My Bad, Part 1

OK I apologize for the previous post.

I didn’t watch every fucking second of the Today Show this morning, because at some point I had to take a shower (etc.) and get dressed, but at no time did I see anything about the guy they pulled out of the Los Angeles River the other day. Everything seemed to be preempted by the Brad and Jennifer breakup. There were at least three segments, maybe more, devoted to this. What’s the deal? He’s prettier than she is, but he can’t act. Oh, wait: Her name is Jennifer, so she’s probably been drafted to be Affleck’s next squeeze. Good luck to all three of them.

Flood Channel rescue

Every time it rains in Los Angeles, someone falls in the flood channel.

As noted here, there is no good reason for this, except that it makes for an excellent couple of hours of reality TV, as a million firemen try to save the clown while the video cameras roll. Anyone who wants to see this spectacle, please tune in to The Today Show on Tuesday, January 11 (NBC). Our local NBC affiliate has been teasing the fact that one of the numbskulls who fell in and got rescued is going to be interviewed, hopefully by America’s cutie pie Katie Couric. They have some great footage of the rescue. This will be good television, people.

Heart of Dorkness

OK, I’m a geek.

I admit it: I know a lot about computers: I build them, I fix them, I experiment with them, I try lots of different software and hardware, not all of it absolutely necessary to my survival. OK, almost none of it really necessary. OK, none of it.

Two or three weekends a month in my town, we have a humongous computer swap meet, a tribal gathering of hundreds of fly-by-night vendors*, thousands of bargain hunters, pocket protector types, retired engineers, students, geeks and cool guys like me, all searching for that hard-to-find ISA SCSI adapter, that one magical piece of software that will change their lives, or maybe a brand new computer because they have had it with the old one crashing all the time.

This mob crowds into exhibit halls at the L. A. County Fairgrounds, which is in Pomona, California, as far away from Los Angeles as you can get and still be in Los Angeles County. Usually the “computer show,” as most people call it, occupies two high-ceilinged football-field size buildings at the fairgrounds, and despite the enormous space available the crowd is shoulder-to-shoulder within minutes after the gates open at 10 AM, and it stays that way until closing at 5 PM. The treasures for sale are previous-version software applications, OEM peripherals, beige-box computers, off-brand flatbed scanners, oddball cables and adapters, motherboards, sound cards, hard drives and all the individual components needed to build a PC from scratch. On a good day it is a chaotic bazaar, a sweaty, shouting, frustrating, pushing and shoving experience. Saturday was not a good day.

On that day I drove forty miles of bad road through a torrential downpour to get to the fairgrounds. My mission: Find a software firewall to protect my home network (I said I was a geek), and buy it cheap. My home is a fortress, digitally speaking, and I guard my network jealously. The old firewall was, well, old, therefore possibly breachable, and I had planned this trip for more than a week. Who knew the Storm of the Century would be going on? OK, the century is young, but still. I could have called it the Storm of the Millenium, so lighten up. When I parked the car, the rain had let up a little, and I hopped out and headed for the gate.

For some reason, this was the day the promoters of the event had decided to tighten up security, and I mean they tightened it up. 600 mild-mannered technophiles were standing in line in the rain, while two rent-a-cops checked everybody for weapons! They had an airport-style walk-through metal detector and metal-detecting wands! Almost everyone had to go through two or three times, because, you know, this wasn’t fucking LAX, and no one was expecting to be scrutinized. Shucks, we were just there to shop, not hijack the fairgrounds. It took almost a half-hour to get to the front of the line, during which time the storm kicked up again, drenching all of us. A somewhat overly friendly older man with a striped umbrella struck up a conversation with me, and edged close enough to shield me from the rain. I was feeling a little nervous about this attention, but any port in a storm. Five minutes after the rain died down I had to remind him that it was OK to close the umbrella, and get the hell away from me. Call me a tease, or an umbrella whore, if you must. After a while we noticed that there were three lines, and the other two were going much faster than ours. They were the lines for the Easyriders Bike Show and the LA Tatoo and Body Art Expo ’05, which were taking place concurrently with the computer show. We passed the time debating whether it would be OK to stand in the faster, shorter lines, since it appeared that everybody ended up in the same place once past the gates, but the signage was clear — Computer Fair Here — and being the law abiding computer nerds that we all were (except me, I’m not a nerd), we decided to stay put. I noticed that all the babes were in the other two lines, and had to ask myself again “Where did I go wrong?”

