Friday, August 31, 2007

It Was a Pleasure to Burn


The titular "man" at this year's incarnation of that annual celebration of ridiculous latter-day hippiedom known as the Burning Man festival has gone up in flames. Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal, given that the very name of the gathering should clue you in to the fact that at some point, the big guy's gonna get torched -- but as it turns out, this year the fire was set somewhat unofficially, four days before its scheduled immolation date, by a 35-year-old San Francisco performing artist. (San Francisco police were no doubt immediately advised to be on the lookout for -- everyone.)

Apparently, this act of juvenile subversion is drawing attention to what some critics claim is the lack of subversion at the once-hallowed Burning Man festival. While many are furious that one idiot performance artist with a box of matches ruined what had been a very carefully planned schedule of mushroom ingestion designed to ensure maximum peakage at the appropriate time, others say that this singular act celebrates what the festival has always been about: unpredictable, unfiltered radicalism.

Those falling into the latter group are part of a growing movement of former Burning Man fans who are now fiercely critical of what they see as the recent dilution and corporatization of the annual gathering in the Nevada desert.

They say the whole thing has lost touch with its roots -- that it's "sold out" (and stop me if you've heard this one before -- a thousand times over in fact).

It goes without saying that the watering-down, no pun intended, of Burning Man was all but inevitable.

Nothing truly audacious can stand in our culture, not when our culture has become so monstrously adept at assimilating all forms of rebellion until they become completely meaningless and utterly impotent. Prepackaged, homogenized non-conformity is as close as your local Hot Topic. Agitation is fashion. Defiance is a slogan. Insurrection is product placement. The revolution is not only televised, it can be Tivoed and enjoyed at your convenience.

Anything deemed "cool" can go from internet circulation, to Cafe Press t-shirt, to MTV Spring Break, to frat boy pick-up line, to panic-inducing parental warnings on cable news in a matter of a few days.

By the time you've made the 20 minute drive to that hot new club, it's already been vacated by the very crowd from whom you learned about its existence in the first place.

Subversion, in this day and age, is almost impossible.

There's no better proof of this fact than the lengths that those determined to be rebellious now have to go to simply to make their stand. Admittedly, many of the neo-60s dingbats who attend festivals like Burning Man apparently don't know or don't care that their particular counter-culture statement has been done to death; it practically has its own uniform by this point, the same one it's had, with few variations, since the first hippie grew a beard and put on a dirty t-shirt 40 years ago. Now though, the few among our delicately oppressive society who feel that they have to stand out, even among the larger set of alleged free-spirits, are finding that they have nowhere to turn; it's literally all been done. This is what leads desperate clowns to stick rats in their pants while covering themselves with chocolate syrup, and insist that what they're doing is "art."

This is what led someone to burn the Burning Man, the symbol of counter-culture itself.

In the end though, it accomplished nothing. The Burning Man is already being rebuilt in time for tomorrow's authorized ritual of rebellion.

Life goes on, as planned.

"I Can't Lie to You About Your Chances, but You Have My Sympathies."


As far as I'm concerned, Alien remains the single greatest movie ever made.

To say that I'm a fan of Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece -- its look, its feel, young Sigourney Weaver in her underwear, everything -- would be to sorely downplay my absolute obsession with the film and the entire canon it inspired.

I know more worthless trivia about the Alien series than any well-adjusted person should. I own a baseball cap with the original Nostromo insignia patch. I bought the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set, which includes a better cut of the unfairly maligned 1992 David Fincher sequel. I'm looking for a full-scale M41A Pulse Rifle (in case anyone happens to be stuck on what to get me for Christmas this year). I probably bleed molecular acid by this point.

It goes without saying then that, as a diehard fan of the Alien films and decent film in general, I'll never forgive Fox for diluting and consequently destroying the entire franchise by agreeing to allow Alien vs. Predator to ever see the inside of a theater. The fucking movie was blasphemy.

And now comes Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.

When I learned that they were actually making a sequel to the original cinematic abomination, my first thought was that somebody needed to dig up Daryl Zanuck, then jetison the bodies of both him and Rupert Murdoch and make up any story they liked.

But then I heard who was directing it -- the Brothers Strause, two visual geniuses with a love of, and a respect for, the original movie and a serious knack for bringing disturbing imagery to life.

And then I saw the new trailer.

In a surprising and truly ballsy marketing move, our first look at the new movie comes courtesy of a notorious "Red Band" trailer -- meaning that the trailer itself is R-rated. It features shocking and graphic violence, and lets the audience know right off the bat that this time around, the gloves are off and the potential for chaotic gore that made the original films so startlingly effective is back.

Whether or not Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem will be decent is anyone's guess (and note the tip of the hat to Cameron's vision of the plural Aliens, further letting you know what you're in for).

One thing's for sure though -- at least it won't be PG-13.

See the red-band trailer here.

Later Today, at the Home of Senator Larry Craig...

Listening Post



A song about lesbian longing. A singer whose voice can shatter your spine. A video that features a threesome make-out scene.

Skunk Anansie's Secretly.

And, because they're so goddamned mind-blowing -- a bonus Skunk video: Charlie Big Potato.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Imperfect Strangers


For some reason, I feel it necessary to elaborate slightly on my relationship with the woman -- initially, young girl -- I mentioned in last week's extended column (Into the Maelstrom/8.24.07). My relationship with Abby indeed began in a moment of insane passion, and lasted quite awhile after that -- longer than anyone might've expected in fact. Over time though, me being the person I was in my early to mid-20s, I hurt her and destroyed the relationship. Both of our lives went on and we attempted to remain friends, or at the very least acknowledge and respect the bond we had once forged. After 9/11, while I was in New York to cover the attack and its aftermath, I looked her up. The following is an excerpt from the full manuscript I've written (last week's wasn't), and has been posted on the memoir page for quite some time. After last week's entry, I feel like this story -- which involves Abby and I seeing each other for the first time since bumping into one another briefly at a party a year previously -- takes on new life, as it's now been given some perspective. Immediately before 9/11, I spent a month in rehab for a massive heroin addiction (Welcome to the Monkey House/6.4.07.); I had gotten out only ten days before the attacks (Five Years On: 9/11 in Two Parts/9.18.06). During my hospital stay, my wife at the time left me. I also lost 20 pounds. (Incidentally, don't read too much into my decision to write about these parts of my past; they're decent stories -- that's it.)


"God, you look like shit."

"Thanks, I thought I looked pretty good all things considered."

"You're too fucking thin," Abby says.

She kisses me on the cheek and invites me into her apartment. It's my first actual experience with what New Yorkers have the low-expectations to consider a living space. The entire place is no bigger than a walk-in closet. I make a quick sweep with my eyes, which doesn't take longer than a second or two. It's technically a studio, but somewhere along the line some architectural genius decided to throw in a piece of drywall that only comes about three-quarters of the way across the room, creating a partition which sections off a "bedroom" on the other side. The kitchen is simply a small refrigerator and a mini-stove at one end of the main space, next to the entrance. In the corner is a tiny room holding what I can see is the toilet, but there doesn't appear to be anything else in there.

"What, do you bathe in the sink?" I ask.

Abby's wrapped in a towel, her hair wet -- an affecting sight which I'm trying to ignore -- so I know she cleans herself somehow in this place. She walks back behind the partition into her pretend bedroom.

"The shower's in the closet."

"The shower's in the closet?"

"Don't start with me."

My eyes dart past a window which features a view of what I assume is the building next-door -- a brick facade that can't be more than a few feet away. So much for natural light. Besides her books and some old photographs on the precious little wall-space, there's not much in this small room that I immediately recognize from our time together. Our roller-coaster ride of a relationship.

I glance past the wall with the books and the pictures and into the bedroom, just in time to see Abby drop her towel and bend over to slide into her underwear. Most of her body is hidden by the wall, the edge of which seems to split her in half from top to bottom. I watch the curve of her side; her back and her hips; her naked ass and legs. I look away and try to put it out of my mind. Still, from an aesthetic standpoint, there's no denying that she's the only worthwhile thing to look at in this place. Abby was always all-curves, with an adorably cherubic face and curly auburn hair. This still holds true. The fact that she's never been very modest around me is something I can 't decide if I'm thankful for right now.

It dawns on me that it's been an especially overwhelming day for memories.

I want to believe that it's unintentional on my part, but I catch a glimpse of her hooking her bra behind her back as I move my eyes across the room again and onto the TV. A rerun of the X-Files is on; a show which, in addition to cigarettes, is one of Abby's avowed addictions. She emerges from the bedroom a moment later, wearing jeans and pulling a cream-colored sweater over her head. She shakes her damp hair out and bends over, patting it dry with the towel that was wrapped around her just a moment ago.

"You really think I'm too thin?" I say with a smirk.

She and I have talked on the phone a few times since my arrival in New York. She knows what led me here -- the unedited version. We've debated getting together, but this is the first time we've been face-to-face in close to a year.

"Yeah, you don't look much better than you did the last time I saw you."

"I was on drugs then," I say, remembering my last days as skinny and sick addict, before transitioning into bloated and utterly repulsive addict.

"Yes, I know. I knew then."

"No you didn't," I say incredulously.

She stands up straight -- throwing her hair back.

"Yes," she says. "I did."

She brushes past me, which in this place means a tight squeeze past a tiny bistro table that's cluttered with take-out bags. She picks up a hair-dryer perched on the edge of the stove, turns it on and begins running it across her hair.

