April 29, 2009

Because I Am, After All, a Professional

Good goddamn, the swine are squealing again. At times like this, a man needs some peace and quiet—some good healthy sleep, too—but when all he hears is the panicked sounds of screaming pork, that is not to be. Mother of sweet babbling Elvis, these ugly days of swine flu seem to have weird implications for me. Oh yes, I am freaking out, against my better judgment, because in my line of work, ladies and gentlemen, I have slathered lipstick on many pigs, so I have been dangerously overexposed. And now, now is the time that they have all chosen to home to wallow.

And why? Because one has to admit one's mistakes. Because one must stand by what one has done, for good or ill. No no, not in a forehead-slapping self-flagellatory way (though I can do that too, if necessary)—in the way of tried-and-true, mama's boy repentant weeping; in that way of honest catharsis that can only bring a brilliant, brave, and bold rebirth. A phoenix rising from the mud, as it were—and not unlike our brand-new bestest spectral friend from Pennsylvania. Oh I know, I know—the Keystone State has so much to answer for as it is, but now is not the best time to ask it of them. That land of World Series champions and men on dogs and untold thousands of liberally drunk bloggers is long overdue for a reckoning—but the day for that is not today, because as always I have more important things to whine about.

Such as myself. You see, when all the world's a blind sow rooting around for acorns, the one-eyed boar is king. He may never actually get wings, but his royalty is not in question, even if he does misinterpret stupid puns overheard from garbled headlines and cable news. And, hell—if he misinterprets that, what won't he fall for? Indeed, like many otherterminal narcissists, I still get extremely offended when I am unduly administered repeated shocks to my innocence gland—and every snake I've ever picked up has always snickered sweetly right before she bit me, as if in sheer unbelief that a superficially intelligent guy like me could make such stupid mistakes.

Well it's true, and I have, and the problem lies in spec work—that bane of every graphics professional. Spec work is like taking bit parts in Z-grade slasher flicks because you think it'll look good on your resumé; because you're so damn flattered that someone—anyone—gives two decent craps about your heretofore undiscovered creative genius. And because (you tell yourself every time) this is the absolute last one like this you'll do. Last one. Just like Neil McCauley, you know? Just one last thing to take care of, and then you can jump back in the sportscar with the gullibly desperate younger version of Judging Amy holding the gear shift.

But I could never walk away from anything in 30 trillion seconds flat, let alone a measly 30 seconds. No, it was just the opposite—I'd never let a job go, never stop tinkering with it until it was hopelessly overcooked, and then I'd have a crispy carbonized mess with a lot of explaining to do on top of it. And besides, when a job falls right in your lap, and you know the other people in the running are all stone cold chumps you could beat left-handed, you take the job. Yeah, man—you throw down the big clangy gauntlet and wait to be deluged in accolades, and when it happens...oh, now that's what makes life worth living, my little pork chops. Especially when all you have to do is a five-minute recycling job using a single shard from a previously brilliant work—because hey, in this post-post-post-modern, ultra-self-referential age, why the hell not? Who would bat an eye?

Until the full ramifications sink in, of course. Until the consequences hit home in toto. Until you finally tune out the ravenous, fawning limpets of fandom and truly come to grips with what you've done—which I now think I have, and oh God, it's freeing. It's just like all those Jesus freaks used to describe confession—all that "let go and let God" malarky—only about a bazillion times better. See, you get the best of both worlds: fame and infamy, depending on the audience of course; immortality, if you're very lucky. And for a man like me who's sworn (for the time being) to refrain from producing little mutant genetic copies of himself, well, immortality's the real payoff to beat all payoffs. Who wouldn't want to live forever? And I mean besides sexy teen vampires in books we don't believe?

But enough about all that. I've done terrible things, and I'm sorry for them. Furthermore, I have learned how to keep further such horrendous mistakes at bay—and I did it with the help of every coward's friend: the non-compete, non-disclosure agreement. Oh yes, because in my heart of hearts I will always be a spoiled suburban bureaucrat with the heart of a parasite and the mind of a child. That's what happens to you when they call you "gifted" at so young an age, folks. That's what happens when you parlay all that into some truly bipartisan dissembling of language.

