Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Blog Quote of the Day

"There really is a wide spectrum of foul smells in the hostels across Costa Rica."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Return of the Grocery Blogger

Apparently, the difference between low fat milk and reduced fat milk is only 1%.

I'm 43 years old, and I honestly did not know this.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

How Jeri Ryan Made Barack Obama the President

I'm a big fan of alternate histories. For anyone who doesn't know, those are stories set in a version of the world where some event in our own past never happened, or happened differently. Or where some event that never happened in the history we know has sent the world in the story skittering off in another direction entirely.

Harry Turtledove cranks them out, for instance, and his plots and skewed versions of our own society tend to keep you reading despite the often clunky line-by-line prose. S.M. Stirling came up with a "modern" world still recovering from a comet strike in the 1870s, which forced the British Empire to move its capital to India. On a regular basis, I fight back the urge to track down Stirling and personally beg him for sequels. Thomas Harlan is writing a series about a future in which the Aztecs, after having conquered the world with their Japanese and Scots allies, are now spreading out among the stars. And on a regular basis, I fight back the urge to track down Harlan and personally beg him to write more quickly.

The trick to these stories is figuring out that one event, usually something very small and unexpected, or that one decision, usually something that seems to be completely unrelated, that in fact changes everything. And I've realized there's a great alternate history involving Barack Obama, who may well owe his election as President of the United States to a seemingly unrelated event involving this woman:

That's actress Jeri Ryan, better known as Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager. And by looking at the recent election through the lens of alternate history, I think she unwittingly gave us the upcoming Obama Administration.

Bear with me now, because we have to trace the chain of events from November 4th back to the lovely and talented Seven of Nine...

Think about it. Barack Obama was able to run for president because he was a sitting (and something of a "celebrity") senator. And he was elected to the U.S. Senate because he was lucky enough to run against Alan Keyes. Even I could get elected against Alan Keyes, and I probably have more skeletons in my closet than Barack Obama does. (I did marry a Canadian, after all.) So, no Alan Keyes, and Barack Obama might still be an obscure state legislator back in Illinois rather than the President-Elect of the United States.

And why was Alan Keyes the Republican nominee running against Barack Obama? Because Senate-hopeful Jack Ryan went through a very messy divorce from, yes, actress Jeri Ryan, and when her allegations that he had taken her to sex clubs in various cities and pressured her to do, well, certain "things" became public, they blew the wheels off his campaign. If the Illinois Republicans had been able to run Jack Ryan for senator, there would have been no candidate Alan Keyes to lose in a 70% to 27% blow-out, and Barack Obama might still be an obscure state legislator back in Illinois rather than the President-Elect of the United States.

Sure, any number of other decisions and events could have put Barack Obama back on track for the White House, and maybe Jack Ryan would have lost, too. And I'm in no way suggesting that Jeri Ryan should have made a different decision regarding Jack Ryan's apparent, well, "requests." Still, I can't help but wonder if, all those years ago, Jack and Jeri Ryan stood in a sex club in New York, or Paris, or wherever, and had any idea that their decisions in that moment were affecting not only their own marriage but also who would be the next President of the United States—and quite possibly the future direction of the entire world itself.

Maybe Harry Turtledove can someday write the four-volume alternate history about how the 44th American presidency would have played out if Jack Ryan had been satisfied just having sex with his wife in private, or if Jeri Ryan had been a different kind of person and made a different decision.

Aren't alternate histories fun? Maybe Jeri Ryan can even play herself in the movie.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holiday Lament of a Very Bored Dog

Overheard Through an Open Door on Christmas Morning

"What do you mean you didn't get batteries?"

Friday, December 26, 2008

Spotted on a Neighbor's Door

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Only Two Presents I Need

This Christmas, we're seeing no family. We have the fewest presents under the tree that either of us can remember, and the weather outside is bone-chilling rain instead of heart-warming snow. I've seen more holiday television specials this year while sitting in veterinary office and animal hospital waiting rooms than I have while sitting at home. I never made it to a Christmas Eve service last night and won't make it to a service today, even though attending church this holiday as a believing Christian for the first time since I was 12 or 13 is something I've spent months anticipating.

None of this bothers me, though. I have the only two presents I need:

Earlier this month, I had to face the possibility of losing my wife. Not through a separation or a divorce, but in a car that literally ended its time with us by fire.

And not even a week ago, I had to face the possibility of losing our dog. Not through the poor girl wandering off or because of a move that somehow forced us to leave her behind, but during a long day and even longer night of vomiting, shaking, weakness, and more blood than I ever want to see in one place again.

Sometimes life, or God, or just plain dumb luck forces you to realize what's actually important. I don't plan on forgetting this lesson anytime soon.

Count your blessings, everyone. I know I am.

Merry Christmas, and God bless.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Pop Quiz

The worst Christmas special ever aired is:

A) The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978):

B) Nick and Jessica's Family Christmas (2004):

(Hint: It's the one with the bad acting, the bad writing, and the bad production values, which I realize doesn't exactly narrow things down.)

