Monthly Archives: June 2009

It’s Bad…It’s Bad?

When there’s little to look forward to next week than the autopsy photos of Michael Jackson surfacing in the tabloids as inevitably as oil globules from an ambushed battleship, one would conclude we’re in a pretty grim run.

Indeed. I’ve seen little over the past few weeks of encouragement. The media has hung onto to the exploits of a freakish family of 10 where the micromanaging mother is obviously insane and the milquetoast father understandably wants out. A U.S. Senator who cuckolded a member of his own staff. A governor who tried to turn down stimulus money for his beleaguered state but was more than eager to use taxpayer bucks to visit his mistress in Argentina, then lie about it.

The economy bobs a little up one week, but down the next. Pundits have been guessing whether it’s hit bottom for seven months now. It might be going somewhere – in two years. But no one’s taking any bets.

I wonder what Walter Cronkite, the one remaining symbol of post-war rectitude, might make of all this. However, he’s apparently on his deathbed.  Ensconced in the next life, he might have the opportunity to ask Jacko what the hell happened. However, celebrity interviews were never his forte.

We could ask Walter Cronkite what he'd make of this, but it's probably too late.

We could ask Walter Cronkite what he'd make of this, but it's probably too late.

On the microcosmic level, things aren’t much better. I’ve been all but berating clients to pay me so I can keep up. A dear friend, my daughter’s godparent, just underwent surgery for cancer that’s proven to be nearly as tough as he is. Given I am what Southern author Walker Percy would refer to as a lapsed Jew, I’m not buying into the power of prayer pitch. But I am beginning to comprehend why gentiles drink so much.
Yet despite the grimness, I feel there is a spark of optimism. Maybe all this mayhem, Jon & Kate Disintegrates, the King of Pop as Elvis redux, is the beginning of the end of obsession with celebrity, a tacit acknowledgement of how toxic it actually is. The fact that the savings rate is up for the first time in nearly two decades is astonishing to me – an apparent overnight reversal of the spend-now, pay-later culture we’ve been buying into forever.

And the bleak circumstances also forced me to rethink my business. I’m now focused more on publishing than piecework. It’s an odd thing, having spent 20 years as an obscure writer, suddenly doing graphic design, compiling mailing lists, and “dialing for dollars” from potential investors and advertisers. It may not work, but I suspect it will. If it does, it will put my family and myself in decidedly more stable finances in the long run. And like the rest of shell-shocked America, we’re no longer going to be snapping up every bauble that bewitches our vision.

“No man can ever truly be secure until he has been forsaken by fortune.” That’s from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, the early Medieval work that every English major is forced to read when studying Chaucer. Yet the major themes of the work resonate today: good luck and bad luck comes in cycles. You only have to last long enough for things to change.

The Boethian worldview and changes of fortune was the bulwark of another Southern author, one who wrote in an absurdist/comic vein much like Walker Percy. But he was not nearly as prolific as Percy, primarily because he killed himself when he couldn’t find a publisher for his first novel. Years later, the author’s mother all but stalked Percy to get him to read the dog-eared manuscript. The novel, “A Confederacy Dunces,” brought author John Kennedy Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Price. He should have tried to hang around a bit longer.

My family and I spent today driving out the country, where we picked cherries. They’ll be used tomorrow in the dessert we’re cooking for visiting relatives – the kind of relatives we actually like. They’re little things. But they’re enough to make us want to hang around, knowing that it can’t stay this way forever.

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Chris Brown is Getting Younger by the Paragraph

Despite being only four paragraphs in length, the L.A. Times article about Chris Brown copping a plead to beating up Rihanna says he is both 20 and 19 years old. And it’s already been up on the website for six hours. Great copyediting.

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The Banality of Sandra Tsing Loh

Sandra Tsing Loh first made a name for herself back in 1987 as a special piece of work: she played a concert piano in a flatbed truck on an L.A. Freeway during rush hour. It was a perfect way to draw attention herself and annoy everyone else.

Since then, she’s segued over to the radio, where I have endured the last 15 years hearing her intone in a breathlessly arrogant manner about science and her personal doings. It’s the penance informed Angelenos pay for never pledging enough to their local NPR station.

Over those years I have learned everything and nothing about Sandra’s musician husband, her two little kids, her 1,236-year-old skinny-dipping father. They’re all described only for the purpose of marginalizing them so as to draw ever-more attention to their insatiable narrator.

When Loh’s not on the radio, she recapitulates her life in Atlantic Magazine, no doubt making Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other of the Atlantic’s founding editors twirl in their graves like pinwheels. And she also writes the occasional book. I give credit to Loh’s publisher for so deftly packaging those tomes that I have actually purchased two of them. However, once you get past the first few pages you’re caught in the undertow of her self-absorption and thoroughgoing mediocrity as a writer.

In other words, Sandra Tsing Loh is the perfect 21st-Century media tornado. She provides virtually nothing in exchange for the privilege of sucking not only the air out of the room but everything else. Right down to the studs.

I do not write that last sentence lightly. For Loh recently embarked on one of the most nauseating campaigns of self-justification since the Nuremberg Trials. She and her husband of nearly 20 years are calling it quits. Why? She had an affair. And, as she puts it in the most recent issue of Atlantic: “I would not be able to replace the romantic memory of my fellow transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband, which is what it would take in modern-therapy terms to knit our family’s domestic construct back together.” Just like the German functionaries who stood in the Nuremberg dock, she was merely following orders. And just like those gentlemen, those orders had been issued directly by the enormous narcissism cortex in her brain.

My life, one more time – Sandra Tsing Loh has made a career out of sucking everything out of the room. What would Hannah Arendt, right, make of her most recent self-justification?