Finally at the metal detector I emptied my pockets into a little plastic basket and went through the gate, which sounded an alarm because of… my belt buckle, maybe? But no matter, because the rent-a-cops had found my pocket knife in the basket, a miniature Swiss Army knife with a 2-inch blade, used primarily for cleaning fingernails and opening mail. They got so excited about the knife that they forgot to use their wand on me to find out why the alarm had gone off. They escorted me to a girl seated at a folding table and told me I had to give the knife to her, but that I could have it back upon leaving the venue. Thanks guys.

The girl took my knife and my name, and placed the former in a little ziplock plastic bag and the latter on a list of names. She tossed the baggie containing my knife into a cardboard box on her table, wrote my number on a card and let me know that I would have to present the card to her (and picture ID, please) to get my knife back. I was number 34, and I could see in her box that almost all the other “checked” items were knives like mine, in identical baggies with small numbers on them.

The fairgrounds are big — 487 acres, to be exact, and I walked about two blocks (through the rain) to the first of two exhibit halls. My elderly protector with the umbrella was nowhere around, probably having been detained by the guards for carrying an umbrella. I was getting wet, and I was no longer packing my weapon, but looking around at the bikers and the body art people I was relieved to know that we were all similarly disarmed.

Once inside the actual computer show, and confident that terrorists weren’t about to hold us all hostage by threatening to beat us with umbrellas or clean our fingernails with little Swiss Army knockoffs, I made quick work of my mission. I got the new firewall and headed for the door, when I noticed a disturbing anomaly: One of the largest booths, surrounded by one of the largest crowds, was selling knives! Buck knives, gut hook knives, fillet knives, carving knives, “police” knives, hunting knives, daggers, non-reflective stealth tactictal knives, “assisted opening” knives as well as a wide selection of samurai-type swords and shorter blades. Outside, the guards were confiscating knives. Inside, the vendors were doing their best to replace them. I had to leave my 2-inch blade at the door, but I could walk out with a fully functional switch-blade if I wanted to.

I didn’t want to, though. I still had to get back to my home network with my new firewall, and it was raining harder every minute. So I beat feet back to the main gate, stopping to get my pathetic little pocket knife. By this time the girl had figured out that, while it was pretty easy to officiously confiscate and toss peoples’ stuff into a box, it was a little bit more demanding to retrieve said stuff and return it. She was frazzled from pawing through her box of identical-looking knives in baggies with tiny little numbers on them. It took way longer to find my knife than it had to toss it in the box, and while she was looking more people were pushing their numbered cards at her and asking for their stuff back. One guy suggested that we be allowed to look for our own stuff, but she didn’t like that idea, so we just had to wait. This part of the stupidity was totally her fault, but she was too innocent to harrass, and I was a little peeved at the guy who informed her about the brisk knife and sword sale that was going on inside and repeatedly asked “Are you aware of that?” as if she should do something about it, and pronto.

I don’t know why you’d set up a knife booth at a computer show. Maybe somebody misunderstood what the term “hacking” means. Or maybe somebody thinks that computer geeks need weapons, or want them. From the look of things on Saturday, they might be right. I also don’t understand why you’d want to frisk people who only want to shop — I thought the President said we had to shop, or the terrorists would win. If the terrorists’ goal was to cripple our country by making us all stupid, it looks like they are on to something out in Pomona.

In the meantime the real security is at my house, on my network. Just try to hack me.

*To be fair, the vendors at computer shows are honest and hard-working. I just wanted to use the phrase “fly-by-night.”

Slippin’ and Slidin’

Here’s a picture of my commute this morning.

Raining in L.A. Who knew? You are looking at the 405, known in some quarters as The San Diego Freeway, although this picture was taken more than a hundred miles from San Diego, and going away.

Brake lights. Tailgaters. Lane-changers. People in big fucking hurries. Every couple of minutes a full-on, gut-wrenching, heart-in-the-throat near-disaster. Some asshole steering with his knees, shooting pictures with a digital camera while trying to drive.

I got the camera out too late to shoot the cause of the big traffic jam I ran into: One or more bozos driving as if it weren’t raining, spinning out, blocking lanes for a half-hour while the rest of us fumed and crept along. Of course, given a chance, the rest of us would have screwed it up ourselves, because it never rains in Los Angeles, so we don’t know how to drive in the rain. Top that off with an oil slick that has been forming on the roads for five years (since the last wet winter) and you’ve got a recipe for Happy Fun on the 405.