Strangely Offensive Holiday Greeting of the Day

"Merry Christmas, to those who believe in that sort of thing."

Maybe it's just me, but the second part kind of undercuts the first. Though I suppose it was better than "Merry Christmas, superstitious fools..."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"One Foot In Front Of The Other"

While the hospital was preparing our dog for discharge yesterday, I saw Santa Claus Is Coming To Town for the first time in decades. It was playing on the flat-screen television in the waiting room. They showed The Little Drummer Boy immediately afterward.

I've always loved these old Rankin/Bass specials with their jerky, stop-motion animation. The Little Drummer Boy never struck me, then or now, but Santa Claus Is Coming To Town was one of my favorites. Even after I grew up, I still tried to watch these shows each year, but I somehow always managed to miss Santa Claus.

Let me tell you, when you're impatiently waiting to bring home a very sick dog that's already put you through a week of stress and worry, this is the show you want to be watching. I could barely take my eyes off it, whether the scene had Kris Kringle, that honking penguin, Burgermeister Meisterburger, the Winter Warlock ("Winter, please!"), or local schoolteacher Miss Jessica, who for a puppet could really work that "sexy librarian" look (something I never quite picked up on as a child).

And then you have the songs. Like this one:

I've had this song running through my head ever since yesterday afternoon. And I've been singing/whispering some version of it to our dog, as I coax her recovering body with that unwieldy Elizabethan collar up and down the stairs.

Whoever came up with the idea of playing these old Christmas specials in the waiting room rather than The Oprah Winfrey Show or The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer is a genius. I owe him or her a big Christmas present.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

December Woes

Ever since our car met its fiery end earlier this month, life has been one crisis and (figurative) fire to put out after another. Between insurance hassles, getting the new car, several computer problems, and more than several emergency trips to the vet and now one surgery for an issue that's still not fully resolved, I've barely managed to meet the deadlines for my paying clients let alone find time to keep up with the blog.

Hopefully, regular blogging will begin again later this week. So until then, Merry Christmas to everyone, and thank you to those who have given my family so many prayers and so much support these last two weeks. You won't be forgotten.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Reuters, God Love 'Em

I'm one of those people who don't think much of the major media. If you feel they always report things objectively and straight down the middle, then you might as well skip down to the Twigs! post right now.

Reading the news can be hard for me. As a writer, I can see how the facts and events are arranged to form a narrative rather than just to retell what happened. As an editor, I can see how which facts are left out and which facts are included, and how the choice of one word over another, can create an invisible traffic lane that guides the reader to the proper opinion and conclusion. And as a hypnotist, I can see all too well how using the reader's own emotions can create a deep, even subconscious impression that's frequently at odds with what the words are technically saying. And I know how that emotional impression can be just as strong as the rational, conscious opinion—and maybe even stronger, because you often don't even realize it's there.

Sometimes, I find an article that does all of these—or one that just plain irks me. Like this little gem of a fear-mongering editorial masquerading as a news piece:

Minorities Fear Trend from California Gay Marriage Ban
Of course, nowhere does the article mention that large minority voter turnout is what put Prop 8 over the top. I guess that would be rude.

The article continues:

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – California's gay marriage ban could open the door to legal discrimination against unpopular groups if the state Supreme Court allows the voter-approved measure to stand, blacks, Latinos, Asians and other minorities said.
Of course, nowhere does the article actually quote any "blacks, Latinos, Asian and other minorities," though a legal brief by "black, Asian and Hispanic groups challenging the ban" is quoted. So are three law professors who may or may not be black, Latino/Hispanic, Asian, or some other minority. Apparently, three law professors and a legal brief speak for all minorities—including those who voted "Yes" on Prop 8. I wonder if this will be news to those minority voters, or if they've gotten used to academics and activists speaking for them.

The whole article reads like it was whipped up over the phone and downloaded off the Internet. I can understand "hotel journalism" in a place like Rwanda during the slaughter, or in Iraq when the insurgency was in full swing. But in California? Finding an actual activist (of any persuasion) in our Golden State is about as difficult as finding a Han in China. And we have enough freeways that if the wildfires are blocking one, you can still get to any protest by another route.

Then again, if you want to whip up fear about a new, dawning era of legalized discrimination, you want to go for the law professor rather than the activist. Because with a law professor, even if your head knows that what they're saying might not be quite right, your gut will still cry Expert!

Activists rarely have that kind of effect, which is how we get money lines like this one:

Legal scholars say the measure, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, breaks new ground by limiting the courts' ability to protect minorities.
You don't even need to name the scholars who actually said this, or even say whether any scholar actually said it in these exact terms. Just phrase it as "legal scholars," and you have the impression of a universal opinion. Why, a reader might not even stop to think that perhaps legalizing gay marriage, and not Prop 8, is the part that actually "breaks new ground."

