the simplest answer.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Pencil Test of a Lifetime

I just discovered a blog about Glen Keane's art tonight.  I was at Pres Romanillos' tribute at the Disney Lot tonight, which was wonderful and heartfelt, and it got me thinking of his mentor, Glen, and what a master he is.

I remember that when I was working on Pocahontas, doing a lot of overtime as a Production Assistant, Glen asked me to stay extra late one night.  I had plenty of animation scenes to shoot tests of, which back in the day were a way for the animators to see how their animation was coming along.  These were called rough pencil tests.  We would shoot the rough animation onto flat light board using a down-facing video camera,  and then we would record the appropriate section of dialogue and or music onto the test.  This would give the animators a real-time sense of how their animation scene was working in rough form.

I had finished a whole stack of scenes that night for various animators due the next morning, when Glen threw down a stack of drawings rubber-banded in extra long cardboard onto my shooting table.  He said, "Fred, take care with these; I drew them all in charcoal, so you have to be careful not to smudge them.  And just let me know when you're finished."  He then went back to his animation room to do some other work while I shot the test.  I wondered what he had meant by "charcoal," but had felt too stupid to ask.

After all of these years, I still remember that it was the rough pencil test for Sequence 14, Scene 108.  I undid the rubber bands and cardboard that were holding the scene together, and in front of me were fifty or sixty charcoal drawings on extra wide paper.  "Oh, I see," I said to myself.  "He really did draw everything in charcoal instead of pencil."  I had never seen animation done like this in my short time in the industry.  Glen had drawn the close up of Pocahontas during a song called, "Colors of the Wind," in which the camera starts close on her face and then pulls back to reveal her full body as the wind is blowing her hair and she dances slowly as she turns her body.  Glen had drawn this camera move into his animation; something only the likes of Glen and a few others such as Eric Goldberg really knew how to do well.

As I shot the scene there on the black framed test table with four bright lights illuminating the animation paper surrounded by the darkness that permeated pencil test area, I watched Pocahontas' face and hair come to life like an ocean as the charcoal drawings boiled and flowed in front of me.  I was flabbergasted.  In that moment, I truly learned what the magic of animation was; the art of making two simple mediums, charcoal and paper, erupt into emotional life like a visual song. 

When I finished and had watched the animation three or four times completely stunned, I went and got Glen from his office, who walked with me back to the pencil test area, and I showed him the tape of his animation.   He said, "Well, it doesn't look too bad."  Hyeah, right!  It was perfection; a mind-altering genesis that I had been the first to witness, and yet he was probably seeing a thing or two he could fix in it.  This was a night and an experience I was never to forget.  The funny thing too was that since I was pretty new in the division, I had been aware that Glen was supposed to be a "good animator," but I really didn't have any concept until that night when, right then and there, I experienced his mastery and his humbleness firsthand.

If you click on the blog link below, you will see in the right margin a list of characters.  Click on Pocahontas and you will find a few of these drawings that I shot that night in 1994; one towards the top, and two or three way towards the bottom.  They are the ones of Pocahontas that look like charcoal is almost bleeding sideways from right to left.  Click on the thumbnails to expand the pics.  Just take a look.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The 1st Amendment Threshold

I know where I stand with the Juan Williams firing from NPR yesterday.  He described in an interview how he feels some fear when he is in an airport and sees people in Muslim dress. 

The higher ups at NPR were very upset with Williams for expressing this on the air.  They said that, because he is a journalist, he is not in the business of giving opinions.  NPR pays him as a journalist, so he crossed the line during his interview.

My feeling is that he was not being discriminating.  He was not saying people should be allowed to do this or that.  He was describing a feeling that he had; an experience he had in a certain situation given some very recent events that we are still healing from.  Would people fault me for saying that, while walking down a street at night, I felt fear when some skinheads were walking towards me?  The skinheads may be sound editors or folk musicians on break going to get a drink.  But because of prior associations I might have had with skinheads on dark streets, I felt fear, and I think there’s nothing wrong with describing this.  I’m not saying skinheads should not be allowed to walk down the street at night.

The issue of whether he should or should not have been saying these things when he is paid by NPR to be a reporter I think is also a bit rigid.  You can’t watch a television broadcast of the news without an anchor giving a look or a remark at the end of some stories.  That’s editorializing, and it happens every night. We’re all humans. Watch the news tonight and see.

Lastly, NPR, like all media outlets, is in the business of news and opinion.  I think it becomes dangerous when someone is fired for expressing their experience about something.  The 1st Amendment, among other things, protects people's freedom of speech from being censored by the government, but not from being censored by private entities, such as companies.  You can’t yell fire in a crowed theater, anywhere.  But, for example, when I worked at Disney, if I had been talking about certain topics on the job, I could have been justly fired.  They have the right to do that.

But since NPR is in the business of disseminating information, like newspapers and television, (and by the way, NPR does get government grants), they have to be especially careful about not squelching information that is not blatantly discriminating or combustive.

I heard that Mr. Williams just got a new contract today for a couple million dollars.  Maybe this will help sooth his feeling of being unjustly fired.


There’s a service station right near my house.  Or I guess I should say, a "gas station."  There is no such thing as a service station anymore is there?   This one is one of those independents where the prices are always very competitive.  When I started getting my gas there a few months ago, I found that I could often get gas in the morning, but sometimes not in the afternoons.

I would drive up and find some of that yellow police-line type tape circled around each of the pumps.  No one had died, I’d hoped.  Nope, they were just out of gas.  The first few times, it pissed me off.  I mean, here I had deliberately driven to the station, with (little) cash in hand, ready to pump my greatly discounted gas to get my fuel indicator needle out from under the “E” and my orange dummy light off.  But there was no gasoline to be had.

I finally went in one day and asked the owner in a slightly annoyed tone,  “What’s up with the gas in the afternoons!?!”  