Because as everyone knows, straddling ye olde white picket fence may look cool, but all you really get out of it is splinters in the groin. You know, the kind of thing that only happens to big-time suckers. Yeah, because slumming only looks cool when you can leave the slum behind—but in the end all that makes you is a tourist, dude. Trying to look cool is trying too hard. Better to accept your congenital uncoolness and then get on with it, especially in times like these when the fat has long been in the fire.

Cross-posted: dkos, fsz, mlw

April 23, 2009

Reviving the Lost Art of Self-Immolation

"I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed."
Brendan Frye
The soggy three-pound cage sitting on my shoulders is not prone to epic fits of vengeful retribution, but it is quite capable of holding minor grudges for surprisingly long periods of time. I re-discovered this disturbing fact over the past week—while trying to avoid the usual lesser spasms of paranoia so prevalent in this skittish new age of hope and change—but a sudden attack of hopeless boredom blunted any revelatory impact. I felt broken—to the point where I'd sunk comfortably into my nostalgia-padded rec room and resigned myself to the long, slow decline of decadent empires—but ironically, revenge put me back together again.

Vengeful impulses usually backfire of course, and always trade a heavy psychic toll for the momentary thrill of payback—but let's face it, melodramatic karma makes the world go round, man, and self-righteous tantrums are, literally, all the rage any day of the week. So imagine my explosive glee when I belatedly succumbed to the sweet siren song of a truly ugly tale that had long been splattered across the pixellated pages of that Grand Bastion of Liberalism, the Orange County Register: that of the slowly-imploding Capistrano Unified School District, my educational alma mater.

Oh yes, regime change had finally come back to Capistrano—just like those pestilential swallows—in the form of an overblown auto de fe by ex-Superintendent James Fleming and his faithful right hand, Associate Superintendent Susan McGill. Theirs was a sordid story of supposed sin that I'd managed to remain completely ignorant of, despite repeated hints dropped by various well-meaning friends and relatives who have worked or currently work for CUSD. It had everything, though—arrogance, intimidation, entitlement, corruption, decadence—including a certain secret ingredient that made it irresistible to me.

But more about that later. First, the charges: both Fleming and McGill had been indicted by a local grand jury for "conspiracy to commit an act injurious to the public"—apparently creating and then covering up a Nixonian "enemies list" in defense against a 2005 election recall of the entire CUSD school board. Both administrators also allegedly combined their suburban COINTELPRO tactics with a massive misappropriation of funds, spent on a palatial new CUSD administration building mercilessly derided by outraged locals as "the Taj Mahal."

This being Orange County, the recall effort was spurred in no small part by a phalanx of right-wing Sheila Broflovskis—outraged parents and do-goody "small business owners" who just hated taxes and secularity and corrupt public education ever so much—but as always in these cases, ugliness boiled beneath their glorious fury. See, reporter Scott Martindale's coverage of CUSD's collapse includes a handy-dandy timeline compiled in June of last year, when the Fleming/McGill corruption-perjury trial was about to get delayed for the first of not one, or two, or three, or even four, but five times. My favorite entry is this one:
November 2006: Running on a “reform” slate and backed by recall leaders, candidates Ellen Addonizio, Anna Bryson and Larry Christensen are elected to the school board by landslide margins. Questions arise later about their connections to the Tustin-based Education Alliance, a political action committee that gives $22,000 to the recall and its candidates. The self-described “back-to-basics” group opposes health clinics and bilingual education in schools, advocates for school voucher programs, and thinks teachers unions wield too much power and influence.
Beaners and teachers and vouchers, oh my! However, many recall supporters seemed just as likely to stumble over themselves denying adherence to any political philosophy, and indeed the recall-supported candidates fervently declared their own independence from evil outside influence, all the while lambasting the imperial Fleming/McGill axis of mendacity. Now, under normal circumstances I wouldn't have batted an eye at this faraway, overblown and fermenting hysteria, but it was intrinsically intertwined with my own shameful past.

Yes, yes...and now we come to it—The Vengeance. This is where things Get Personal, ladies and gentlemen. You see, a long time ago in an elementary school far far away, a certain happy young boy was playing tetherball, enjoying an extended recess approved by his second-grade teacher (may God rest her soul). That joy was soon cut short, however, when a different teacher passing by coldly imposed her cruel will upon him."The bell rang five minutes ago, young man," she boomed, and despite all manner of truthful protests on his part, the hapless kid was Issued A Citation.

