Narcissus' Echo

Thoughts, tears, rants, ruminations, hopes, fears, love(s), and prayers of just another being passing through this wracked sphere...

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A round peg in a world of square holes...

Friday, September 30, 2005




takchek suggested that I include the following link to let readers know more about the background regarding this "ad," so here you go:

More info

However, I was going more for the phenomenon of "Looterman jokes" in my post. It appears that this particular New Orleans looter has achieved cult status in many cyber-communities. As the samples attest, posters refer to him as the "Looterman," and graft his likeness on to other pictures for amusement.

Days of Looting
Starring Looterman and Nicole Kidman.

J. Lo and Looterman.

A lot more here.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Weird sex: Giant squid do it deeper

VIGO, Spain (25 Sep 2005) -- RESEARCH by marine scientists has shed startling new light on the secret sex life of the giant squid, one of the most mysterious monsters of the world's deepest oceans.

The breakthrough came after a recent spate of strandings on the Atlantic coast of Spain when five of the huge invertebrates - one of them 12 metres long - were washed ashore in a single week on beaches on the Bay of Biscay.

One of the two males washed ashore was found to have been accidentally inseminated - backing the findings of research in previous strandings.

And scientists now believe the males had either accidentally inseminated themselves during "violent" lovemaking sessions with females or been inseminated by other males after "bumping" into them in the dark depths of the ocean.

The new discovery is reported by a team of Spanish scientists at the Institute of Marine Research in Vigo in the latest edition of the monthly magazine of the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas.

The researchers state: "The giant squid, Architeuthis, is not only a cultural and media icon, but also a scientific enigma. Although it is among the largest living invertebrates ... most of our knowledge of its biology and ecology is still fragmented. So each time a giant squid is washed ashore or gets brought up in a fishing net, it provides a gold mine of information. A recent spate of strandings along the Spanish Atlantic coast has shed new light on their unique sexual behaviour in the ocean depths."

The report goes on: "Although mating has never been observed in giant squid, it is thought that what happens is that the male injects his sperm packages into the female's arms. The process is likely to be a fairly violent affair as the female is probably not that keen on being injected. This is a problem for the amorous male as females are normally a third bigger than they are.

"But males get round their inferior size by being endowed with a particularly long penis, which means they can inject the female without having to get too close to her chomping beak. The male's sexual organ is actually a bit like a high-pressure fire hose and is normally nearly as long as his body - excluding legs and head.

"But having such a big penis does have one drawback: it seems that co-ordinating eight legs, two feeding tentacles and a huge penis, whilst fending off an irate female, is a bit too much to ask, and one of the two males stranded on the Spanish coast had accidentally injected himself with sperm packages in the legs and body. And this does not seem to have been an isolated incident since two of the eight males that had stranded in the north-east Atlantic before had also accidentally inseminated themselves.

"It is also possible that the sperm packages had come from other males that they had 'bumped' into, in the dark depths of the ocean.
However, the sperm packages ended up in the squid - it is just another part of the mysterious lives of these creatures of the deep sea."

Fewer than 600 specimens of giant squid have been recorded around the world since the 16th century, with the majority of landings and strandings in the north-east Atlantic and off the coasts of New Zealand and Australia. The giant squid can reach up to 18 metres in length and weigh up to 900kg.

The researchers state: "For many years the race has been on to try to film a giant squid going about its business in the ocean depths, and many marine scientists are vying to get the first video footage. So far all expeditions have been unsuccessful, but a new Spanish expedition is currently being planned and maybe this time we will be lucky."


And you thought your sex life was bad...

An excerpt from another article on giant squids:

Bus-sized giant squid filmed underwater for the first time

OGASAWARA, Japan (28 Sep 2005) -- Japanese zoologists have made the first recording of a live giant squid, one of the strangest and most elusive creatures in the world.

The size of a bus, with vast eyes and a beak, Architeuthis has long nourished myth and literature, most memorably in Jules Vernes's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which a squid tried to engulf the submarine Nautilus with its suckered tentacles.

