Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Some pals from work asked me to join their NHL playoff pool this morning, and it's forced the issue to your benefit. Now you get to be the beneficiary of my prognostications, as you were last year, when I correctly picked the Pittsburgh Penguins to beat the Nashville Predators and win the Cup. Wait, lemme check that. Right, I was a little off on that one. I will say that this has been one of my favorite hockey seasons ever; my guess is it only being a strike-shortened 48 games, as opposed to 82, might have something to do with it. I've been following pretty closely and I feel really good about my upset pick to win it all this year, The St. Louis Blues. (If they DO in fact win, I'm gonna win something like 2,000 Norwegian kroner, which is approximately 27 bucks).

Here's what you should be looking for in May and June, round by round:

Round 1

Pittsburgh over New York Islanders
Montreal over Ottawa
Washington over New York Rangers
Toronto over Boston

Chicago over Minnesota
Detroit over Anaheim
San Jose over Vancouver
St. Louis over Los Angeles


Pittsburgh over Montreal
Toronto over Washington

Chicago over Detroit
St. Louis over San Jose


Pittsburgh over Toronto
St. Louis over Chicago

Stanley Cup Finals

St. Louis over Pittsburgh

Monday, April 29, 2013


When I got out of college in 1989, my highest ambition was to be a copy editor, and ultimately a journalist of some kind. Maybe a beat writer for the San Francisco Giants? - nah, I hadn't gone that far. Something that paid 8 bucks an hour was much more like it. Alas, I couldn't get a copy editing job anywhere, even with my "highly desirable" degree in English that I'd just procured. So I answered a newspaper classified ad, and came to work at Monster Cable in South San Francisco, CA as a customer service rep, where I would spent the next 6 years. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this began my career as a frequent business traveler. I say it not in the braggy way that certain road warriors tote up their frequent flyer miles and exotic destinations, because certainly the trips I most frequently take are anything but exotic - Kansas and Atlanta have been big in recent years, for instance – I actually have many good things to say about both places, yet I'm guessing you're not squirming with jealously; nor should you be.

Being flown to the four corners of the US, and sometimes the globe, on company expense has certainly been a positive way more often than a negative. The very first trip Monster Cable sent me on would have been around 1991 or so, to Chicago for the then twice-a-year Consumer Electronics Show. I had the exhausting privilege of "working the booth" on my feet for ten hours a day, and I was once even asked to carry the CEO's briefcase for him (after I picked my jaw up off the floor, I did what I was told, of course). That was the first and only time I'd ever had to share a 2-double-beds room with a co-worker, which totally bummed me out, but thankfully I liked the guy. And I was in Chicago – for free! A revelation. Most business trips of this nature involve virtually zero fun time; yet we were able to fit in a quick round of beers at a microbrewery one night, and I bailed on a company party to walk to the Cabaret Metro to see the band Eleventh Dream Day. A decent start to road life.

Having, I guess, provided my mettle as a worker of trade shows, standing in front of people and telling them how great our products were, I then started flying all over the country to do the same. San Diego, Houston, New Jersey, Las Vegas and then some. When it ended with my leaving the company in 1995, so too did all company-subsidzed travel, and I missed it badly. You get really used to a perk that pulls you out of daily toil and drudgery, where you get to see a new city you've only read about, meet their yokels, compare notes in endless smalltalk on your respective cities, and so on. At my new company, nothing happened outside of our building for a year, and when I finally got asked to fly to San Diego for a meeting – a short day trip, with not even a hotel stay involved – I remember being so excited that I didn't sleep well the night before (which until very recently, continued to bedevil me the night before traveling).

My career, such that it was, started to be defined as a marketer and as an "account manager", which I loved because I didn't have to do any actual sales, but still got to travel to see the customer where he or she lived, to make sure things were going OK, hold very important meetings & work on plans and stuff. Frequent trips to destinations like Columbus, Portland, Phoenix and Riverside followed. Then in 2001 I started working for the large European wireless operator Vodafone, which put me onto international flights – and which was amazing. Vodafone flew everyone Business Class when they had to go overseas – no matter how low on the pole you were. The first international work trip I ever took, my boss came to me at 4pm on a Friday, and asked me if I could be in Karlskrona, Sweden the following Monday. I assured him that I could. I came back for a week, and then they sent me out there again for another week. Every time they'd send me overseas to someplace cool, I assumed it would be the last time, and after a trip to Tokyo in 2003, it was indeed the last time, and our entire marketing group got laid off. I've never flown business class ever since.

