Saturday, August 23, 2008

Small world.

Over a year ago (July 28, 2007) I found myself in an enviable position: having joined a friend on a cross-country drive from Brooklyn to Oakland, I was given the opportunity to take in both days of the Rock the Bells hip-hop festival from onstage in Randall's Island, NY. During Wu-Tang Clan's first day set, I clicked the following photo:

I realize it's a terrible shot, but it was taken merely as a souvenir of where I stood during an incredible show. There were quite a few people onstage at the time, several of whom appeared to be professional photographers and individuals with press passes. I was rather shocked just to be there, and didn't exactly jostle for position when it came to taking pictures. A few days ago, during some random clicking that stemmed from a search for who knows what, I came across the Flickr album of a photographer who apparently stood a few feet to my left and captured a much better shot of the same moment:

photo credit: "Undisputed Wes"

I don't have anything terribly interesting to say about this. I just got a kick out of it.

Thinking locally.

A seventeen year-old boy was shot and killed last week in north Artesia (also known by its gang territory eponym, "Chivas") riding his bike at 1 am under the 91 freeway overpass, a spot I've drunkenly stumbled through countless times on my way home from hotel parties. There's plenty of unsavory activity going on around there much of the time, but I've never actually had problems. Of course, it's rather obvious that I'm not in a gang. By all indications, this poor kid unfortunately had some gang associations even though he wasn't a member. He "looked like" a gangster, which is to say that he dressed the part. It seems he would probably have eventually outgrown that madness if he'd survived, but he rode his bike at the wrong time and was caught up in a rough spot when someone from somewhere else was on the prowl.

Just like that. Candles, crosses, flowers and metallic balloons in a morbid little bunch under the overpass, right under the spot where homeless people piss. A boy died there.

When we moved to Artesia (1988) a fifteen year-old was murdered in gang violence right around the corner from our house. Things like that happened pretty often for a few years, then it calmed down. Apparently it's picking up again (economic patterns neatly parallel the ebb and flow). Still, for the most part, Artesia's a really nice place to live. Even back when that fifteen year-old was shot, most parts of Artesia were perfectly safe to walk around in at night. They wouldn't usually bug you unless you were from another gang.

Yet to watch local news coverage right now is to think that Artesia is crawling with murderous thugs. North Artesia especially is a bloodbath. There's a subtext to every local TV station report that paints the people under and around the freeway as savages. This image really bothered a relative of mine, not for the sake of the north side but for the city's reputation as a whole. "They're making Artesia sound like some crazy, dangerous place," he complained. "Like it's Watts or something." I asked if it had ever occurred to him that maybe he only thinks of Watts that way because the news coverage of Watts has always been just like it is right now for Artesia. "Oh, well, yeah maybe," he replied, "but you know what I mean."

Yeah. I know what you mean. (...sigh...)

Friday, August 15, 2008

"Where are we going, Walt Whitman?"

