Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Will Victims Actually See Money From BP Escrow Fund?

Here is this week's column for NetGreen News. All my columns are here.

With BP liable for a mere $75 million under federal law for paying oil-spill victims, President Obama recently announced the formation of a $20 billion escrow fund.

BP will have to pay damage claims out of this fund, which will in turn by administered independently by former Treasury Department "compensation czar" Kenneth Feinberg. BP will only have a say in claims of $500,000 or more.

One of the main goals of the fund is for shrimpers, fishers, and property owners to file for reimbursement through the fund rather than through lawsuits aimed at the oil company. This sounds like a smart course to take, and Feinberg certainly has the experience to lead the efforts, but just how successful have escrow funds been over the years?

This funding will be especially difficult to judge, as many businesses will have to prove their losses over tricky timelines with many gray quantifying areas.

But it can be done. Despite a major assault on the way he launched into thankless work on the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, Feinberg eventually won over most of his critics and the fund paid out $7 billion to 97 percent of those affected. About 7,400 claimants received an average of $2 million each, certainly not the value of a loved one's life, but not bad either.

The Consumer Product Safety Act of 2008 includes provisions for company-financed escrow accounts for recalls. U.S. government escrow efforts have also been largely successful in accompanying reviews of troubling assets in bank-executive compensation packages and in tobacco litigation.

While not a government-backed escrow fund, $8 million in donations appears to have been distributed successfully to those most in need in the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, which Feinberg also oversaw.

Only time will tell whether the escrow account is a government "shakedown," in the words of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce top Republican and chief anti-Earth spokesperson Joe Barton, or extremely smart handling by the Obama administration of corporate excess.

If history is a judge, the one-stop administered fund will better benefit victims and reduce lawyer fees in comparison to a one-by-one court-case handling of victim compensation. Even BP itself and, surprisingly, the American Petroleum Institute, have not fought the need for the $20 billion fund.

Novel, Part #12

The novel's two main characters, young Paul and rock star Rory, continue their conversation over drinks and pie at Admiller's Deli. For the rest of the start of the book, go here.

We ordered two slices of blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream. Rory got a coffee and I had a Coke.

Rory asked, ”So what are you all about?”

“Um, I’m starting Papersville High next month and I cut lawns, mostly my own and Universal’s.”
“OK, so those are the official things. But what do you like? What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, I like American Top 40, so I guess that means I like music. I like to read. I finished Gone With the Wind and The Fountainhead this summer.”

“The classics. The Fountainhead, eh? Ayn Rand. So does that mean you want to work on Wall Street and crunch numbers or be some fancy-pants architect or lawyer and make tons of money?”


“Well, good. We can still be friends,” he laughed.

“Don’t you make a lot of money?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I like other people who make lots of money. In fact, so many people around me are trying so hard to make a buck off me that it makes it hard to figure out who my friends are. Remember, I may seem like an artifact to you, but to the people on the business side of my life, I’m still a rookie kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing. And I still need friends. I’ve met a lot of fellow musicians and rock stars who I consider friends, but I don’t hang out with them in, umm, natural ways, you know? And when I lived here, I actually got made fun of quite a bit. I didn’t fit in and sort of kept in my own world. I used to draw rock stars and imagine what I would be like as one of them. My older sister listened to good music and taught me how to play guitar. That first guitar – I still have it – has been my best friend for a long time.”

I added, “I don’t have a guitar, and I probably don’t have anyone who would be considered my best friend. I’m not sure I relate to people here, but I’m not sure I’m better than people here either, like I think you probably are.”

“I don’t know about that. In another time and mindset, this place might not be exactly as it seems.”

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Zeitoun is Eggers' True-Crime Masterpiece

Hard to believe it's been nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees. It's easy to forget how one of this decade's three massively destructive events hampered our way of life in the U.S. (the others being 9/11 and the Gulf oil spill).

I remember thinking The Big Easy probably wouldn't recover, but I was wrong. That's not to say it's safe in the long run, speaking from an engineering standpoint.

As a communications professional, I talk a lot about the importance of telling a good human story, and most of the stories coming out of New Orleans were about groups of people trying to evacuate, looters, and deplorable conditions in the mass housing of the Superdome. But Dave Eggers brings a powerhouse tale about one family that offers the best (albeit a very narrow) view of life in the aftermath of the storm.

Zeitoun, the protagonist (pictured above) and title of the book, is the Syrian-American owner of a local contracting business who decides to stay while his American-born and Muslim-converted wife Kathy leaves with the kids for Houston and points beyond. Zeitoun becomes a real hero as he paddles his canoe around town to save old ladies and dogs from sure death.

The characters are rounded with full backstories of Zeitoun's early life growing up in Syria with an older brother known as one of the world's great ocean swimmers and Kathy's journey from her life as a little girl growing up in Baton Rouge.

The tale takes unexpected twists that seem too horrifying to be true. The events that unfold for Zeitoun supply true-crime journalism for this era that is every bit as powerful as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was at the founding of the genre.