Pity, really—he'd always been such a nice boy, but his sense of righteous indignation was not yet mature enough to seek justice. Fortunately, the teacher's hyperbolic discipline rampage was soon nullified via timely intervention by the boy's mother. That wasn't the end of it, though—three years later, that same boy and his best friend were lured off the school bus by a pretty girl they knew, and then dragged against their will into an after-school "Gifted and Talented" program administered by this same iron-fisted teacher. Even that wasn't the end—years later, the boy's mother was working as a CUSD tutor when the teacher, now an administrator, exacted her revenge using the time-honored thousand-cut method of bureaucratic passive-aggressive attrition—and there were many more victims after that.

Yeah, yeah—boo frickety hoo, small potatoes, blah blah blah—but in truth, this is actually Susan McGill we're talking about here, folks. That's right, the very same Susan McGill who later allegedly assisted her superindendent in his efforts to thwart the right-wing nutjobs' recall campaign. The same Susan McGill who, upon her promotion to the district office a decade prior, supposedly ran roughshod over the various educational serfs and students of Capistrano Unified for years before her hubristic instincts inadvertently began reviving the lost art of self-immolation.

Ah, Mrs. McGill, it's been a long time. True, some very smart and respectable people claim you were railroaded—but the recall has now come and gone like the Iran-Iraq war, and the fundies now hold power at Capo Unified, baby. But we all live for the small victories, don't we? Indeed, Mrs. McGill—the lawyers you and Jimbo hired can't put off the trial forever, and when it finally happens, I'll be watching from the front row—not to see the nutcases fed, but to see you eaten. Hell yes. They say the inexorable grinding of Justice's rusty wheels is nearly unbearable to witness...but I'll do my best.

Cross-posted: dkos, mlw

April 19, 2009

It's a Big Day for Someone Today

Happy birthday Mom. You done good.

April 17, 2009

I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe

I think I need to leave this line of work. I've been telling myself that for years, but have never really had the stones to go through with it. This time, though, I think it's for real. This time, the stress is just ridiculously unbearable. I mean, the past few weeks have been nothing short of complete mental chaos, and enough secrets, lies, and various other species of trust-busting ugliness have been ginned up that my whole world has begun to appear psychologically fuzzy and morally opaque.

The impossibly pressurized situation that is my job has always been hostile to my health and survival, but surviving is exactly what I've been able to accomplish for the last five years. I've subsumed my own desires beneath those of The Agency. Made sacrifices, bled rocks, and did whatever the hell I was told, without question—and nearly gone around the bend more times than I can remember. Retiring things that aren't ready to be retired will to that to a man.

Well, that and the little surprises that always end up being back-breaking straws, right? In my case, it was an episode of shocking drama book-ended by two innocuous telephone calls. The second one matters little, except that it happened not long ago, when my wife called me from San Diego to offer a singularly impersonal question.

"What was his number?" Her voice crackled in among wild cheers and other apocalyptic noise. I wasn't ready for coherent thought at the time, and had trouble picking up the signal. "Huh?"

"His number, damn it, his uniform number." She began to break up. "Oh—oh yeah," I replied. "Um...I think it was—yeah, it was 3."

"I thought so." She sounded nonplussed, but I knew better. "Why? What's up?"

"Eck is wearing it. Just like Jenny said."

"Shit. Shit! That's damn near unbelievable."

"Yeah, that's what I said," Em sighed, "but the girl's been shot at, fer crissakes. Don't question her. She knows what she's talking about."

We didn't say much after that, and hung up soon enough. I immediately went into a terrible funk, haunted by the last time I'd seen that holy digit dancing across my field of vision—back in happier times, right before the inevitable decline.

It all began last July. My wife and I were in the middle of a much-needed vacation, which just happened to coincide with our anniversary. We were just settling in to a late lunch, shielded from the cancerous afternoon sun by state-of-the-art glasswork, when the first call came in. Ignoring matrimonial waves of indignant surprise (itself related to my failure to shut off the damn phone while not working) wasn't easy, but I took one look at the incoming number and knew I had to pick up.