The owner is a slim, middle 50’s, Mid-Eastern man with dark-hair peppered with gray, who always wears designer blue jeans and fine pullover shirts with a gold necklace showing, and who speaks ok English with a thick accent.  “I tell them…to deliver at 7:30am every morning.  But this truck comes…sometimes 10:30, 11:00.  I have some left in morning, I run out afternoon.”

“Oh, I see.” 
I said.  “So you really get just enough gas each day for that day only.”

“It’s how they do it. I tell them be here 7:30, but they not here.”

“How about getting a different distributor?”

“It’s them.  They do this area.”

Well, I didn't fully get the flaw in the system, but it sounded to me like he’s kind of stuck with what he’s got.  I don’t know anything about gasoline distribution, but I supposed that if you are an independently owned gas station, you are kind of at the bottom of the food chain.  They’ll get to you when they get to you, after all of the big-chain daddies have had their fill.

I’m also guessing that he doesn’t really receive that much gas each day, but rather gets just enough to make it through any 24-hour period, because if he gets too much, the next day’s delivery, something that is ordered weeks in advance or on some pre-required regular schedule, gets messed up and his budget is all off.

So now, when I drive in, and the yellow police tapes are up, and I see him through the window inside looking befuddled and trying to get his mind around his never-ending predicament, I shake my head and cast  a laugh or two away with a bit more insight into the problem that is the daily distribution of fuel to independent owners.

Some Federal Intervention...Finally

It was announced on the radio recently that several creditors, in addition to Bank of America, are being investigated by federal agencies including the FBI for incorrect paperwork regarding many thousands of bank owned properties.  The lenders, upon realizing the predicament they had gotten themselves into, apparently rushed through the foreclosure process and illegally kicked people out of their homes, and took possession of these properties.

It's unjustifiable how these lenders have acted from the beginning in their business of lending; a business they were supposed to be trusted experts in.  Instead, people were encouraged to take problematic loans, destined to reset to ridiculous rates, and which were sliced and diced into securities.  Most of the original mortgages can't even be tracked down.

And, by the way, I have wondered to myself over and over, who in the world are these private investors who understood credit default swaps way back in 2003?  They sure were ahead of the game and made a LOT of money at an inverse relationship to everyone else's fate.  It smacks of Wall Street's Viaticals, or "Death Bonds."  Meanwhile, all of the mortgage back security investors, which included pensions, 401K's, whole cities and even countries such as Norway, totally lost out along with all of the home-owners.

I'm not someone who likes a lot of government in our business twenty-four seven, but clearly, the lenders are institutions which should have been better monitored and regulated since they consistently showed a very strong tendency for misbehavior from money-making at any cost.  It's really late in the game, but I guess the lenders have finally gotten the attention of the Feds, haven't they?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Charter Mis-Communications

I called my cable company to pick up their modem and cable boxes that have been sitting around my house for a while.  They were supposed to arrive between 1pm-5pm this past Thursday.  You know the drill.  You call, they give you a window of time of when they will (possibly) show up, and then everyone is unhappy.

Well, of course they didn’t show up.  When I called, they gave me some lame-ass excuse about their dispatch network being interrupted.  Call me a cynic, but somehow I knew they weren’t coming.  How many other industries or institutions do you automatically know that you are going to get really delayed service?

Well, there’s the DMV.  The Department of Motor Vehicles is no doubt one of the slowest of anythings, anywhere.  Their ‘tenured’ staff can be counted on to always do the bare minimum of what is required to get people in and out of the door.  That's why I used AAA for those types of transactions.

And then there’s your personal physician, who always gets a good five or six people in the waiting room at the same time.  That way, the charge-o-meter can be working simultaneously on the whole lot of you.

But the cable companies are about the worst of them.  How can an industry operate with the premise that they will make an appointment with you during a four-hour span of time?  How do we accept this?  This means someone taking a half-day off of work for a service that has like a 63% chance of showing.  You wouldn’t wait outside of someone’s office for four hours, would you?  But somehow because we’re at your own home, we tolerate it.

The industry’s reputation is so tarnished in this way that they even made a movie about it.  We all know that if someone says they are waiting for the cable guy, they are in limbo and total lack of control of the rest of their day.

And in all of this, how hasn't any cable company (Charter Communications certainly included), or dish company, or whatever, figured out that if they were to make an exact appointment with you, and keep it within ten to fifteen minutes, word of mouth of their brand name would spread like wildfire, and they would rule the world! 

Rather than getting flustered by the whole thing, I realize now that I should have just kicked back on my couch, put Jim Carrey into the DVD player and had a few laughs during my "free time."

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Countrywide Betrayal

It seems as though Angelo Mozilo, in order to avoid going to trial, in which he surely would have been convicted on at least a few things, arranged for a settlement of 67.5 million dollars with the Securities and Exchange Commission in what are being called fines and penalties.

But here’s my problem with this agreement.  1) Mozilo doesn’t go to prison, which he ought to for having his loan officers write loans with junk fees and unstable option arms that would eventually reset and destroy people’s lives.  And 2) the SEC, a federal agency is now benefiting from all of these people’s losses.  That’s just not right!

When do the families, who have lost their homes to foreclosure because they were talked into these lending instruments meant for other purposes, get to be refunded at least a little of their money from Mozilo’s "fines and penalties?" 

So it looks like the taxpayers bailed out the banks while the agency that regulates Wall Street (and not very well I might add) gets the take, Angelo will still be floating around on his yacht somewhere with martini in hand, and the common person gets screwed!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Birthing of Miners

The world is waiting and watching with bated breath, like that of the expectant father, as thirty-three Chilean miners emerge out into the world for the first time in 69 days.  Will they be ok?

It’s looking good so far.  As of mid-day, 22 of them have been pulled out safely. It’s incredible isn’t it?  To go to your job, dangerous as it may be, and then become trapped for hours, days, weeks and then months.  What could that have felt like?  The thought that maybe you will die down there without civilization even realizing that you made it through the initial, explosive event.  How terrifying this must have been for them, their families and their loved ones; not to know anything.