"You did not," I mumble under my breath as I begin to explore the shoebox Abby calls home.

"I heard that -- and yes I did," I hear her say, over the steady white noise of the dryer.

This is the way it's always been with Abby: her insisting that she knows me better than I know myself -- me arguing that she doesn't, knowing full-well that she's probably right.

I scan her rickety black bookshelves. In the background, Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are discussing how it is that a character played by Peter Boyle can know so much about a series of murders unless he actually committed them. I run my finger across the dust on one shelf; Abby never was much for keeping things spotless. I read off the titles to myself; they're mostly sci-fi paperbacks, with a smattering of Koontz and one or two books on Judaism. After our break-up, Abby jumped neck-deep into her faith in a way she never had before. Seeing the concrete proof of that now just makes me shake my head at the comically obvious implication.

Un-fucking-believable. I drive women to religion.

As I come to the end of the bookshelf, I spot a small picture of the two of us. I recognize it immediately; it was taken years ago on a quiet beach in the middle of nowhere.

There we were. Young. In love. Smiles bright against freshly-tanned skin. A glowing orange sky, kissing the blue ocean horizon in the distance behind us. I instinctively close my eyes and try to remember more of it -- almost willing myself to disappear there, if for no other reason than the fact that at that time I didn't have a care in the world.

The hair-dryer goes quiet and there's just the sound from the TV now.

"It was great to be stupid and innocent, wasn't it?" I hear Abby say.

I don't even bother to turn around with the picture in my hand -- an expression of surprise on my face. Of course she knew what I was looking at. I just smile.

"Yes it was."

I hear the hardwood floor creak under her feet as she takes the few steps needed to cross the room. When I turn around, she's right in front of me. She looks up at me, almost begrudgingly, and places her hand on the side of my face, running it down my cheek.

"Are you okay Chester?" Her pet name for me.

I exhale.

"Yeah. I am."

I close my eyes and swallow a headful of longing. I'd just about forgotten the overwhelming tenderness of a touch like this. She gives me a smile that perfectly encompasses a thousand emotions at once. This is the way it's always been with Abby.

"Come on -- let's go eat," she says.



The chill of fall has settled over the city. The leaves from the trees that line East 80th Street cascade gently down around Abby and me as we walk toward busy 2nd Avenue. I put my hands in the pockets of my long black coat, one of the recent purchases I made at the direct request of the President of the United States. It's a Friday night, and Manhattan is just beginning to come to life. The pall that's blanketed everything since the attack is starting to lift -- slowly. It's almost as if the massive hole torn in the fuselage of the city -- the one that sucked out so many lives and so much air in seconds -- is finally being filled. People are breathing again, but those breaths are still short and shallow.



Abby's eyes light up like a little girl's as the waitress puts a big plate of colorful raw fish in front of us. Her mouth opens in an adorable, wide smile. She breaks her chopsticks apart and digs in, stopping only to take a sip of sake.

"So what did the queen bitch say to you on the phone this morning that got you so riled up?" She says, her mouth half-full.

"I thought you didn't want to hear about this."

"I spent three years with you -- I'm obviously a sucker for punishment."

"Money."

"Shocking."

"She says I owe her somewhere in the neighborhood of three grand." I pause for a moment. "No wait, I take that back. I say it's somewhere in the neighborhood of three grand because I can't remember the exact figure right now. She of course knows how much it is, down to the penny." I take a swig of my Asahi. "Sent me an itemized list and everything."

"And your take on it?"

I shrug, rolling my eyes upward. Abby smiles and takes another sip of her sake. I continue.

"My take is that I'm still hoping our marriage can be salvaged. She on the other hand is handing me the tab like a waitress who wants to go the hell home."

"Sucks, chief."

Abby's lapse into what anyone else would consider wholly unladylike vernacular makes me chuckle.

"No shit," I say, taking a bite of my sashimi. I'm still not eating much these days.

In talk in between chewing. "The fucked-up thing is that she has all of our worldly possessions." I swallow hard. "I mean, she took all the furniture, all the wedding gifts, and of course my heart," I say, only half-jokingly.

"Yeah, well that's worthless."

I don't take the bait, choosing instead to zero-in on the literal meaning of Abby's words.

"Actually, you may have just hit it on the head," I say, drifting off in my own thoughts as I begin to put things together. "Love. Passion. Emotion. It's all insignificant because you can't put a price tag on it. Something's only worthwhile if you can assign a tangible value to it."

"She's that much of a hard-ass?"

"She doesn't see it that way. She sees it as being practical," I say, looking not at Abby, but through her -- to someplace very far away. "She was always more interested in the nice house than in who was living in it with her."

"You ever think that maybe she wanted both? I mean, you're easy to love but not exactly a breeze to live with."

"I always thought that was such a cop-out, the whole 'I love you but I can't live with you' thing. Maybe I was wrong."

Abby puts down her chopsticks and looks right at me. "You've been wrong about a lot of things lately," she says -- scolding.

Under the table, I brush my leg lightly against hers.

Her eyes widen. "And you're definitely wrong about that. You're not getting laid."

I smile, feigning shock.

"Oh come on. I just touched your leg for Christ's sake. I didn't mean anything by it."

"I know you."

"You know nothing," I say, still smiling -- focusing my attention on another piece of sashimi.

"I know that you'd better start coming to terms with this."

"And what's this?"

"You're heading for divorce court."

"You say that like you're glad."

She suddenly looks up at me, all humor gone from her face. "I'm sorry you're hurting Chez, but I won't lie -- of course part of me thinks you deserve this."

"I'd never have the nerve to hold that against you."

"That's because you can't."

"You're right." I nod.

Abby glances down, looking at what's left on the plate. The sudden silence between us is deafening. It seems to go on for several minutes.

"Let's just finish this up and get out of here," she finally says. "I think I want to go home."

In the time since our break-up, we've kept a tenuous friendship -- fraught with the knowledge that moments like this are always lurking just beneath the surface of any interaction. Abby loves me more than any woman ever has, and at least as much as any other human being on the planet. She also has the ability to hold a grudge longer than just about anyone.

"Come on," I say. "Please -- let's change the subject."

She pauses -- years of hurt still registering on her face. She then sits up straight, breathes in deeply, and -- as if through sheer force of will -- seems to visibly exhale the pain and anger. Her auburn curls bounce gently as she does this.

"Okay, fine."

She gathers herself and downs what's left of her sake -- a damn good amount -- in one giant gulp. She practically slams the empty bottle down on the table and wipes her mouth with her napkin.

"I changed my mind," she says. "You are getting laid. Let's get out of here -- I want to fuck."

This is the way it's always been with Abby.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Quiet Man


Richard Jewell is dead, at the age of 44.

In a somewhat ironic, somewhat and sadly expected denouement, the announcement came from his lawyer.

For those of you who don't immediately recognize the name -- which is almost surely the way the man himself would've wanted it in the first place -- Jewell was, for 88 days in 1996, the prime suspect in the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, which killed one person and wounded more than a hundred others.

Jewell was a security guard at the park and found the suspicious bag containing the bomb. He warned others about it and attempted to move them out of harm's way; there's little doubt that the death toll would've been much higher had Jewell not intervened, and indeed, at first he was hailed as a hero. But then something happened -- something entirely unsurprising when you consider the grotesque nature of modern media saturation and just what's required to keep it running in a manner that's satisfying to both the unscrupulous monsters at its helm and the hungry public it supposedly serves: Richard Jewell was turned into a villain -- the perfect villain actually.

Thanks to an over-zealous and incompetent federal prosecutor and a news cycle which demanded fresh blood, no matter the cost to innocents or the truth, Jewell was judged and convicted in the public eye before all the facts were in; his life was turned upside-down and inside-out, all on live television. Richard Jewell became the sacrificial lamb on the altar of the public's insatiable, voyeuristic right to know -- and lazy journalism's bullshit supposed obligation to that demand.

At all times during the sickening media circus, Jewell maintained his innocence.

Finally, after almost 12 weeks of non-stop harassment and conjecture -- Richard Jewell was cleared of any and all wrongdoing. It would be years before America realized that the bomb had in fact been planted by right-wing psychopath and abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph.

But by the time the prosecutor officially apologized to Jewell -- and the media did its usual post-hoc hand-wringing and soul-searching -- the damage had already been done. Jewell's life had been ruined.

From a strictly mathematical perspective, it might have been worth the destruction of one innocent man to teach the media the crucial lesson that blood in the water provides no sanction for an unconscionable feeding frenzy -- to save the lives of the next generation of Richard Jewells.

Unfortunately, all it takes is a flip through the TV stations or a glance at a newspaper to realize that the media has learned absolutely nothing.

Imagine for a moment what kind of baseless accusations would've vomited out of the mouth of, say, Nancy Grace, had she had her own cable news show during the Jewell saga: Likely the same baseless and despicable accusations she now levels at every other untried and technically innocent person she arrogantly deems to be guilty, despite it never having been proven in a court of law.

Richard Jewell is gone, but his legacy lives on.

It's too bad the media chooses to ignore it -- particularly since, for all intents and purposes, they ended Jewell's life a decade ago.

Listening Post: Bonus Office Edition



I love The Office in ways an 8th grade vocabulary can't properly express.