Until now, the only evidence of giant squids was from dead squids that washed up on remote shores or got snagged on a long-line fish hook or from ships' crews who spotted the deep-sea denizen as it made a journey near the surface.

But almost nothing was known about where and how Architeuthis lives, feeds and reproduces.

And, given the problems of getting down to its home in the ocean depths, no-one had ever obtained pictures of a live one.

Scientists went to extreme lengths, backed by TV companies, to be the first.

. . .

In 2003, New Zealand marine biologists laid a sex trap.

They ground up some squid gonads, believing that the scent would drive male giant squids wild as the creatures migrated through New Zealand waters.

The hope was that a camera would squirt out the pureed genitals and a passing squid, driven into a sexual frenzy, would then mate with the lens - a project that some may be relieved to hear never came to fruition.


Those Kiwis are sure wild, eh?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Black Mountain Ride

Haven't ridden all week and needed a "maintenance ride," and so I decided to return to Black Mountain nearby for a fun workout.

Route highlighted in red. GPS track points in blue. As it can be observed, the GPS unit had a difficult time getting a fix in the canyon.

TOPO!'s elevation profile of the route.

Stevens Creek Canyon Rd, a gorgeous, shady road that rises 659 feet over 5.54 miles to the Stevens Canyon trailhead.

Stevens Canyon trailhead. Watched a rider jump this. According to him, clearing the logs is only part of it. After you land (successfully), you have to jam your rear brake, and make a hard left to follow the trail so as not to smack into the trees immediately ahead.

The green sign amused me: it is so incongruous that a sign like, "Entering Palo Alto City Limits," is planted deep in a forested canyon.

Half-way through the climb, I ran into a horde of black flies with bad tempers. You see, most flies just buzz around your head and irritate the heck out of you. But, on the downhills, you lose them. Well, these flies are different. They would buzz around my head, ears, neck, mouth, nose, and even get behind my shades to my eyes. And when I get on the downhills, they will fly to the rear of my helmet and hide in the air channels. Sometimes they get wedged between my head and the helmet. Then, they will get pissed and bite me. I have like 30 bites on the back of my scalp. And they are unbearably itchy.

Finally lost them when I reached the summit and I took off my helmet though. Guess they just couldn't keep up with the constant wind gusts.

Thought I had it bad until I read this post on a thread, "You know those little holes in your helmet?":

I had a wasp fly in once. Focker hit me 5 times before I got the helmet off. I musta looked like I lost my mind, flailing away at my own head like that... -- RobW

Stevens Canyon trail goes from forested singletrack to a fire road that winds in and out of forested sections and open meadows.

A wider perspective.

Stevens Canyon trail ends and becomes Indian Creek trail, a fire road which climbs about 850 ft relentlessly to the summit. Here, I'm looking down.

What lies ahead.

Panorama from Indian Creek trail. Current elevation 2065 ft. Stevens Canyon trail runs along the forested section on the left. The canyon is a product of the San Andreas fault, and, in certain sections, the trail actually runs on top of it! Skyline Boulevard / Highway 35, a twisty road popular with sportbikes and automobile enthusiasts, lies on the ridge across the canyon.

Altitude 2400 ft. Just about 410 ft more to the summit. Looking down here.

View from the summit, eastwards. Silicon Valley and the Diablo mountain range, with Mount Hamilton immediately on the left of the tree in the center.

A closer view. On the left, part of the bay, and the city of Milpitas. Mount Hamilton on the left of the tree in the center.

The summit of Black Mountain, elevation 2810 ft (857 m).

USGS marker.


Looks like I'm wearing stockings, doesn't it?

Descending 5.11 miles of Montebello Road took under 10 minutes as I lost 1987 ft in elevation.

Total distance: Cyclo-computer 19.9 miles (31.84 km) / GPS 20.76 miles (33.22 km) / TOPO! 21.05 miles (33.68 km).
Total elevation climbed: Altimeter 3080 ft (939 m) / GPS + TOPO! 2978 ft (908 m).
Temperature range: 62 F to 68 F (16.7 C to 20 C).
Fluids consumed: 1.5 liters.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

"I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody."

