no news is good news

I don’t sleep too well these days. I think it’s because I’m a news junkie. I am addicted to news. I have bookmarked thirty-five online newspapers (current favorites include the North Korean News Agency and the Moose Jaw Times-Herald ) and on cable I’m usually flipping between Headline News and MSNBC. I’m also pretty sure that my news addiction is to blame for my astounding lack of productivity–yeah, I may not have updated my blog in a week, but I sure know a lot of random facts about Uzbekhistan.

The news makes me edgy, because on the 24 hour news channels, they make you process everything at once. I swear CNN should be called ADD–on the screen is the guy telling the story, a caption underneath the guy telling you what the guy is telling you, the weather for forty-seven cities, basketball scores, and I’m pretty sure I saw someone in a small box doing an interpretive dance about the story.

Network news is worse—especially the teaser ads. See, the media needs the public to be afraid, otherwise we might not need them. I heard a news anchor say “Coming up at ten, we’ll tell you about a common household substance that can kill”…no…… TELL US NOW! There are people dying in their kitchens and your sitting on a story! And reporters on the scene aren’t any more Pulitzer-worthy. The other night, a reporter at the scene of an accident said “details are sketchy.” THEN THEY’RE NOT…DETAILS!!!

I lived in L.A. during the Rodney King nightmare, and it led me to this conclusion. The next time L.A. burns (because it will happen again), I hope the first buildings torched are tv news studios, because that’s where the accelerant. is. I would love to see some smug, insulated anchorman sitting at his desk reading off the teleprompter “We’ve got reports of a fire at–MY DESK! MY DESK IS ON FIRE!”

Seems like there are two extremes in broadcast journalism. There are talking heads that yell a lot and interrupt each other, and there’s Charlie Rose. I think Charlie is great. He never seems fazed by a subject–frankly, he never seems all that interested, either. Every time he puts his chin in his hand and leans forward, I’m worried he’ll nod off,. But I’ll take that  over the yelling any day.

As if it’s not bad enough that stories on tv news are all too short to be useful (Now I understand fundamentalist Islam, thanks to that sixty second feature) , time that could be used for thoughtful analysis is given instead to entertainment news. When you only have thirty minutes to give a rundown of the news of the entire world, maybe you should prioritize. I’m guessing the day Charlie Sheen kidnapped a hooker, there were at least one or two extra things that could have been mentioned about Darfur, or Iran.

As a nation, our priorities are a little out-of-whack. For instance, I love animals, but it seems like some people would step over a homeless person to get to an animal-rights meeting. MSNBC yesterday announced that scientists have isolated the cause of…gray hair. Really? You know, maybe we should organize a big scientist meeting and give them a to-do list…sure, spend some time working on the scourge that is premature graying but let’s do that AFTER we cure AIDS.

Prioritize, people! I hate to sound like a Luddite here, but when the banks are failing and nobody’s working, is it the best time to give NASA a billion dollars MORE than they got last year? Well, at least we’ll get amazing pictures from space of where that money should have been spent on Earth.

Ultimately, it’s the dumbing down of news that irks me. Like the whole ‘red state/blue state’ notion. Reducing the complicated dynamics of national politics to primary colors. It reminds me too much of USA Today, with all its colors ,pie graphs and simple headlines, like it’s edited by Dr. Seuss. I really imagine that if a nuclear bomb killed millions of people in this country, their headline would be “Lots of Us Still Left–And We’re Shopping More!”

We reached another nadir when I saw Katie Couric on Letterman. I think one of the inviolable rules of journalism is that an anchor’s credibility is inversely proportional to the amount of giggling said anchor does. Yegads! It was like listening to Dave interview Mylie Cyrus. And when asked about her interview with Alex Rodriguez, she actually said she’s a “glass-half-full kinda person” who, when people tell her things, “tends to believe them.” Katie, I hate to tell you this, but that’s actually the opposite of journalism.

Growing up, I got a lot of news from talk radio. It used to be like a neighborhood of the airwaves–just people talking over the metaphorical back fence about things that mattered to the community. I gave up on the medium when it got co-opted by fire-breathing right-wing hatemongers, but lately, since I’m not sleeping too well, I’ve started to tune in again.

Sure, there are still plenty of xenophobes and reactionaries on the air, but they’re my neighbors too, and I might as well be neighborly and listen. Like Mike Gallagher, the popular host who once explained why he felt the guy who threw the shoe at Bush should have been shot to death by the Secret Service. Seriously. Yeah, what better way to show Iraqis what democracy means than a little disproportionate whup-ass without due process.