Hot Tramp, I Love You So

Lord, take me downtown — I’m just lookin’ for some tush…

So I’ve got this MP3 player, and I ripped about 350 songs and dumped them all in there. It’s not an iPod – it’s better than that. 20 gigabyte hard drive (that’s 5,000 MP3 songs, yee-ha!), 14 hours between charges, plays like five different formats, has an FM tuner, creates MP3 files on the fly, has a built-in voice recorder (Note to self: Figure out some way to pay for this.), gen-you-wine leather case, comes with a remote control and about fifty little gizmos, adapters and attachments, hooks up to my USB2 port (is the cable included? Yes!), requires no special software – just drag and drop the music. It’s so fancy that it has a New York style belt clip: You have to unbuckle and thread your belt through it, so if anyone wants to snatch it and run they will have to take my pants off first.

I knew I was going to be doing solitary work today — stuff that must be done alone, mind-numbing stuff that I dread, so I took my player to work with me, got myself all hooked up, stuck the little buds in my ears, set the thing to play every song at random, and I was partyin’!! I was takin’ care of business, I was shakin’ it like a Polaroid picture, I was watchin’ the detectives, I was born in the U.S.A.!

The hours flew by, the work got done as if by someone else, while I rocked out in my own private stadium. And where else would you hear “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces back to back with The Heartbreakers’ “Room at the Top” followed by the classic Tom Waits “Filipino Box Spring Hog?” Sweeet.

Until I was 20 minutes late for the staff meeting because I couldn’t hear them paging me. I couldn’t hear anything, because I was rockin’. Someone finally came and got me, and I was busted taking the earbuds out — oh, that meeting. But in the immortal words of Keith Richard — or was it Pete Townsend? — “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

Social Security

In which I get double mileage out of one rant.

This post originated as a comment I made on someone else’s blog. It was in response to his occasional whining about how Baby Boomers are trying to steal his Social Security income. Since he is only thirty years old I think he could find some more immediate worry, but that’s blogging.

Anyway, after I posted my comment, I read it and enjoyed it so much I thought I’d put it here, too, because I want to put something here today but I’m busy baking persimmon bread. The post, with minor edits:

You should relax about Social Security. Nobody would be more at risk in this regard than the baby boom generation, if there were a “Social Security Crisis,” which there is not. The system needs a minor tweak, perhaps the funding of one less high-tech bomber per year, but the current crop of “leaders” wants to dismantle our system of a low-yield but secure federally managed plan and replace it with a scheme to shift the retirement savings of the nation into — surprise! — the pockets of investment bankers and CEO’s, with the caveat that if you happen to invest in, say, an Enron or an MCI, you can kiss your life savings goodbye, but you should starve happy because you had the opportunity to act as a rugged individual. To get guys like me to shut up and let it happen, they propose to spend 2 TRILLION dollars (your kids will pick up the tab, OK?) to fund the transition.
The good news is that inevitably even the Christian Right will wake up and start to object to this kind of foolish spending. The bad news is that the beneficiaries of this scam will be isolated in walled and guarded cities by then. OK, not really, but their money (which used to be ours) will make them untouchable.
Your enemies are not hippies or boomers, who have been paying for fifty years to keep Social Security afloat. Your enemies are your elected officials.

Happy New Year to all. Thanks for checking in.

Priorities

Hurray for The United States!

The Bush administration, after being embarrassed by international criticism, has increased its pledge of help for the tsunami victims to $35 million, about the amount they are burning in Iraq every four hours, and a bit less than they are planning to spend on the 2005 inauguration festivities.

No Brainer

It’s raining like crazy right now in Southern California.

It started last night, continued on and off throughout the day and it’s coming down anew this evening. We’re getting as much as an inch per hour, the wind is gusting up to 50 miles per hour and there’s a flood advisory in effect. These may not seem like scary numbers to anyone living in International Falls, Minnesota, but it’s really just about the most weather we ever get here in the land of sunshine and lollipops.

.

Normally the rain hits hardest in the mountainous regions to the north and east of L.A. In the old days, before we improved the drainage, the water just ran off, down through the gullies and streams from the mountains, right through the city to the ocean, bringing with it lots of mud. The two biggest streams came to be known as The Los Angeles River and The San Gabriel River, although they were often dry for years at a time. This system had been working pretty well for centuries, a long time in a town where you’re old at 29 and the Nielsens come out every morning.

But today the rivers are mostly paved aquaducts. Realizing that Nature had screwed up, the various municipalities that make up greater Los Angeles have been pouring concrete in these ditches for the past fifty years, until now they are very efficient transporters of water. Now when it rains in L.A., these rivers become raging 30-mile long torrents of angry, muddy, boiling water, filled with rocks, trees, cars and occasionally people. The water screams down through the basin at thirty miles an hour and ten feet deep. The pavement assures that nothing is absorbed into the ground, so as the river flows along it gains more and more depth and power.