I reckon since then the business travel thing has kind of snowballed. I've somehow managed to have the perfect amount of travel; not enough to piss my wife off too much nor tire me out too badly, nor to rack up much more than a handful of Southwest frequent flyer rewards, yet enough to get me out of the office every couple of months and into a place I'm not too familiar with. My favorite trip I've ever done, outside of that first dose of Sweden with its side trip to Denmark, was probably a New York/Boston one a few years ago in which I spoke at two 9am conferences for thirty minutes, right at the start of the conference – but otherwise had 3 days of exploration split between the two cities, including a train trip to Boston from NY instead of a flight. One time I also got sent to Atlanta for the sole purpose of having one deluxe dinner at a top-tier steakhouse with the customer, simply because our company didn't want to be grossly outnumbered by all the people they invited, and therefore sent me out there to balance things out a little better. No complaints. Oh, and there was this promotion I ran in the same city where we gave away some ESPN-branded merchandise before 3 Atlanta Braves games, who just so happened to be playing my San Francisco Giants those same three games. Coincidence? I choose not to answer.

Worst trips? Just the many that consist of long flight, airport, long day of work, long dinner with customer, hotel, early flight out the next morning. Too many to count. That's when all of the glamor is leeched out by its polar opposite, tedium. Nothing awful's really happened, outside of interminable flight delays that happen to everyone. I guess the time I landed in Toronto, the plane screeched to a halt on the runway, and a fire truck came screaming up – and then just sat there for 20 minutes, with no announcement from the pilot – that was pretty lame. It was followed up by a totally pointless 90 minute stay in a Canadian customs office that didn't have air conditioning, because I'd been randomly chosen for secondary screening in the post-9/11 era. I made up for the indignities with good beer and a decent meal later that night, as I always try to do, with or without the customer. It all hasn't been too bad, all things considered.

This is almost certainly a boring post for anyone reading it, so I'll mercifully stop here. My aim with the blog isn't always to edify on cultural matters or whatever it is we do here; I'm also collecting anecdotes and thoughts for myself and for my fruitful lineage, who will themselves go forth and multiply (and read my blog hundreds of years from now). You never know when your mind will blow a gasket, and you'll forget everything that every happened to you, right? With that in hand, here's my to-the-best-of-my-knowledge inventory of the places I've been made to go for the purpose of making my companies (and capitalism!) far better, richer and stronger:


Atlanta (appx. 8 times)
Bogalusa, LA
Boston (twice)
Burbank, CA (too many to count; over 20)
Chicago (5 times)
Cincinnati, OH
Columbus, OH
Dallas, TX (twice)
Houston, TX
Irvine, CA (3 times)
Las Vegas, NV (at least 10 times, which is 9 times too many)
Little Rock, AR
Los Angeles, CA (5 times)
Nashville, TN
Maryland (suburbs – I can't remember where – twice)
McLean, VA (5 times)

New Jersey (also suburbs, twice)
New Orleans, LA (twice)
New York, NY (appx. 12-15 times)
Omaha, NE
Orlando, FL (3 times)
Overland Park, KS (appx. 7 times)
Park City, UT
Pasadena, CA

Phoenix, AZ (twice)
Portland, OR (twice)
Riverside, CA
San Diego, CA (4 times)
Seattle, WA (appx. 8-10 times)
Washington, DC (twice)


Barcelona, Spain
Dublin, Ireland
Dusseldorf, Germany (twice)
Karlskrona, Sweden (twice)
London, England (twice)
Oslo, Norway
Tokyo, Japan
Toronto, Canada (twice)

Friday, April 26, 2013


I had a choice between reading the new Richard Hell memoir, about his days as a punk and a hedonistic poet in late 70s New York, and James Wolcott's very similar memoir, which is itself similar in many regards to Patti Smith's essential memoir "JUST KIDS". In fact, there are at least two other semi-recent memoirs of that wild NYC era of bankruptcy, innovative rock music, serial murderers who learn to kill from their dogs, and freewheeling, drug-fueled culture. There's even a fun book I read several years ago called "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BRONX IS BURNING", which juxtaposes the world-beating New York Yankees baseball teams of the late 70s with the swirl of craziness happening in their city. It's certainly a fertile time to mine, and those writers still standing and with a story to tell are responding. Anyway, I decided to pass on Hell's book – I'm afraid from the blurbs and reviews I've read that it's going to be awful – and concentrated on James Wolcott's "LUCKING OUT" instead.

Now I couldn't have told you who Wolcott was before reading the book, only that I knew his name, but it's clear now that I've read his rock music and film reviews for many years in The Village Voice and elsewhere. He's a journalist who happened to surreptitiously fall into the beats he wanted to cover, even before he knew he wanted to cover them, and "Lucking Out" is essentially that story, as well as the story of certain strata and subcultures  in 70s New York. Wolcott has a lot going for him, and I'll cut to the quick and say I enthusiastically recommend the book if you're interested in the subject matter, which I'll get to. He's excellent at turning a phrase, finding the right adjective, and making his prose jump off the page in ways that can be funny, cutting and frequently self-deprecating. I truly admire the guy's ability to stay sober in 1970s New York; in fact, if this had been a down-and-out junkie or alcoholic tale, I don't think I would have read it – but Wolcott kept his hands pretty clean; or as the title puts it, "semi-dirty".