Speaking of talk radio, I was sad when Paul Harvey died. I realize on some level that he was a right-wing flag-waving shill, but there was a certain integrity about him, too. He seemed genuine. And you have to admire that he was still broadcasting at ninety years old, after seventy-five years in the biz. I can’t imagine doing standup for seventy-five years, but I will say that if I’m still doing one-nighters in crappy bars in the year 2056 someone should put a bullet in my head.

Now Paul’s signature phrase was ”and now you know…the rest of the story.” After thousand of stories, I kept hoping he’d get bored and mess with his listeners just once…give a long, historically detailed introduction and then say “There is no…rest of the story. That’s all I got.”

The other night, I was pretty sure Paul had lost his mind, because he gave his usual setup that was all positivity and patriotism, and then the ‘rest of the story’ went on to describe how some of the first settlers of the Mayflower colony…were… cannibals. WHAT? You can’t do that! That’s like your grandpa telling one of his war stories and all of a sudden mentioning in an avuncular voice that “well, you know, we were in a foxhole and ran out of food, so we had to eat Private Jones.” But whether you liked Paul Harvey’s style or not, you had to admit one thing–he never giggled.

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thundersnow and freezing fog

I’m sure you’ll forgive me if, every spring, i refuse to turn even one cartwheel. But I know how this works. Sure, after a relentless winter, we can now enjoy those special two or three weeks before it becomes too hot and humid. Seriously, this was turning into the mythical Winter With No End. And after ten or so winters here, I’m finally starting to realize something very profound–crappy weather sucks.

But what we have in Minnesota is a kind of collective amnesia, a shared mental illness that allows us to conveniently forget, every year, that the weather will turn to shit, every year. Yet we stay, walking around muttering things like “great theater…vibrant music scene” to convince ourselves that it’s actually a good idea to live in a place where on some days, you have to cover your mouth so that you breathe in air that might freeze your lungs!

I lived in Minneapolis for several years in the 80’s and distinctly remember telling my California friends how great it was to live where there’s a change of seasons. And of course, my friends in L.A. would call to give me grief every winter, asking me “How cold is it now?” and “Are you freezing yet?”–as if we don’t have ‘indoors’ here, like there are no cities, simply bands of nomads exposed to the elements. Of course, my snarky vengeance would come every fall, when I would call and ask “Is your shit on fire yet?” or in February when I could ask “Has your house slid down the hill yet?”

Now that I have the wisdom  that comes with middle-age, I think I’m less fond of Old Man Winter than I had been when I was a bit more…spry.  Last night, we got 6 inches of new snow.  I’m looking out my window as I write this, and it’s quite lovely–if I didn’t have to actually WALK OUTSIDE. But take it from a guy with a limp and a cane–one man’s glistening city sidewalk is another man’s treacherous path to the bus stop. Winter wonderland my ass–as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a lot of places where I can slip and crack my skull on the curb.

I try not to bitch about the weather here, but today is one of those ridiculous days. This afternoon, the high temperature will be 15 degrees. Spring training has started, fer chrissake! I really don’t understand how the midwest was even settled. Let’s say the westbound pioneers got here in…June. Beautiful skies over the endless plains, frolicking in the lakes. But a few months later in that first year, when it became butt-fucking cold (an actual meteorological term)…PACK UP AND KEEP GOING WEST! OR HERE’S AN IDEA–GO SOUTH! But don’t just…stay where you are. It’s not like the first Minnesotans were tied to mortgages and school districts–get in the wagon and find someplace warmer! Load up your wagons and take your ad hoc city somewhere else! Some place where a suffocating blanket of cold and ice doesn’t bury you for four months!

And TV weather people don’t help. They seem to perversely relish these ‘weather events.’ I want to hear the anchorman say “Here’s Dave with the live Doppler forecast to tell us what to expect” and have Dave say “Screw that–everybody get out of here! Evil Winter’s coming with her mighty arsenal of cold and ice!” Last night they predicted ‘thundersnow.’ C’mon–that doesn’t even sound real. In Oregon I saw a forecast of ‘freezing fog’. I was pretty sure that was just Portland’s Chamber of Commerce trying to frighten people out of moving there–let’s take TWO shitty weather conditions and pretend they’ve joined forces! And wind chill–is this concept even necessary? Do I need to be reminded that not only is it too cold to be outside, but that it ‘feels’ even colder than it is?