And what must the ride up be like?  Being dragged up thousands of feet diagonally through darkness in a small,  human transport canister, and then being pulled out into a busy, bright society.  There must be something akin to PTSD that will set in from the trauma of their lives being at risk for so long, and also from the shock of re-entering the world; one in which every media outlet will be interested in hearing their stories.  I know I am.  Will we see them in a week, all thirty-three of them line up in chairs along with key rescue and Nasa people, on a national television soundstage for “Oprah” or “A.C. 360?”  They will surely have felt the spectrum of emotions; fear, anger, gratefulness, and confusion.

And what will it be like for the rescuers, who working on this project for drawn-out months, busy weeks, and finally intense last hours, will no doubt have to readjust from being so needed and focused on a common goal to disbanding and deflating from the events.  It’s going to be a hard adjustment for all involved, but thank God that in the end, it looks like it will be a happy one.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunrise at Cottonwood Spring

This is such a distant, random memory for me to access.  I think it’s hard to recall all of the specific details because of how busy I was at the time: I just recall portions of this mini-adventure, which I will tell below.  But I know overall how important weekend getaways have always been to me.

I was in the middle of production on “Fantasia Continued,” which could have been named, “Fantasia 1999,” or “Fantasia 2000,” since the project inherited all of these names at one time or another based on how far past the release deadline the film was.  But it must have been about 1997 as I had been on the project just over a year.  I was enjoying weekend trips due to my recently found ability to earn enough of a salary to pay for traveling, which was a luxury I hadn’t experienced while previously working in the slightly higher than minimum wage-paying mental health field.  These weekend getaways, when I could arrange for them, were islets of calm in the high-pressure rapids of work life.  I think that these trips, along with my daily running, were what kept me sane.

I lived in Manhattan Beach, CA at the time, and commuted each day to Burbank (actually, Glendale is where the  “Fantasia Continued” project happened to be located), and I had just joined the Sierra Club to meet people and have some new adventures.  I signed up for a camping trip to Cottonwood Springs in Joshua Tree National Park, which sounded like an interesting destination.

As I have described in earlier blog entries, I tried to work very late Friday nights at Disney in a desperate attempt to avoid coming in Saturdays.  My end of the week job was to tally production numbers and generate reports for the Production Manager and Producer, which they would need by Monday morning if not earlier.  My chances of successfully ending the week on a Friday night were always around 50/50.  However, those times when I had a weekend away planned for myself, I was determined to end the week on the same day as any normal person.

In preparing for the trip to Cottonwood Spring, I went during a weekday lunch to the Sports Chalet in La Cañada and rented a tent and some cooking accessories.  Friday night came, and as usual, I was running around generating reports from the various departments I was managing (Animation, Clean Up, Sweatbox, Final Color and Editorial).  With no one else left in the building with the exception of a cleaning person or two, I pattered around in my socks, running queries and printing end of the week numbers, all in the goal of finishing my production report package. It was late, and yet, I was intent on getting to my desert location that night no matter what.

I finally left Royce Hall, our production building, at just after 12:00 Midnight in my Mustang GT with all of my weekend’s cloths and gear somehow crammed into it.  The highways were vacant of traffic and it was easy cruise-controlling all the way across Interstate 10 to the turnoff near Joshua Tree.

The Sierra Club had provided a map with instructions on how to enter the park.  Remember that in those days, there were no Mapquest, GoogleMaps or GPS navigation systems.  I left I-10 as instructed and arrived at the south entrance to the park…which was closed.  It was 2:30am after all.  So in the darkness, I made my way around the west side of the park, where I found a road that went toward the interior.  And with some vague memory of the Joshua Tree map that I had looked at earlier, and maybe even a little species intuition, I guided my car with it’s two dim headlamps forward into the darkness, illuminating just enough road in front of me through the surrounding ink-black desert to make it to the Sierra Club campground.  To this day, I still can’t believe I found it that night.

I entered the dirt parking area and shut off my lights and engine as fast as I could, given that all of the tents were dark, and people were obviously asleep.  It took me a good fifteen minutes to get all of my gear out of the car and find a little plot of land to set up.  By now, it was 3:00am.  I tried to drive my tent stakes into the ground, but in the darkness I had inadvertently chosen the only granite-hard portion of the Mojave Desert in which to attempt to upright my temporary home.  It just wasn’t going to happen; not this late. I left my pile of tent materials just where they lay, walked back to the car, leaned my driver’s seat all the way back and immediately fell to sleep.

I awoke to the sounds of faint talking and clinking pots and pans as the campers were beginning to stir.  I got out of my car and sleepily stumbled over to a partially covered picnic table what was being used as a makeshift backpack-sorting surface.  It felt good to stretch since I had been in the same position in my car for the last five hours.  A middle-aged man who was organizing cooking tins for his backpack looked up at me, chuckled and said, “Oh, so you’re the late night arrival.”  I said that I was indeed and that I hoped I hadn’t made too much of a racket.  “Oh, no not at all.  There are usually a few people who get in late.  Looks like you had trouble with the tent.”  Oh jeez! How embarrassed I felt.  Everybody knew that the abandoned heap of canvass and aluminum dowels on the desert floor, failed attempts at something over yonder, were mine.  “Yeah, it was just so late, and I couldn’t see what I was doing.”  He said knowingly, “You’ll find some soft ground around there somewhere.”  I told him the story of having to leave work so late, and not being able to enter the park from the south. He found it amusing and he was very pleasant to talk with.  By now, I had attracted few more people as my audience and so I began to introduce myself to my new camp-mates.