Part of the mystery is whether all the bad things that the National Guard and FEMA perpetrated upon some of the people who remained in the city after the storm happened because of post-9/11 Middle East profiling or simply out of gross incompetence.

This is a must-read for any American. It should help anyone sympathize with the struggles and everyday concerns faced by recent immigrants to this country. The book puts a human face on both a tragedy and a complex and interesting family.

Eggers' masterpiece may very well be Zeitoun, which is not easy to say considering that he penned A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

***** out of ***** stars

Monday, June 28, 2010

Top Director Soderbergh Takes a Light Approach on Corporate Scandal

Variety aptly called The Informant! "the wacky little brother of Erin Brockovich."

Matt Damon is his usual excellent self as Archer Daniels Midland executive Mark Whitacre, a man who rationalizes his way into becoming a long-time mole for the FBI in ADM's real-life lysine additive price-fixing scandal of the 1990s.

Damon is part of the top brass at the food-processing conglomerate and seems like an innocent, hard-working man from Midwestern Decatur, Illinois. His aspirations to become CEO become unhinged by what we later learn to be some serious mental bipolar issues.

The movie is based on journalist Kurt Eichenwald's articles in The New York Times about ADM. His other two books include one about the defrauding of 340,000 people by Prudential Securities and another about Enron called Conspiracy of Fools.

The Informant! is most interesting because of the light-hearted take on real-life events and a healthy dose of comedic actors like Joel McHale and Patton Oswalt playing somewhat-serious roles.

Much of this success is due to director Steven Soderbergh, who adds to his excellent portfolio of works such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Out of Sight; The Limey; Traffic; Ocean's Eleven; Bubble; and the above-mentioned Erin Brockovich. He is certainly one of cinema's top five directors.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Novel, Part #11

The novel's two main characters, young Paul and rock star Rory, have just met and bonded a little bit. For the rest of the start of the book, go here.

Chapter 6

During the impressive and melodic solo performance by Rory, I could see that I clearly liked his music and his worldview. He switched from singing about space exploration to global causes to the pains and pleasures of love effortlessly, sometimes in the same song. He even looked over and smiled at me a couple of times. Luckily, my shift was over and it was alright for me to stick around and enjoy the show for free. I think the other people attending had paid to get in.

I took the effort to stick around afterwards to say goodbye to Rory and tell him how much I liked his music, and to maybe have him sign the records some of his friends had given to me. To my surprise, he asked if I wanted to go get some coffee and pie at Admiller’s Deli, not something I would turn down doing with my worst enemy.

After ordering from our corner booth near the window, Rory asked, “That went well, don’t you think, Paul?”

“Yes, I really like your music, Rory,” I paused. “What was that one about staring at Earth about? It was weird, but I can’t get it out of my head.”

“Cool. Yeah, that’s my one take at prog rock. Progressive rock. You know, like the more spaced-out elements of Zeppelin, or like Yes or Fleetwood Mac. I wrote it three years ago when Earth Day was starting up. I thought about what Earth must have looked like to the astronauts on the Moon. You know, this life-giving force of a planet. It must have been impossible for them to miss just how fragile our systems are, and how the green trees feed off the blue waters and the clouds in the sky. Having that image should make everyone on this planet realize that we’ve got to start taking care of it one of these days.

“I actually got my start playing a festival with the Mac when Peter Green freaked out on LSD and started slipping into schizophrenia. I was one of many fill-ins for him. But, man, it was a great experience, and they totally helped me into the biz. And it was just because I had offered to help lift their equipment at a gig down in the city and ended up hanging around with them all night. My parents weren’t too happy, but I even played some of my songs for Christie McVie and Mick Fleetwood and they said they were floored. They must have been because I got to play them again at the big Earth Day Fest not too long afterwards, thanks to Mick pulling some strings. That was enough for me to get all kinds of offers from people who wanted to play in my band and, voila, here I am. Local boy done good.”

“Wow, it sounds so easy.”

“Well, I worked hard on writing songs before all that. And I worked really hard to make sure they sounded perfect once I was more or less put under deadline by the demands of the Mac.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

New Pornographers Hold Evangelical Indie Sermon at DC's 9:30 Club

My first New Pornographers concert was quite a treat, as the all-star band played an impressive greatest-hits set list from across their five-album, 11-year career.

Performing for a packed house at DC's 9:30 Club last night (the first of a two-night stand in leader Carl Newman's "favorite city to perform in"), the show suffered early from the band's strong but sometimes-samey-sounding catalog. There was little emotion in the first hour and the songs meandered along at med-tempo, almost no tempo. Still, there was the carnivalesque keyboards humming underneath the songs that kept promise alive.

This pacing actually made the early-evening slow ballads like the acoustic-Western stylings of "Adventures in Solitude" and "Challengers," with its almost tribal harmonies, really stand out.

But as the airplane roar increased and the emotional heat began to build, the second 60 minutes of the show found a band in its prime. Even the super-serious Neko Case (one of three, or four, lead singers) loosened up and clearly began to have fun, cracking up the whole way through a song in which she couldn't get the image of "Canada's population of five hermaphrodites," discussed during previous between-song banter, out of her head.