"They could take away any right from any group," said University of Southern California Law Professor David Cruz, who filed a brief in favor of gay marriage in an earlier case.
Which right from which group, you ask? Why, any right from any group. Just allow your own worst fears to fill in those blanks.

Worried that inter-racial marriage might somehow be taken away? Then Prop 8 will bring that about, at least under this kind of wording. Worried that Japanese Americans will be herded into camps once again? Then Prop 8 will apparently open that door, too. Worried that Asians will be barred by law from owning property in California, as they once were? Prop 8 again. A USC law professor and unnamed "minority groups" say so.

But why stop there? Are blacks being discriminated against in employment opportunities? Maybe Prop 8 opened that door. Low-income Hispanics can't get a mortgage? Forget the financial crisis, and let's just lay that at the feet of Prop 8 as well.

After all, Prof. Cruz did say "any right" from "any group," so be afraid. Be very afraid, because—

"The history of California demonstrates with sobering clarity the potential for disfavored minorities to be subjected to oppression by hostile majorities," the minority groups say in their brief, pointing to segregation laws and one excluding Asian-Americans from land ownership as examples.
Yes, this "sins of the father" argument shows that the government and population of the Golden State are irredeemably bad, and the not-quite-landslide victory of Prop 8 shows we're all just waiting for a chance to unleash our inner Klansmen. And just in case you're still not convinced by these unnamed "minority groups"—

"It is not hypothetical. It's a track record," said Stanford University law professor Jane Schacter, who has not filed briefs in the case.
Well then, my mistake for not accepting at face value a legal brief filed by one side of an argument. Apparently, Prop 8 is also the first chink in the armor protecting prison inmates from having their organs harvested and undocumented workers from being herded into substandard FEMA trailers before being sent back to Mexico en masse. Why, after Prop 8, we might even start thinking about building a wall on that border, or something.

I have nothing against law professors. Several are included in my Blog Roll. What I do have something against is the idea that being a Stanford law professor, say, automatically grants someone greater insight about what's actually in the hearts and minds of our friends, families, and neighbors as opposed to some other occupation. It sure does help with the emotional impact of the statement, though, doesn't it?

So, still think this article is playing it straight? Then how about this little bit of context?

The ban, California Proposition 8, amended the constitution with 52 percent support—less than is required to approve some state bond measures.
Yes, Prop 8 passed with 52% of the vote—about the same percentage of the vote that Barack Obama received to win the presidency of the United States. So let's flip that sentence around and see how it sounds:

"Barack Obama won the presidency with 52% support—less than is required to approve some state bond measures."

Kind of minimizes an historic victory, doesn't it? But I'm sure that was completely unintentional. Neither the reporter nor his editor could have foreseen that sentence being read as implying how little real support Barack Obama—I'm sorry, I mean Prop 8—actually had.

Could they?

And just to complete the topsy-turvy world of this "news" report, the sanest voice about our brave new world of impending additional discrimination brought about by Prop 8 comes from a professor at Berkeley:

"We are past that as a realistic matter. We just elected an African-American president, for Christ's sake," said University of California, Berkeley, law professor Jesse Choper, who also filed on behalf of gay advocates in the original gay marriage case.
You tell 'em, Prof. Choper. Nicely, if a bit profanely, put.

But if we really are past all this as a "realistic matter," then doesn't that make you wonder what the point of everything else in this article actually was? And what the reporter and his editor were thinking?

I'm sure they weren't trying to create an impression in the reader's mind, or maybe to mold a reader's opinion. This is Reuters, after all. They play it so straight and objective, they won't even use the word terrorist to describe the 9/11 hijackers, remember?

It's not hypothetical with Reuters, after all. It's a track record.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Who thought that putting the word twigs in the name of a breakfast cereal was a good idea?

Are they trying to compete with Savory Kindling and Raisins? Or maybe Quicksand and Lost Shoe Porridge?

And do they really think that spelling it T'wigs is going to keep breakfasters from thinking Hey, Twigs! Or that adding an apostrophe somehow means we're eating "ironic" twigs? Or that it's really some hip, in-crowd reference to the Tilted Wig Pub in Aberdeen?

Even a Google search for T'wigs asks me, Did you mean "twigs"?

I know these aren't actually twigs, but I would still really like to know what they were thinking. And I would really like to have sat in on that product meeting.

"We need a word that sounds wholesome and natural. A word that makes us earth-friendly but hasn't been used yet."

"Can't we just put a picture of some endangered species on the box?"

"Been done. Besides, it's a PR nightmare if the species goes extinct."

"Can't we just donate some portion the profit from each box to some worthy environmental project?"


"Okay... What about twigs?"


"Yeah. Twigs. They're natural."

"But they're wood."

"Termites eat wood, and they're natural."

"I like where you're going with this."

"And twigs fall from trees, like leaves."

"Leaves are pretty."

"Everyone likes leaves."

"Keep going."

"Well, crunchy is good for cereal—"

"And twigs crunch beneath my expensive hiking boots! Just like leaves!"