I hate Ed Hardy clothing. Tattoos belong on bodies, not on t-shirts. Ninety-dollar price tags don’t belong on t-shirts either, especially ugly ones. And rhinestones don’t belong anywhere. I don’t care what a pioneer Don Ed Hardy is in the tattooing world, the designs that grace Christian Audigier’s Ed Hardy clothing line are co-opted counterculture clichés swallowed and regurgitated in a gaudy attempt to cash in on the fantastically hypothetical intersection of hipsters and ‘roid monkeys. How such a strategy can possibly work is way beyond me; but then again, of late overwhelming confusion has become my standard reaction to the shopping mall anyway.
I had not set foot in an indoor shopping mall in a while, and on my last two or three visits I made a beeline for a specific shop, bought what I needed and got the hell out. I don’t like those places. It just turns out that I had to shop a bit this time around, so I got to take it in and I must admit that—much to my dismay—I had a reaction akin to old men whining about the world going to hell in a handbasket.
Since the last time I spent a significant amount of time in the Cerritos Mall, a shop has sprung up dedicated to rhinestone and sequin-encrusted clothing of the Ed Hardy variety. Along with outlandishly expensive distressed v-necks and ridiculous belt buckles, the place must turn a hefty profit if it sells anything, since there is no way that any product in the store costs more than five bucks to make, despite their astronomical price tags. A few doors down, there is a shop apparently (based on a quick look at the front at least) dedicated solely to Hannah Montana merchandise. There’s a place that sells body creams that reek of hard candy melted onto vinyl car seats and incubated in 110 degree heat. “Young lady” sections at the tops of department store escalators where the “women” sections used to be, kiosks selling belt buckles and enormous sunglasses run by young teenage girls in translucent white shorts so that you can see exactly what their underwear look like, obese kids with obese parents waddling to and from five or six different ice cream shops (mind you, this is not a huge mall), bad music blasting from every glaringly-lit and brightly-colored corner, and suddenly the realization that I’ve done a lap around the entire mall without finding what I want because if it’s there it’s hidden. The mall isn’t mine. Nobody above the age of eighteen appears to even have buying power in this place—I’m in a playground, a cafeteria, a…well, a shopping mall. Of course, the mall has always been for teenagers, and even as a teenager I disliked it. This realization at least serves to disabuse me of the idea that I’ve completely morphed into more of a curmudgeon than I’ve ever been.
Still, there is something different about the mall I saw on this trip. Kids don’t use cash. Very young kids dress as though they’re much older and act as though they’re much younger than they are. They don’t loiter in the public areas of the mall like they used to either—they shop, or at least hang out inside the stores, while adults linger on the benches outside sipping on mocha frappuccinos. And there’s so much more useless shit. The kiosks—my God, the kiosks! Do we need an entire cart dedicated to selling different colored glasses like the ones Kanye West used in the “Stronger” video? Do we really? Lingerie and hair-waxing establishments burst with pre-pubescent girls while video game shops cater almost exclusively to grown men. Where did all these kids get the money and where did all these adults get the time?
At one end of the mall there’s a skylight, under which people lounge on benches encircling some plants. The skylight used to be open, and people used to smoke underneath it. I remember when I was a little kid, there was a distinct mall smell that seemed to come from this very spot. It was a mix of fast food, floor cleaner and cigarette smoke—that was the smell of the mall.
The cigarette smoke disappeared when the California smoking ban took effect in the late eighties or early nineties, right around the time that our school district’s test scores made real estate prices explode in the area formerly known as Dairy Valley, which led to an influx of upper middle-class folks with more expendable income, resulting in the building of more shopping centers that then took over the role of providing places like Ross and Target, allowing the mall to focus on cornering more trendy markets for people with money to spend—money that they’re no longer spending on cigarettes.
I guess we’ve got to let our kids get addicted to something, but I wonder if all this crap is any less hazardous than Joe Camel's wares.
Oh, and speaking of expensive trends: don't blame the

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

An innocent game of cards.