I haven’t turned on the television news since I’ve been home from work, but I am willing to bet right now that at least one local station will feature a story on someone who has fallen into the river and has to be rescued. It happens every time it rains. Some nincompoop will climb over the fence and get close to the edge. Since it’s all paved now, when the nincompoop slips, there are no branches to grab onto, no uneven ground to slow his fall. He is going in to the drink, and fast, and then he is going wherever the river goes, because nobody is strong enough to fight such current.

They will have a helicopter shot of the river, and they will pan the camera around and every now and then we’ll get a glimpse of the asshole in the water. Then we’ll see the 50 or so firefighters, cops and paramedics on the shore, with their assortment of vehicles and lifesaving equipment. If the guy has found something in the water to grab onto, like an abandoned car, the lifesavers will be throwing ropes to him. If he’s free floating they will be running ahead to the next bridge, from whence they will try to grab him as he floats by. Of course what we all hope for — this is the most exciting — is that they will drop a rescuer down from a chopper to grab the guy and pull him to safety. Or maybe we hope they’ll drop him and he’ll disappear. I’m not sure about that.

If I watched TV at work I could see this live, with running commentary from local TV announcers who are warm and dry in the studio, as well as from the reporter in the helicopter and the occasional telephone interview with some fire captain. But there will always be a recap on the 11 O’Clock News, in case I missed it, which I did.

So here’s my advice for the rainy season in Los Angeles: stay away from the river!

This is so simple that you could call it a no-brainer: If you had no brains at all, you should still know enough not to fall in the river. I mean, there’s nothing around the river that you have to get to — no stores, no churches or schools, no government offices. Nothing. And there are bridges every few blocks, so you’d never have to ford the stream to get where you’re going. So why would you even go near the river, considering that the consequences of falling in are so extreme? Well, you wouldn’t, even if you had no brains at all. So don’t.

It’s a no-brainer.

A Christmas Tale

I was the last one out of the office on Christmas Eve, and the holiday was pissing me off.

I don’t really celebrate Christmas anymore, but I have a soft spot for it — the wish for peace, the kindness to each other, the fresh kindled hope for a better future, blah, blah, blah. It’s sweet, you know? But of course we have done our best to ruin it. The buildup is so huge I am always let down by the reality, once it arrives. And I find that I don’t believe anyone’s holiday wishes. I think they’re just platitudes. I was sick of peoples’ hollow Xmas greetings, and feeling grouchy about the whole thing.

So it’s around sunset, it would be totally dark in fifteen minutes and a chilly wind was starting up. I was leaving the office, not smiling, grousing my way out the back door because the front was locked, and I get half way down the outdoor steps when I see her standing in the parking lot. She’s old now, and none of us knows how long she’s been living in and around our parking lot, but she’s been here longer than I have. Her grey and white coat is filthy and her body is impossibly scrawny. As I go down the steps, the heavy security door bangs shut behind me. She hears it and steps warily over to where she can sort of lean on the side of the building, her head cocked my way.

“Hey there, old girl,” I say. She is blind, or nearly so, and she turns toward the sound of my voice. We have seen each other around for years, but she has shown me recognition only in the past month or so, and even now some days she doesn’t. She hesitates, then takes a shaky step toward me. She recognizes me, and even though the office door has closed and I won’t be able to get back in to wash my hands, I know that I will have to pet her, and that her fur will leave a greasy residue that I will have to wear all the way home. I put my briefcase down and sit on the bottom step.

“C’mon, sweetheart,” I coax, and she walks very slowly toward me, until I can just reach out and touch her bony neck. I scratch for a moment, as she tries to make sure that I mean no harm. When she is satisfied that I am safe she comes all the way over to where I am sitting. I scratch her and amazingly, she purrs. She is so decrepit I am surprised that she can purr. My gentle petting rocks her whole body, and I can see that it is only with effort and concentration that she is able to remain standing.

“Poor old baby. It’s a tough life, isn’t it?” I ask in my gentlest cat-calming voice. She lifts her head and stares into my face with her blank, milky eyes.

Yes, it’s tough, she says, but look at me. I’ve survived. Her voice is a high-pitched croak.

Her frailty is so obvious I don’t want to discuss survival with her. “Well, that’s great,” I say, stroking her cheek. “Uh, where are you sleeping tonight?”

I’ll be here as usual, she says, and a shudder runs through her. Maybe under that pickup truck over there. Delicately, she places one skinny paw on my thigh. Do you mind? she asks.