The show has kept me sane at work by helping me to look at non-stop boredom and stupidity as something to laugh at, as opposed to the kind of thing that might make me want to crawl into a bathtub and drag in a toaster.

This homemade video is so unbelievably well done, it's worth watching over and over again.

Happy Humpday kids.

Listening Post



For the most part, I'm not a fan of the current crop of bands trying to recreate the whole Joy Division/Depeche Mode/80s goth-synth sound. I lived through it the first time around; it wasn't all that great back then and I seriously doubt that an idiot like Davey Havok from AFI can make it work for a new generation. That said, in almost every musical genre (with the exception of Reggaeton, which is entirely worthless), there are one or two bands that somehow manage to get it all right -- the sound, the look, the better qualities of whatever they're going for.

She Wants Revenge nails the dark sexuality of goth's former glory perfectly.

If you can't get laid to this song, it might be time to move yourself into a rest home.

Here's Tear You Apart (the edited version, which is unfortunate because never has the word "fucking" been used with such impact in a song).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

There's Something About Larry

BOISE, IDAHO (AP) -- Idaho Senator Larry Craig is strongly denying accusations that he's gay, despite entering a guilty plea to misdemeanor charges of engaging in lewd conduct in a Minneapolis Airport men's rest room. During a live news conference, the three-term Republican argued that his plea was entered under duress and says he now intends to hire a lawyer and fight it. Craig contends that his arrest by an undercover officer who claimed that he was propositioned by the Senator should in no way imply that he is gay; on the contrary, the senator strenuously insists that he's not gay, saying, "I'M NOT GAY! NO REALLY, I'M NOT GAY! GODDAMMIT, I'M FROM IDAHO!! I LIKE CHARLES BRONSON MOVIES!! HERE ... HERE ... LOOK AT THE WAY I DRESS, THERE'S NO FUCKING WAY I'M GAY!! I LOOK LIKE DWIGHT SCHRUTE'S GRANDFATHER!!! I'VE NEVER BEEN GAY!!! I FUCKING HATE THOSE FAGGOTS... THOSE LUSCIOUS FAGGOTS WITH THEIR BIG COCKS!!! WAIT, WHAT DID I JUST SAY? WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY I SAID? I'M HIRING A LAWYER TO FIGHT WHAT I JUST SAID!! I'M ON MITT ROMNEY'S CAMPAIGN FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!!! BUT OH, MITT'S SO FUCKING HOT!!! WAIT, WHAT? STOP PUTTING WORDS IN MY MOUTH!!! OH YES, MITT IN MY MOUTH!!! NO!!!!! I'M NOT GAY!!!!!!"

When asked to comment, Miss Teen South Carolina was quoted as saying, "I personally believe that gay U.S. Americans are unable to give head in public rest rooms because, uh, ummmm, some people out there in our nation don't have cocks and uh, I believe that our gays like such as, uh, South African men's rooms, and uh, Iraqi men's rooms, everywhere such as, uh, believe that our gay men over here in the U.S. should, uh, help the U.S. gay men, uh, should show their cocks to Senators from South Africa for the future of the U.S."

What It Feels Like to be Prodigal (An Epilogue)


I realize that this will sound paranoid, but I think I'm being stalked by a song.

Peter Murphy's 1988 album Love Hysteria, although not his best track for track, produced two of the most poingnant and gorgeous musical creations to come out of the 80s, or any decade for that matter. My Last Two Weeks and Time Has Got Nothing to Do With It are each moving and powerful pieces, made moreso by the fact that both songs convey a genuine vulnerability that you'd never expect from the creepy guy who fronted Bauhaus and consequently became the patron saint of every pasty-skinned, effeminate faux-vampire who ever donned a black trenchcoat and wrote painfully bad high school poetry.

Of these two songs, it's Time Has Got Nothing to Do With It that just won't leave me alone.

When it was first released, I was a DJ at WVUM -- the rather sub-standard college radio station at the University of Miami, where I happened to be enrolled at the time and was content to spend my days sleeping, my nights getting drunk and both unwittingly racking up an obscene student loan tab. Like any drivetime DJ -- the shift I worked before getting a primetime show -- I had my share of female fans, most of whom I naturally assumed didn't look anywhere near as good as their voices sounded. One though was a friend of a friend who worked on-staff with me, so we had actually run into each other on more than one occasion, at various clubs, shows, what-have-you. Her name was Lilly and she was cute and sweet in a way that defied rational explanation. Over a period of time, we became close and, if nothing else -- and believe me, I wanted something else -- she could be assured that she'd never have to wait to hear her song whenever she got the urge to make a request, which she did on a regular basis.

Her favorite song?

You guessed it -- Time Has Got Nothing to Do With It.

Lilly requested this every time she called my radio show, to the point where it became a joke between us. In fact, I eventually began playing the song each time I wanted to talk to her -- using it as a sort of Bat Signal to get her to call in; I'd put the song on the turntable, then count the seconds from the time the first notes of it hit the air to the time the phone would begin ringing. It became, for all intents and purposes, our song.

After awhile, Lilly and I began dating, which meant that after a slightly longer while, I broke her heart.

Even at that early stage of my life, it seemed to be developing into the natural order of things.

Several years later, on my first date with the woman I'd had an office crush on for months -- the woman who would eventually become my wife, the other half of the most disastrous relationship since Sid gutted Nancy, and finally my ex-wife -- I walked into her apartment for the first time to find my favorite Peter Murphy song playing on her stereo. It was kismet baby.

Needless to say, I spent quite some time not getting anywhere near the Love Hysteria album after that experience.

I had all but forgotten both the beauty of that particular song -- the reason I loved it in the first place -- and the memories both wonderful and painful attached to it, when the fates once again intervened to bring it back into my life.

Early last week, I was listening to lastfm.com at work when, from the millions of possible songs, what did its now famous search mechanism pick to play for me but my old favorite. Hearing it again after all this time hit me like a brick to the side of the head. I sat quietly at my desk, rested my chin on my hands, and listened -- giving the song its due reverence.

The melody almost made my eyes well up with tears, bringing back a wave of emotions. The lyrics, suddenly took on affecting new life.

"The clock cannot be turned with remorseful yearns. Time has got nothing to do with it. You would see, you would see if you were three again, and did it all the same. Fate drives you insane."

Normally, even for someone as occasionally sentimental as myself, hearing the song again might not have been enough to leave much of an impact one way or the other. As it turns out though, this odd revelation came at a time when I was experiencing -- if you'll pardon the pun, given the subject matter of last week's extended column -- a "Perfect Storm" of nostalgia.

Over the past few weeks, I've hung out with three friends, each from a different period in my life, whom I haven't seen since their respective places in my personal timeline came and went. One was close to me from second grade through my teen years (remembers me as an extraordinarily creative and talented kid; wonders why I haven't conquered the world), one from my early through mid 20s, (remembers me as an arrogant but mildly charming son-of-a-bitch; wonders why she didn't smack the crap out of me that time I kissed her), and one from late high school through my late 20s (remembers me as a friend of his big brother's turned witty drug addict; wonders how either of us is still alive). Seeing each person again brought back a flood of memories and feelings, as well as a heavy headful of questions.

What the hell happened?

Where did I go wrong, if I did at all?

Did I unforgivably waste my youth, or did I live the kind of passionate life of which others can only dream?

These encounters with these different people, when combined with last Friday's anniversary of a watershed event in the evolution of who I was and who I would become -- Hurricane Andrew -- left me confused and devastated in ways I can't fully describe.

It was a little like undergoing a spontaneous mid-life crisis, and it was this feeling that led me to sit down last week and relive my experiences during Andrew.

With Abby.

With living as if I were indestructable.

Immortal.

Rather than get it out of my system though, my detailed acknowledgment of that early coming-of-age and of my state of mind at the time -- the youthful recklessness necessary to have made those situations possible in the first place -- left me feeling even more disheartened.

Please understand, I realize that I'm nothing special in this regard. I'm three years away from turning 40; these kinds of feelings are not only expected, but horribly cliché.

This recognition, unfortunately, takes nothing away from how strangely bittersweet and thoroughly confusing it all is.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, my early 20s through my early 30s were lived as if I'd never see the age I'm at now. The intensity, passion and outright cockiness I exuded, often at the expense of those who had the misfortune to care about me one way or the other, was like a high -- one that couldn't be sustained forever, no matter how much I might have wished that it could.

But what do you do when that high is gone? How do you become a real adult when you've never been more than a child in a man's body -- when you've always been so good at being an overgrown kid?

Over the past year, like it or not, circumstances have conspired to force me out of my impetuous immaturity. The brain tumor I survived has left my body unrecognizable to me -- changing my hormonal output, or lack thereof, overnight. Slowing me to a crawl. Making me mortal. I'm no longer indesctructable, and I now look back on the days that I was -- or at least felt like I was -- with a longing I can't even begin to put into words.

I find myself thinking that maybe if I hadn't burned so intensely, I'd still somehow have surplus fuel left to carry me today -- and then I counter that with the argument that I have memories of a past, as difficult as it may have occasionally been, which allow me to be a better writer today (or at the very least, one with something to write about). Maybe that's what I have left -- the various true tales I now find myself putting down on these virtual pages.

But I still wonder if I misspent the opportunities of youth, or if I tried to hold onto my childhood for far too long. When others were planning and building, I was living dangerously -- all or nothing. It's a great way to go as long as you don't plan on living for very long.