John McCain’s camp has recently injected life into its campaign by running two shamelessly crass ads that question—with no substance at all—whether Barack Obama is fit to lead. And when I say no substance, I mean just that: none.
“The One,” which would have the Christian Right burning Obama in effigy had it come from his campaign, doesn’t even aspire to a level of bullshit befitting a general election. In one minute and fourteen seconds of what looks like a public access channel’s reminder that trash pickup procedure has changed, the ad says nothing about Obama’s policies and only mentions McCain to let us know who paid for the commercial. My favorite part is when it quotes Obama making fun of the very type of ad in which the quote is being shown to demonstrate his arrogance—that is, unless we’re to believe that Obama honestly told a crowd that the clouds would open up and God would demand that we vote for him. Hmm…
Then, of course, there’s the furor over “Celeb,” which has even inspired a rebuttal by Princess Hilton herself. This one at least takes some shots at Obama’s energy policy and his alleged pledge to raise taxes. It stretches the truth, of course—Obama plans to repeal Bush’s tax cuts and raise taxes on the richest two percent of Americans, not raise taxes across the board—but at least it tells big league lies and delivers them with somewhat better production value than its Old Testament cousin. The gist of the commercial: Obama’s just another pretty face, but his fiscal and energy policies are unreasonable. Thus he is not fit to lead.
As for McCain’s decision to lampoon the daughter of big name donors (the Hiltons have donated the maximum $4,600 to his campaign), well, some might say it bespeaks a lack of honor, but that’s just crazy talk. The man’s a veteran! A former POW! How dare we question his integrity? He’s just tough as nails, and these soy-latte-drinking Hollywood types better just deal with it! Because he’s a real man! Like us! Fine, fine, but I’ll tell you what: he ain’t like me or anyone I grew up with. I’m not married to a multi-millionaire brewing heiress, I don’t wear $500 shoes, and I’ve never courted those Hollywood types or media folk by whom McCain seemingly feels so jilted. Or perhaps we’re supposed to have forgotten that McCain was himself a media darling admired by celebrities not too long ago. Maybe he’s sad that he never got to take those shoes to the Playboy Mansion.
So, ignoring the whole “celeb” portion of the ad, how about the bit that touches on Obama’s energy policy? How irresponsible, really, is it for a presidential candidate to oppose offshore drilling during an energy crisis? The overwhelming majority of discourse on the topic would have us believe that the answer to this question relies on whether you place greater value on the environment or on the economy, but that is a deceptive move.
The assumption that offshore drilling would significantly lower the price of gas hinges on the mistaken (and, frankly, ridiculous) supposition that somehow that oil will be reserved for domestic use and that oil companies will not use it to capitalize on the exploding demand for oil in China and India. One need only look at Exxon-Mobil’s recent reporting of record profits—followed by a buyout of $8 billion of its own stocks as a cash reward to shareholders—to decide whether oil companies are so altruistic. Of course, they have their moments of charity. For example, as soon as McCain changed his stance on offshore drilling (surprise! He was against it once!), his campaign received $1.1 million in donations from oil companies that had previously given him next to nothing. The truth is that offshore drilling will provide a drop in the ocean of the world’s oil supply, providing increased profits to oil companies with little benefit to consumers and plenty of taxpayer-funded cleanup in the future.
Of course, it’s politically efficacious to cite the most simplistic version of supply and demand in order to get Americans on the side of producing more, more, more, and so of course polls now show over sixty percent of our countrymen/women calling for increased drilling. In response to this wave of support for a bad idea, Obama has shifted his stated views, cautiously floating the notion of maybe drilling in the future.
Flip-flop? Well, sure, if we’re to utilize such idiotic terms, then yes, I suppose this adheres to the definition of a, um, flip-flop. And a purely political one at that (as they all are). That’s a godsend for the Republican talk machine, since they can tarnish Obama’s golden boy image, but does anyone besides the Republicans really see a halo around Obama’s head?
I for one have plenty of complaints about Obama’s imperfections and can identify purely political causes for most of them. For starters, I don’t like ethanol as our primary choice for an alternative fuel, but I also understand that without pushing that button Obama would have had a very difficult time getting a key primary victory in Iowa. I don’t like that Obama passed up an opportunity to critique Israeli policy, choosing instead to run the same old tired lines about Israeli-American solidarity that nobody should even be questioning by now, but of course he was already having problems with the Jewish community. I don’t care for any politician that brings God into the campaign, but a homosexual Wiccan would probably have a better chance of winning the White House than an atheist, so the man’s got to prove his spiritual mettle.
Obama’s not perfect, but every dubious stance he takes is matched tenfold by John McCain and aimed at getting elected. I voted Nader in 2000 on principle, and frankly never felt too guilty about it—but this is another ballgame altogether, and McCain’s continuation of the Bush era scares me to death.
Besides, McCain’s record isn’t free of flipping or flopping. Just to run down a quick list:
-The “maverick” McCain opposed offshore drilling before the presidential candidate McCain favored it.
-McCain opposed ethanol and now favors it.
-McCain opposed Bush’s tax cuts, and now supports them.
-McCain now opposes the campaign finance reforms that he brought to the table with so much fanfare a few years ago.
-Remember when McCain was absolutely opposed to any form of torture? Yeah, me too.
-McCain once criticized Bush for visiting the notoriously racist and anti-Catholic Bob Jones University—now, he’s open to visiting the place himself.
-McCain was pro-choice, but has since gone pro-life (just in time, too!)
-McCain fought tooth and nail to prevent Arizona from celebrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday. Now? Well, that would just be political suicide.
But we can’t bring that up, because then we’re “playing the race card.”
That most toxic of all hands to be dealt, the race card, is obviously the domain of Barack Obama. At least that’s what McCain would have us believe. This came about because, in response to the aforementioned McCain ads, Obama remarked that his opponent would try to paint him as different-looking, with a funny name and nothing in common with the average voter. McCain’s rebuttal is to accuse Obama of focusing on race. But is Obama the one that brought race into the arena? And is he wrong in his characterization of McCain’s ads?
My answer to both questions would be a resolute “no.” The truth is that, devoid of any substance, McCain’s ads play strictly on the notion that many people look at Barack Obama and think him less “presidential” than McCain, more arrogant, more entitled, more elitist, more “Other.” McCain’s ads, especially “The One,” ask nothing more of Obama than “who the hell does he think he is?” And who does Obama think he is? A senator that opposed an unpopular war, a constitutional law professor at a time when the Constitution suffers daily assaults, a community organizer with a history of championing the poor and the middle class, a politician who has driven low-minded opponents to sheer exasperation by his lack of “dirt”? How did this activist for the downtrodden get painted as an elitist? What exactly makes a tireless worker who made good on the opportunities afforded him automatically don the label of entitlement? What has he done that makes him more arrogant than his temperamental opponent?
A couple of days ago David Gergen—a moderate analyst who has advised the administrations of Ford, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton—put McCain’s strategy in no uncertain terms:
I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it, but it's the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows that. There are certain kinds of signals. As a native of the south, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, “The One,” that's code for, “he's uppity, he ought to stay in his place.” Everybody gets that who is from a southern background. We all understand that.
So who really played the “race card” in this recent dustup? Obama may have come closer to identifying it, but he was simply identifying his opponent’s strategy. In fact, the McCain camp knew all along who its audience in these ads was: those same folks that can’t stand to see a black man act “uppity,” those same folks for whom it matters that Obama’s middle name is Hussein, those same folks that have no time for substance and so rely on a centuries-old foundation of prejudice to inform their opinions. When analysts say Obama may not appeal to white blue collar voters, it’s because he’s black. Soccer moms? He’s black. Nascar dads? He’s black. Latinos? He’s black. Elderly Jews? He’s black and kind of Muslim-ish. There are plenty of reasons for McCain’s supporters to not vote for Obama, of course, but the recent ads address nothing so effectively as pure, ignorant xenophobia.
If that sounds too simplistic then I urge you to take a look at those ads and tell me if there’s anything about them that indicates an attempt at sophistication. The dirty work is done. McCain need not directly soil his hands, because the message is out. As the “Straight Talk Express” rolls on to engage proactive voters, ads like “Celeb” and “The One” will continue to appeal to the basest impulses of the less-informed.
Fortunately, I think, we live in a nation that has at least changed enough to not capitulate entirely to such a horrific plan of attack. Still, there is blood in the water, and I do believe I hear the sound of Swift Boats on the horizon.
illustration by Lukas Ketner