After a bit, I started towards my tent pile and I suddenly realized on this early desert fall morning just how incredibly beautiful it all was around me.  I guess my brain was finally turning on, or starting to let go of the city.  There was reddish-brown sand, dotted with Joshua Trees as far as my eye could see, hugging the local topography of small, rigid hills and canyons.  It made me think that a simple flash flood at any time of the year could render the area totally different.  The way the sand, rocks and gorges had settled was all very temporary.  I noticed that the morning sky was a light fuchsia about to give way to nothing other than a piercing blue.  I also noted that my sapphire blue Mustang, normally a bit of a loud color in ordinary circumstances, looked just gorgeous set into the backdrop of the desert scenery.

After raising my tent successfully, and so, restoring a portion of my self-esteem, I made something to eat and joined the others in the picnic area, more of whom had woken up.  They were discussing the hike for the day.  We finished breakfast, got our trail shoes on and were ready to go.

We hiked for quite a ways that Saturday.  We walked through dried riverbeds and low-lying canyons, all the while talking about everything under the sun.  My spirit felt liberated being outdoors, seeing something new at every turn, and speaking whatever was on my mind.  Our Sierra Club guide showed us several abandoned mine shaft openings, most of which were at the base of small hills, but whose openings were at foot level and even with the ground.  All were covered with protective grates.  The bars were large enough to lose a shoe into, and looking down their 45-degree shafts into utter darkness, I couldn’t help but think of how unsafe they would be if one were wandering lost through the desert after nightfall.  Brrrr; the idea gave me chills.

As we finished our hike that afternoon, the sun was lowering into an orange sky.  I noted how the silhouettes of the Joshua Trees and other wildlife all around us stood like stoic guardians of the desert as dusk arrived.

One of the friends I made during this first hike was a girl named Catherine.  She was a little younger than I, tall, blonde an athletic.  Her personality was bubbly and animated, and the funny thing for me was that she lived in Manhattan Beach, not five blocks from my house.  We later went out a few times, and she always said of my Mustang, “Boy, this thing really growls!”  I liked that.  It made me feel manly.

We all settled into the campsite that Saturday evening, and the rest of our time that night was spent cooking, eating, telling stories around the fire pit, and sampling odd desserts that people had brought.  This was a good bunch that I had found, or who had found me.  I particularly liked how we all came from diverse areas of Southern California.  Some from San Diego, LA, Santa Barbara, Ridgecrest, even a couple from the bay area had made it down.

I slept better in my tent than my previous night’s car-slumber.  I woke up to another pristine, arid, high desert morning.  Sunday’s hiking with took us through additional canyons and hills, where we came upon the occasional small herd of rabbits bounding into the low brush on the sides of trails.  Our guide taught us about the fauna as we explored.  I was in great shape and I remember the feeling of floating along with everyone throughout these hikes, enjoying being immersed in their company.

This is what I needed; a weekend sleeping under a blanket of stars and meandering through utter beauty during the day.  These escapes are what kept me going during a very rigorous work time in my life.  And no doubt it made a difference; one little weekend has remained in my mind for all these years.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

My Treo: A Poem of Conflict and Acceptance

My Treo is nothing more than a dinosaur
I have dropped it several times on the floor
So many that the face is inextricably cracked
And there is no hope of getting the touch screen back
My Treo has never had a good relationship with internet connecting
It's only use to me has been for calling and texting
The photo capability is narrow and bleak
With washed out colors and a lens that is cheap
It is cumbersome and reminiscent of things Windows-based
And obviously an instrument which was developed in haste
I look forward to the day when I can drop it from a tower
And watch it rapidly disassemble as it lands with power
Yet, for now, it is my cell phone, my connection to Earth
And it is my Treo, for whatever it's worth

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Condenser Mic Hypothesis

A buddy and I had a great laugh one time based on one of our silly hypotheses.  We went to see John Entwistle, the bassist for The Who, who was doing a solo concert tour around the country with his own band, the aptly named, “John Entwistle Band.”  They were playing at the Reseda Country Club, which used to sit on Sherman Way, just East of Reseda Blvd. in the city of Reseda, CA.

I must describe what a condenser microphone is for anyone who is not familiar.  A condenser mic is a microphone built into many smaller, inexpensive recording devices, which acts as a gate that opens and closes the amount of sound coming into the recorder in order to try to keep an average recording level. 

If you’ve ever been working with a small tape recorder, and you accidentally hit it or drop it while somebody is speaking, no doubt you heard the condenser mic reduce the recording level instantaneously, and the person’s voice who was speaking suddenly goes to nil for a second, and then slowly re-inflates back up to regular output level.  It is meant to prevent the sounds being recorded from getting too “hot” and static-filled, which if excessive, can lead to inaudible white noise.

So my buddy, also named John, and I were standing there in front of the stage, excitedly waiting for the show to begin.  We had our eyes trained on all of the roadies moving stuff about and checking the instruments, when a roadie picked up one of Entwistle’s many basses to check the sound system.  It was a beautiful teal blue eight-string Warwick Buzzard.

The roadie purposely plucked a note on the bass, and the sound was like nothing anyone in the room had ever heard.  It was so physically loud from the harmonics of the bass, which emulated as the simple note was fed through Entwistle's channel splitters, chorus hardware, and finally, God only knows how many amplified watts, that a huge, diesel-shimmering, electric-blue, seismic sound filled the now tiny room.  I could feel my chest vibrate with the struck note.

John and I looked at each other, laughing from being startled.  When the sound finally decayed enough, I shouted to him trying to overcome what was left of my eardrums, “What if one of us had been holding up a mini tape-recorder when he struck that note?”  John knew exactly what I meant and came back with, “Yeah, the condenser mic would have kicked in, going from an instant of white noise to nothing.”  We both laughed and laughed from the idea of how overwhelming this single note would have been for such a simple device, almost feeling sympathy for it should that have happened.  We were such nerds.  "Oooh and my ears are still ringing!"

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A River Runs Through Me

I took this photo of our house from a neighbor's lawn across the street during one of our typical storms.