Arriving in NYC in 1972 at Age 19, with no money and little more than the potential of working at The Village Voice based on a reference from Norman Mailer (!!), Wolcott actually started living his dream through a series of fortune accidents and his own pluck. Even when the newspaper was bought by a tony Manhattanite crowd who owned NEW YORK magazine – and totally alienated the hippie-era socialist gate crashers who toiled at The Voice – it ended up being the best thing that even happened to Wolcott, and he got to cover aspects of city life right when things started to get both messy and extremely interesting. He went to a Patti Smith show, was blown away, wrote about it, befriended her, and actually helped her star ascend rather quickly. She in turn introduced him to Television, and once he cottoned to them, he was a CBGBs regular. There's an entire chapter on the punk era, with short sections on The Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti, Television, Lester Bangs and others. Wolcott was a level-headed, unalcoholic presence within their scene, and he documented it well both in the Voice and in this book.

There's a slightly less compelling chapter on Wolcott's personal friendship with Pauline Kael; I guess it's annoying because he's nothing but rapturously worshipful of her, and he documents his part in her entourage during some of her peak years reviewing film at The New Yorker. They frequently went to seminal pictures together and drank afterward, with Wolcott always ordered a Coke. He acknowledges some of her foibles and quirks, but it's clear that Kael was/is almost a mythical mother figure for him, and perhaps the most important relationship he's ever had before or since, family and several spouses included. Let's be clear – I too love Pauline Kael, her writing at least, and I totally get it, but the chapter on her is a little clumsy and lacks clarity; I guess I'd just prefer that he summed up in simple English why he even chose to make tales of their friendship one of the most significant chapters – there are only 5 – in the book, rather than just rattling off anecdotes about Pauline and all the great things she said.

One chapter that is revealing, though, is Wolcott's admission of his addiction to 1970s-era, 42nd-street peep show porn. He first "infiltrated" the dirty theaters on assignment, and ended up liking the sleaze and the thrills he got from it that he just kept on showing up. He also went on assignment and covered the hardcore, pre-AIDS gay S&M subculture, though without the same level of participation and fascination. There are some great characters, too – Uncle Floyd, Robin Byrd and Al Goldstein – but before he gets too confessional, Wolcott shifts gears and tells the story of how he became a ballet aesthete right around the same time. He became quickly transfixed by NYC Ballet and the world surrounding it, and the porn chapter also turns into the highbrow dance chapter, and it captures two sides of New York's unique culture very well. That, and lots of journalistic shop talk and name-dropping, most of which isn't too dreadful. In many ways, it's a journalism insider book, but with enough grit and true tales of a lost era that it's something to definitely spend a couple of days with if you get the chance.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Now I know what people older than I am mean when they say that nostalgia just grows and deepens as you age, and sometimes for the most ridiculous things, too. I don't miss that much from the 1970s, the decade in which I spent my childhood, but I absolutely miss the signs, the motels, the colors, the movie marquees, the buildings and the cars that defined that era of automotive travel for me, when I'd sit in the back on my parent's Ford Pinto or grandparents' Pontiac boat-car, and look expectantly and rapturously outward. Motel signs, in particular. Anytime I see one of these sorts of signs still active - and not in a Vegas-y, deliberately retro manner but one that's, like, real - I stare extra-hard and linger a little longer, because I know that it too shall be gone soon.

I started accumulating motel postcards from this era, and I've been posting them on another blog, THE POSTCARD MOTEL, which you're free to come visit (and subscribe to) anytime. Meanwhile, here are 10 of my best nostalgia tearjerkers.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


Suppressed and unpublished for many years, and only made widely available after the fall of the Soviet Union, Andrey Platonov's "THE FOUNDATION PIT" has belatedly been recognized as one of the rare works of literature to come out of the Soviet Union that illuminates its terrors most brightly. Having never heard of it, I bought it a couple of weeks ago on a lark at the amazing Green Apple Books in San Francisco after reading their "shelf talker" about it, reckoning that it might be a good edition to my 10-Books-In-Five-Years Russian literature project that I'm not doing particularly well with. The book, written in the late 1920s and early 30s as Stalin began the massive rural collectivization that came to characterize "The Great Terror" and the murderous disaster of Soviet communism, was Platonov's own cry of disillusion against what he saw as the perversion of Bolshevism that he'd fought for is his own youth.