Now I'm starting to understand that there's a trade-off for that kind of behavior. There's a cost for everything. By burning so brightly at such a young age, I feel as if there are no surprises left -- no new roads to cross or lands to conquer -- like the best years are well behind me. I have an astonishingly wonderful wife, whom I love very much and want nothing more than to make happy, but I worry that my lack of vision for the future all those years ago has hurt her as well as me. I wanted to be a kid forever. I wanted to live as if there was no tomorrow -- but tomorrow came.

So what now?

There are no easy answers.

There are no simple truths, except one.

Time, as it turns out, has everything to do with it.

The Blonde Leading the Stupid



From last Friday's Miss Teen USA Pageant:

Everything about this is hilarious.

Miss South Carolina.

A teen beauty pageant.

Hell, even Mario Lopez.

Not to worry though -- once this kid bends over for Trump the way last year's Miss Teen Whatever did, all will be forgiven.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Listening Post



Words just won't do.

Foo Fighters -- Walking After You.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Into the Maelstrom


15 years ago today, in the early hours of August 24th, 1992, Hurricane Andrew cut a path of destruction across South Florida, killing 65 people and eventually becoming the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. It was the last Category 5 storm -- before Hurricane Dean, which hit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula earlier this week -- to make landfall in the Atlantic Basin. I was an Associate Producer at WSVN in Miami at the time. I was 22 years old. I had only been in television news for six months. Andrew was my first big story.


Part 1: The Gathering Storm



The first order of business was to find some appropriate music.

This sort of task is harder than you might think. I mean, really, what qualifies as a fitting soundtrack to impending catastrophe? It has to be menacing and ominous, yet atmospheric -- creating an almost Nouvelle Vagueish feeling of resigned serenity. It has to say, "In less than 24 hours, your entire hometown will be wiped off the face of the Earth by the wrath of God, and there isn't a damn thing you can do to stop it."

I settled on Ministry's So What and Scarecrow -- on repeat.

It was actually a rather fitting choice, given that I was still nursing a brutal hangover from the previous day's Lollapalooza festival -- the one which featured the spectacular lineup of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and, yes, Ministry. A full day's worth of drinking compounded by the sweltering and oppressive August heat should've been enough to lay me out flat for the next day or so, but what I'd found waiting for me on my answering machine when I got home at around midnight let me know in short order that I'd be afforded no such luxury.

My assistant news director had left seven messages -- all slight variations on the Where-the-Hell-Are-You theme.

When I picked up the phone and called him back, sitting down in an effort to steady the room, it sounded as if I had just been connected to the information kiosk in the center of Grand Central Station.

"What the fuck is going on there Mike?"

"Jesus Chez, haven't you turned on the TV lately?"

"No, I've been at Lollapalooza all day. I told you that's where I'd be when I left work on Friday." I pried myself up from the couch and shuffled across the hardwood floor of my living room, careful not to fall over face-first. "See, this is why I need a pager."

"You have to get in here now. Everybody has to come in," he said over the confusing din in the background. I could practically hear his face turning purple.

I hit the button on the TV and the picture coalesced into sharp focus just as the word "Why?" came out of my mouth.

Before Mike could even answer -- "Forget it. I see why," I said, stunned into a near whisper.

I took a step back in an effort to truly grasp the magnitude of the image before me -- the one which seemed as if it had the potential to burst free of the two-dimensional confines of my television screen and begin drawing all fragile reality into its vortex.

It was a storm -- an infrared image, all furious reds and oranges, of a massive hurricane sitting directly off our coast. It looked like a buzzsaw, threatening to cut Florida in half. This was Andrew.

"I thought it was supposed to miss us," I said.

"It was," Mike said. "Not anymore."

"What the hell happened?" When I left work on Friday evening, the storm had barely reached hurricane strength again after being sheared into pieces by a blast of vertical winds.

"It turned earlier today, and gained strength. It's now a Cat-5," he said, then -- "It'll be directly on top of us in less than 36 hours."

There wasn't a force in the universe steady enough to keep my reality from shifting on its axis. Still, I instinctively started pacing the floor -- trying to knead the remaining fog out of the front of my head with my free hand.

"Alright, listen -- I need at least a few hours of sleep Mike. I've been out drinking all day for God's sake. I'll be in as soon as I can."

"Okay, just make it ASAP please -- and whatever you need to pack up or secure at home, do it before you leave. Once you're here, you're not going back out to the beach until this thing's done with us."

Mike Dreaden was aware that I had moved into my own place on South Beach within the past month -- it was my first time living alone.

Great fucking timing.

"Yeah right, if there's a beach left," I said, then dropped the phone into the cradle and my weight back onto the couch with a dull thump, letting everything swirl into its own pinpoint vortex until all that was left was comforting black.



By the next morning, I had moved the few valuables I owned into a tight space at the top of the closet, packed an overnight bag, then took one last, sad look around the new apartment that I fully expected to never see again and headed off to work. I had little doubt that by the time I emerged from the nearly windowless, concrete enclosure of the WSVN studios the following day, South Florida -- whatever was left of it -- would be a very different place.

As I put the car in drive, the Ministry, for all of its portentous rage, was actually somewhat reassuring.

It was just a little after sunrise when I threw the 1988 Porsche 944 Turbo I had recently bought to reward myself for no longer working at Taco Bell into high gear, only to come around a corner and suddenly face a column of cars at a dead stop -- resting bumper to bumper along what seemed to be the entire length of the MacArthur Causeway leading off the beach to the mainland. I had already done my best to avoid allowing myself to be distracted by the unnerving sight of people running from their apartments along the surface streets of South Beach -- their arms loaded with belongings -- ready to jump into waiting cars that would take them somewhere. Anywhere but here. This sight however, the sight of so many people desperate to get out of the path of the oncoming storm, opened a painful pit in the bottom of my stomach.

I took a deep breath and whipped the car around, downshifting and slamming the gas pedal to the floor -- deciding not to actually leave the beach but instead to travel north along the ocean until I reached the bridge that would take me to North Bay Village, a quiet little island right across the bay from Miami proper and the home of WSVN. I sped along Collins Avenue -- weaving through traffic and silently thanking Al Jourgensen for being born.

One of the most surreal and ironically foreboding features of an oncoming hurricane is the near-perfect weather that it creates before it strikes. The pressure of the storm's powerful revolution pulls all surrounding clouds in toward its center, making for crystal blue skies in the hours leading up to its arrival -- the literal calm before the storm. With the exception of a very light breeze, you'd never suspect that a monster storm, packing 160 mile-an-hour winds, was about to descend on you.

This is what it was like on the morning of August 23rd, 1992. It appeared to be the beginning of a hot, but otherwise gorgeous day.

It was only the palpable unease in the air and the oddly silent march to higher ground that betrayed the fact that something terrible was about to happen.

When I got to the station, I pulled my car into the most protected area of the parking lot I could find -- in the crux of the large, L-shaped three-story concrete building.

Once inside, I was quickly put to work pulling booth duty -- backing-up a rotating roster of producers, each of whom did a four hour control room shift directing our non-stop coverage. We had every crew possible in the field and the chopper in the air over the parking lot that the causeways and I-95 had turned into. I've come to believe that if you're not out doing live shots, the control room is the only place for a producer to be during rolling coverage. Anything else is a waste of his or her talents. I learned this that day at WSVN and would eventually put it into practice in every other shop at which I wound up working. My record is 14 straight hours in the control room, and during breaking news I wouldn't want it any other way.

On the day before Andrew came ashore, I willingly spent seven hours in the control room alongside the producers and directors, and in doing so earned the respect of my co-workers and managers. I had only been moved to the dayside shift -- the land of the living, as opposed to graveyard duty -- two months previously, and in a matter of a half-day, I was positioning myself to vault quickly up the ranks.

I had run to the bathroom and was on my way back to the booth when I heard someone call my name; I turned to see the familiar face of Chris Crane, the station's in-house music composer.

"I need a ride to my apartment," he said. "I gotta get my cat. Can you give me a lift?"

"I'm pulling booth duty man."

"Yeah, I know. I talked to Dreaden, he'll take over for a few minutes."

I'd been to Chris's apartment before; he lived on one of the upper-floors of a gorgeous high-rise building right on the island -- not far from the station. I checked my watch; it was just after five. I hadn't been outside since my arrival early this morning and was curious to see for myself if conditions had noticeably deteriorated, plus I didn't want to be in any way responsible for the death of a cat, so I nodded and we headed for the door.

"Ministry -- fucking perfect," he said as I cranked the engine and the Porsche's speakers came to life.



It was there, in Chris's apartment high above the bay, that the true gravity of what was about to happen -- what was about to hit us -- became overwhelmingly clear.

As Chris called out for his cat, I walked slowly across the living room to the sliding glass doors that led to the balcony outside. Without thinking, seemingly hypnotized, I slid the door open and stepped out onto the balcony; I needed not only to see but to feel the ominous scene that was presented to us from this high up. The edge of the Earth was dark. It looked as if God himself had reached down and pummeled it with his fist -- making the horizon bruised and swollen. The wind had picked up, and as I closed my eyes and felt it wash over me, I realized that the only sound I could hear was the breeze itself.

I opened my eyes and looked down at the streets below.

There wasn't a car in sight.

The island was a ghost town.

And there, at the vanishing point, on a collision course with us, was a storm the likes of which almost no one in South Florida had ever seen.