"We need you at the park pronto," said my C.O., in his weird but appropriately ominous Hungarian-Spanglish accent. "One of the units has gone off the reservation and displayed alarming amounts of violence coupled with emotion."

"What? Emotion? Are you kidding me?" This was almost unheard of—especially considering there was only one true replicant I knew of in that vicinity—but considering the previous few months, I shouldn't have been surprised. Statistics don't lie, except when they do.

"No, it's been verified. Get your ass down here immediately." Gaff broke off to yell at some poor bastard on his end of the line, and I could hear an ugly metallic banging sound. Shit—he wasn't at the station, he was on scene!

"I'll need all the info I can get—I can't go into another one of these things cold, sir." I was never a fan of replicant-retirement. I felt sick and twisted every time I had to go zap another crazed android, and so I'd been avoiding assignments like this for six months.

"Stop at the station on your way down, then," sighed Gaff. "There's a pile of Deckard's old notes on my desk. Read them quickly."

"Roger that," I replied, and we hung up. I traveled to the station in a coma, completely oblivious to the surrounding splendor of decaying paradise and tarnished opulence that stood in for Southern California. The case notes were right where Gaff said they'd be, and I skimmed the first ten or so pages before giving up and making for the scene. Deckard's shit was always so mopey and pessimistic, and I'd usually avoided his analyses as a matter of policy, but this time I put it down because I think I related to it a little too much. When you've played the game this long, a childish pastime starts taking on uncomfortable airs of responsible necessity, and you forget what made it fun in the first place.

For me, though, it was rarely fun. Oh, I was good at it—precocious, even—but the atmosphere didn't mesh with my temperament and I was functionally out of the game by the age of sixteen. For a while though, it was a useful enough pastime, despite giving me more reasons to weep like a blubbering fool, either in sentimental resignation or self-loathing angst or whatever other range of spasms that my own personal emoto-chip would permit. I mean, I grew up playing little league in America, so I've been primed from the age of six to let my well-being rise and fall from April to October; to place a laughably immature emotional investment in the clichéd myths and simply surrender to sensory manipulation.

So imagine the hoops my brain had to slither through when I arrived at the park and the place was louder than a jungle of howler monkeys. Oh sure, the game had long since ended, but plenty of panicked technicians and scientists were running around, openly freaking out. Moores was, naturally, nowhere to be found; Alderson and Towers were bawling each other out in the middle of the clubhouse; DePodesta was sitting by himself in a corner, head in his hands.

Virtually unnoticed by the scrum of reporters milling around were the units themselves, mechanically showering, dressing, and sneaking out the back door—Gonzales and Bell were leaving as soon as I walked in—while no less than three separate medical teams attended to one in particular. They spoke in hushed whispers, but I could make out a few distinct phrases. Two technicians bent over a feebly sputtering unit, its fist still embedded in a mangled locker door.

"Have you ever seen him like this before? This is totally unprecedented."

"No, never. Of course, we'd long suspected...phenomenal abilities...made previous models look clumsy and obsolete out there, especially Nevin and Klesko."

"Useless piles of scrap, those two," I chimed in, but they ignored me.

"This one, though—you weren't there back then, Dex—but this one, we built him along the lines of Sandberg. Well, Sandberg and that other Green—the Jewish kid, remember him?"

"I remember that guy." Suddenly Gaff was beside me, inserting himself into the breach I couldn't crack. "Saw him park two against St. Louis at a playoff game in L.A. Green was amazing. A king, that day anyway."

"Scary amazing," I said, but that wasn't what I meant. What frightened me the most is how much I identified with those particular units. The ones who put up crazy numbers day in day out, but choked in high profile situations with names like All-Star Game or Division Series. My reverie was cut short however, when the unit started beeping and whirring, briefly coming to life. Everyone else watched helplessly, but I couldn't stand it anymore, and bent down to cradle Khalil's head in my hands.

The replicant's faint whispers were difficult to discern amid the general uproar of the clubhouse, but I know what I heard, damn it—pure emotion. Yes, unadulterated feeling, pouring forth from the mind of an android as it lay there in my arms, a crushed and broken being at the end of its prescribed life-span, and when it spoke, we listened.