"The Foundation Pit" is a bitter parody of the ridiculous all-for-one sloganeering of communism, the "acquisition of consciousness" that was to come from hard work and the murder and exile of the land-owning "kulak" peasants who were simply tools of capitalism. The book jumps around in odd ways, and it's best to read it as a collection of anecdotes and speeches that are part of a larger tale. I personally lost track of which character was which, and as it turns out, it really doesn't matter. All of them are dupes of the Soviet consciousness-raising and of Stalin's plan for them all to brutally work themselves to the bone in order to build a new order of humanity (and many new buildings and industrial plants as well). The people of the novel, starving and subjugated by "the activist" who gives them their orders, comfort themselves with slogans and learned, forced behaviors in the "knowledge" that they're building a better world for the children of the revolution. It actually becomes quite comic, if horrific, in parts, especially when the young girl Nastya speaks about Papa Stalin and encourages men four and five times her age to murder the collective-resisting peasants in their midst.

I'm certain their are metaphors all over the novel, such as the foundation pit itself that the initial group of men in the novel are digging, but I'm probably too daft to see them. It's clear that the pit, which is ultimately abandoned after months of back-breaking work to build it, becomes not a gleaming edifice for a grand building, but a pit of death in which starving people are buried. Platonov witness much of the forced collectivization firsthand, and this novel was his anguished mockery of its brutality and the inhuman treatment of man. It's also extremely downcast on the men and women swept up in Soviet propaganda; virtually everyone in the novel is a complete and utter dupe of the system, and most go to their deaths or their drudgery still mouthing ludicrous slogans of fealty to communism and a "better life". It's pretty devastating stuff - quintessentially Russian and a little bit of a cockeyed read, but definitely worth your time in order to see the horrors of Stalin's Soviet Union as witnessed by the real "common man".

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Thought I'd dash off another radio show/podcast on a Monday night to make sure your week was stacked with fantastic tuneage from the underground....this one's just over an hour, and is Edition #11 of the Dynamite Hemorrhage Radio Podcast, which is streamable and downloadable at the links below. Somehow I jammed 25 songs into 60+ minutes; some of 'em are dumb, some of 'em are fast, some of them are edifying and artful and totally mind-expanding. Some may blow you from here into the next century. If that happens, please let me know in the comments, OK?

Download Dynamite Hemorrhage Radio Podcast #11 here.
Stream Dynamite Hemorrhage Radio Podcast #11 here.

Track listing:

ZODIAC KILLERS - Kamikaze Attack
CLAW HAMMER - Sick Fish Belly Up
FERAL BEAT - Feral Beat
THE VICTIMS - Perth is a Culture Shock
GORILLA - Vein Popper
COME - Dead Molly
PAMELA - I'm Nobody (Cold Shoulder)
PUSSY GALORE - Biker Rock Loser
VELVET MONKEYS - Everything Is Right
THE MINDERS - Chatty Patty
KAREN VERROS - You Just Gotta Know My Mind
THE OSCARS - Limited Offer
SIN 34 - Nuclear War
X - Home Is Where The Floor Is
THE MOTARDS - Yo Heart Mexico
DOO RAG - Engine Bread

Download our past shows - each about an hour:

Download Show #10
Download Show #9
Download Show #8
Download Show #7
Download Show #6
Download Show #5
Download Show #4
Download Show #3
Download Show #2

Download Show #1

Monday, April 15, 2013


Three years ago I made an announced (to my wife) plan to read 10 classics of Russian literature in the next five years - two a year, and including the massive "Anna Karenina" and "Brothers Karamozov". Figured that was totally achievable, and a worthy pursuit that would help round me into my other stated goal of being The Perfect Man. I was an English-major undergrad, and had been assigned several of these books in my "senior seminar", in which we had to read one and sometimes two entire novels in a week. I know that "Brothers" was part of that (I didn't read it); Solzhenitsyn's "One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich" (I read it, but sadly, don't remember a thing); and Dostoyevsky's "Notes From The Underground" (didn't read it). Somehow I nailed an A in that class without having read at least a third of the assigned books (this phenomenon happened in other courses as well), which continues to bolster my assertion that the University of California at Santa Barbara is an terrific place to go to school and have a really, really great time. You can get your real education later, when you help yourself go broke in grad school.

Anyway, this Russian lit thing's been a total disaster. I started with a book a Chekhov plays that I didn't like, and quickly abandoned. Three years later, though, I've completed my first and second of the 10 classics (I'll review the 2nd later this week). Now I've got two more years to make good on my promise and get to not only "Anna", but 7 more - and I won't let myself take any shortcuts by only picking short novels, as I did with "NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND", which I got into and out of quickly, last week. At least this book is fantastic, and of course deserving of its 150 years of accolades as one of the great and greatly confounding works of literature. Written in 1864, and more of a novella than a novel, the book can be broken down further, and be said to be two mini-novellas within a lone novella. Allow me to explain.