I walked quickly back inside and slid the door closed. There in the darkened living room was Chris.

"You find your fucking cat?"

"Yup."

"Good, grab her and let's go. We need to get out of here -- now."



When I was nine-years-old, Hurricane David dealt a glancing blow to Miami. I remember my parents boarded up the entire house so that it was pitch black inside except for the few battery-powered lights we chose to keep running. I listened to the storm batter and beat the outside of our home for hours and hours; heard the boards nailed across the windows creak; listened to the storm try to get inside wherever it could. At the time, I drew comparisons in my child's mind to the scene in Close Encounters where the aliens surround Gillian Guiler's house in rural Indiana, submerging it in light and sound in an effort to get to little Barry. I imagined that Hurricane David was trying to do the same thing -- testing every possible entrance in an effort to take me and my family away.

This was at the forefront of my mind as Chris and I slammed the car doors shut and ran back inside the safety of the station just as the first of the heavy, low clouds began to pass over our heads.

As the glass doors of the lobby closed behind us, a steel shutter fell down behind it, locking into place.

Now, just like during David, I was inside a building which had ostensibly been sealed shut.



I got back into the newsroom just in time to overhear Mike Dreaden and the executive producers quietly lamenting over a recent and unfortunate turn of events. WSVN had just within the last couple of months fired its long-time meteorologist Bob Soper, and had yet to find a replacement of his caliber. It basically meant that for the biggest storm in anyone's memory, our weather department was being manned by a bunch of relative novices -- pretty faces who were at the very least untested in the South Florida market, and therefore would probably be deemed untrustworthy by audiences when it really counted, like, oh say, now.

We needed meteorologists; we had Jillian Warry -- who would eventually go on to become Jillian Barberie, FOX's full-time, half-naked, mildly irritating weather vixen.

This was my first experience attempting to work my way around a truly stupid and short-sighted management decision.

It damn sure wouldn't be the last.

After getting a slice of pizza -- because the one thing that can always be said about a newsroom during a crisis is that at least there's free food -- I dodged the chaotic foot traffic in the newsroom and made my way over to the incoming feed area where Abby was sitting down, watching video come in from the trucks in the field. She was wearing her usual ensemble -- a t-shirt and a pair of jeans -- and her auburn hair was tied up in a pony-tail that bounced every time she barked orders through the microphone to our crews. She was as adorable at that moment as she had been a couple of weeks previously, when a few too many drinks at the bar across the street had led to a dangerous level of flirting and teasing between the two of us.

I liked Abby, and as far as I was concerned I could stand a friendly face.

"Don't you dare get near me unless you have an extra slice of pizza," she said without taking her focus away from the monitors in front of her.

"You want one? I can get you one."

"Fuck it." She turned to face me, seemingly annoyed at the distraction -- or maybe that she didn't have time to be distracted. "Just give me a bite of yours."

"Always." I smiled, holding the slice to her mouth.

"Don't start with me right now. In case you can't tell, some of us actually work around here as opposed to just kissing ass."

"I'm hoping to sleep my way to the middle. Busy later?"

She took a bite, dripping cheese on her chin which she quickly grabbed with her fingers and shoveled into her mouth.

"My God I love you," I deadpanned.

"Go away."



As the sun went down, the wind picked up and the approaching storm intensified -- the pressure dropping considerably. Andrew had become so tightly packed that it now resembled a giant tornado more than a hurricane. This was not going to be pretty, and deep down we were all scared beyond words. All day and afternoon, members of our staff had been running to and from their homes, trying desperately to secure what they could -- trying to get their families to safety. Many brought their husbands and wives -- their sons and daughters -- back to the station, as it seemed like the safest place possible given the circumstances.

In truth, this would have been the case were it not for one obvious consideration -- the one that was about to plunge what had already been a hectic and scary night into utterly terrifying confusion.

We were keeping one door open, and that was the back door that led from the newsroom out onto the helipad, and beyond that, the bay. After another hour or so in the control room, I once again felt like I needed to see what was happening for myself. Our crews were reporting intemittent bands of strong winds and light rain -- the outer rings of the storm -- so I ran downstairs from the booth and pushed open the unlocked back door. Outside I found some of our ENG guys gathering sandbags which they were preparing to put in place around what was obviously a weak spot in our defenses, namely the door I'd just come through. The wind was howling now, pushing a mist of salty bay water up over the seawall some fifty yards or so away from us.

Without taking my eyes away from the sight of the now black and roiling bay, I asked the obvious.

"Guys, what's the storm surge supposed to be with this thing?"

"12 to 18 feet," one of them answered.

I remember closing my eyes as I asked the even more obvious follow-up.

"And how high off the bay are we?"

"Not high enough."

As if timed for maximum dramatic effect, it was then that I noticed the red and blue lights casting long, deep shadows from the side of the building and heard the shouts from inside the newsroom.

The police had arrived.

They were forcing everyone out.



"This is a mandatory evacuation!" I heard, from a voice I didn't recognize.

The entire newsroom was in a state of pandemonium. Mike Dreaden and the other managers were trying to explain to the police that we had to continue broadcasting; the police weren't impressed, concerning themselves instead with only one unassailable truth: We were sitting on an island that was likely going to be completely underwater in a few hours. The dilemma for those of us who were currently holding the fort however was equally alarming: Andrew was now right offshore and we were being told to take to the streets and forage for sufficient shelter.

"Mike, what the hell are we doing?" I shouted over the insanity.

He looked around, as if willing himself to come up with a solution that didn't involve everyone being killed. "I have no idea," he huffed, then -- "We'll pack up the remaining trucks and go north to the transmitter. It's in Broward, we can broadcast from there. You guys can go with us -- or you can go inland and look for a safe place to spend the night."

Neither option was particularly appealing.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Abby. As I might've expected, she looked like she was about to try punching one of the cops in the face, which admittedly would've at least landed her in a nice, safe jail cell on the mainland. I ran over to break up what was already turning into what the hippies used to call a "very bad scene."

"Abby, Abby -- knock it off." I put my hand on her shoulder and spun her toward me.

"Where the hell are we supposed to go?" Up close, I realized that she looked less angry than she did genuinely in shock, like a frightened child.

"I don't know. Where do you live?"

"With my mother." I almost forgot that Abby had only turned 21 a few weeks ago. "Up on North Beach."

"Alright, that's not gonna work. We have to go inland. Come on."

And with that, I did something ridiculously impetuous -- or wonderfully noble -- or maybe I was just improvising. I grabbed Abby's purse, latched onto her hand, and we pushed our way through the crush of people moving toward the door and the police who were edging them out. When we got outside into light rain which was now being whipped along by heavy winds, we ran for the car.

I was fishtailing out onto the empty causeway in a matter of seconds, heading as far away from the water as I could get.



Aside from a police cruiser here and there, there wasn't a soul to be found anywhere on the roads. There were only the bands of wind and rain -- followed by the eerie lulls in between, when it felt as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the atmosphere and replaced by the oppressive silence of absolute absence. The effect was simply chilling.

The Porsche screamed along US-1, the needle pushing 85.

I had no idea what our destination was, but I knew that I obviously had to stop at some point; the worst thing imaginable would be getting caught in the full brunt of the storm while sitting in a car. At one point, we passed the National Hurricane Center and I gave serious consideration to just pulling into the parking lot and banging on their door.

Hey guys, wanna REALLY help some folks out tonight?

But it wasn't long after we'd passed the NHC building that we came upon a small hotel, the lights of which were still inexplicably on. It was a two-story job with outdoor entrances to the rooms; not exactly the underground bunker I'd hoped for, but it would have to do. I pulled the emergency brake and swung the car around, then threw it into first and headed back toward what was at the very least a concrete structure.

I've been thankful for many things in my lifetime: My family's seemingly bottomless reservoir of good will and humor, the ability to survive a brain tumor, the fact that sharks can't breathe air -- but never have I been more thankful than when I realized that not only was the little guy at the Gables Inn sitting behind his desk and willing to open the door for us, but that at a few minutes past midnight on August 24th, 1992 -- the day Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida -- he had one room available.



There was chaos, absolute and infinite -- the terrifying sound of the world being torn apart. It was undeniably beautiful. Intensely sensuous. Abby and I listened to the fury of the wind and the scream of the roof being stripped away. We barely spoke, content to feel each other's husky, labored breathing. Exploding transformers right outside the window hammered the room with staccato blasts of blue and white light that sliced through the blackness and turned our shadows into living art against the wall. A final crack, and a sliver of the ceiling gave way, letting in warm drops of rain to mix with the sweat. Trees were ripped from the ground and slammed into the wall outside, their branches scraping violently against the pulsating window like fingernails across bare skin. It was nature in its simplest, rawest form -- monstrous and powerful and exquisite and pure.



I gently slid Abby down onto the floor between the bed and the wall and pulled the mattress up overtop of her, to keep her safe from any possible debris.

And then I walked hesitantly to the door, because like the child in Close Encounters, I had to see for myself what it looked like -- the monster scratching at the other side. The wind was blowing from the east, while the door to the room faced west; it was theoretically safe to open.

I placed my hand on the doorknob, twisted it gently and pushed.

What I saw when I looked into the storm was beyond description. Beyond awe. I've never seen such power.

I was in the center of the maelstrom.

