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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Rotten and me

So the news today that Malcolm McLaren had died caught me a bit by surprise, though I guess it shouldn't have. I'm at the age where the key pop figures from youth start keeling over from natural causes (in this case, apparently, cancer).

As word of McLaren's death grew, I tossed on the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bollocks" and filled the house with jarring guitar and Johnny Rotten's petulant sneer -- much to the annoyance of my 16-year-old son. He wasn't complaining that it was too-tame oldies music, but that it was too annoying (he's a jazz and blues guy). You have to love the irony of the teen telling the parent to turn that noise down, but there it was.

And it reminded me of the time I interviewed John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, in 1994, when I was working at The Detroit News (one of my "mini-beats" was covering punk and alternative rock). It was by phone, tied to an upcoming Public Image Limited tour. He was a bit stunned when I asked him about the then-looming 20th anniversary of the Sex Pistols -- until then, he said, it hadn't registered on him that it had been that long. I also asked him the innocuous, evergreen question about what music he was listening to, and whether any current punk bands stood out.

That set him off on a riff about the state of pop music, which he thought was poor, and at the end he compared the then-new bands as "just so many cows farting." I laughed out loud, then asked if he had ever heard cows farting. "No," he said, "but I have heard Pink Floyd."

Ah, Johnny Rotten, why are you being so rotten?*

*go to the 1:17:40 mark, near the end, at Punk Rock, The Movie, linked above. Read More 
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Apres le deluge: L.A.'s mountains, after the storm

Five days of rain makes this kind of beauty worth all all the mess. This is taken from a web cam at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in the San GAbriel Mountains, above Los Angeles. On days as clear and skies as washed as these, we can see those mountains from our neighborhood. Really striking.

The mess in the yard, though, is something different. Lots of small branches and leaves down, a couple of potted plants look positively battered. Temps this morning were in the low 40s, so I suspect some of the orchids will be moping for a few days.
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The Great Recession close up

I met with a couple of women the other day outside a local coffee shop. One was a friend, the other I was introduced to for the first time. They were putting together Spring courses for a UC Irvine-related program of continuing education for older folks, and it looks like I'll be doing one and maybe two courses (as a volunteer, unfortunately). Both the women I met with are of retirement age, though both had still been working -- until the recession. Now both have been laid off, one as an overseer of student teachers and the other from the jewelry department of a major retail department store chain.

There's a lot of that going around -- the first anniversary of my lay off from the LA Times came a couple of weeks ago. But the meeting got me thinking about the far reaches of this recession, and what it has meant.

My wife, a first grade teacher, now has 25 students in her class instead of 20, a massive increase in work load given that they're all 5 and 6 years old. I play soccer regularly in some neighborhood pickup games. One guy was laid off from his job with a software company. Another, an artist, has left the area to move in with his in-laws in San Diego. A third player lost his job and has since formed his own PR agency. A close friend of a neighbor -- a regular visitor -- has been laid off twice from accounting jobs tied to the mortgage industry. And every time a rumor swirls in the LA Times about more layoffs there, I get emails from folks still working wondering about how to get ready for the ax.

Our family is surviving. Margaret's job is reasonably secure, even if the workload has increased. We've thought about moving for another newspaper job, but pretty much ruled it out. Even if someone was hiring, it's not a smart gamble to cut the security of Margaret's job for a newspaper job that can still easily disappear. So I'm freelancing when I can, teaching journalism part-time at Chapman University, finishing up the current book project and putting thoughts together for a proposal for the next one. With one son in college and the other heading there in two years, this has meant a radical shift in how we live, but we're surviving and trying not to think about the age of the cars, let alone setting aside money for retirement.

But we're surviving. We're the lucky ones, I know. And it's a strange indicator of the times that where once we were thankful for good jobs and health, now we're thankful for good health and that we're not at risk of losing the house.

There has got to be a better way. Read More 
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Big Sur: Part Two

Things have been a little quiet here on the blog because things have been a little busy on the home front. My in-laws leave today for their home in Rochester, N.Y., after a two-week visit that has been, as usual, a lot of fun. The centerpiece was a three-day trip up the coast -- my second drive of the Big Sur this year.

The Big Sur has to be my favorite slice of California, a state with a lot of beautiful slices, from the High Sierra to Death Valley, the redwoods of Humboldt County, and the singular Mount Shasta. This really is a remarkable state. And huge.

These trips have me thinking I need to go back and re-read Kerouac's Big Sur, which I first read years ago in a Kerouac frenzy -- On the Road, then The Town and The City (his most conventional novel), then Big Sur, if I recall that order correctly. Amid the boozing and hangovers and now dated-feeling beat-speak there is still a core beauty to Kerouac's feel for the life of language:
"Big elbows of Rock rising everywhere, sea caves within them, seas pollocking all around inside them crashing out foams, the boom and pound on the sand, the sand dipping quick (no Malibu Beach here) -- Yet you turn and see the pleasant woods winding upcreek like a picture in Vermont -- But you look up into the sky, bend way back, my God you're standing directly under that aerial bridge with its thin white line running from rock to rock and witless cars racing across it like dreams!"

Later in the same passage he describes "those vistas when your drive the coast on a sunny day opening up the eye for miles of horrible washing sawing."