And then there’s my favorite meteorological phrase–‘a wintry mix.’ Now there’s descriptive, verifiable hard science for you. Anyway, I realized a long time ago that weather forecasting is actually just pseudo-science, like astrology, or phrenology. Think about it–when the weatherman says there’s a fifty percent chance of snow, isn’t that basically saying it might snow, or it might not? That’s going out on an empirical limb!

I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and I will say I’ll take cold weather over hurricanes or earthquakes. When I left L.A. after the Northridge quake, people would say “but every place can have disasters.” True enough, but with every other natural disaster get at least some warning. If you’re in Florida and the guy on your teevee says you should leave your home–you usually have the option of LEAVING YOUR HOME. If you live next to a river and it’s rained real hard for real long time, then during that real long time you could FIND HIGHER GROUND. Even tornadoes–if you can’t get to a basement, you at least have a couple minutes after the siren sounds to…I dunno–pray.

But not earthquakes. Not only can they not be predicted (we have the technology to go to freakin’ Mars but we can’t predict when our own planet might break into pieces like peanut brittle?–priorities, scientists?) but when one hits, you have no idea if it’s gonna be a few seconds of gentle rolling or THE CATACLYSMIC RUPTURE  THAT SENDS US ALL PLUNGING INTO THE OPEN MAW OF AN ANGRY EARTH!

So, I suppose I can deal with cold, but I gotta admit, if some opportunity presented itself in say, Austin Texas, I might take it. It might be a hundred degrees for a few months, but you don’t have shovel heat.

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pitch meeting

I watch a lot of tv, and I have fond memories of fall. Every fall as a kid I remember the TV Guide Fall Preview Issue, when times were simpler and there was a hell of a lot less to watch. You kinda felt like if a new show was gonna make it, it was your responsibility to watch. Shows like ‘Cheers’ started with low ratings, but because there weren’t 200 channels and internet shows and shows on your cell phone–well, networks were willing to let an audience grow.

I realize the big three networks are dinosaurs, but why are so many new network shows every year so incredibly, jaw-droppingly LAME? It can’t be lack of originality, because any studio or network head would tell you that they’re constantly looking for cutting-edge ideas and fresh faces. So all I can figure is , maybe the life of a TV executive is so busy, they don’t have time to…think up new shit. So, for all you harried industry players out there, here’s a few show ideas (with casting suggestions) you can have for free.

“Survivor: Idol”:

This can’t miss concept merges two unbeatable shows into one–once the 12 finalists on ‘American Idol’ are chosen, they are dropped off on a remote island and must find a way to survive. They must also find their own way off the island.

“Hey, Stop That! ”
A guy (maybe Chris Walken, if he’ll do episodic) goes around L.A. yelling at street people. In the pilot, he yells at that guy who wears a trashcan lid as a hat.

“The David Spade Mystery Hour”

Roundtable discussion in which scholars, philosophers and Hollywood insiders try to determine why David Spade keeps getting work.

“You Bet Your Ass!”
Game show where losers are forced into prostitution. Maybe have Saget host.

A bunch of twenty-something slackers hang out in a coffeehouse. Since the show is filmed in a real coffeehouse, the characters are too self-absorbed to talk to each other. No dialogue should keep production costs down.

“One-Hour Martinizing”
The gritty reality of the dry-cleaning business. In the opener, guest star Joan Collins gives a terrific performance as a woman with a suspicious stain on her dress. Gandolfini would play the owner of the shop–maybe give him a mob background to lure ‘Sopranos’ fans.

“Don’t Try This At Home!”
Science show where host teaches kids about loose wires, oily rags and light sockets.

“That’s My Chick”
Lovable guy gets drunk and starts a bar fight with a different guy every Friday night. Tony Danza is probably available.

“America’s Next Great Surgeon”

Reality show in which 12 people with different backgrounds (auto mechanic, barista, carny) learn surgery over 12 weeks, leading to a finale in which the final two each perform a heart-lung transplant.

“CSI: Law And Order”

Merging of casts of 3 CSI series and 3 L&O series creates first network ‘super-show’  In the pilot, the thirty-seven stars just get in each other’s way as they try to solve the case of a genius mathematician (and former cop) who is also a sexual predator and serial arsonist wanted for cases in Las Vegas, Miami and New York.

“First Draft”

At the end of each episode, an actual television writer has an epiphany about television and commits suicide.

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to all the towns i loved before

In all my wandering, I’ve formed very specific relationships with each of the cities I’ve explored. Because really, when you move somewhere new, it’s a lot like dating–you get to know the personality of the place, try to figure out if the two of you are meant to be together…sometimes you have to break up with a place, and sometimes you just end up with some great memories. I decided to reminisce about the cities I’ve been ‘involved’ with.