Monday, August 4, 2008

"...words from the heavy set..."

The last blog I put up was posted at 3:32 this morning. Had I been more lucid I would not likely have typed it the way that I did. I certainly wouldn't have admitted to ogling a stripper that went to my high school, but hey, that's how it goes when you can't sleep.

I was up, I think, because of allergies. I haven't the slightest clue what I'm allergic to, but for a week now something has been causing me to sneeze and cough throughout the night and then wake up with a sore throat in the morning. Yesterday one of my coughs was apparently a bit past my throat's limit, causing irritation that resulted in a pretty bad coughing fit that didn't let up until around 5 am.

It was around 8 pm when I got home from the Chariot Festival and I was exhausted. I was thrilled by the prospect of getting to bed early and being productive. I was going to get a full night's sleep and wake up at six. I was going to go to the gym (belly's going soft), I was going to do quite a bit of reading, I was going to type something thoughtful on here about the recent uproar over Obama "playing the race card." But I didn't sleep. I coughed. I got up and typed a blog about Venice Beach. I tried to sleep, but just coughed more. I gargled hot water with salt, drank chamomile tea, tried sleeping sitting up.

I woke this morning with a swollen throat, having slept about three hours. I paid my rent, and I've been a zombie ever since. So now I'm turning my phone off and hoping that tomorrow I can be a real human being again.

Jesus Freaks vs. Typical Garden Variety Freaks, or, The Joys of Late Capitalism.