The quote above is by the comedian, actor, educator and philanthropist, Dr. Bill Cosby. Dr. Cosby has a longstanding interest in education. The actor earned a doctorate in the subject from the University of Massachusetts in 1977, and has made shows, such as the Saturday morning cartoon "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," with an emphasis on teaching. (Indeed, "Fat Albert" was the subject of his dissertation.)

On May 17, 2004, in an address during the 50th Anniversary commemoration of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Cosby made acerbic remarks towards low-income Blacks whom he believed to be deprioritizing education in favor of sports and fashion. These sentiments were repeated, even expanded upon, during a later speech on July 1 at a Rainbow Coalition meeting commemorating the anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. In it, "he admonished struggling young men to 'stop beating up your wife because you can't find a job' and stated that Blacks had forgotten the sacrifices of those in the Civil Rights Movement. The talk was interrupted several times by applause and received praise from leaders such as Jesse Jackson" (from Wikipedia).

Caution: The following excerpts may come across as offensive. If in doubt, please stop reading now, and go snort some coke, turn a trick, rob a liquor store instead, or something.

A MP3 excerpt of Bill Cosby's controversial May 2004 speech.

Text excerpts:

Ladies and gentlemen, I really have to ask you to seriously consider what you’ve heard, and now this is the end of the evening so to speak. I heard a prize fight manager say to his fellow who was losing badly, “David, listen to me. It’s not what’s he’s doing to you. It’s what you’re not doing."

Ladies and gentlemen, these people set -- they opened the doors, they gave us the right, and today, ladies and gentlemen, in our cities and public schools we have 50% drop out. In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.

Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding their end in this deal. In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. In the old days, you couldn’t hooky school because every drawn shade was an eye. And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house, and where you got on whatever you had one and where you got it from. Parents don’t know that today.

I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was twelve? Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol? And where is his father, and why don’t you know where he is? And why doesn’t the father show up to talk to this boy?

The church is only open on Sunday. And you can’t keep asking Jesus to ask doing things for you. You can’t keep asking that God will find a way. God is tired of you . . . .

50 percent drop out rate, I’m telling you, and people in jail, and women having children by five, six different men. Under what excuse? I want somebody to love me. And as soon as you have it, you forget to parent. Grandmother, mother, and great grandmother in the same room, raising children, and the child knows nothing about love or respect of any one of the three of them. All this child knows is “gimme, gimme, gimme.” These people want to buy the friendship of a child, and the child couldn’t care less. Those of us sitting out here who have gone on to some college or whatever we’ve done, we still fear our parents. And these people are not parenting. They’re buying things for the kid -- $500 sneakers -- for what? They won’t buy or spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics. . . .

Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged: “The cops shouldn’t have shot him.” What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? . . . We are not parenting.

Ladies and gentlemen, listen to these people. They are showing you what’s wrong. People putting their clothes on backwards. Isn’t that a sign of something going on wrong? Are you not paying attention? People with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? Isn’t it a sign of something when she’s got her dress all the way up to the crack -- and got all kinds of needles and things going through her body. What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail. (When we give these kinds names to our children, we give them the strength and inspiration in the meaning of those names. What’s the point of giving them strong names if there is not parenting and values backing it up).

Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem. We’ve got to take the neighborhood back. We’ve got to go in there. Just forget telling your child to go to the Peace Corps. It’s right around the corner. It’s standing on the corner. It can’t speak English. It doesn’t want to speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk. “Why you ain’t where you is go, ra.” I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. Then I heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with, “Why you ain’t…” You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth. There is no Bible that has that kind of language. Where did these people get the idea that they’re moving ahead on this. Well, they know they’re not; they’re just hanging out in the same place, five or six generations sitting in the projects when you’re just supposed to stay there long enough to get a job and move out.

Now, look, I’m telling you. It’s not what they’re doing to us. It’s what we’re not doing. 50 percent drop out. Look, we’re raising our own ingrown immigrants. These people are fighting hard to be ignorant. There’s no English being spoken, and they’re walking and they’re angry. Oh God, they’re angry and they have pistols and they shoot and they do stupid things. And after they kill somebody, they don’t have a plan. Just murder somebody. Boom. Over what? A pizza? And then run to the poor cousin’s house.