Dostoyevsky breaks the first half of the book into a stream-of-consciousness, first-person rant by a 40-year-old narrator, "The Underground Man", who feels himself to already be anciently old and withered and worn-out, an educated man of books & letters who has seen much in Russia to make him loathe and decry the world around him, and the turn that the country is taking into "reason", "logic" and "mathematical precision". He's an unreliable narrator, though, and frequently stops his monologue to correct himself, reconsider what he's just said, or even to assert that he actually might be lying. Yet the gist of his profundities is that man can't act in a wholly reasonable, logical and rational manner, because he is man, and therefore he is frail and irrational. He cites history as showing that man makes war and acts against his own rational self-interest in many areas, and this is what makes him interesting and redeemable - if not a good candidate for utopianism. (Which is why this book was disliked and banned by the Soviets sixty years later). The narrator is an unhappy man, and yet he's comfortable and knowing in his rebelliousness against modern times, while still being bereft of companionship and depressed that his life has turned out as it has.

We find out why in the second half of the book. The narrator switches course, and reads to us a true story he's written about events that occurred to him in his twenties, that's we're to assume helped drive him underground and away from society. It's actually pulse-quickening writing, in that our narrator is a total train wreck of a human being, and he narrates his own demise in excruciating detail. Even in his twenties, he was a nervous, antisocial and self-sabotaging young man, given easily to take offense at those around him and to then feel the need to lecture them on their own shortcomings. He resolves to "bump" a high-ranking officer whom he's obsessed with one-upping in the streets of St. Petersburg, and after weeks of worried and feverish planning, does so - only to have the officer not even notice the offense.

Better and more excruciating still, he invites himself to a dinner for another high-ranking officer that a man he knows is helping to throw, and proceeds to get drunk, pompous and to act horrifically for no reason, outside of general spite and self-hatred. He then follows the men to a "house of iniquity", where he meets the young, naive prostitute Liza. Here, barely illuminated by candlelight, and already falling in love with Liza and dreaming in his head of a life together that will rescue him from his self-imposed bondage, he connects this section of the book with the first half - man's need to act irrationally and in unpredictable ways. While his cultured mannerisms impress Liza that this might be a man that could "save" her, when she actually acts on his entreaty to come visit him later, she finds that he's a cruel and destroyed shell of a human being who is in need of redemption himself. 

At time absurd, at others witty and still others as philosophical and grand-thinking, "Notes From The Underground" is great, inspiring, unpredictable literature in the extreme. As David Denby noted in this review, "Doetoevsky may have put his own ideas into the mouth of a brilliant man, but he undermined him as a self-destructive mess at the same time". It's what makes the book such a skin-crawling delight on so many levels - you're watching both the deconstruction of the human condition and of first-person literature in lockstep and in the same passages.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


"A LATE QUARTET" is a unassumingly good, not quite great film with a few big indie-to-mainstream names in it that comes together quite well. It's got some low-level pathos, some romantic entanglements, some highbrow bickering and bantering, and a pleasing backdrop of cultured, snowy Manhattan in winter. Director Yaron Zilberman made this, his first non-documentary feature, in 2012, and he brought together two of my favorites, Catherine Keener & Philip Seymour Hoffman, in lead roles, along with the previously unknown-to-me Mark Ivanir and the all-too-well-known Christopher Walken. They're a celebrated classical string quartet celebrating their 25th anniversary, just as everything that's kept them going begins to fall apart at once. Surprisingly, it's Walken who delivers the A-level performance, as the quartet's founder and leader who decides to leave the group once he discovers that Parkinson's disease is slowly compromising his ability to play at an elite level.

The "Fugue Quartet" has been coasting along on their talent and reputation for 25 years, booking shows around the globe and garnering the covers of all the sorts of publications that still cover classical music. It has sustained and defined each of them, but when Walken's Peter Mitchell announces his ailment and desire to leave, it sends the other two men into egotistical flights of existential crisis. Hoffman's character decides he doesn't want to always play "second violin" to Ivanir's "first violin", and his wife and quartet-mate, Keener, doesn't quite support his gusto to change seats in middle age. So Hoffman impulsively cheats on her like a big dope with a young Salma Hayak lookalike named Pilar, played by Liraz Charhi (who it turns out is Israeli in real life).

Meanwhile, Ivanir's character Daniel starts secretly courting and then sleeping with Hoffman & Keener's daughter, whom he's been trying to teach violin and who's much more interested in flirting with him than actually learning. The actress that plays her (Alexandra), with the awesome real-life name of Imogen Poots, is both extremely radiant & compelling and totally off-putting, with her ham-handed lines clunking in the midst of so much great acting talent around her. Let's blame the writers on this one, as well as her not-so-great ability at covering up her own British accent with an American/New York one.