Saturday night checked out the Orange County Fair and, while standing in line, saw a woman that went to my high school. She was a few years older than me, although I think she had a brother my age. If memory serves me correctly, she used to dance at a "gentleman's club." She's stunningly attractive.

It's difficult to overstate how crazy the fair is, with its deep-fried everything (avocadoes, Twinkies, Snickers, Oreos, broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, battered potatoes, etc.), its enormous livestock (worth the $1, believe it or not--they're really big), and its orgy of gaudy lighting in every rusted corner. I love it. The highlight for me is always seeing people make their way through crowds wielding outlandish prizes. One guy had a five-foot tall blue plaid Scooby Doo doll, another deftly balanced two mountain bikes while giving directions to his kids, who led the way excitedly. Both men had the same look on their faces, a sheepish mix of accomplishment and practical dilemma: does a giant stuffed dog fit in the car?

Sunday was still more interesting: the Chariot Festival of Venice Beach, which celebrates Lord Krishna's return to Vrindaban. Having grown up a couple of blocks from the stretch known as "Little India," I can't say that I've ever felt like my life has any lacunae in need of being filled by experiencing Hindu festivals, but this one definitely looked like something new: basically, two flatbed trucks are decked out lavishly in colorful, florid patterns and adorned with statues, pictures, etc. Then a ceremony is held around the floats, and an entire festival--food vendors, ethnic performances and the like--takes place in the general vicinity.

Had I thought more about the thing, I may have factored in the location. I'm glad I didn't, as the surprise provided for half the fun of the experience.

Upon arriving, the people we met told us right away that the Indian food served at the festival was terrible and we'd better get something to eat at another place. So I had a gyro. It wasn't very good, but not terrible. Then we proceeded to the site of the festival, which was literally only what I've described: two decorated flatbed trucks (I should note, they were very well-decorated), a stage where a group of young girls performed a very impressive traditional dance, and lots of shops selling everything from authentic Indian fare to New Age-y trinkets to Bob Marley t-shirts. For the first twenty minutes I saw many Hare Krishnas, countless women in saris, but not one person of Indian descent. It was essentially a gathering of old hippies and Phish-heads.

We did finally run across a contingent of “real” Indians, all gathered together sitting on a little knoll, apparently as bemused by the spectacle as we were. In front of them, somewhere in between Govinda’s International Imports and the Hawaiian Shaved Ice stand, a tall Caucasian man painted blue calmly explained Vishnu’s virtues to an apparent skeptic. Back near the boardwalk, stationed in front of another float under the watchful eye of the police, three men held signs high in the air condemning us all to hell for defying God and Jesus, while their associate yelled through a bullhorn that “You should be eating cows, not worshipping them!” While I was clicking a photo of him, he picked on a Hare Krishna adherent standing next to me and bellowed, “Does grass have a soul?” Then without letting the guy answer, continued, “The tents you’ve erected today are sitting on grass! You’re hurting the grass, you hypocrites!” As we left the scene I could hear him work up to a fever pitch and yell, “God hates you all and will send you all to hell, because you’re a nation of homo lovers. That’s right! You’re all nothing but a bunch of homo lovers!” This was met with uproarious laughter and even some applause from the crowd.

We proceeded down the boardwalk to find a spot on the beach. A guy in a turban with a visor pulled over it rode rollerblades and played the electric guitar. Aspiring rappers attempted to sell their CDs to passersby. Booths along the way sold a rendition of Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama poster that substituted the Rasta color scheme for the red, white and blue. Caricature artists, tattooists, calligraphers, blown glass, tongue whistles, fortune tellers, body builders, well-trained pit bulls, the "Venice Beach Freak Show."

Following some time spent soaking up UV rays on the sand, and after two or three beers at a nearby bar, we headed back through it all one more time on the way out. Close to the scene of the festival, an Indian family—mother, father, one child, one set of grandparents—sat bewildered on a bench in front of a head shop watching people shop for bongs as a woman stood out front distributing cards and yelling, “Medical marijuana, upstairs! Come see the doctor!” In the spot where we had all been condemned to hell’s eternal flames, three men still stood with signs, but they had no vociferous spokesman and their signs read “SURFING! SKATES! BIKES!” and “SUNGLASSES! $5!”