They sit there and the cousin says, “What are you doing here?”

“I just killed somebody, man.”


“I just killed somebody; I’ve got to stay here.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, give me some money, I’ll go….”

 “Where are you going?”

“North Carolina.”

Everybody wanted to go to North Carolina. But the police know where you’re going because your cousin has a record.

Five or six different children -- same woman, eight, ten different husbands or whatever. Pretty soon you’re going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you’re making love to. You don’t who this is. It might be your grandmother. I’m telling you, they’re young enough. Hey, you have a baby when you’re twelve. Your baby turns thirteen and has a baby, how old are you? Huh? Grandmother. By the time you’re twelve, you could have sex with your grandmother, you keep those numbers coming. I’m just predicting. . . .

So, ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for the award -- and giving me an opportunity to speak because, I mean, this is the future, and all of these people who lined up and done -- they’ve got to be wondering what the hell happened. Brown V. Board of Education -- these people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education and we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English. I know that you all know it. I just want to get you as angry that you ought to be. When you walk around the neighborhood and you see this stuff, that stuff’s not funny. These people are not funny anymore. And that‘s not my brother. And that’s not my sister. They’re faking and they’re dragging me way down because the state, the city, and all these people have to pick up the tab on them because they don’t want to accept that they have to study to get an education.

We have to begin to build in the neighborhood, have restaurants, have cleaners, have pharmacies, have real estate, have medical buildings instead of trying to rob them all. And so, ladies and gentlemen, please, Dorothy Height, where ever she’s sitting, she didn’t do all that stuff so that she could hear somebody say “I can’t stand algebra, I can’t stand…" and “what you is.” It’s horrible. . . .

You’re raising pimps. That’s what a pimp is. A pimp will act nasty to you so you have to go out and get them something. And then you bring it back and maybe he or she hugs you. And that’s why pimp is so famous. They’ve got a drink called the “Pimp-something.” You all wonder what that’s about, don’t you? Well, you’re probably going to let Jesus figure it out for you. Well, I’ve got something to tell you about Jesus. When you go to the church, look at the stained glass things of Jesus. Look at them. Is Jesus smiling? Not in one picture. So, tell your friends. Let’s try to do something. Let’s try to make Jesus smile. Let’s start parenting. Thank you, thank you.

(Complete transcript here)

Barack Obama, a US Senator (D), made the same point in his 2004 National Convention Keynote Address:

Go in -- Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn; they know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.

(Complete transcript here)

On September 17, The Gainsville Sun reported that the Alligator, the student newspaper of the University of Florida is facing heat for publishing a cartoon depicting the rapper Kanye West and Condoleezza Rice:

Andy Marlette's cartoon shows black rapper Kanye West, who two weeks ago said President George W. Bush doesn't care about black people at a fund-raiser for Hurricane Katrina victims, holding a playing card labeled "The Race Card" while standing next to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The bubble over Rice's head contains the words: "Nigga Please!"

Wait a minute, so it is all right for the other side to hurl any sort of drivel they feel like at the moment, but the moment the tables are turned, they get their knickers in a bunch and start throwing hissy fits?

Condoleezza Rice has a wonderful reply to the charge by some Black Americans that she is a shill for the Bush administration: " “The fact of the matter is, Bill, I’ve been black all my life, nobody needs to tell me how to be black.”

(Video transcript here (wmv))

While I do admit that the lengthy (and caustic) quotation from Dr. Bill Cosby's speech is excessive, an apology for my indulgence will not be forthcoming. A scalpel may prove to be a neater job, but sometimes a cudgel is more satisfying.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Mammon and lemmings

A news article excerpt from The Boston Globe:

'It was so eerie watching ourselves. . . . It was unimaginable'

By Jill Leovy, Los Angeles Times | September, 2005

LOS ANGELES -- For Matthew Ash, a 24-year-old on a church trip to New York's Catskill Mountains, the first sign of trouble came from a cartoon JetBlue plane.