My life, one more time – Sandra Tsing Loh has made a career out of sucking everything out of the room. What would Hannah Arendt, right, make of her most recent self-justification?

This was among the first missives in a roughly 5,000-word essay where Loh essentially denigrated all husbands who work hard to raise their kids and make a better home. The result: their wives are left sexless and frustrated. The couples who make their marriages last are either delusional, in denial, or so dull that no one else would want their company anyway.

“In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage,” Loh concludes. “Or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.”

That was an enormous insult to someone like myself, who has managed to make my marriage last 15 years, make myself and my wife happy, and dodge all potential temptations. I made a simple calculus: the few moments of fun would never be worth the years of guilt, agony, recriminations and financial ruin that would invariably follow. Loh crunched the same numbers and lunged for the fun. Of course, if you spend your entire career self-aggrandizing, an affair makes perfect sense. Not only is it all about you, it’s an opportunity to shove everyone else aside.

“There’s so much judgment. It’s going to be horrible,” Loh lamented to L.A. Times media columnist James Rainey. His examination of the situation is interesting but perhaps too even-handed. You can tell he wants to slam Loh, but still enables her to say everything she wants.

The one thing I learned from Rainey’s column is something that would never make its way into one of Loh’s commentaries: her husband “packed up all of Loh’s possessions in neatly labeled boxes, covered them with a tarp and left them stacked in the driveway.” One might sense he’s perturbed. Rainey didn’t try and interview him.

Which of course leaves me back at that Nuremberg dock, amoral men lining up to calmly rationalize away their misdeeds. It took another 20 years and Hannah Arendt to come up with an explanation: such transgressions occur when transgressors believe their actions are perfectly normal and even socially acceptable.

Of course, I’m not going to make any insidious and over-the-top comparisons between Sandra Tsing Loh and Nazi war criminals (she’s only half-German anyway, so it wouldn’t work). She is not evil. But she certainly is banal.

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The Needy Greedy

Greed – for lack of a better word – is good.

Oliver Stone created that phrase for the 1987 film “Wall Street.” That was long before captains of industry commissioned vodka-urinating ice sculptures for $2 million birthday parties (Dennis Kozlowski, now in state prison), owned more than 40 boats and cars (Richard Scrushy, now in federal prison) or posed as mendicants in corporate jets (the Big 3 auto execs, fate yet to be determined). In the two decades since the film was released, those words have morphed from a camp catchphrase to the most significant ones a character concocted by Stone has ever uttered.

When “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko lectured the board of Teldar Paper about the virtue of greed, he bragged that his last seven transactions had bagged a pretax profit of $12 billion for shareholders. At a time when trillions of dollars are being shoveled at corporate America in the hopes it won’t falter, $12 billion seems a quaint sum, a reminder of a simpler past when a candy bar cost a dime. It almost makes me feel like I can earn $12 billion if I stopped surfing the Internet so much.

Of course, unless I become extraordinarily fortunate playing the Power Ball (and actually buy tickets), I will never realize such sums. But there are millions of men and women throughout the land itching to become the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, and probably even a few who want to be the next Bernie Madoff.

How do I know this? I engage in the rarefied Los Angeles practice of taking long walks in my neighborhood. Like much of the rest of the San Fernando Valley, it had once been farmland, then tracts of modest homes.

Since my family moved in a decade ago, dozens of homes in this solid middle-class redoubt have been tom down and replaced with ponderous McMansions. Such infill campaigns have transformed hundreds of such neighborhoods across the nation since the 1980s.

Although these homes have styles ranging from Bavarian sanitarium to late-period “Sopranos,” they are all essentially the same: 5,000-square-foot-plus homes on lots barely able to contain them. Their walls bulge with mattress-size televisions. Their kitchens gleam with suites of Viking appliances. The McManse I glimpse when I fetch my newspaper every morning has vintage cars cluttering its driveway, as there’s no more room in the neighborhood’s only four-car garage.

These homes were built for two reasons: a contractor wanted to make a lot of money, and its buyer wanted to show off. In other words, greed.

The people inhabiting these nearly $2 million monoliths arise every morning and have to figure out how to hold on to them. The dingbat apartments just to the south, and the liquor stores and bail bondsmen just to the north are a reminder of how far they could fall. Foreclosures have been few and far between here (there have been some short sales among the more modest homes), which suggests their owners are filing more lawsuits or pushing more patients to Botox out their worry lines. Or they’re developing plans to get into solar power, hydrogen filling stations or the next high-risk mortgage that can be repackaged into so many stacks of kindling wood.

Inevitably, many of them will succeed, because we live in the most entrepreneurial nation on Earth, in the most entrepreneurial era in the history of man. If you’re not striving to be rich, who are you exactly?

If the banks won’t give them loans, they’ll mortgage their rambling estates a little more, or resort to credit cards. They’ll scrape by in nouveaux opulence until they no longer need to scrape by again, in which case they’ll sell those McMansions and buy real ones in places like Brentwood and Beverly Hills. Their ambitions will propel them beyond having to live cheek-and-jowl with the common folk who own the ranch homes, although they may throw them some jobs and consulting gigs. That’s when everyone will know the good times will have returned.

As we try to reach the road to prosperity again as surely as we traverse the freeways, one would hope the strivers would yank the Bluetooths from their ears long enough to insert a five-year- or decadelong vision into their grand plans. And that the people they hire to do their bidding in the state and federal corridors of power–the same ones who obtained the easements and variances to not-so-subtly transform my neighborhood–were willing to ponder moral imperatives and hazards before they are actually created.

Greed is good. But it could do better.

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