Los Angeles: Ahh, my first love. I really only started seeing you because you were my neighbor growing up. We met when I went to UCLA, and I thought you were fun. But a guy needs more than fun, and besides, you were always dealing with some sort of drama–earthquakes, fires, mudslides–I needed something more stable in a relationship. It wasn’t till after I left you that I realized how shallow and superficial you really are, but I wish you well–I’m sure you’ll find others who get lured by your easy charm.

Minneapolis (the first time):  My first grownup relationship with a city. You encouraged me with your midwestern nurturing…because of you I was able to pursue my career. You cooked me wild rice soup and were always so nice…but like a typical man, I left because you were too nice. I thought I’d outgrown you, and needed have a little more action in my life. And let’s be honest–you can be really cold.

Boston: I’ll admit it–I was a jerk when we first got together. In my late twenties, making good money as a comedian, I was cocky and full of myself…I used you and had no intention of staying with you. We weren’t right for each other, and to be honest I always resented your provincial ways.

Miami: 1987…You were hot. And you got me into a lot of trouble. I’ve got no hard feelings about the time we spent together–but this was just a fling, all sex and drugs and no romance. I actually saw you again recently, and thought you looked good.

Los Angeles (again): I had no business seeing you again, and during our brief reunion I didn’t feel like I had ever really known you. Maybe it’s my insecurities–you’re almost too pretty for me, and though I still think about you, and I still want you, I can’t see you again.

Portland: After living on the edge for so many years, I found you, and I fell in love. You were so comfortable and low-maintenance. But ultimately, we just spent too much time getting stoned, and I was worried I was becoming complacent. With you, Portland, I didn’t have the drive to accomplish much, but it was cool hanging out.

Chicago: Now you were one helluva lady. A shot and a beer kinda gal who could still dress up and dazzle–in a simpler time, you’d have been called a ‘broad’ and it would have been a compliment. We spent three years together, and I think we could have made a go of it, but then I lost my job, my health became an issue, and I became a burden. It just seemed best to move on–guess it was a mid-life thing, and I had to find myself again.

New York: You know, I had heard about you from friends. Friends who thought we’d be great together. Exciting. Open to anything. We only had two weeks, but what a whirlwind it was (you probably don’t remember, but I actually met you ten years before–at the time you didn’t even notice me, and I left without so much as a goodbye). I think we might give it another try someday. But I’m not ready to commit to you yet. You demand more than I’ve got to give, and let’s be real–you’re used to someone spending a lot of money on you. When I get my shit together, though, I will definitely look you up.

Minneapolis (again):  Why do I always come back to you when the wheels fall off? But here I am. You’re not the most glamorous city–I’ve certainly had wilder nights and more adventurous times, but at this point in life your even temper and Lutheran reserve offer the kind of peace I need. You keep taking me back, even though you know that if something beckons, I’ll might leave you again. But probably not–I’m sure in a few months I’ll be making a hot dish, and we can bundle up like mummies and walk to the Sculpture Garden.

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i should’ve done this in my twenties

A couple years ago, before I settled into my happy domestic groove and was still in vagabond mode, I thought I’d try to move to New York. My third try. Turns out, I think I liked the concept of  becoming a New Yorker more than the reality. Attempt number three happened when I was forty-nine, so I didn’t have quite the energy I had the previous times that New York slapped me down like a damned dog.

I packed up my life in six bags and took a train to New York City. What I’m really saying is, at almost fifty years old, I decided to move to the most expensive city in the country with a bum hip, no job, two weeks of housing at a friend of a friend’s and three hundred dollars. In February. If anyone needs a life coach, I’m available.

Basically, having been evicted, I had to move somewhere, and my (at the time) flawless reasoning was that I might as well go to one of the few places where there’s still a standup comedy ‘scene,’ that having been my career. And as far as finding the inevitable mind-numbing, soul-sucking day job, well, although New York is obviously getting bitch-slapped by the economic meltdown (which New York was partly responsible for), I thought there would still be more job possibilities in New York than in, say, Minneapolis. It’s a numbers game. Yeah, at least for my particular skill set, I was wrong.

But I got there, and I was excited. And terrified. And excited. I mean, when I first wrote about this, I was looking out a new friend’s window down Broadway–freakin’ Broadway! Tempering my enthusiasm wa the realization that I didn’t know where I’d be sleeping nine days later. So there’s that. Forget about mood swings–I was on a freakin’ mood playground.