The plane -- on the animated map at his seat -- ''wasn't going anywhere," he said, ''just hanging around in Los Angeles."

A few minutes later, he heard the calm male voice of Flight 292's pilot speaking over the plane's intercom: ''For those of you who may have noticed we are flying in circles," Ash recalled the pilot saying, ''we are currently experiencing difficulties with the front landing gear."

The landing gear had not retracted, the pilot said. A young woman turned to Ash nervously: ''So what does that mean?" she asked.

A second announcement followed: The wheel was crooked.

After that, the situation took an abrupt, bizarre turn.

JetBlue flights are equipped with small television sets on the back of each seat. As passengers watched, live MSNBC news and Fox News began to show their airplane. Ash glanced at the television of the passenger next to him: ''At first I just thought, 'Of course, Fox News,' " he said, discounting the story as sensationalized. ''But then it was on MSNBC."

People started to worry. ''It was so eerie watching ourselves," Ash said. ''It was unimaginable. . . . We heard people speculating about this and that. It was so odd."

Somehow, being on the TV news, ''made it a big deal."

Passengers reacted with a range of emotions -- some quietly upset, but most very calm. A few began laughing. Ash joined them. Once he saw the humor of it, the sense wouldn't leave him: ''It was just such an absurd situation," he said.

But his humor faded as he listened to television commentators. ''One guy was saying, 'You know, I'm just speculating, but the landing gear will break off, and the nose will drive into the pavement. . . .' "


Life imitating art. The article reminded me of an excellent book by the contemporary author, Don Delillo, White Noise. The book pokes fun at postmodern civilization, its inherent moral bankruptcy, the substitution of consumerism for spirituality or religion, and the masses enslaved to the media (e.g. TV).

In one chapter, the narrator unexpectedly discovers footage of his wife, Babette on TV:

I gave Murray his coffee and was about to leave the when I glanced in passing at the TV screen. I paused at the door, looked more closely this time. It was true, it was there. I hissed at the others for silence and they swiveled their heads in my direction, baffled and annoyed. Then they followed my gaze to the sturdy TV at the end of the bed.

The face on the screen was Babette's. Out of our mouths came a silence as wary and deep as an animal growl. Confusion, fear, astonishment spilled from our faces. What did it mean? What was she doing there, in black and white, framed in formal borders. Was she dead, missing, disembodied? Was this her spirit, her secret self, some two dimensional facsimile released by the power of technology, set free to glide through wavebands, through energy levels, pausing to say goodbye to us from the fluorescent screen?

A strangeness gripped me, a sense of psychic disorientation. It was her all right, the face, the hair, the way she blinks in rapid twos and threes. I'd seen her just an hour ago, eating eggs, but her appearance on the screen made me think of her as some distant figure from the past, some ex-wife and absent mother, a walker in the midst of the dead. If she was not dead, was I? A two-syllable infantile cry, ba-ba, issued from the depths of my soul.

All this compressed in seconds. It was only as time drew on, normalized itself, returned to us a sense of our surroundings, the room, the house, the reality in which the TV set stood--it was only then that we understood what was going on.

Babette was teaching her class in the church basement and it was being televised by a local cable station. Either she hadn't known there would be a camera on hand or she preferred not to tell us, out of embarrassment, love, superstition, whatever causes a person to wish to withhold her image from those who know her.

Mass media, it would seem, has become the test of authenticity in our lives. In a crash landing in White Noise, upon observing the rattled passengers "dragging their shoulder bags and garment bags across the dusty floor" at Iron City airport, Babette asks her husband, "Where's the media? And when he replies, "There is no media in Iron City," she exclaims in astonishment, "They went through all that for nothing?"

One constant theme that echoes throughout the novel is the question of "Who would die first?" This spawns other, equally dark--and hilarious--quotes. For example, "We seem to believe it is possible to ward off death by following the rules of good grooming."

The description of the supermarket (and, by extension, malls) is brilliant:

Tibetans believe there is a transitional state between death and rebirth. Death is a waiting period, basically. Soon a fresh womb will receive the soul. In the meantime the soul restores to itself some of the divinity lost at birth. . . . That is what I think of whenever I come in here. This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it's a gateway or path. Look how bright. It's full of psychic data. . . .

Everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material. But it is psychic data, absolutely. The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation. All the letters and numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases. It is just a question of deciphering, rearranging, peeling off the layers of unspeakability. Not that we would want to, not that any useful purpose would be served. This is not Tibet. Even Tibet is not Tibet anymore. . . .

Tibetans try to see death for what it is. It is the end of attachment to things. This simple truth is hard to fathom. But once we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die and then go on to experience rebirth or Judeo-Christian afterlife or out-of-body experience or a trip on a UFO or whatever we wish to call it. We can do so with clear vision, without awe or terror. We don't have to cling to life artificially, or to death for that matter. We simply walk towards the sliding doors. Waves and radiation. Look how well-lighted everything is. The place is sealed off, self-contained. It is timeless. Another reason why I think of Tibet. Dying is an art in Tibet. A priest walks in, sits down, tells the weeping relatives to get out and has the room sealed. Doors, windows sealed. He has serious business to see to. Chants, numerology, horoscopes, recitations. Here we don't die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think.

Read this article and decided to quote it in its entirety since the Los Angeles Times restricts non-subscriber access to its archives after a period of time.

Hemmed in by the thin green line

Perhaps nowhere more than in Los Angeles, money, or the lack of it, determines not just where we live but who our friends are.

By Sean Mitchell, Special to The Times

Maybe he went to UCLA, and you went to USC; maybe she lives on the Westside and you live in the Valley; maybe he's an evangelical Christian and you're Jewish; maybe she speaks Chinese and you speak Spanish; maybe he likes classical music and you like Nine Inch Nails. In this life there are many obstacles to friendship, but the one that people really would rather not talk about, the one that is not fit for polite conversation, is: money.

Money, as in, he has more than you do, or she has less than you do. As in, their kids go to private school and yours don't. Or you vacation in the South of France and they go to Disneyland. As in, they seemed so nice and interesting when you met them at the party, but how are you going to be friends with people who live "over there"?

Not that anyone would say such a thing out loud. Some would not even admit it to themselves. But it doesn't have to be stated because it is simply understood: The great unequalizer in our society is the size of our disposable income and the lifestyle it affords or denies. Rita Coolidge used to sing a song with a chorus that went, "You know who your friends are by looking in their eyes," but a more realistic lyric might be, "You know who your friends are by looking at their cars."

While there exists among us a small number of admirably selfless souls who devote their lives to faith and charity, most of us are defined socially by our bank accounts and what they can buy. Even if we profess not to love money or pursue it above all else, its symbolism and nagging corollary, envy, are hard to ignore — and perhaps nowhere more so than in Los Angeles, where a Hollywood break or real estate investment can separate friends overnight both literally (from Montebello to Malibu, say) and figuratively.

When a friend is blessed with good fortune and suddenly leaps to a higher tax bracket or leaves the neighborhood to climb the hills, something has happened that's hard to ignore. Both sides might wish or believe that nothing has changed between them, but the world says otherwise. "It can't stay the same when one of you enters into the Hollywood class thing," says a friend who remains a salaried employee. "When you do, you live your life in a different way."

But what is friendship based on, if money can alter it so quickly?

Aristotle, writing 2,500 years ago, said there were three kinds of friendship: 1) friendship based on pleasure (golfing partners, book group members); 2) friendship based on utility (neighbors, business contacts); and 3) friendship based on two people honoring each other's virtue. The last, he said, is the most important and enduring kind of friendship, outlasting quarrels and misunderstandings. He didn't say if it would outlast one friend landing a series on HBO while the other gets by on cost-of-living raises every three years.

Arvid Straube, pastor of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, believes money doesn't have to rule our lives. "All of us to some degree are driven by our culture's materialism," says Straube, who has delivered sermons on this topic. "But people can choose to have it be less important. It's a theological question of idolatry. Are you worshiping the wrong thing? Where your treasure is, that's where your heart will be. A lot of people don't know where their heart is."