From about 1975 to 1990, the street my parents’ house was on, which sat on the San Fernando Valley side of the Santa Monica Mountains, used to get flooded when it rained.  And I mean, flooded!  There were no storm drains installed until sometime in the 1990’s, so the accumulated water runoff from the canyons and the nearby hills all eventually funneled down our street.

We had a neighbor across the way, David.  He was a tall, balding, intellectual man, who luckily found humor in a lot of things.  He was the father of a slightly older friend of mine and he always called me, “the dwarf.”  I don’t know why David called me this, but it never quite sat right with me.  I was not short for my age.  Yet I would rush in and out of his house, often without knocking, to hang out with his son, my friend, Ritchie.  Maybe it was that I resembled an intangible blur racing up and down his staircase, that made him think of a dwarf.  I don’t know. 

But at age twelve, I did the occasional odd thing or two.  My cousin, Michael, had at some point in the past left a trombone in my parents’ garage in a handsome black case.  The inside was lined with purple felt, so whenever I took the instrument out, it seemed like I was handling something elegant, and it made me fancy myself a professional musician. 

And what did I do with this instrument that I had absolutely no training with?  Well, the sound that I was able to get out of it was that of a wounded animal.  And this I did regularly outside on the street in front our house for lack of any better use of my time. 

When it rained, that is, when the street was a torrent of tumbling stones in a rushing brown water and mud concentrate, I took this trombone, got calf-deep into the raging street-river decked out in cut-off jean shorts and bare feet, and I evoked the calls of a stranded elephant or a lion with a thorn in it's paw.  David saw me several times doing this strange thing.  He would step out onto his covered front porch, being careful not to get wet, and just ponder this scene, hopefully with at least some amusement, lest he call the men in the white suites garnering an over sized butterfly net.  Then, eventually, seeing that there would be no varying second act, he would step back inside his house. 

David passed away many years ago.  But I recall him re-telling the story of my one-man rainy brass band when he and his wife visited my parents’ house after they moved out of the neighborhood for reasons not attributed to my river dances.  It was a good laugh for all, and it made me happy and even a little satisfied with myself to know that “the dwarf” had left a bizarre and impenetrable image in David's head for the rest of his days.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

It's Starting (To Go Off Point)

The candidates for the California Governor race are starting to generate mud slinging with only thirty days until the election.  And of course it isn’t going to be a discussion about solutions to the economy, or jobs, or the foreclosure crisis.  Meg Whitman is just today defending her having fired a housekeeper who revealed to Whitman and her husband that she was undocumented.  Whitman is alleging that the housekeeper is being manipulated into “coming out” against her, so to speak.  The rabid Gloria Allred is accusing Whitman of having known for a long time that the housekeeper was an illegal immigrant, and that Whitman and her husband simply got rid of her at the last minute to protect her campaign.

And all of this, really, to keep everyone off point.  With this circus going on in the media, how are we supposed to make an informed choice about either of these candidates to run our State; the most populated of states in our nation?  Because in reality, neither one of them is going to address the illegal immigration issue if elected to office.  That is for sure.  So why even bring it up in any form at all?

I hate to seem so negative, but California’s finances are royally messed up.  It's a "shit-storm" to use a Vic Mackey phrase.  A nineteen billion dollar deficit with a current government that can’t get a budget out on time.  Great going Mr. Austrian Oak!  Jobs flying out to Texas and Arizona as fast as those states’ chambers of commerce can shop for and lure them out of the Sunshine State. 

And seriously, who would want to be governor at this time?  Can either of these candidates really make a difference?  Does Jerry Brown really think that making green jobs right now, with this economy, will help us out of our hole when green jobs currently make up 3% of the work arena?  Does Meg Whitman, who has pretty much no experience in government at all, think she can buy her way in with $120 million dollars and actually straighten things out like a publicly traded company?

How can we possibly know anything about them when both are wrapped up in media-candy such as why their maid was fired?  We’ll never know if either really does have a good plan for California if they go on like this, with each trying to derail each other and only hitting their talking points during debates while not answering any specific questions, and most assuredly, they will.  For that’s the game of modern politics.

Just a note that for the photo above, I went into PhotoShop and painted them with a really broad brush!

Waiting in the Wings

President Obama is having a bad time trying to right the US economy; Hilary is no doubt waiting maybe six months past the mid-term election to decide if she will make her move for 2012.


Southern California has just gone though an incredible few days of first, really dry heat, breaking all time records in downtown with 113 degrees, and then a few more days of extremely humid heat producing thunderstorms.

Quentin Tarantino’s editor, Sally Menke, went hiking in Griffith Park on Monday, the day of the heat records, and she got lost, passed out and died.  She was found Tuesday morning with her extremely dehydrated dog having survived by her side.

It’s a terrible thing and I feel for her family, but at the same time, all of the media was warning people for a couple of days that Monday would be an extremely hot day.  I can’t imagine what would have possessed her to go hiking; this being written by a person who has run 25 marathons and numerous races, but who would never have gone out hiking that day.  Well, however it happened, it was tragic. connected to the....

Inevitably, the "housing market bone" is connected to the "jobs bone."

The housing market is still tanked, sitting, not much moving but a few sales here and there.  The housing market is connected to the jobs market. The jobs market is quiet, or maybe the better word is decimated.

I’ve been hearing a lot about layoffs and something like a 12.5% unemployment rate when all are considered; newly graduated people looking for work, undocumented people, those whose unemployment insurance has run out, and those who were never eligible for unemployment insurance to begin with for one reason or another.  So really, it’s something like 25% unemployment, or 1 out of 4 people are without a job.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Old Bar Joke

This is a joke that my friend, Tony Matthews, told me about ten years ago.

A patron walks into a bar and asks the bartender for three glasses of beer.  The bartender obliges and serves him three glasses, which he lines up in front of him, and drinks, one after another.

For the next few weeks, he continues to order his beers this way.  One night, the bartender says, "You know, you can just order your beers one at a time, and I can give them to you successively."

