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.