As citizens of a majority Christian nation, Americans have reason to be confused about the symbolism of money because of its contradictory religious interpretations in our culture. On the one hand, Jesus said, "You cannot be the servant of both God and money," but the Protestants who settled the colonies and frontier supplanted that observation with the belief that hard-earned earthly rewards were evidence of spiritual well-being. Whether they would have included the late 19th century robber barons or Donald Trump in that credo is another matter.

Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and the author of the 1991 book "Money and the Meaning of Life," says, "Money tells us what's real. It's the fundamental means of measuring our worth. It's the one thing by which we organize our lives, and it can buy everything except meaning."

Some might argue that money is meaning, for example, Gordon Gekko, the ruthless stock trader played by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone's film "Wall Street," who famously said, "Greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works," providing a cold mantra for the 1980s.

How much is enough?

IT'S hard to forget that we live in the city where the terms "A list" and "B list" were invented to identify the relative luster of friends, acquaintances and celebrities based on their current wattage in the Hollywood firmament — apparently answering a need to measure friends on the basis of their material clout and status.

"I think envy in L.A. is extreme," says a friend married to a successful television writer. "The stakes are so high. You always feel like life is going on, on another plane above you, where everything is more exciting, if you could just get there."

The level of success that has put her and her husband in the occasional company of leading Hollywood stars has left her feeling only inferior. "When I've been in one of their gigantic houses, I come home feeling diminished. How can you be friends with someone who makes you feel that way?"

In L.A., schools can be the great divide. You're either a public school person or a private school person, and good luck crossing the line.

"I never felt like keeping up with the Joneses until I had a kid," says a woman I know in Santa Monica who moved her third-grader from public to private school. "But I wanted her to have every opportunity to compete in this super-competitive world." The neighbors, she says, never forgave her for leaving the public school.

Education is indeed a class marker, but it's complicated. Because of scholarship programs, college (and private high school) classrooms and athletic fields are often money-blind, and friendships develop among students of disparate economic backgrounds behind ivy-covered walls. But those friendships are not so easily maintained after graduation unless the friends are able to achieve comparable levels of income, live in the same neighborhoods, belong to the same athletic clubs, take similar vacations and buy the same consumer products. This is not what we were taught in social studies class, but it tends to be the way things work out.

You might still speak to a former classmate who's ascended to riches beyond your reach, but underlying the conversation will be the unspoken truth that you now live on different economic planets.

An imbalance in wealth can even affect the relationships within a family. An artist friend tells of how he was close to his brother-in-law when the relative was a struggling law student. But after the brother-in-law became a lawyer and began to amass a fortune in investments, things changed. "Whenever we would visit him in New York, he insisted on paying for everything," my friend explained. "I used to try to pay half the check at a restaurant, but he wouldn't allow it, saying, 'Look, I'm wealthy. This is nothing for me. Let me take care of it.' So eventually I stopped trying to contribute and just resigned myself to feeling like a wimp whenever I'm around him."

Stress can be felt on the other side of the unequal equation as well. A successful New Yorker I know (let's call him Ted) tells the story of how his oldest and closest friendship was seriously damaged by a misunderstanding sparked by unequal economic status. His friend (let's call him Bill) had waited longer after college to find steady employment, had married later and, by the time he and his wife had kids, was still struggling financially. Ted, continuing a tradition that had benefited him and his wife when their children were born a few years earlier, began passing on clothing his kids had outgrown to Bill and his wife, believing this to be a practical and loving gesture.

"One afternoon," Ted says, "I learned the painful lesson that Bill's perception differed from mine. In a catch-up telephone call, I asked — innocently, I thought — if they'd received our latest gift carton, as we hadn't had any acknowledgment of it from them. Bill got very angry and accused me of lording it over them and, perhaps not in so many words, of demanding humiliating shows of gratitude. Very quickly his wife joined in on another telephone; it was as if a tap had been opened and all this rage just poured out from them."

Attitude, not amount

SO do we just accept that we are all, on both sides of the divide, social prisoners of money and its influence?

"It's not so much money as your attitude toward money," says an old college friend who has raised three children in a pleasant suburb of Washington, D.C., working as a government attorney. His wife is a schoolteacher. They live well but far from the pages of Town and Country. Through the years we have spoken about the paths not taken and career ladders not climbed.