"You can gather twigs from the ground—"

"The softer side of hunter-gatherers!"

"—just like you can gather up pine nuts."

"I love nuts!"

"Everyone loves nuts!"

"Because they're wholesome and healthy!"

"And earth-friendly!"

"Just like twigs! Upscale Marketeers, you have a go!"

Personally, I think I'll stick with the Pop-Tarts a while longer. I'm just not ready to get down with Gaia in the morning by having a big bowl of anything called twigs.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Quote of the Day IV

"The Austrians are not big on greeting cards, but they make up for their failings in marzipan."


Currently parked in our space without asking...


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Joe the Writer

While I've been toiling away editing other authors' manuscripts, revising that still-unpublished novel, tweaking that still-unproduced-but-optioned-twice screenplay, and remembering my days as co-publisher of a small press, it seems that Joe the Plumber has snagged a book deal. So of course, "serious" writers everywhere are having hissy-fits as they remember that publishing, like life, is unfair. Timothy Egan in the New York Times pens one of the hissiest of fits:

The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books. Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil. Not when voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor’s gate.
Read the whole thing. It's the most unintentionally funny piece of self-important pomposity I've come across since my wife and I overheard that slacker teenager at the other table grumbling, "F***ing fascist bourgeoisie rules. I'm sleeping on Jerry's couch tonight!"

I wanted to write a take-down of Timothy Egan's column. I wanted to author the most savagely funny take-down of Egan's self-important pomposity that could ever be written, but Tim Blair beat me to it:

If Joe turns out to be so poor a writer that he uses reeking Warholian clich├ęs in an opening paragraph, I don’t want him writing books either.
And when Egan reminds us that Hemingway said the most frightening thing he ever encountered was "a blank sheet of paper," Tim Blair counters:

Hemingway never saw a sheet of paper with Egan’s words all over it.
Read the whole thing. I couldn't have done a line-by-line take-down any better myself.

Of course, I still wanted to write something about this. Having been a writer, an editor, a publisher, and often some combination of the three, I thought about posting a "serious" rebuttal to Egan's points, but then I would have had to taken his column as seriously as Egan apparently does. So I thought about mocking the whole subject in some other way, but Iowahawk not only beat me to that as well, he actually found Timothy Egan's first draft of the column in question:

The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

Ha! I didn’t think so, Baldy McUnlicensed O'Notaplumber. No more than an unlicensed cooker-person would entrust me with the cooking of his/her meals, nor the illegal blower of leafs with the operation of his/her leaf blowing machine. See, Joe? You fell right into my clever rhetorical hypothetical-toilet-fixing trap. And with good reason: because my skill is as a highly-trained journalism-writing professional, and even a failed unlicensed fitter of pipes such as yourself recognizes that I should be kept away from dangerous stovetops and power equipment and toilets.

And by the same token, you shouldn't be allowed near dangerous word processing machinery. Not when too many good, licensed novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil. Not when there are dozens of extra words in Roget's Thesaurus for "good" and "author" and "unpublished." Not when voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor’s gate, wasting away in dank unlit torture cells, all because some stupid unlicensed plumber has hogged up all the publishing business advance money.
Read the whole thing. Even my still-unproduced-but-optioned-twice screenplay isn't this funny.

Now seriously, shouldn't I be upset that Joe the Plumber has a book deal? Sure, the publisher side of me would have slapped down an offer the day Joe became known. And the editor side of me would gladly sleep on Jerry's couch for a month if I could get that assignment. But the writer side? Shouldn't I be just as hissy and equally fitty at the savage injustice of it all? Isn't my novel still unpublished? And after how many agents of mine thought a contract was a given?

Sorry, but I just have to laugh, because a serious and experienced writer like Timothy Egan actually seems to think that Joe the Plumber will be writing this book all on his own and without the help of a serious and experienced ghostwriter. And that but for "friends of celebrities penning cookbooks," "train wrecks just out of rehab," and "politicians with an agent but no talent," we would have a Golden Age of Big Advances and Large Print Runs for Worthy Yet Obscure Writers.

Sorry. I just have to laugh. Because even though I was a publisher and still am a writer and an editor, I try not to be that big a fool.

10 "Great" Moments in the Death of the English Language

1.'s "Twelve Days of Holiday" (now changed by to "Twelve Days of Christmas").

2. It's not a tax, it's a "revenue enhancement."

3. :-)

4. Bill Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground, redefining the bombs they planted not as domestic terrorism but as "symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism."

5. It's not an invasion, it's a "predawn vertical insertion."

6. The decision by Reuters to prohibit use of the word "terrorist" in connection with the 9/11 hijackers.

7. It's not a tax, it's a "mandatory contribution." (No link does this one justice.)

8. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington debating each other—without subtitles—during the California recall election.

9. "If we truly respect cultural diversity then there should be no such thing as speaking or writing correctly. Correctness is the death of style and variation in speech and writing. And until we disempower the arbitrarily-deemed standard, we will all be mindless, no-style-havin' slaves to random, standard monuments of blandness."