I have no idea how long I stood there, but eventually I closed the door and crawled under the mattress with Abby, who was already asleep. I pulled her tightly against me, then closed my eyes and let everything go dark and silent.




Part 2: The Other Side


There was nothing, and that nothing was something -- its own imposing physical presence.

Although I was sure my eyes were open, there was no light; although I believed myself to be awake, there was no sound.

It wasn't until I felt Abby's soft hair in my face that I was sure we still existed at all. I exhaled and twisted my neck slightly, then reached a free arm up from around the young girl pressed against me and pushed hard on the mattress above us, sliding it out of the way. Suddenly, I could see -- the world going from black to shades of muted gray.

"Abby, wake up," I whispered.

She groaned and rolled over onto her back in the tiny shelter we had created between the bed's heavy box spring and the wall of the hotel room. My body ached as I pulled myself up and awkwardly half-crawled out into the space of the room. As reality began to come into a difficult focus, I noticed the sound of dripping -- looked up and saw timid light coming through a hole in the ceiling -- water traversing its jagged edges and falling to the soaked carpet below.

I rubbed the haze out of my eyes. When I looked toward the window, I noticed that it was practically opaque -- covered almost completely by the branches of a tree that had fallen and now rested against it. Astonishingly though, the window wasn't even cracked. How it held together I'll never know, but I'll always be grateful that it did.

I slid into my jeans then moved over to the door and pushed it open, bathing the room in soft, white light. I immediately noticed the strong breeze and heard it moving through tree branches that I couldn't see -- pushing leaves and debris along the ground. I stepped out onto the landing and allowed myself a first tentative look around. From my vantage point, facing west, perpendicular to US-1, there was little to see, unless you took into account the miracle of the Gables Inn's ability to have somehow just withstood a Category 5 hurricane without completely evaporating. I noticed one or two people -- seemingly shell-shocked -- wandering the parking area directly beneath our second-floor room. I leaned forward and peered over the railing with a lump in my throat, fearing the absolute worst, only to find that aside from being plastered with wayward palm fronds, the Porsche seemed to have survived Andrew unscathed.

I jumped slightly when I felt something brush against me from behind, then closed my eyes and leaned back into the warmth of Abby, who at that moment felt even softer than I had remembered. She'd wrapped herself in a blanket, and was now resting her head against my back.

"How bad is it?" I heard her voice, and felt her breath on my shoulder.

"I honestly don't know. We should get out of here and find out -- get to the station, if we can."

I turned around, held her tightly for a moment -- then kissed her gently and went back inside to get dressed and get my car keys.



It was bad.

It was very bad.

Abby and I drove in silence, slowly and carefully maneuvering the car around the heavy debris that littered the highway -- everything from street lights and powerlines to trees, billboards and even the massive air-conditioning units from the tops of the high buildings nearby; all were strewn across US-1 and had now turned it into a frightening obstacle course. Every so often, the oppressive stillness inside the car would be broken by the sound of Abby's quiet sobs.

Entire buildings were flattened. Once lush trees were made barren skeletons -- standing as sentinels over a wasteland, if they still stood at all. Everywhere, windows had been shattered, turning the structures they once adorned and protected into seemingly atrophied frameworks -- empty and bare. The roofs of homes had been shorn away wholesale and now rested in various spots along the highway so that it would've actually been possible to make a macabre game out of matching the house to its missing canopy.

There were no stop signs. No traffic signals. No electricity. No nothing.

And everywhere you turned your head, there were people trickling out from under shelter looking dazed -- concussed -- the way I always imagined a person looks immediately after being involved in a bad car accident. It's the face of someone who's gone into shock and is seconds away from collapsing -- someone who's already dead, he or she just doesn't know it yet.

We had been warned what a storm like this could do.

Our most dire predictions and worst fears weren't even close.



Abby and I were completely cut off from everyone. We couldn't reach our families, nor could we get in contact with our co-workers. The police had already set up blockades and detours aimed at keeping traffic flowing in certain areas -- safely out of others. With the radio now on and tuned to one of the few stations still broadcasting continuously, we decided to head north, toward Abby's family's condo; it was near water, but from what we were hearing, the storm had veered south at the last minute to come ashore in South Miami-Dade County. Places like Cutler Ridge, Homestead and Saga Bay had all taken direct hits and were now eerie dead zones; there was no information coming out of them. For all we knew at that moment, they simply didn't exist anymore.

The irony of course, which wasn't lost on either of us, was that by heading south on US-1 and ending up in Coral Gables the previous night, without meaning to, we had traveled into the storm as opposed to away from it.

"Next time, I'll let you drive," I said, upon learning of this little revelation.

The farther we got away from the southern end of the county, the more things seemed to return to normal. Power was still out almost everywhere though, and when we finally arrived at Abby's mother's condo, we were forced to grab an emergency flashlight and navigate a dark and damp stairway -- with only the sound of dripping water echoing across concrete -- to get to the upper floors. We eventually made our way down a hallway illuminated by the sad glow of emergency lights, located the right door and dug Abby's keys out of her purse. Once inside, the gun-metal gray sky beyond the condo's floor-to-ceiling windows provided at least a workable amount of light.

Abby called out to her mother. I slipped into the darkened kitchen, found the faucet and splashed cool water on my face.

After a moment, Abby appeared as a silhouette in the doorway leading to the dining room.

"She's not here."

"She leave a note or anything?" I asked as I used the bottom of my t-shirt to dry my face.

"No, she probably went to my aunt's place up in Boca. That would've made the most sense. She'd figure I was okay."

"That'd be her first mistake," I said through a tired smile.

I heard a chuckle come from the silhouette.

"Wanna try using the phone, see if it works -- see who's out there?" I asked, after a moment of deafening silence.

Amazingly, the phone actually did work, the problem of course was that a lot of the ones we were dialing didn't. The station, as far as we could tell, was still out of commission, and Abby and I quietly admitted to each other the grim feeling of calling a television station in a major American city and getting a recording.

With no other legitimate options, and certainly nothing better to do, we turned on a battery-powered radio and laid down on the couch.

We fell asleep listening to stories of the end of the world.




Part 3: Among the Living


I came around the corner at a quick jog, only to be stopped in my tracks by a heavy black bag which hit me square in the chest. I fumbled for a second, caught it, then looked up to see where it came from. Standing in front of me was Mary Alvarez, our senior executive producer.

"Congratulations, you're going to South Dade. Be on the helipad in ten minutes."

She may as well have just spoken to me in Innuit.

"I'm going where?" I said, chasing after her as she turned and began taking long strides back to the newsdesk.

"Cutler Ridge. You'll be field producing for Sally," the back of her head said.

I suddenly debated telling her that, having never actually gone to journalism school, I had absolutely no idea what the hell a field producer did and therefore her choice of me for this particular assignment was a recipe for disaster. I thought the better of it in short order, choosing instead to bullshit around my complete ignorance.

"Uh, okay," I stammered. "Any particulars you're looking for while I'm down there?"

When in doubt, pretend to know things in the abstract while bolstering the ego of management by deferring to it and asserting that only someone of a higher pay grade can be brilliant enough to understand the specifics of anything.

"Find stories. Keep her in check. The first assignment should be a breeze -- God help you with the second."

"Look, Mary--" The cracks were quickly starting to show.

She spun around and looked me right in the eye.

"Nine minutes."



The morning after Abby and I made our exodus from the Gables Inn and our treacherous journey across Miami-Dade county, we were back at the station, which had just officially reopened for business. Right before dawn, we had left the condo -- where the power was still off -- and headed south along I-95, then east toward North Bay Village. We showed our WSVN IDs and had been allowed to pass a police barricade to get across the causeway to the island. Overall, North Bay Village wasn't badly damaged: a few traffic lights down, no power aside from backup generators, debris in the streets, but that was about it.

We hadn't been at work long -- dealing with the trauma of getting the station up and running again -- before Mike Dreaden noticed the two of us standing close together, whispering to each other, calm amid the madness. He lumbered over and asked where we'd each managed to find safety during the storm. Abby and I just laughed a little and separated without saying a word.

Now, the two of us were face to face again.

I had just come back from grabbing my overnight bag out of the car and had both that and the bag Mary threw at me earlier -- the one full of extra equipment for Sally -- slung over my shoulders. I looked like a pack mule.

"You know, I'm trying to stay professional about this whole thing," I said quietly, resisting the urge to run my fingers along Abby's arm.

"Yeah, I know. Do you have any idea how long you'll be gone?"

"None. A few days at least I'm sure. Who the hell knows."

There was silence in the tiny space we occupied together at the center of the newsroom, contrasted by the roar of activity all around us. I checked my watch -- time to go. I glanced up at her and was just opening my mouth to say goodbye when she cut me off.

"Oh fuck it," she said, and leaned in and pressed her mouth hard against mine. "Take care of yourself."

So much for discreet.

A couple of minutes later, I was ducking below the rotor of the chopper -- shielding my eyes against the whirlwind it kicked up. I threw both bags onto the seat in the back, then climbed in and slammed the door shut behind me. After patting the pilot on the shoulder and strapping in, I reached into my overnight bag and pulled out my CD Walkman, plugging the headphones into my ears.

As we lifted off, and the ground receded beneath us, Neil Young began to speak to me -- singing that our only hope was to keep on rockin' in the free world.



From the air, the scope of the destruction became clear. The amount of damage was staggering -- overwhelming.