The patron says, "Oh, I know it's kind of strange, me ordering my beers this way.  You see, I grew up in Ireland, and my two brothers and I would go to our local pub each night and drink our beers together.  It was a tradition.  So when I moved to America a few months ago, missing the camaraderie with my brothers, I decided to order three beers each night to help me feel like we're still drinking together."

The bartender nods with understanding and accepts his explanation. 

After another few weeks of his regular pattern, the patron comes into the bar, sits down and orders two beers, not three.  He proceeds two drink the two beers.  Everyone in the bar who knows him starts to stare and wonder what has happened. 

Finally, the bartender gathers up the courage and says, "Hey friend, I just want to offer my condolences to you."  The patron looks puzzled?  "Well, you ordered only two beers.  I assume that one of your brothers has died."

The patron responds with delight and understanding, "No, my brothers are all fine.  It's simply that I quit drinking."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Where's Alfred?

Brenda and I are currently watching a string of Alfred Hitchcock movies each night over the next week or so, and I had forgotten that Hitchcock did a cameo in each of them.  We’re having a great time keeping an eye out for his appearances.  It’s nice to watch films which were so carefully planned out by a master craftsman.

A Chevrolet In Orbit

I thought of this recently.  The moon has no atmosphere, which means that there is no resistance to objects passing anywhere near the moon’s surface.  So you could take a Chevrolet Tahoe and put it into orbit around the moon at a few thousand miles per hour, and at say, 500 feet above the surface, without it's orbit degrading.

What a sight that would be. You’re standing on the moon on a cool night, just looking up at the twinkling stars with maybe a gently setting Earth, when a 'shooting car' crosses your line of vision from one horizon to the other as it does every few hours.

Addendum 3/2/11:  If you were standing on one spot on the moon, and the SUV were orbiting in a perfect East/West path 500 feet above you, the Chevy Tahoe would float by at about 1 mile per second and would pass overhead about once every two hours.  If it were in any other orbit, it would appear once every two weeks.  Thanks for USC Physics Dept Alums, Siddhartha Santra and Christopher M. Gould for helping me figure that out; I wouldn't have known where to even start.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The World Could Use Another Great Janitor

There was a radio psychiatrist back in about 1990, who did a daily show on KABC 790AM in Los Angeles.  I don’t recall if his radio show was syndicated around the country or not, but his name was Dr. David Viscott, and he was pretty liberal in his views on politics and public services. 

His talk show mostly consisted of taking calls and trying to come up with solutions in the average ninety-second allotted time that each caller got.  He usually steered callers towards realizing that they were empowered to at least some degree in whatever situation they found themselves in.  The “patients” simply needed to start taking responsibility for what they had the power to control in their lives and on some level, even realize that they had contributed, at least to some degree, to their current life.

He was generally warm and caring to callers, and yet often sounded harsh because he was not willing to let people remain mired in helplessness.  He wanted them to start taking control right there on the radio by admitting what they hadn’t been doing in their lives and what they could start doing immediately to change their situation.  I thought he was only as effective as the "patient's" ability accept responsibility. 

I liked him and I even met him once when he did a show from the university that I was attending (U.S.C.), and he ended up sitting next to me with his arm around my shoulder and a microphone in my face answering some question I had asked on the air.  He talked to me in a kind, knowing, fatherly way, like we had been friends for years.  I must confess, I have generally not liked psychology talk shows throughout my life.  But indeed, I admired him.

Whatever you might think of these types of shows or their effectiveness, he used to say something that I always took to heart.  When people called in describing their profession or their aspirations in a way that showed some embarrassment or admission that their work might not be the most critical of societal roles, Dr. Viscott used to help them re-frame how they saw the work that they were doing.

For instance, if someone called in, and they said that they were helping support a family through their nighttime janitorial job, David would say something like, “Look, put your heart and soul into your cleaning work.  The world needs another great janitor.  We don’t need an unmotivated janitor, or a mediocre janitor.  We need a great one.” 

Or if someone called in saying they had been in the same job for the past ten years, and that they wished they could go to school to learn to be an accountant, David would ask them what they needed to do, the very first steps they needed to take, to be able to being to make this happen.  Because, “the world could use a great accountant.”

Dr. Viscott died in 1996, but this sentiment has always resonated with me because so many people go through their jobs, either knowing only partially the full spectrum of information needed for the job, or with an uncaring and bored attitude.  We’ve all experienced the customer service representative who just wants to be rid of us and is watching the clock.  Dr. Viscott’s idea that one should strive to become the best at whatever one is doing, no matter the level or status, I think is a valuable one and should not be forgotten.

This leads me to the issue of people bettering themselves.  There are so many on-line tutorials, schools, night classes and extension courses that are out there for each one of us to learn more about the world and to grow our knowledge and skills, and yet so many don’t take advantage of these things.  A few years ago, I took a digital photography course, and also several PhotoShop courses for like $20.00 at my local adult school.  It cost almost nothing, and when I finished, presto!  I had a much wider arena of knowledge in these areas than just a few weeks before.

Maybe mine is bordering on a Utopian view, but I think that United States, which was once a manufacturing nation, and is now a consumer one, would benefit greatly if everyone contributed their best efforts for the things they do every day.  Our lives are hard; we have jobs, relationships, kids and obligations, and most people would say that they just do their best. 

But I disagree.  Most of what I see is mediocre, and I include myself in this.  How often does one really apply one’s blood, sweat and tears into something; creating a new or excellent “thing,” whatever that may be?  The answer is, not often enough.  We should all be applying ourselves to the fullest that we can to all of our responsibilities. 

I think this is what our nation needs at this time.  Creators, inventors, writers; people who make things, and an attitude of trying to use that other 90% of our brains.  We all have something to give, create, or something to say; even jobless people.  Some of that spare time can be used doing or making something productive, even if only for their own personal use or pleasure, such as a garden or a painting.  Because it's the habit of doing, making, and going as far as one can that I think we have fallen out of, and that in some big sense, has had an effect on our both our personal fulfillment and our nation's well-being.