10. "It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is..."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas with David and Bing

Bing Crosby and David Bowie really did sing "The Little Drummer Boy" together in 1977. Bing Crosby died before it ever aired.

Bing is said to have told a reporter after the taping that Bowie was "a clean cut kid and a real fine asset to the show. He sings well, has a great voice and reads line well. He could be a good actor if he wanted."

Merry Christmas, Bing, wherever you are.

Job Opening: Restaurant Manager

Are you a restaurant manager who needs a job? Apply at the El Coyote.

After weeks of protests and demonstrations over her $100 donation to the "Yes on 8" campaign, Marjorie Christofferson has resigned as manager of that restaurant.

Welcome to our new California world of tolerance and diversity, where even a $100 donation in your capacity as a private citizen can now cost you your job. At least Scott Eckern donated $1,000, and Richard Raddon donated $1,500.

Incidentally, when "one of the guys died from AIDS, Marjorie paid for his mother to fly out for his funeral." I'm sure that plane ticket cost more than her $100 donation to the "Yes on 8" campaign. And I do realize that the value of the American dollar fluctuates. What I didn't realize was that a dollar given to the "Yes on 8" campaign was worth that much more than a dollar given to fly the grieving mother of an AIDS victim to her son's funeral.

This is the woman they target?

I've said before that I support gay marriage, and that I voted against Prop 8. But will the adults on our side please send these children to the corner for a time out?

Good luck to you, Marjorie. I don't agree with you on Prop 8, but in no way did you deserve any of this. And maybe someday, the people who did this to you will come to realize that as well.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Tale of the $1 Car

For me, our car began—and ended—with a phone call.

Six years ago, two of our friends (Mr. S. and Ms. K) phoned and said they wanted "to talk" with us. They told us nothing more than that, so we of course assumed the worst. They were coming over to finally announce, in person, that their stormy marriage would be ending in divorce. Or something even worse.

As it turned out, they wanted to sell us one of their cars instead.

For $1.

Mr. S had just inherited a car. He didn't want to pay the insurance on the three cars he and Ms. K now owned, and the logical one to part company with was the oldest—a beat-up Mazda 323, complete with a weird skull/rabbit sticker and an engine tuned like a hot rod. The car had been Ms. K's first real purchase with her own money, though. It was a symbol of her independence, so it couldn't just be "given up." It had to find a home, and a fitting one. Considering that my wife (who was not yet my wife at the time) was a grad student struggling to finish her PhD, and considering that I had recently moved across the country after selling or giving away nearly every single thing I'd ever owned, we seemed like the obvious choice. And besides, with a car, Mr. S. and Ms. K could expect us to make the drive from the West Side of LA up to the Valley, so they would see us more often as well. Everybody wins.

My wife didn't have a dollar on her at the time. I had to loan her the dollar.

It was a sweet deal, I must admit. The car cost less than $200 a year to insure. When gas prices hit their peak a few months ago, that just meant the cost of filling its tank finally broke $20. It got better gas mileage than anything that old and nasty had a right to provide. And even with the occasional repair—which became less occasional as time went on—and with the cost of a rental for those trips that even my wife wouldn't trust it to make, we came out ahead. And I mean way ahead.

On top of it all, our car had a "story," too, which meant everything to my wife. It was cool to her in a way that no Detroit "bubble" car of the suburbs could ever be. And it was the first car she ever bought, so Ms. K got to relive that experience all over again with her.

Thus began six years of ever more white-knuckled rides.

First, my wife had to learn how to drive stick. Second, I had to learn how to drive stick. Third, we drove the Dollar Car to Las Vegas, and like the brave explorer who comes home from the jungle with malaria, it was never quite the same after that.

We thought we had checked everything before we left. Tires. Fluids. Gas. Maps. You name it. But not even 30 minutes outside LA, it started to handle wrong, and then very wrong, and we realized that one of the tires was almost flat. After solving that problem, we next faced a leaky radiator, which forced us to pull over every 50 miles or so—both ways—so that we could refill the engine with badly needed coolant.

After that, life with the Dollar Car became a blur of this repair and that bit of tinkering, of this rattle and that squeak, of surging engine power that knocked the dog off her feet in the back and putt-putt, go-cart moments that sent the dog thumping into the backs of our seats. In fact, go-carts were often faster than we were. The car seemed to go through spark plugs faster than Cartman ate Snacky Cakes. And the fuel gauge became utterly postmodern, letting you graft your own meaning onto the abstract information it provided about the level of gas in your tank. There were the overheatings, especially on the grid-locked freeways of Southern California, and the jury-rigged control to start the engine fan when the actual control gave out. Mechanics knew a good thing when they saw us, and the automotive-tech students at the local community college found increasingly ingenious ways to keep it going and snag a passing grade.

Somehow, though, it always made it through California's stringent smog emissions test. The last time did take some serious tinkering with the engine, but the guys as Midas took it as a personal challenge.