Once, when he was working for the Department of Energy, he explained to me that many of his colleagues were only biding their time there, learning the fine print of energy regulation so they could get much higher-paying jobs with law firms representing big oil companies being sued by the government. He didn't feel he could do that and decided to settle for a more modest income, which also consigned him to lower social status in D.C. It was a defining moment in his life.

"Your friends are going to be people who share your values," he says, "and being motivated mainly by money is a pretty significant value."

It's quite possible that a friend who has achieved affluence does not believe he has placed money at the top of his value set. But real estate has a way of speaking on our behalf — perhaps nowhere more so than in Los Angeles, where choosing the location and size of your house can be a defining act.

Once I was invited to a former neighbor's housewarming in what could only be described as a mansion. Struck by the grandeur and aspiration on view, I didn't know what to say other than "Where do the servants sleep?" It was uncomfortable just being there, reckoning with the chasm that now separated our lives.

It was as if our pleasant acquaintance had never been tested until now, when one of us suddenly had a lot more power than the other in the material world. The seesaw had tipped, and I was looking up from the ground. I tried not to make too much of the moment, tried not to pass judgment on the display of wealth, because it's all relative, is it not? A union-wage carpenter living in a two-bedroom bungalow in Fontana is rich compared with an illegal immigrant living 12 to a room in a Pico-Union apartment. We are what we are and have what we have.

Whether I disapproved of my friend's mansion or secretly envied it, the result was the same. The house — and all it implied — was bigger than both of us. We would not talk about it any more than we would ask each other if we were happily married or when each of us expected to die. Some things are left unsaid while the culture speaks for us, sending the message that friends don't let friends make less money than they do.


The herd/sheep mentality of people never fail to astonish me. In their chronic insecurity to belong, they will partake in any activity, no matter how asinine, illogical, self-destructive, or just plain cruel or evil. Whenever I read about or encounter such people, I carry away with me one impression and one impression only: hollowness. They lack conviction in their lives. There exists no central pillar of faith or a fundamental belief, in themselves or beyond themselves. All that matters is that they do not get left behind. Not be alone. Because, they know, in such moments, they have to face the terrible emptiness that defines them.

Another quote from White Noise:

Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from a crowd is to risk death as an individual. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.

Every thought about the terrifying power of the phrase, "dying alone"?

And so, the followers ape what the crowd espouse. If it is the fashionable and "in" thing to wear leather boots or jackets in 80 F weather, they do it; if it is fashionable to drive a 5000 pound SUV even though they possess no experience driving what-is-essentially-a-truck, they do it (and rollover on freeway exit ramps and die). Tomorrow, if the crowd decides that setting puppies on fire is considered bling bling, you can be sure they will do it. Before anyone accuses me of being an alarmist with the puppy example, take a good look at what the fashion industry and J. Lo have been involved in: a previous post on how animals are skinned alive. I hope you are eating when you watch that video.

And what is this about trying to "out-consume" each other? Oh, he has a bigger car. Oh, her husband has a bigger house. Does it really matter? Do you call each other on the cellphone and say, "Hey, guess what? I used one more sheet of toilet paper than you when I wiped my ass today! I'm the man!"

What the Hell is wrong with you?

Will anyone care in a couple of weeks? Months? Years? You think that, generations from now, people will go, "Oh, check out this plaque, it said, Mr. So-and-so drove a fancy car, wore fancy clothes, and used 1/2 a roll of TP to wipe his ass after each trip to the restroom. What a man!"
I don't think so.

I will let Percy Bysshe Shelley have the last word on this:


I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said--"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart....Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
  Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
 The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
 And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
 Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
 Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
 Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
 The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Politics test

You exhibit a very well-developed sense of Right and Wrong and believe in economic fairness.

You are a

Social Conservative
(30% permissive)

and an...

Economic Conservative
(80% permissive)

You are best described as a:

Strong Republican

Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid

No surprise, actually.
Anyways, here's another:

I think the inclusion of Darth Vader is rather cute.