As the chopper headed south, low along the coast, skeletal high-rises slid past us -- all of their windows blown out. Below us, houses were in pieces and trees blocked the streets and highways. Cars were overturned and scattered like children's toys.

When we reached the Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, the images were almost beyond belief. Every boat, every yacht and sailboat along the docks were smashed and sunk in the shallow water. Boats were piled on top of each other in a gruesome parody of dry dock -- splinters of what were once expensive vessels scattered everywhere. As we turned inland to bee-line toward our final destination deep within South Dade, I pulled down my sunglasses and leaned into the window -- awe-struck by what I was seeing.

There, on dry ground, laying against a line of trees at least a half-mile from the edge of the bay, was a ship. A freighter. It was hundreds of feet long. It had been picked up by the storm surge, blown inland -- and then left there when the waters receded.

As we pushed farther and farther into the heart of the dead zone created by the storm's fury, I realized that there was less and less to see -- simply because there was less and less there.

Everything was gone. Leveled. Wiped clean.

Entire communities, once thriving, had vanished as if they'd never existed. It was as if Andrew had a plan -- an actual thought process -- and it involved returning everything to zero. Years of evolution, both structural and cultural, had been obliterated. Thoroughly erased.

After what felt like an eternity, the chopper banked and began to descend. I looked down and once again felt a stab of dizziness penetrate the space directly behind my eyes. Our landing area was the Cutler Ridge Mall -- or where it had once stood anyway. Most of the mall -- formerly a giant enclosed shopping Mecca featuring stores like JC Penney and Sears -- had been flattened. What remained was nothing but rubble. Its parking lot was now a staging area for the National Guard; military green vehicles, hastily-constructed tents and troops at muster seemed to go on forever.

It cemented the impression that we were entering a war zone, which in fact we were.

The chopper set down in a barren area of the lot near what was once the north end of the mall. I ripped off my headphones, grabbed my bags and jumped out -- shouting a thank you to the pilot on my way. In front of me as I once again ducked beneath the rotor was a familiar face: One of our photographers -- a guy named Brad Friedkin.

"Welcome to hell," he shouted over the roar of the chopper.

"Is it all like this?" I returned at equal volume, still shielding my face.

"This? Oh fuck no. It's much worse." He was smiling from ear to ear. "At least they have power generators and air conditioners here."

He grabbed the black supply bag from my shoulder and led me to a waiting Chevy Blazer that was already running. As I climbed into the front seat beside him, the AC did indeed feel wonderful. The heat and humidity outside was punishing; I had only been out in it for a few minutes and I could already feel sweat running down the backs of my legs.

As Brad put the truck into gear, he glanced over at me.

"Do you have any idea what you're supposed to be doing here?"

Now that I was safely miles away from a manager -- "Are you kidding? I was hoping you'd know."

He pushed hard on the gas and the truck twisted out onto a side street.

"Yeah, you're gonna fit in just fine," he said, seemingly as an afterthought.

Brad gunned the truck to the intersection of US-1, our only route down deeper into the scarred heart of the devastation and a straight line to the Cutler Ridge processing center. Unfortunately, the highway was a frozen line of cars; traffic wasn't going anywhere in either direction. Before I could even ask what his plan was or suggest one of my own, Brad had pulled alongside a national guardsman and rolled down his window.

"Excuse me," he shouted, getting the attention of the weary guardsman. "Is that thing loaded?" Brad was pointing to the M16 slung over the guardsman's shoulder -- a weapon which appeared to be missing a clip.

"Not right now," he responded.

"Good."

And with that, Brad swung the Blazer past the guy and sped off along the side of the highway, leaving a cloud of dirt in our wake -- by-passing the traffic completely.



The National Guard and the Office of Emergency Management had taken one of the few structures still standing in Cutler Ridge and turned it into a processing center for the victims of the storm. It was a place where anyone could come and find food and bottled water, both of which were almost impossible to come by otherwise as there was no electricity and no clean water for miles in any direction.

Day and night, the place was packed with crowds of desperate people -- all clamoring for items which they likely had taken for granted up until two days ago. South Dade had been plunged into the dark ages, and after only 48 hours without the modern conveniences that had over the years unwittingly become necessities, an almost feral atmosphere was beginning to take hold. Tempers were short. A primitive rage was practically visible behind the eyes of everyone you came into contact with.

It wasn't a reality anyone recognized anymore. It was a world consumed by madness.

For the first several hours after my arrival, I herded my anchor, Sally Fitz, here and there -- making sure she was in place for her live shots and keeping in constant contact with the station. Having been on the other side, in the control room, I was well aware of what the producers and directors needed from the crews in the field to keep things running smoothly and keep themselves from storming out the door and never coming the hell back. Things went according to plan for the most part, despite the constantly changing situation at the processing center and the fact that in a fit of bizarre anger, Sally had already told another of our photographers, Ralph Rayburn, to "shove it up his ass" live on the air. It was moments like those that forced me to retire to the air conditioned live truck every so often to sit quietly and contemplate a career change.

As the sun set, the darkness began to swallow the entire area whole. With no electricity for miles, a walk even a few feet outside the confines of the processing center would plunge you into impenetrable black. Once again, the world reset by the hand of God -- returned to a time before man and his innovations could lay any claims or plant any flags of progress.

But -- when you looked up, an entirely new reality was revealed. You could see forever. Past the stars. Past the galaxies. Maybe into the center of heaven itself. It was beautiful beyond dreams.

This was what I stared into that first night, before finally closing my eyes to get a couple hours of sleep. That perpetual sky.



Somewhere in my dream, Abby told me that we have a problem -- and then told me again.

"We have a problem," came a different voice, one I didn't quite recognize.

I slowly pried open my eyes to find our truck operator towering over me. It was still dark outside.

I groaned, then -- "What's up?"

"The National Guard's threatening to kill Rick," he said matter-of-factly.

I just laid there for a moment.

Finally -- "Well, is there anything we can do to stop them?"

"We should probably try."

"Yeah, I guess you're right."

I pulled myself up off the Astroturf carpet that I'd been laying on and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes with the fingers of one hand -- exhaled heavily -- then trudged off to find the National Guard commander in the hopes of keeping him from killing WSVN's main anchor.

Rick Sanchez was stationed about thirty miles or so south of us, at the second processing center -- the one in the even more heavily damaged city of Homestead. Already a somewhat divisive presence in Miami television, he was either busting his ass to get the word out about the desperate needs of those in the hurricane zone or arrogantly showboating -- taking "The Rick Show" on the road as it were -- depending on your point of view. As it turned out, Sanchez would go on to inspire this same kind of extreme love or hatred throughout his career, even, eventually, on a national level; this crap was just the tip of the iceberg.

I finally found the commander in charge of the Guard detachment at our station.

"Sir, what's the problem?" I asked, still groggy.

He turned around and motioned to a column of semi tractor-trailers over his shoulder which he was, at that very moment, attempting to direct out of the traffic. "That's the problem," he said, frustrated. "Your man in Homestead went on the air and said they needed baby food. Guess what's in those trucks?"

Rick asks for it down there and it appears up here. Fucking lovely.

"Who sent all that?" I asked, pretending like I could somehow exert any control over the situation whatsoever.

"Who knows. One of the markets up in Broward probably. We're still trying to figure that out." He turned around and ordered a guardsman to put flares down in the road, then whipped his head back toward me. "This is the second time this has happened in 24 hours. We're gonna either pull him off the air or just shoot him -- unless you do something about this. We don't have any place to put all this crap and we don't have a way to get it all down to Homestead right now."

"So, it's basically just gonna go bad."

"Give the kid a prize," he said, stomping off.

About two minutes later, I was inside the live truck on the two-way with our newsdesk, trying to explain the situation in terms as unequivocal as possible.

"If we don't put a muzzle on Sanchez, they're gonna dispatch Martin Sheen down the river to take him out."

"Well, you know how it is with Rick," came the response from Dreaden.

They're helpless parents who can't control their problem child.

"Just do something please. They're gonna shut him down -- I'm serious."

As if on cue, there was a knock at the door of the live truck. I reached over and opened it and standing there was a guy in a sweat-soaked t-shirt and a trucker hat.

"Hey, you with the TV? We got a bunch of stuff your guy says they need down in Homestead. Where do you want it?"




It was later that day that I tied a bandana around my head to soak up the filthy sweat and set out with a photographer to find a trailer park that supposedly had been all but annihilated by Andrew. An hour or so previously, Sally Fitz had sought me out to tell me that she'd heard rumors of the tiny community and that it had yet to be photographed by any news crews. So, myself and a shooter named Eddie grabbed some equipment, climbed in the back of a pick-up that was driven by someone who said he knew of the trailer park in question and wanted everyone to understand what had happened there, and were soon on the road headed for God-knows-where.

As we rode under a sky that was nearly white with moisture, as well as the ugly gray clouds that punctuated it, we shot video of the homes and businesses that we passed. All were badly damaged, and yet many looked as if they'd been boarded up after the storm hit, in an effort to protect what could still be salvaged. Everywhere, there were signs on various properties which featured menacing warnings of the harm that would come to looters, should they even consider trying to take what little of value the hurricane had spared. Given that there was almost no law to speak of in South Dade at the time, I tended to believe, say, the sign that read: LOOTERS WILL BE KILLED!