I understood the appeal of your first car, though, and how you would do almost anything to keep it running—or simply keep it. My own first car had its quirks, too. It was an old Datsun 200SX (so old that Datsun was still Datsun and not Nissan) that apparently had been rewired by an electrical dyslexic. Turn on the radio, and the "Door Ajar" light came on. Just opening and closing the door to shut off the warning light would be too easy, however. In my old Datsun, you had to turn the dome light on and off. And part of me wonders if I wouldn't still have it, if those never-were-caught Philly teens hadn't joy-ridden it into a concrete railroad abutment 20 years ago.

So I did understand the appeal of the rather unique Mazda we'd acquired. And at first, we thought we would only have the car for a year or two before replacing it. Life had other plans for us, though. We moved from the West Side to the sprawl beyond Pasadena after my exotic Canadian wife landed a teaching position, and we paid for two rounds of immigration bureaucracy-go-round to secure her permanent residency. Which also included our going from two incomes to one for far too many months when her temporary work permit somehow failed to get processed along with all the other green card paperwork.

And always in our minds was one undeniable truth: Even with all its problems and all its repairs, the Dollar Car was unbelievably cheap to run. We were saving money hand over fist, which came in handy during a move, two rounds of immigration bureaucracy-go-round, and five-figures worth of lost income.

Of course, the car also scared the hell out of me, and never more so these last two years.

And of course, we both ran it for too long.

As I said, for me, our car began—and ended—with a phone call. Only this time, it was my wife on the line, and she sounded absolutely giddy. "Are you sitting down?" she asked. I wasn't, so I immediately did, preparing myself to hear some amazingly wonderful news of the unexpected.

"I'm all right," she said then, "but the car is on fire by the side of the 210."

We still don't quite know what went wrong. And to be honest, too many possibilities come to mind. We know the engine caught fire, and the rest of the car soon followed. My wife got out in time, though, and she came through it without a scratch, which is all that really matters.

R.I.P., Dollar Car. You gave us more than our money's worth.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Some Retro Christmas Cheer

I found this on my hard drive today. I have absolutely no memory of where it came from originally.

It's like the Ghost of Un-P.C. Christmas Past. No "Happy Holidays" at that house, just an unapologetic "Merry Christmas."

And I like that, I must admit.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

This Blog Is Only 43% Manly

Or at least, this blog is only 43% manly according to GenderAnalyzer, which uses "artificial intelligence to determine if a homepage is written by a man or a woman." It guesses that my blog is actually written by a woman (57% chance), but In My Copious Free Time is also "quite gender neutral."

Only 43% manly. Son of a...

I tell you, this will not stand. Sure, I'm not the tallest guy in the world. Sure, I don't have a particularly muscular build. Yes, I was a fencer rather than a football player, and I'm in touch with my "feminine" side. But this will not stand. Oh, no. It will not.

I have a beard, for crying out loud!

I have a big, rambunctious dog! Cats try to kill me! I've even voted for the Daddy Party!

Maybe I did spend too much time in junior high playing Dungeons & Dragons rather than working out. Maybe I did grow up with two older sisters and no brothers. But I simply will not take this by lying down and thinking of England. I'm going to turn this around.

So, let the "Man Blogging" begin!



Clint Eastwood!

Cool planes!

Captain Kirk!

Attractive women who fly cool planes!


Real football!

That chick who played Batgirl in the Sixties!

Cool ships!

Tim Gunn!

Okay, that one's gonna cost me...

Arnold Schwarzennegger!

Computer games my system is too old to play!

Satellite imagery of a North Korean runway emerging from a mountain!

Jennifer Lopez!



Unrealistic depictions of women in fantasy computer games!



A Two-Fer: Jessica Simpson in uniform! And in a straight-to-DVD movie!

An aging frat boy behaving badly!

Chuck Norris!

And finally, yes, me!

Take that GenderAnalyzer... You gender-confusing, girly-man/manly-girl site, you...

UPDATE: Somehow, this post has actually caused GenderAnalyzer to raise its estimation of my budding femininity. This blog is now only 40% manly.

Son of a (tim) gun(n)...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Quote of the Day III

"Again with the motorcycles! Is there some anime catastrophe we don't know about?!"

The Second Most Beautiful Word in the English Language... astronomy.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Prop 8: The Musical"

Composer Marc Shaiman—last seen helping to move along a boycott of the California Musical Theater as long as Scott Eckern still worked there—has just unleashed his newest opus on the Internet. It's already an on-line hit.

Ladies and gentlemen, here comes Prop 8: The Musical.


Now, where to even begin?

I've already written that I voted "No" on Proposition 8. And I find myself just shaking my head that someone as smart and successful as Marc Shaiman can possibly think this is how we're going to change anyone's mind and gain their votes. It honestly makes me wonder if Mr. Shaiman wanted Scott Eckern gone not because of his donation to the "Yes on 8" campaign but, rather, because Mr. Eckern might have had the good sense not to mount a production like this one. After all the Mormon baiting, the profanity-laden protests, and the new blacklists, I wasn't sure if I could feel any more embarrassed by my own side on this issue, but now I know the answer. I can.