So things get ugly, then uglier - secrets are spilled, truths are told - and then things get better again. It's Walken who's the revelation in this. He's become so cartoonish in recent years, I guess I forgot that he can act forcefully in this quiet, unhurried, mature style. He's great. I might not remember a thing about "A LATE QUARTET" a year from now, but today in April 2013, I'll give it the old rental thumbs-up for ya.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


This 2012 film by Craig Zobel is not, in his words, "a breezy charmer". I prepped myself for something very squirmy and dark, having read that "COMPLIANCE" was an indie psychological thriller of the highest order. It's very dark – no question about it – and it's also very good, but it's also, depending where you're coming from, I suppose, a little more palatable than, say, "Funny Games" or even "Deliverance". Then again, when you've steeled yourself for something that'll make you rip out hair and hide under the couch, even a prank phone call that escalates into psychological and sexual torture can be less excruciating than simply jarring & depraved. I thought the 100% unheralded indie cast were fantastic, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this is based on a wholly true set of incidents that occurred in the US several years ago.

A fast-food restaurant (Chickwich!) in a nondescript Northern-US town (Minnesota?) starts an average Friday night, with the teenage staff and the lower-income managers bickering, BS'ing and playing around with each other. A phone call comes in to the sweet, "average Midwestern" middle-age female manager (Sandra, played beautifully by Anne Dowd) from a policeman, who says that one of her young female employees has stolen money from a customer, who is there in the office with the cop – and furthermore, she and her brother are being investigated for drug sales out of their home. The employee - young, wide-eyed, pretty Becky – is called into the manager's office, and the descent begins from there. Without ever seeing a policeman – without ever even validating that the disembodied voice on the other end of the phone truly is a policeman – Sandra and others cooperate with his every request, including to strip-search Becky and describe her naked body to him. Becky, terrified of going to jail - even though she's done nothing (neither steal nor sell drugs) - is just as compliant with the "policeman", even when his demands cross over into personal violation, abject humiliation and then even into rape.

The film is actually quite simple in structure and in message. It takes place in real time, so the 90 minutes of the film are mostly spent on the phone call itself, and how it spirals out of control, all in service to the prank caller's sick humiliation fantasies. The message is, of course, how ordinary people can easily hand their good judgement and sense over to authority figures, simply because they say they are authority figures and come off as more "in control" of life's narrative. I thought it an interesting choice that we actually get to see the caller through much of the film; in other similar "creepy caller" films, the tension is heightened because you don't know who's on the other end beyond the voice. "COMPLIANCE" is very well-made and a strong sophomore effort by Craig Zobel (and his debut, 2007's "Great World of Sound", looks very promising as well).

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


It was with much anticipation and excitement that I started former Salon.com editor David Talbot's 60s-70s-80s history of San Francisco, "SEASON OF THE WITCH", and with much disappointment and disgust that I slammed it down thirteen chapters later. No, I did not finish the book. I'd never get those hours back, and alas, neither will I get back the four or so hours I invested in those 13 chapters. I believe that I can successfully and accurately  review the book anyway, and hopefully talk you out of any inclination you might have toward reading it. To wit:

1. It has some of the most cringe-worthy, unimaginative writing I've seen in years.

I knew in the back of my head that Talbot, for all the initiative and gusto he showed in founding the once-excellent SALON back in the 1990s, was the web magazine's primary weak link when it came to actual journalism. Left-wing and emphatically so to a fault, his screeds about Bush this, 9/11 that (not to mention a bizarro Kennedy assassination obsession) made Michael Moore look like Tom Brokaw. Yet his bozo rock-n-roll shorthand in this book is even worse. He actually writes about how, in the Haight Ashbury, "the idea of free medical service was blowin' in the wind" (I wish I was kidding), and he quotes numerous other hippie rock lyrics in the service of his horrifically purple prose. I just googled the SF Gate review of his book and they respectfully quoted a very representative line, about the murdered George Moscone and Harvey Milk:

"Both men gave their lives for this oasis of freedom," Talbot writes, "the city where no stranger was kept outside its golden gate."

That's a line the reviewer thought represented Talbot's writing style very well. I think so too.