And I think everybody should try, if even just a little bit each day.  When people are at work, say doing the midnight shift for the Port Authority, or gathering data for a city study, or restocking inventory at a department store, they should do those things the best they can and shoot for gaining the maximum knowledge about that job.  Because if we, as a nation, were 85% productive, 90% productive, 95% productive, we would make a very rich place in which to live in so many ways, and we would be unstoppable.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

One of Those Moments

I recalled today as I was driving through the 101 & 405 interchange, a story my friend Eric told me about an experience he had many years ago when he was on his way to a temp job.

He was driving in his little Volkswagen Golf, or something to that effect, from the 101 West to the 405 South.  This particular transition consists of a lengthy feeder road in the shape of one-forth of a cloverleaf, taking you in a clockwise turn as you descend from the overpass to an underpass. 

The transition is very busy because it is one of the most heavily used freeway exchanges in Southern California getting celebrities and the like from the mundane San Fernando Valley over to the more exciting Westside and beyond, which include areas such as Brentwood, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and the South Bay.

Eric was putt-putting along in his VW, rolling through this interchange, when his car started to fail.  It began sputtering and choking, and was losing power very quickly.  So he pulled over to the shoulder, along where the feeder road straightens out to join the 405, and the car came to a rest just before the underpass of the 101.

In his words, he just sat there…for a minute…for two minutes…for five minutes….in disbelief that of all the places for his car to completely die, he was smack in the middle of one of the noisiest, busiest, and grungiest parts of the Southern California freeway system, where cars fly by you, turning out of the way just in time to avoid hitting your conked-out car.

But he didn’t do anything; not right away.  He didn’t call AAA, he didn’t call the California Highway Patrol, he didn’t call a friend (me for instance), he didn’t get out and try flagging someone down.  He just sat there.  He sat for those moments and looked down at his speedometer and tachometer, both of which read zero, and pondered.

It was one of those moments.  When you say to yourself, this can’t be happening.  Not here, not now.  In an instant, what was a normal few minutes of his life getting from one place to another, had become an ordeal of how to get help and how to tolerate the wait for assistance to arrive.  One of those times when industrious technology, which makes life so easy, suddenly becomes a grand burden.

You can’t just leave the car there and walk away.  Or can you?  No, you really can’t.  And so now, it is all about patience, and about saying to yourself, in a few hours, or at least by this evening, it will all be a sordid story to describe while eating dinner and then retiring to the television or to one’s bed.  Just one of those moments.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

America on Credit

My friend pointed me to an article in Time Magazine, the September 6, 2010 issue (also available on-line), called, “The Case Against Home Ownership,” in which the journalist, Barbara Kiviat, proposes that there are some valid reasons for not wanting to own a home in this day and age.  The article sounded like an interesting piece, and so I chased it down at my local library.

Her main points are that, most often, owning a home has more costs than one would first assume, and that ownership hasn’t been a sound investment for many people in the last few years given the terrible downturn in home prices, unpaid mortgages, and foreclosures abounding.  She also mentions that there is a higher percentage of the general population who lease as opposed to those who own property in many other countries, and that these people lead content lives doing so.

I didn’t find her claims to be backed up with many good examples.  The pains of failed mortgages, the slip in value and how hyped up the market was a few years ago are now all known and felt by everyone, and this recession is already a five year-old phenomenon. I didn't get any real sense of why homeownership may inherently be a bad idea from her article, the last five years not withstanding.

In fact, in Kiviat’s noting that she doesn’t think that it has been a good idea for the government to promote homeownership as being part of the “American Dream” by giving home owner tax breaks, she works against her own argument.  Tax breaks definitely are positive advantages of owning property, and in the final analysis, she never supports her opinion with any real benefits of renting, with the exception that one could more easily relocate for new job opportunities if one is leasing.

I felt that she wrote this article to appeal to the masses because a lot of people are finally understanding what happened with the mortgage meltdown; the bad lending practices, the inappropriate loans written by loan officers who didn’t understand the loans themselves, and the pressure on lenders to get people into loan contracts so that the loans could be diced up, packaged and sold on Wall street. 

However, Kiviat, as a journalist, should be writing on the cutting edge of what’s happening in real-time. She ended her article with the thought that she would think again before purchasing a home at this time.  I don’t expect anyone, male or female, to have ‘crystal balls,’ but really, her article should have been written five years ago; now that would have been TIMEly.  And in fact, if one has a lot of cash lying around, I think now would be a good time to invest in property while things are on the skids.  There are just not a lot of cash buyers coming out of the woodwork right now.

However, I do believe that Kiviat wrote a well-intentioned piece, which brings up some important issues.  The article got me thinking deeply about our society’s dependency on credit.  Because, ultimately, once one peels back all of the layers of the onion on any major negative issues of home-ownership, it’s really an issue about credit.

Banks and lenders make huge profits on interest rates; we know that.  The money you’ve borrowed for whatever product you’ve purchased via credit ends up being enormously more costly than it’s initial price.  I think that most people still have a limited awareness of this, even if by denial.  Yet, most people are aware that banks make even more from overzealous late penalties and overdraft charges in our personal accounts than even their interest rates.  So there is definitely an intention to not only profit, but to deliberately gouge you.

If you buy a house for, say, $500,000 with 20% ($100,000) down with a 4.5%, 30-year fixed loan, you will end up paying $329,626 in interest on the $400,000 you initially borrowed by the end of the loan's life cycle; that's an 82% increase on what you borrowed).  So your house will actually end up costing $829,626, or 65% more than it would have had you paid cash for it.  Think about it.  That would be like going to buy a blouse on sale for $19.99, and then because you used credit for it, paying and extra $12.99 of compounding interest for an end charge of $32.98 for the blouse.  That doesn’t seem like a bargain to me.  It’s a slow-motion robbery in progress, like the gradual boiling of frogs.   But people want to own a home so badly that they strap themselves to this kind of commitment when they really shouldn’t.  Are you surprised to hear this from someone who works in the real estate industry?  I can see how the system works much more clearly now that I have been in the business of home and lending transactions.