My pants will have to be cleaned. “No, of course not. Come on up.” She needs my help to get into my lap, and more assistance to get comfortable, but at last she is lying there, more at less at ease. The effort has exhausted her, and she just lies there for a minute.

You know, she says at last, I’ve been such a fool.

“What do you mean?” I ask, surprised.

She sighs. For all these years I feared and hated you people. I hid from you, and I looked upon all of you with distrust and suspicion. She looked sheepish. I bit one of you once, a long time ago.

“Well, that’s not so foolish,” I say. “You’re feral, and we don’t have such a good reputation among your kind. It’s totally understandable.”

No, it was wrong. If I had known all along, that all you wanted to do was pet me and feed me… She trailed off. I mean, where did I think those bowls of food and water were coming from, right outside that back door? I was so blind — she smiled — I mean before I was blind, you know? I shifted a little, and we had to get rearranged. She spoke again.

My heart was closed. I couldn’t see the kindness that was offered to me. I had to do everything for myself. I thought everyone who approached meant to hurt me, or take something from me. I’m ashamed to say that I taught my kids to be the same way. All of them are gone now, bless ’em, except for my youngest. I hope it’s not too late for her. She’s a pretty little thing, you know. Takes after her father. She coughed. You might not believe it, but I was pretty once, too.

The old gal in my lap — and this turn of conversation — was making me uncomfortable. “Well, I think you’re still pretty…”

She coughed again, and it went on for several seconds this time. Don’t kid me, sonny. I’m a foolish old hag, and I’m almost blind, but a girl knows.

I could think of no comeback for that. She wasn’t allowing any flattery, any platitudes. Overhead, the wind whistled through the wires.

“Look,” I say, “would you like to come over to my place tonight? It’s warm, and I’ve got plenty of food. You could take a warm bath, if you want.”

She stood up in my lap, and crept slowly back onto the asphalt at the base of the steps, stretching her arthritic limbs as she walked. That’s a sweet offer, sonny. A few years ago I would have jumped at it. But now I’m afraid I’m too set in my ways. I couldn’t sleep in a house. I’d be too nervous knowing I couldn’t run if I had to. Besides, I’ve got my Little One to look out for. She’s around here somewhere, and she won’t come out while you’re around. She still needs me, more than she knows. She doesn’t pay much attention to her old mom these days — you know how they get. She still has a chance, though. I hope I can show her that she doesn’t have to make my mistakes. I have to show her… she coughed some more, and I thought there was a catch in her voice. …I have to show her how to open her heart to the beauty and pain and love that is all around, instead of hiding in fear and suspicion. She gazed nowhere in particular and was silent for a moment. Before I go, you know?

I stood and picked up my briefcase. There would be no use inviting both of them — we lived in different worlds, and this parking lot was nothing more than the place those worlds touched. But I was glad we had met, and touched, this night.

Thanks for listening, sonny, and for petting me. It’s really what I’ve always wanted, if only I’d known. Crazy, isn’t it? After running and hiding all those years, now I can’t get enough of it. And thank you all for the food — the Little One and I, we appreciate it.

She turned and started to make her way along the side of the building, toward the alley. “Merry Christmas!” I called, and for the first time that year, I really meant it.

She stopped and turned. Merry Christmas to you, sonny. Now scoot. Go home and be with your wife. She’ll be waiting for you. Then she walked stiffly on, and around the corner of the building.

I could feel the dirt on my hands. I looked at my pants, and they were covered with her dirty fur. A perfect half-moon had risen and floated low over the buildings in the twilight. Traffic rushed by on the boulevard. I turned and walked to my car.

Doctor My Eyes

Jesus Christ some of the people on my street have lit their houses like casinos!

I feel like dropping in on some of my neighbors to shoot some craps or play a little Blackjack. Viva Las Vegas! Is this what Christmas is all about? Is this nationwide? Here in Southern California, people seem to be trying to simulate foul weather using billions of tiny clear lightbulbs, placed on their homes in such a way as to suggest icicles, dripping from the rain gutters, surrounding the window frames, hanging from the trees in their front yards. Reminiscing, I guess, about the good old days in Los Angeles, when it snowed.

Then there are the figures in the yard, Santa and his reindeer driving right over to the stable where Mary and Joseph gaze at their new baby, a twelve-foot lighted inflatable snowman on the roof, grazing animals (sheep and deer) made of wire frames covered in those same icicle lights, some of them actually moving. Life imitates Disneyland. Do people do this all around the country, or is it just a west coast aberration?