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Naval attack ships floating beneath fireworks on the bay. I've watched gaslamps glitter in the dark near the Western Metal Supply building, and skin flash behind the bar at 5th and K. All those... moments will be lost in time... like...tears...in rain."

"Jesus God Almighty," sniffed Gaff, as the light went out of young Khalil's eyes, and his fingers curled into a weak fist again around the locker door.

"That's it," I said. "That's too much, chief. I'm finished." And then I left, never looking back.

Epilogue: Spicoli's New Adventures in Birdland

He's in a better place now, supposedly—just like his forbear, the Wizard Himself. The childish melodramas he left behind—emotional roller-coasters named Hoffman and Peavy, violently unstable units named Giles and Bush—have long since been forgotten.

Yes, because this is something New, ladies and gentlemen. This is the Land of La Russa, of gashouses, not gaslamps. Of Gibson and McGwire and Rickey and Stan the Man. Young Khalil's retrofitting in Missouri is said to be going well. Retirement was not an option for him. No, not yet anyway—but it's one hell of an option for me, ladies and gentlemen.

And I aim to make the most of it.

UPDATE 5/19: Apparently the retrofit is not going very well after all. Oh well.

Cross-posted: glb

April 07, 2009

Live from the Rec Room, it's Creeping Nostalgia

My never-ending snapshot-montage project went mega today, on seventeen 12 x 12 mounted foam-board squares. Right now it's made up of stuff from about 1991-2008 (see detailed versions here and here), but there's plenty of room to keep growing if the nostalgia bug keeps gnawing on my cerebrum, and indeed the 2008-2009 one is already in the works. Anyway, with the Wall of Nostalgia on one side, and the Wall of Awesome on the other side, it looks like I may never need to leave my little rec room. Just in time for the nice weather. Oh well.

April 05, 2009

Requiem for a Music Geek: A Serious Case of the Teenage Retro Virus

Good morning newbies, my name is Dr. Demento, and I'll be your instructing Resident today. Sorry I'm late. Okay, so if everyone's caffeinated and scrubbed in and ready, we'll begin with today's patient. It appears that this morning, that person will be...aha, here it is—his name is Mr. Keir DuBois, and he checked in last night displaying telltale symptoms of the Teenage Retro Virus. Apparently, Mr. DuBois was complaining about substantial side effects stemming from an overdose of that wretched Facebook meme known as "Senior Year," but our patient's history indicates a previous dalliance with this particular retrovirus—indeed, his dangerous abuse of something called "Shorter Senior Year" in the aftermath of his 10-year high school reunion had landed him in our hospital in summer 2005.

Now, I cannot emphasize that every music geek I've ever operated on gets bitten by the retro bug in some form or another, but if you delve deeper into his file, you will find that our current case is particularly exceptional example. He has snapped up Elvis Costello discs galore when writing lyrics for his first band, he has collected Pixies albums after seeing a Frank Black show, and he has plowed through old R.E.M. stuff as a UCSB freshman when Morninglory Music had good deals on used CDs. You will also note that he caught up with old Dylan and Neil Young because smart friends of his kept insisting he do so; he jumped into previously hated 80's bands like the Smiths, the Cure, and Depeche Mode in order to understand the details of his wife's own musical obsessions; he absorbed classic blues and surf recordings when joining the aforementioned first band on bass guitar.

However, it would appear that our patient's biggest single retroviral rock binge occurred in the year spanning March 1994 to March 1995—a period ending immediately after a certain phenomenon known as "Air Guitar"—and evidently Mr. DuBois was not alone in his behavior. His enablers are three in number, and their names are listed in the file as Jon Green, Nick Clemente, and Kevin Hessel. Their controlled substances of choice were many, but five in particular showed up most often in the contemporaneous toxicology report: the Beatles' "Past Masters II," Creedence's "Chronicle," Van Morrison's "Best Of," Jimi Hendrix's "Ultimate Experience," and the Rolling Stones' "Hot Rocks." Keep in mind, students, that everyone their age was at this time supposed to enjoy flannelly grunge or gin-and-juice G-funk. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but these boys wanted something a little more fermented, shall we say.