It’s not that no one should ever get a loan to buy a house, but rather that even now, after home prices had fallen off a precipice, I still witness a push to get people to borrow money towards the top whatever range they have been approved at with little to no concern of what that will mean for their daily lives.  It’s been drilled into their heads that they should own a home or to get a “great deal” in this market, that they don’t know what they are getting themselves into.  There is no real advocate for them to make a sensible decision based on what would actually work for them in comfortable monthly payments.  Instead, people still get into lending contracts that require them to keep up a more than hardy pace on the hamster treadmill. That is why I always suggest to my clients that they work backwards, thinking about what kind of payment would be comfortable for them, and then finding the right priced home that would fit into their life needs.

And honestly, prices of homes in Southern California are still so high, not in regard to their valued proximity to great things such as the Pacific Ocean, the mountains and the desert, but with respect to the cost that they were originally built for.  Many of the wood and stucco homes in the San Fernando Valley, built in the pre to post war years, originally sold for $10,000, and even $6,000 in many instances.  So even before the real estate bubble burst, one has to wonder how those same structures could possibly be valued at upwards of $700,000.  With 20% down (140,000), one would be stuck with a $560,000 loan.  That just seems unreal for the actual dwelling that they are getting married to.  I have to note here that in 2005, I went into an 1100 square foot home in Burbank listed for sale, 3 bedroom, 1.5 baths, no pool, nothing special, near a major street with an asking price of $1,100,000.  Clearly, minds had been lost.

My friend Eric, who initially pointed me to the Time article, and with whom I bantered emails on the subject back and forth for a day or so, also feels that having a large mortgage is ultimately too costly for many people. 

Eric writes, “The other thing I would like to have read about was the actual meaning of "home ownership." I mean, if you think about it, what does a homeowner actually "own?" If a homeowner loses his job and can't pay his mortgage, he will find out very quickly who really owns his home. The bank. The people whom I really see making the money from all of this home ownership are not the home owners, but the banks (and maybe in some cases the developers).”

“For me, this article added more weight to some ideas I've been thinking about for the last couple of years about home ownership. What I have observed is that for average middle to upper middle class people, owning a home is very, very important, despite the tremendous financial sacrifice they make. What I see is that this class of people are usually salaried employees who have a 30-year mortgage.”

Eric continues, “So making monthly mortgage payments is a huge chunk of their income. The rest seems to barely be able to cover other necessities, such as food, insurance, car payments, telephone, cable, etc. So much of their income and their life-focus go into their house -- the mortgage, upkeep and maintenance, and remodeling projects. They have very little money left over to live an interesting and exciting lifestyle. Most of these people lead very unglamorous and boring looking lives.  I just keep thinking, is there a better way? A sort of "third" alternative that the majority of people don't know about.”

I think, in particular, the point that Eric makes about quality of life as one grinds away, trying to make enough for his or her mortgage payments and have maybe a little cash left over, is far more illuminating and thoughtful than any that Kiviak included in her article.  I think the quality of life is the key to all of this.  If one can’t create and have interesting experiences because they are trying to make their payments each week, then what is the sense of it all?  And if you lose your job and have no income, it all comes crashing down pretty quickly, and you’ve got nothing left.

I was just saying to my girlfriend how I can't understand how so many people have mundane jobs that they just do year in and year out with no hope of growing into anything or achieving some dream.  They have a job that basically pays the mortgage and allows them to go do something two weekends out of four.  Most people don’t go to night school or extension classes in order to pick up new skills that might help them expand themselves. And at the same time, right now, while money is hard to come by for so many people including me, that stability seems somewhat attractive, if only temporarily, until opportunities blossom again.

When Kiviat is critical about the government promoting home ownership as being part of the American dream, one must think about how strong the banks’ and lenders’ roles are in our society.  You only need look at the fact that the government bailed out some very large lenders to know how entrenched credit is in our society.  For instance, just think about making a flight reservation, a hotel accommodation, or reserving a rental car. It is a much more difficult thing to do, if not impossible, without a credit card. We’re told that we must have a good credit score...”Always keep your credit average 700 or above!” So, in essence, we're being told by our infrastructure that we must always operate, at least to some level, on credit.  I don’t mean this in any conspiratorial way; I simply state this because it illustrates how most of our daily interactions have evolved into those, which either require or rely on credit.  The benefit to you is the ease with which one can have something.  The cost in little bank charges to you here and there is directly proportional to the profits that the lenders make over huge expanses of time.

I seldom if ever hear anyone in my business say, "You should just see if you can work the deal out with cash." Most people just don’t, and will never have enough cash to buy a $500,000 home straight out. The auto response of real estate agents is to get buyers hooked up with a lender and get them signed onto a mortgage.  And do you know how many people buy cars on credit?  I was actually surprised.  It turns out that for the last fifteen years, car dealers make more money from the interest rates of auto loan financing that they offer their customers, than on the mark up price on the vehicles they sell.

With what I have been seeing and learning, I am becoming more committed getting in the habit of paying cash and not credit for many of my transactions. There’s something much more immediate and tangible when you hand over a Federal Reserve Note to a vendor, then when you swipe your credit card.  One actually witnesses the trade of the earned money for the product. I just don't have any ‘interest’ in giving lenders extra money out of my pocket.

At the risk of this all sounding like some nutty manifesto (too late), I truly think that, as Americans, we all really need to rethink and readjust our prevailing relationship and dependency on credit.  We will greatly benefit from breaking the mindset of ‘swipe and spend’ purchasing when it’s done to a degree that we become disconnected from our own financial condition.  Little by little, it’s eating up our money and ultimately, as Eric said, our quality of life.