Makes me want to turn around and drive it again.
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Something fishy

My younger son, Andrew, and I have been talking about riding out to sea on one of the Newport Beach fishing charters for some time now. Whenever we thought we could squeeze it in, something else would come up -- or the daily fish counts would show nobody was catching anything.

But the barracuda are biting just now off the Southern California coast, so we finally got out yesterday afternoon on a half-day charter from Davey's Locker -- not a faith-inspiring namegoogle for a charter boat company, but what the hell, they stock life jackets.

You look for omens on days like this, and I found one -- an open parking space on the street, no meter, two blocks from the dock. And the guy at the counter signing us in -- and collecting our cash -- said the morning boat had taken about 100 barracuda. These are fun fish to catch -- they have to be at least 28 inches to keep, and they put up a good fight.

So Andrew and I loaded onto the boat, which was half-full for the trip. That's a good thing. Full boats are usually an exercise in tangled lines. The captain spent more than an hour chugging northward to a spot near Huntington Beach where several other boats were anchored and busily catching fish. A crewman dropped the anchor, we baited up our hooks, and the fishing was on.

But the fish weren't, at least not for us. Andrew had a near miss -- he felt a tug and yanked to set the hook but nothing, When he reeled in his he found were razor sharp teeth marks near the bait's tail.

Others had better luck. A couple from Las Vegas next to us caught two and didn't relish the idea of driving across the desert with them that night, so they gave them to us. And a regular who caught eight -- eight! -- had four he was giving away, so we grabbed those.

So we wound up with fish, a good time on the sea -- saw a couple schools of dolphin and a jellyfish floated by -- and reason to try again in a coupel of weeks if we can swing it. Read More 
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Digital TV conversion, or how the kitchen went silent

A couple of weeks ago the nation's TV stations went completely digital, dropping the longtime analog system for a digital system that ostensibly frees up airwaves for public safety uses. In general, a good plan. In execution not so much.

I do most of the cooking in our house (when I'm not on the road), and have a small TV on which I watch sports, the news, and the occasional Sunday morning talking-heads show while I work. The TV is older, I think, than our sons, one of those clunky, remote-less 13-inch models that takes up way more space than it needs to.

But it's worked perfectly fine, except for some snow on Channel 2 and a few of the UHF stations, which is understandable -- we live 45 or 50 miles from where most of the Los Angeles TV stations have their antennas.

So now we've been forced into digital land -- and can't get diddly on the set, even with a new antenna and the federally subsidized converter box. I've moved the antenna, re-scanned, moved it again, re-scanned again, but still get hardly any of the major stations, and even those are so weak we get that impromptu stop-action as the screen pixilates and freezes for a few seconds.

There are other sets in the house hooked up to cable so we're not cut off from the world but it has me wondering -- how has this affected low-income, cable-less families in sprawling metro areas like this, or in rural areas?

I have to think this has been a boon for the cable and satellite providers -- I'm contemplating adding a line to the kitchen -- and the phone companies (from whom the government chose not to take bandwidth). But I also have to think a few more ounces of flesh have been taken from the poor. Read More 
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Painting projects and popcorn ceilings

Since I have some, ahem, time on my hands, and with the school year over, we decided to paint the master bedroom. This kind of project always seems like a good idea when you're standing before racks of paint strips and picking out colors, ignoring that nagging memory in the back of the brain.

Then comes the prep work. Moving everything out of the room. Scrubbing things down. Repairing holes from where pictures once hung. And you begin to remember why you don't like to paint.

Then comes the not-fully-imagined challenge of painting a ceiling covered with that godawful popcorn texturing -- the thick layer of what must have been sprayed on compound that gives the ceiling a shaggy look, like it's molting.

In truth, this stuff is a sponge. One gallon of paint should have covered a room this size. It will likely take four gallons. And as you work with the roller overhead bits of the texturing break loose, raining little sticky cheese curds down on you. They coat your glasses, stick to hair, skin and clothes, and strike the plastic drop cloth with little click/pop sounds, like indoor rain. Which you then step on.

And then you remember why you swore off this kind of project ever again, that you'd hire someone next time. But then, well, you wind up with some time on your hands and figure why not, how hard can it be ....

Back at it later this morning, day two of my own personal paint-flecked hell.  Read More 
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School's out (which means vacation for half of the house)

One of the joys of being married to an elementary school teacher is you never get rid of the school-age inspired sense that summer begins sometime in the third week of June. I grew up in the Northeast -- Scarborough, Maine, and Wellsville, New York -- and it became ingrained that the end of school meant warm weather. Even when, in reality, days began staying pretty warm in May and continued into late October.

But it's interesting how the cycles of young life stay with you. As a freelance writer, my time is pretty much my own. For example, I was up at three a.m. today to let the dog out and, unable to fall back to sleep, worked on research for a couple of hours on The Fear Within (reading back through letters from and to one of the defendants, Gil Green) then went back to bed.

And living in Southern California -- well, it always feels like summer around here. So this wonderful sense of summer is a bit Pavlovian, rooted in personal history rather than the reality of the present. Similarly, I don't miss the seasons of the Northeast (though I never minded snow) but after 12 years in SoCal I find I've lost track of time. When you're used to measuring years in quarters, and the tethers of memory are seasons ("No, we did that two winters ago"), well, life takes on a sense of suspended animation.

Which also means it flies by incredibly quickly ... but just for related fun (give it a few seconds to fire up):

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