What I haven't written before is that after 20-plus years of waffling between agnosticism and full-blown atheism, I'm also, today, a believing Christian, and I wasn't really prepared for how unbelievably offensive this was to me on that level. Yes, I've made the same points as Jack Black's groovy, it's-all-good Jesus about Leviticus—and thrown in some verse from 1 Timothy for good measure—while trying to bring other Christians around to our side. And I agree, the Christians on that stage have a selective reading of the Bible, but no more selective than Marc Shaiman's choices in how to depict those Christians on that stage. No one—Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, or whatever—is going to give our side a fair hearing if we treat them as a mocking caricature right from the start, like this piece of film does. And having the Christians on that stage finally turn away from, whether you agree with it or not, a deeply held religious belief because of all that money to be had from catering gay marriages and lawyering gay divorces? I suppose I should be grateful Mr. Shaiman wasn't targeting Jewish voters in this piece. Who knows how far he might have gone then? Margaret Cho as a dancing neocon rabbi pulling the strings of U.S. foreign policy, perhaps?

After all the Mormon baiting, the profanity-laden protests, and the new blacklists, I wasn't sure whether my task of convincing other Christians that gay marriage is not a "wrong" or a "sin" could get any harder, but now I know the answer. It can.

Does Marc Shaiman honestly not know that even here in California, there are more Christians than there are gays and non-believers? And does he honestly not know that many Christians, including myself, voted against Prop 8? Does keeping our votes the next time this issue appears on the ballot really matter so little to him? Or maybe he just assumes that the "good" Christians who choose "love" will forgive him for making it that much harder to change anyone's mind on this issue—and for catching us as well with his big, smearing, cathartic brush of Internet musical comedy.

If this were a baseball game, it would now be three strikes and they're out. But it's not. And people like me will still vote our conscience on this issue, despite the best efforts of people like Marc Shaiman.

Or at least, Marc Shaiman better hope that we will.

Some Random Christmas Cheer

A small-town Christmas parade, Santa hats, and home-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Does it get any better than this?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

World Must Tackle Space Threat!

Or it does according to this report from the BBC:

The international community must work together to tackle the threat of asteroids colliding with Earth, a leading UN scientist says.

So far, so good.

Professor Richard Crowther's comments come as a group of space experts called for a co-ordinated science-led response to the asteroid threat.

I'm with you.

The Association of Space Explorers (ASE) says missions to intercept asteroids will need global approval.

Sorry, world. We could have saved you, but our permit didn't come through in time.

10 Cinematic Sins of Mr. George Lucas

1. Jar Jar Binks. 'Nuff said.

2. Those weird, unnecessary, CGI mutant monkey-things he added in the "director's cut" of THX 1138.

3. Old Trilogy: "Do, or do not. There is no try." New Trilogy: "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." (Thank you, Sith Lord Yoda...)

4. Willow.

5. Ensuring that whenever I see that iconic black suit, I now always hear an adolescent voice whimpering "Pa-a-a-a-a-adme-e-e-e-e-e-e!"

6. A 14-year-old "elected" queen?

7. Turning the mystical, all-encompassing, life-giving Force into nothing more than a bad case of sickle-cell space anemia.

8. Putting Natalie Portman in a leather corset, and then lighting the scene so poorly that you can barely even see it.

9. Causing screenwriters everywhere to suffer through endless lectures about "The Hero's Journey" in development meetings.

10. Han shot first.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Work Conversation of the Day

Annoyed Author: "And this, why did you make this two words?"
Aggrieved Editor (Me): "Because they are two words."

Spotted While Walking the Dog

Monday, December 1, 2008

Another Mormon Bites the Dust

Richard Raddon has resigned as director of the Los Angeles Film Festival. He's a Mormon, and he donated to the "Yes on 8" campaign. So of course, he must be punished.

To their credit, the board of directors for the festival's parent organization refused to accept his first resignation. In their words, "Our organization does not police the personal, religious or political choices of any employee, member or filmmaker."

The "No on 8" activists feel otherwise. In their minds, apparently, the way to bring about legalized gay marriage is by destroying the livelihood of individuals who disagree with us on this issue. First, their protests and threats of boycotts drove Scott Eckern from his position. Now, they've claimed Richard Raddon. I'm sure both men have learned a valuable lesson in the promotion of tolerance and diversity.

Some people can look at this and know that what's happening is wrong. It's easy to know this intellectually—or at least, it should be—but some of us also feel it in our gut. I know that I do, because I did my time as an up-and-coming screenwriter. Some years I was more up-and-coming than others, but I sat through enough meetings, pitched and developed enough projects, and climbed up enough rungs on the ladder to know how things tend to work in this town.