2. Talbot has absolutely zero nuance, nor the ability to tell a complex tale.

In David Talbot's 1960s San Francisco, the world is strictly black and white. The hippies and the people that welcomed them were heroes; the city's Catholic "old guard" were intolerant, incompetent, racist, sexist pigs. Rock and roll, peace and love was all upside. Dissent against the warmed-over, likely half-baked, "Rolling Stone" popular history of liberated 60s San Francisco is nowhere to be found here. Everyone is cast into stereotypical roles: "socialites"; "free thinkers"; gruff, tough-talking cops; gritty newspapermen; earthy rock and rollers like Jerry Garcia; and so on. Talbot shows zero initiative in carving his own researched narrative through the tropes of the past, and instead relies on the sort of Summer of Love picture books I used to flip through as a dumb kid in the 1970s for his journalism. I know this book takes a "darker" turn later, after the part where I stopped reading, yet after such an awful first third, the thought of how badly he'd butcher the People's Temple and Patty Hearst stories was just too much for me to stomach.

3. He believes every bit of BS this city's been telling itself since 1967.

I've lived in San Francisco since 1989, and I love it here. The self-congratulatory mythology this city soaks in, however, is and has forever been totally nauseating. Talbot has bought it all hook, line and sinker. He repeatedly waxes rhapsodic about "the fog rolling across the hills" and about San Francisco's "liberated, anything-goes spirit", except he usually uses some trite rock lyric or metaphor to write it even worse than I just did. Anyway, who actually calls this place "the city of love"? No one except for stoned hippie journalists in 1967 did – no one. The last straw for me was Tablot's misty-eyed chapter on San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, "swinging with the hepcats at Tosca", nursing a highball, rapping with Ferlinghetti, stooping down to understand the hippies, wearing his fedora to jazz clubs blah blah blah. I couldn't believe the shorthand and the shortcuts this guy took in the service of telling what could have been an incredible tale. The popular thumbnail view of everything that's happened here, and everyone who did it, just happens to be Talbot's lazy method of describing it as well.

All my worst fears about a clunker of a book were realized in its first third, and then some. I'm writing this as a warning to any potential readers, so that you may be dissuaded from investing four hours of your own life into this complete exercise in futility.

Monday, April 8, 2013


I went through a pretty lengthy period of my life certain that I was an extrovert; I mean, I had been a fast-talking college radio DJ; I "sang" in a couple of punk rock bands; I'd been an elementary school "class clown" who'd stay after school for the pleasure of making my peers laugh; I'd had many friends over my teens and twenties with whom I liked to "party"; and my career has been split up into parts as a customer service rep, in which I gabbed with people on the phone all day (and liked it), and a marketing dude, in which I've needed to be gregarious and outgoing and even a public speaker from time to time. So why did I keep scoring as an "introvert" on all those psychological tests the companies I worked for would throw at us as a means of understanding ourselves and our co-workers? And why did I find it so refreshing and necessary to be alone so often, up to and including going to films, rock shows and readings deliberately by myself? Why were my main hobbies all focused around solitary writing, reading or listening, and why did I actually physically recoil from airplane small talk, and from entering parties in which I didn't know anyone? Why did I even sometimes drive several miles to a party, and then leave before I entered; or pull a disappearing act when things got uncomfortable, and walk out without saying a thing to anyone? And why was (is) the idea of being a cross-country truck driver later in life, after I've made all my millions, so incredibly appealing? Because I'm a goddamn introvert, that's why.

The "extrovert ideal" is a big one in Western culture. We're subliminally and explicitly encouraged to be "open", to generate charisma, to exude confidence and to never admit to "loner" tendencies, or god forbid, shyness. Susan Cain's excellent bestseller "QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN'T STOP TALKING" takes on, and then dismantles, this mythos very effectively. You see, it turns out about a third to one half of us are introverts. Sure, we might have elements of our personalities that fall more on the extroversion scale than otherwise, and a lot of us - myself included - are not too bad at faking it. Yet I know who I am at the end of the day. I'm not shy, I'm not anti-social, and I'm not even "all up in my head" most of the time - but there's no question that without plentiful alone time and a retreat from noise and the social world, I will get extremely aggravated. Given a choice of doing something alone and doing it with people I don't know very well, I'll always very happily do it alone. Unless I'm with my family or close friends, I'd usually rather do my own thing. Always have, always will, I'm pretty certain. And I do in fact like and enjoy other people's company, and I hold no hostile positions vis-a-vis other people I don't know.

Cain makes it clear that not only are there a ton of us like this out there, we express our introversion in different ways, and that we use numerous coping/covering mechanisms to get by in a society that explicitly values extroversion. For instance, I made myself learn how to speak in public, once a boss asked me to cover some trade show event for him. I'm not kidding when I tell you that the "fight-or-flight" trigger was so incredibly high that day, that five minutes before I was due on stage at a conference in San Jose, I very nearly walked out of the building and into my car. Yet, while I wouldn't say I "killed" on stage that day, I actually did all right, and have done as well most of the other times I've been up at a podium in front of an unknown crowd. I even kinda like it now, despite huge bouts of nerves and sweaty, low-level terror in the hours beforehand.