When I locked the door to my Chicago apartment for the last time, I realized I became officially homeless. That’s weird to wrap your brain around when you always thought you were just ‘bohemian.’ It was almost a badge of pride to live a kind of spartan life. I’m an artist, goddammit! Oh, how I wish I lived in the fourteenth century, so I could have a patron. I could write jokes for the king, and live fabulously. Of course, I’d have to write jokes that only showed the king in a good light, but hey it’s showbiz.

Twenty hours. That’s how long it takes by Amtrak to go from being a Chicagoan (“fuckin’ Cubs!”) to being a New Yorker (“fuckin Mets!”). The first stop of any length along the way is Toledo, Ohio. For forty-five minutes. For no apparent reason. All I was told is ‘it’s built into the schedule.’ So I’m in the Toledo train station at 3:30 in the morning chatting with a fascinating Orthodox Jew whose trip ended in Toledo (I’m sure many Passover seders end with the hopeful prayer ‘next year in Toledo’). Now a train attendant told me we would be leaving at 4:00, so at about 3:45 I start getting ready to say my shaloms to Chaim and I see my train…start to move.

Suddenly I’m in a bad romantic comedy, all slow-motion and muffled yelling, as I try to hobble after my train. Incidentally, on said train were my bags, which contained my phone, wallet and laptop. My entire life,or at least all record of it, was slowly, but inexorably, leaving me behind.  After what seemed like, oh, half an hour, or at least enough time to ponder every bad decision I’d ever made up to that point, the train stopped. Great. Now my imagination has me thinking this was some colossal prank, like when you’re hitchhiking and the car slows down, pulls over and then drives away. Very funny, Amtrak.

Turns out they were moving the train closer to some air hose thing (sorry, I wasn’t really processing things well at that point), and I reunited with my life. Also turns out the attendant was speaking in approximate terms with the whole 4:00 thing, and that the train departs Toledo at 3:50. Really my fault for not saying to her as I got off the train “No, when EXACTLY do we leave, because I want to make sure I don’t end up having to stay in FUCKING TOLEDO!” Apologies to any Toledo residents reading this. I’m sure it’s a lovely city.

When I settled back into my seat, I told a guy I had been chatting up on the train the story, and he said the same thing happened to him  at a stop in Cleveland recently. Which leads me to what I call the Toledo Theory. See, I think so few people choose to go to Toledo, or Cleveland, that the state of Ohio has paid Amtrak to leave a certain number of passengers behind, to help the local economy. I believe most of the residents of Toledo, Ohio were actually going somewhere else, and once they were stranded, basically said “Well…I might as well just stay here.” Granted, it’s not as sexy as black-ops helicopters or Area 51, but it’s my first wacky conspiracy theory, I’m kinda proud of it.

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getting my brood on

Here’s why I’m worried about my prospects as a writer: great writers, at least as they’ve been portrayed romatically, not only are able to write when their personal lives become unhinged, but actually produce their best work in their darkest days. Me–not so much. I have been moved and awed by the personal revelations written under extraordinary circumstances here–the bravery from people willing to lay their lives bare in print.

Yet when I am facing challenging times, that spigot seems to be turned off.  When I brood, I can’t seem to write. But isn’t that exactly when I should write?

I tend to plan my brooding–it’s not an organic thing that just comes over me. For instance, I normally buy one pack of cigarettes at a time, never a carton, because after all, if I buy a carton of cigarettes, then I would have to call myself a smoker, and I like to live in the delusion that any given pack might be my last. But a few days ago I bought two packs, because I intended to brood.

I’ve always loved ‘tortured’ artists. The notion of abusing oneself as a path to brilliant creative work really grabbed me, as I imagined myself scrawling bits of genius on the back of an envelope or a napkin while surrounded by overflowing ashtrays and empty bottles while listening to Billie Holiday, or Karen Carpenter. Unfortunately, I don’t quite have the hang of it. Mostly because I’m too OCD  to let that kind of righteous squalor accumulate.

Also, I can only write at the computer–when I do scrawl notes, my penmanship is so godawful and the notes are so sparse that within an hour they become indecipherable to me (what did I mean by ‘elephant religion’?–I think that says ‘elephant’). And lastly, when I’m in hibernation mode, I just…tend to not feel like writing. I find that being in a funk takes up most of my time. So basically I become Charles Bukowski, but without the literary output, sitting in a very tidy apartment.

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