That's why, much as I want to believe the board first refused Raddon's resignation out of some principled stand, I think it had as much to do with public relations as with anything else. Nobody wants to look like they're bowing to outside political pressure, or that they're policing the "personal, religious or political choices of any employee, member or filmmaker." Officially, that just doesn't happen in this industry, but unofficially, it's sometimes a very different story.

The thing to understand is that everything out here runs on meetings and personal relationships, and these meetings always begin with small talk. At first, it's a way to measure you. Are you someone who seems relatively sane and won't pull a gun on the set? Are you someone who will meet your deadlines and not flake out on an unexpected, two-year vacation in some remote locale? Are you on the same creative wavelength as they are, and won't turn in a comedy if they sign you to write a drama? These concerns make absolute sense when someone is meeting an unknown writer for the first time. (And in fairness, the writer is measuring them as well. After all, what's the point of pushing a script in the vein of Pitch Black if what they really want is another Transformers?)

I learned quickly enough, though, that these little conversations were also often a way of gauging whether you were the right kind of person. I count myself lucky that I started my Hollywood odyssey in the mid-1990s. Even though I was no longer officially a Democrat at that point, I was still close enough for Hollywood work. And that was important, because even then, the small talk generally included politics.

I'd started developing a good relationship, for example, with one middle-tier production company. I could pick up the phone and get a meeting with them. We were kicking around two potential projects that seemed to have some promise. And the obligatory small talk before we reached the working part of the meeting was always pleasant—or was until the day Bill Clinton came up.

That day, the smart, hip, younger-than-me guy I was meeting with made four separate comments in a row about President Clinton and his policies. I agreed whole-heartedly with three of them, so no problem there. But the fourth? That was about Medicare, and I had spent some time working in a small-town medical practice. We had a heavy load of geriatric patients there, so we dealt with Medicare on a daily basis. And I made the mistake of letting myself get comfortable enough in that room to actually speak my mind.

"Well," I said, "it does seem a little disingenuous of him to say that the problem with Medicare is doctors charging too much. From what I remember, Medicare itself actually sets the fee schedule."

I realized my mistake before I had even reached From what I remember...

You could see the change in the hip guy's eyes, and in how he held his younger-than-me shoulders. You could even feel the temperature in the room drop by several degrees (Fahrenheit, fortunately). The meeting went on, of course, and we talked about those two projects, but we were both only going through the motions. We both knew it, too. And after I left, I never heard from him or anyone at that company again. (If my agent at the time ever heard anything, she was kind enough not to pass those comments along.)

I learned to keep my mouth shut after that. Which was good, because things only got worse once George W. Bush took office—and especially in the months and years after 9/11. Before, it had often seemed more like talking to people who lived in a bubble. Like it was simply inconceivable to them that I or anyone else in the room could possibly not agree with what they were saying. Now, though, the small talk and the comments often turned mean, and sometimes downright vicious. Sometimes it was about Bush personally, and sometimes it was even about Laura, or their daughters. And I learned to laugh at the off-color jokes, nod at the conspiracy theories I knew wouldn't hold up even in whatever potential movie we were talking about, and just voice my rote, perfunctory agreement with their criticisms. I learned how to pass during those first few minutes of most meetings. I wanted to work, after all.

It wasn't every meeting, of course. And it wasn't everyone I dealt with. But it was enough that you always had your guard up for the next conversational minefield. It was enough that you often caught yourself watching your words even around those people who probably wouldn't mind your disagreement, or who even might agree with you. It was enough to learn that for all the talk in so many of those rooms about freedom of thought and the crushing of dissent in this country, there was an unspoken party line that needed to be toed if you were on the creative side but not already established and successful.

So I feel for Richard Raddon, and for Scott Eckern, even though I disagree with their stand on Prop 8. But I can't say that I'm surprised, or that I don't wonder if, on some level, either man knew something like this would be coming. Because all the "No on 8" activists have done here is bring out into the open the kind of thing so many of us have already dealt with in one fashion or another, only quietly and beneath the radar.

That's a very bad thing, too. Because in the past, this had to be done without any acknowledgement of what was really happening. Even the people who quietly removed a budding writer or actor or director from their rolodexes because of politics and not lack of talent seemed to know, somewhere, that it was wrong. They seemed to know that it was hypocritical. And that's why it was something that could never be admitted to, and something that had to be denied whenever anyone brought the issue up.

Now, though, the "No on 8" activists are bringing it out in the open. They're apparently proud of what they're doing, and they apparently see nothing hypocritical in it.

They're setting back the cause of gay marriage by several years with each new "victory," of course. And they're further alienating other supporters of gay marriage, like me. But they're also giving cover to more of the same in Hollywood. With each new Mormon they drive out of his or her job, they make policing the "personal, religious or political choices of any employee, member or filmmaker" a bit more acceptable. They're helping move Hollywood from "There is no party line" to "Well, yes, there is a party line, but..."

They're also giving me one more reason to be glad I'm out of that Hollywood thing for good now.

Well done, guys. See you for dinner down at El Coyote.