"QUIET" covers introversion not in a manner that marks it as superior to extroversion, but as a different and very key innate personality trait that should be valued and rewarded for its own merits. Turns out that thoughtful contemplation, deep thinking, modesty, deference and quiet competence has been responsible for some of the greatest art, thought, writing, ideas, inventions and even CEO-level leadership the world has ever known. Where you fall on the spectrum of introversion/extroversion has a ton to do with your DNA, no question about it - but the science is not conclusive about how much is nature and how much comes from nurture (i.e. your parenting and your early life). It appears that a parent can have a great deal to do with how well or poorly you approach any early shyness or withdrawn tendencies, and whether it becomes a pathology or a celebrated part of who you are as you get older. 

Cain looks at introversion from several angles in each successive chapter. There were two that really hit home for me, once her descriptions of my own personal behavior and makeup became so indisputable and spot-on that I have begun to proudly wear my introversion as a badge of friggin' honor. Damn right I'm a deep thinker! You want a piece of me? OK, after I finish being alone for an hour! Boom! First, Cain talked about the modern workplace. It has become very fashionable for well-meaning executives to pontificate about "the open office", in which cubicle walls are taken down and tables are instead arranged so that groups can sit together and "collaborate". The theory goes that if we remove barriers that keep us from communicating, we'll communicate more, and therefore be more productive and collaborative and, that's right, happier. No more soulless retreats into your own space. Now we all get to hang out together, all day, sometimes 10-11 hours a day! We're gonna be soooo productive!

Of course, it doesn't work. Sure, the science and studies that Cain quotes doesn't totally debunk the idea that for some people, and some groups, more communication in the open is better than having to get up and walk to someone else's cube or office. Yet the distractions, the noise, the loss of privacy and so on are devastating for the productivity of many, introverts in particular. They/we have a much more difficult time processing multiple different-volume conversations, other people's music and our own work at the same time. Me, I can't even listen to music while I work or write, not even classical, jazz or dub, and if you've read this blog, you know I dig my music (and it would please me greatly, in theory, to be able to listen to more of it at work). Computer programmers often choose their line of work so that they can code in peace; they often prematurely quit jobs in which they're forced to share their work with others in close quarters, and in which they're distracted by people talking in and around them. I have worked in this sort of office before, and I can tell you that I mostly loathe it, and  others with whom I work that are most similar to me in temperament do as well. There's a reason why self-purchased noise-cancelling headphones were de rigeur and extremely popular at the most recent office I've worked in that had an open floor plan.

My other favorite chapter of Cain's book concerns Asian-Americans, and the question of whether introversion/extroversion is cultural. I think you know where I'm going with this. It absolutely is. She interviews multiple extremely successful Asian students in the heavily Asian enclave of Cupertino, CA, and what it's like for them to leave their 75% Asian high school, in which study and listening and deferred social gratification are paramount, and arrive at places like Harvard or UMass or Stanford, where class participation, group work and social bonding are highly rewarded. It's eye-opening stuff. The way that cultures developed in the West and East, and the way those cultures and norms are perpetuated to this day, is interesting in any case; to hear them explained along such a defining personality trait as introversion or extroversion is illuminating.

For those of us that are parents, there's a good chapter near the end about raising introverted children. In my own case, I'm raising a kid that needs to occasionally be talked down from the ledge of extreme extroversion, so this chapter didn't help me except as a way to empathize with some of his friends and friends' parents who are working to encourage their children to be who they are, while carefully drawing them out of their proverbial shells.

The lessons of the book, which I encourage you read if you're at all interested in something that's quite a bit deeper than pop psychology but not as intense as a doctoral seminar, are clear to me. To thine own self be true, number one. Regardless of the prevailing cultural norm, you are who you are (at this point in your life), and faking it for someone else's benefit can be much more painful and psychologically soul-rendering for you than it is beneficial to you in the long run. That said, lesson #2 is that we introverts all have various adaptations we can and should try on for size that will make our lives easier. Simply retreating in all cases is not an option, nor is it a desirable one for anybody. Funny enough, Cain calls out the internet as a place where so many of us have found a "voice", trite as it sounds, that happens to be an alternative to the social sphere of face-to-face communication. That's not always for the good, of course, but it allows many creative and interesting people to amplify their personas in ways that bring their true characters and ideas to life, in ways that would otherwise be hidden to the world. And if you're scoring as an "I" on those Myers-Briggs exams, don't worry about it. So did Bill Gates, George Orwell, Charles Darwin, Dr. Seuss, Audrey Hepburn, Albert Einstein, Meryl Streep, Steve Wozniak and David Letterman. They did OK.