The truck veered off the highway after some time, and pushed down a dirt road and through tall reeds. After several minutes of rough riding that nearly bounced the two of us out of the back on more than one occasion, we entered a clearing -- an open field surrounded by low, barren trees.

It took me a moment to realize that it wasn't a clearing at all. It had once been a trailer park.

There was nothing left of it now. Not a thing was intact. Nothing stood higher than maybe a couple of feet off the ground.

I climbed out of the truck as it stopped and took a few cautious steps forward. There was no sound at all; even the hot breeze seemed to be silent, as it swept not through dense leaves but around desolate and bare branches. I advanced slowly down what had been one of the wide streets between the homes. As I did, I looked to my left and right -- taking in the wreckage of what had once been people's lives.

There was a crib, crushed under the twisted metal of one trailer's roof. Pictures scattered everywhere. Memories. There were toys. A child's shoe. Clothes. Even a wedding dress. A bicycle with training wheels still on it was now perched in what little remained of a tree.

A thumping sound finally broke the crushing silence, the sound of helicopters. As it grew louder, I looked up to see a formation of military choppers glide directly over our heads.

A moment later, the artificial thunder created by the helicopters retreated over the horizon and it was quiet again.

Except for the strange buzz.

And that was what I noticed what had been there all along -- busying themselves above the piles of wreckage where homes once stood. Where people once lived.

Flies.

We were standing several feet apart now, but I turned to Eddie and spoke in a near whisper. Sadly. Desperately. Helplessly.

"They're all dead."

He didn't answer -- just stared, slowly taking in the entire scene.

I swallowed a lump in my throat, which I hoped would help me fight back the tears.

"Yeah, there's no way they all got out," he finally answered quietly -- reverently.

Eddie glanced over at the man who'd driven us to this place. This graveyard. They both simply nodded at each other, and Eddie put his camera on his shoulder and began shooting. I moved back to get out of his shot, then happened to turn my head and look down. On the ground next to me was a picture of a middle-aged couple. They were smiling.



Three days later -- after reporting the story of the trailer park and alerting the overworked authorities to its existence; after mornings, afternoons and nights of live shot after live shot after live shot; after almost no sleep -- I caught a ride back to the makeshift landing pad at the Cutler Ridge Mall. I watched the chopper land. Boarded it. Closed my eyes as it ascended out of the war zone. Opened them only occasionally on the trip back to notice as green returned to the world below; as blue water appeared on the horizon and in time slipped gently beneath us; as the island of North Bay Village materialized ahead -- the island that everyone thought would be covered in water. I'd eventually return home and find that my apartment had also survived the storm. It had come through just fine.

As the chopper touched down on the helipad, its rotors still screaming, I once again thanked the pilot and stepped out into the whirlwind, where I'd spent a lot of time recently.

As I looked up, standing safely outside of the maelstrom was Abby.

She gave me a warm smile, and held me tightly when I reached her. Together we turned and walked toward the rear door of the station.

She held it open for me, and welcomed me back to work.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Get a Life


Want to know how it feels to stand over the corpse of God himself?

By all means, read on.

MSN.com: Scientists Now Building Human Life from Scratch

Listening Post



I'm well aware that when I talk about hip-hop, I sound like my parents talking about rock & roll -- insisting that today's stuff is, for the most part, awful and that the genre's best days seem to be well behind it.

It peaked for me in the early 90s, and here's one of the reasons why:

A Tribe Called Quest -- Jazz (We've Got).

Friday, August 17, 2007

Girls, Girls, Girls

(Part 1: Heaven's Cates/5.4.07)
(Part 2: Screen Savors/5.9.07)
(Part 3: Rock & Roll Queens/6.14.07)


Part 4: Funny Girls

For sheer sex appeal, it's tough to beat a woman who's genuinely funny; The admittedly subjective and thoroughly self-indulgent list of my favorite women continues with the ones who prove that.

Some are full-fledged comediennes, some are brilliantly sharp comedic writers, some have just proven that they have flawless comic timing -- whether going over-the-top, flashing a subtle glance at the right time, or playing it perfectly straight.

These are the girls who make me giggle like a little kid, while simultaneously doing that unfortunate thing where I squeeze my legs together tightly and make a kind of guttural moaning sound through a post-orgasmic smile.


Parker Posey

There might not be anyone on this list who's consistently and simultaneously funnier and hotter than Parker Posey. To witness her in all her comedic glory, see Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman. To see her in all her, well, glory -- see The Anniversary Party.


Kathleen Robertson

Tina Fey is not on this list -- not because I don't like her or think she's unattractive, just because the choice is a little too obvious. But if you like 30 Rock, which is a funny-as-hell show, then do yourself a favor and check out IFC's original series The Business sometime, and simultaneously laugh at and ogle Kathleen Robertson. She's just gorgeous beyond words, and she plays straight-man better than anyone else on television -- male or female.


Stacey Grenrock Woods

If you were paying attention, you might remember her as the best-looking correspondent The Daily Show ever had (not counting Colbert). Since leaving Stewartville, Stacey Grenrock Woods has gone on to success as Esquire magazine's sex advice columnist and has even written a recently-published memoir, I, California. But this sharp-as-a-tack wit would earn a place in my heart for no other reason than the above picture and the story behind it: Back in 1989, Stacey posed for Playboy, only to have the pictures shelved -- that is, until her book came out.


Madeleine Kahn

Where to even begin: Possibly the funniest women in the history of film. Easily the sexiest woman ever to wear taffeta (darling). If you're a heterosexual man and you didn't want to fall at her feet like Hedy Lamarr* when she put on her black lingerie and feather boa to become Lily Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles, there's something wrong with you.


Téa Leoni

For someone as ridiculously beautiful as Téa Leoni, she sure knows how to play confused, frazzled and uncomfortable. That's probably what makes her so damn spectacular. She first made it big in a comedic role -- on the better-than-it-probably-should-have-been sitcom Flying Blind -- and went on to hone her comic skills in movies like Flirting with Disaster and this year's brilliant indie You Kill Me. (She can be forgiven for Fun with Dick and Jane.) Plus, she's married to one of the most naturally funny guys on the planet, David Duchovny, making her one half of the couple my wife and I would most like to hang out with sometime -- you know, if they happen to be listening.


Annabelle Gurwitch

Before there was The Daily Show, there was HBO's Not Necessarily the News -- and Annabelle Gurwitch was a major part of it. That alone would put her on this list, but when you factor in her gig on NPR and the fact that she was once personally fired by Woody Allen -- plus her cute-as-a-button demeanor -- you've got pure gold.


Jenna Fischer

Like her counterpart on The Office, John Krasinski, she has the ability to get huge laughs by doing little more than glancing into the camera for a split-second. Surrounded on all sides by insanity, Jenna Fischer's portrayal of the adorable, approachable receptionist Pam has made her the unlikely lust of every guy in America with more than two brain cells to rub together. What's more, her personal MySpace site -- which she uses to legitimately interact with fans -- proves that she's as sweet as the character she plays. And if all that doesn't do it for you -- look at the picture above.


Catherine O'Hara

I grew up on SCTV, which means that I fell in love with Catherine O'Hara at a young age. Whether playing Vegas seductress Lola Heatherton, freaked-out, drugged-up urban expatriate Delia Deitz, or any of the wonderful weirdos in the Christopher Guest pantheon, Catherine has always been one of my secret crushes.


Sarah Silverman

Forget what I said earlier about not going with the obvious choice. Silverman rules.


Michelle Monaghan

An unusual choice, I realize, and one many will say is based more on beauty than ability to elicit laughter. Those people obviously haven't seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Plus, Michelle Monaghan managed to play straight-man while working with the unintentionally hilarious Tom Cruise in MI:3; That's gotta be worth something.


Carrie Fisher

Yes, I too masturbated to Leia in the gold bikini at one point in my life. But did you know that while shooting the first Star Wars, George Lucas forced Carrie Fisher to tape down her breasts because he said they were too distracting -- which led Carrie to write about her attempt at holding a daily contest to see who among the cast and crew would get to rip the tape off at the end of the day? Now that's funny. Make no mistake, Carrie Fisher is one of the funniest women alive.


Christa Miller

I laugh every time Sarah Chalke says "FRICK!" -- but the true XX-chromoed comedic genius of Scrubs is Christa Miller as the irascible Dr. Cox's equally irascible other-half, Jordan. I loved Christa when she was on The Drew Carey Show (in spite of the fact that I was expected to believe that at one point her character was actually on Drew Carey himself); I love her even more now.


Drew Barrymore

I'll just get this over with: I LOVE Drew Barrymore. Love her. I still have the 1995 Playboy with her layout (and admittedly, she's never looked better). I drooled with bitter envy when she stood up on Letterman's desk and flashed him. I even paused the DVD of Charlie's Angels to see if she really was naked in the scene where she tumbled down the hill after being "shot" (she wasn't). She's smart, she's funny as hell -- making me fall even harder for her every time she does that goofy thing where she sticks her tongue between her teeth and crosses her eyes while smiling -- and she's become more comfortable in her own skin as she's aged, and that makes her even sexier. She doesn't take herself too seriously and she's single-handedly managed to save about a half-dozen romantic comedies from being completely worthless. There's no one on this list I'd more love to just go have a beer with, and I have no doubt that it'd be a thorougly wonderful experience. Did I mention how much I love her?


I rest my case.

Next: The Journalists

(*That's Hedley.)