Please note the point in our forensic timeline when it was discovered that our subjects mainlined these substances using the most powerful delivery system for Loud Classic Rock they could acquire—namely, Mr. Hessel's greased-lightning death trap of a Honda Civic, and its two massive stereophonic speakers. It should be noted that Mr. DuBois, a constant back-seat passenger of said vehicle, was under dangerous levels of exposure to those humongous motherfucking speakers (as were Mr. Green and Mr. Clemente), especially when the Civic would tear out of the Dana Hills High School parking lot blaring something like "Paperback Writer" or "Gimme Shelter" or "Voodoo Child." Admittedly, newbies, that is some seriously cool shit—and note that extensive testing on Mr. DuBois' eardrums also shows that the car stereo was sometimes hooked up to a CB/loudspeaker contraption, accessible to the shotgun seat. This device was most often wielded by Mr. Clemente, and no one was safe from his amplified verbal harassment—neither innocent bystanders nor hopeless wankers nor unbelievably hot chicks.

Okay, at this point the transcript will note that the Nurse is motioning for our attention because the patient, Mr. DuBois, is now exhibiting severe cerebral-verbal flashbacks. Let's listen in, shall we?

[...Here the tape cuts to a microphone recording the patient's hazy babble as he slips in and out of a hallucinatory, delirious fog...]

"Lady Madonna, some people really hated high school, but Jackie Wilson Said I...I didn't. I mean, what's to hate, right? Especially senior year, man—that, well, that rocked. Kev drove us to the movies and the pulp fiction of football away games at Aliso and Capo. Hell yes, the cheerleaders! Put a spell on you, jump jump shake that booty, baby please don't go. You say you want a revolution? Hey Jude, pull the deflated beachball out of my pants, blow it up, scrawl "Vote for Nick" on the bastard, and let it go, and it stoned me to my soul. I mean, it's Homecoming, just a shot away, so why not? And hey, there's Clemente down there right now—snatched the megaphone away from Ali and away he fucking goes, man! All along the watchtower, to the next run through the jungle, where Kev drives through crosstown traffic into a fog bank on Niguel Road on the way to Adrienne's house—where she and Alexis and Tara present Nick & Jon with Under My Thumb champagne, and me and Kev with...Mother's little helper sparkling cider? Hey Joe, what kind of wild night is that?"

[...the transcript continues...]

"Fuckin' A, dude—you can't always get what you want—it won't always be all fortunate son Christmas caroling in the rain at Kathy's, or anarchy in Ms. Sheehy's class, or senioritis in Butera's room, or late night AP test prep with the late great Mr. Buchheim. No, sometimes it's a Happy Fuckin' New Year that destroys Jon's house and his mom bans us from the premesis, or off nights with the 6th Man Club when Meyers and Marston can't quite eke out a W against Trabuco, or inexplicably missing out on The Paper/Your Mom and Sherrill's mad Baja runs. Even so, you gotta take it when you can get it, like honkey tonk women's volleyball, like getting off-campus to JC's for lunch, or even better down to Stuft in the Civic. Like a 24-couple-strong Winter Formal party, dude—sure do clean up nice, don't we?—and when you can't get no satisfaction, you can always fall back on Air Guitar! Fuck yes: spray-painted black hair for Kev/Bill and JC/Keef, sharp threads for Doobs/Charlie, a padded cell for Cros/Jonesy, and tight silver lamé pants for Clemente/Jagger..."

Ahem. Demento again here, newbies. Okay, so you can clearly discern the dangers of unadulterated retro-rock binges, and—hey, give the patient some chloroform, and maybe he'll shut the fuck up—there, that's better. Now, where was I? Oh yes—the retrovirus. Well, there appears to be no cure—it will always flare up again in each infected case from time to time, but several treatment options are available, at varying degrees of strength and intensity. Our patient here, however, is obviously well beyond anything beneficial those various treatments could bring. No, Mr. DuBois is an irreversibly terminal case, and unfortunately I'm afraid there's nothing more this hospital can do for him, folks. He is doomed to suffer periodic relapses into crippling nostalgia and retroviral hallucinations. May Elvis have mercy upon his soul.

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