Newman showed off his light-hearted everyman sense of humor by introducing the keyboardist and saxophonist as former members of Huey Lewis and the News. The band also played an Eagles riff as spaceman sideman Dan Bejar (a mix of Sideshow Bob and the fourth Bee Gee) entered the stage at one point (he only appeared on a half-dozen songs or so, leaving the audience to wonder what he could have possibly been doing backstage all that time).

The New Pornographers saved their best songs, which are almost entirely uptempo compared to the bulk of their catalog, for the end. Bejar's new "Silver Jenny Dollar," the punk-rock Sesame Street of "Mass Romantic," a brief Ben's Chili Bowl (legendary DC restaurant) theme song, "Slow Descent Into Alcoholism," "The Laws Have Changed," and "A Letter From and Occupant" sent the crowd home ecstatically happy.

Listen to the concert at NPR.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Way to Help Construction Workers and Prevent a Commercial Real Estate Collapse

I've started doing some freelance PR consulting, which is really a great experience. My first project is to get some press for a Santa Fe non-profit called Architecture 2030. Here is the press release we issued today:


SANTA FE, NM (June 22, 2010) – A tax incentive for business owners that would avoid the looming commercial real estate loan crisis while creating 1.3 million jobs is detailed for the first time in a report released today.

“This report is the first to illustrate how dramatic job creation through limited energy efficiency tax incentives can prevent a meltdown in the commercial real estate market,” said Edward Mazria, CEO of Architecture 2030, the leading building sector energy research organization. “Without a swift plan from Congress, the commercial real estate (CRE) crisis could cripple the economic recovery, raise unemployment, and lead to scores of small business and community and regional bank failures.”

Mazria is a co-author of the report, titled “The Imminent Commercial Real Estate Crisis and The CRE Solution.” The report, which recommends a three-year, tiered tax incentive tied to specific energy reduction targets, is being released at a critical time.

CRE transactions have dropped a staggering 90 percent since 2007. Between now and 2014, $1.4 trillion in CRE loans are coming due; more than half of these are currently underwater. Commercial property values have plummeted by more than 40 percent, and commercial vacancies rates continue to increase. By April, the construction industry had lost more than 2 million jobs, with another 35,000 jobs lost in May, mostly in the commercial building sector. Also, at the end of May, the FDIC reported that its "problem bank list" had grown from 702 to 775 since the end of the 2009 fourth quarter.

Congress can simultaneously address the looming CRE crisis and crippling construction unemployment through “The CRE Solution.” This can be jumpstarted quickly by building upon the existing Energy Efficient Commercial Building Tax Deduction (26 U.S.C. 179(d)) from $1.80 per square foot to a range of $3 to $9 per square foot for new and existing commercial buildings meeting specific energy reduction targets.

For each $6 billion of deferred CRE revenue, for example, “The CRE Solution” would generate $73.4 billion in new private spending, $15.9 billion in new federal tax revenue, and $5.25 billion in state and local government tax revenue, according to the report findings.

The report concludes that “The CRE Solution” would:

· Create 1.3 million jobs, quickly and cost-effectively
· Decrease building sector energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions
· Increase after-tax cash flow and property values, and reduce loan defaults
· Increase new CRE sales, desirability, and investment value
· Generate billions of dollars in federal, state, and local revenue

“Employed strategically, energy efficiency tax incentives can be multiplied significantly to reduce CRE loan defaults, stimulate CRE transactions, boost commercial building construction, and increase commercial property values,” added Kristina Kershner, President of Architecture 2030 and a co-author of the report.

The 14-page report can be viewed at

– 30 –

About Architecture 2030
Architecture 2030 is an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit research organization focused on achieving a dramatic reduction in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the building sector by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed, constructed and renovated.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Gruesome Playground Injuries Makes Stars Out of Woolly Mammoth Cast

The best thing about Gruesome Playground Injuries, which just wrapped up an extended run at DC's Woolly Mammoth Theater, is that it's a star-making vehicle.

The rigors that face any two actors who win the two roles in this play are monumental. And Tim Getman and Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (in a role originally performed by Selma Blair in the play's Houston debut) are monumentally great as lifelong friends who take care of each other while the world continually kicks them down.

Performed in the round of an ice rink, Getman and Fernandez-Coffey rarely leave the stage, making occasional trips to their makeup and costume areas while the audience watches and indie-rock, such as I'm From Barcelona, blares.

The physical workout these two go through is a joy to watch, as is the first hour, a hilarious comedy about how people sometimes have their timing all wrong and never quite connect, even when their fate of togetherness seems like it should be so clear.

The only problem with this already-short (at 90 minutes) production is that it overstays its welcome. Once we've already gotten the messages, Gruesome Playground Injuries continues to pound them in too forcefully. The laughs dry up in the final 30 as the story descends into a melodrama that I didn't see coming at all. It's strange that "bad-boy" playwright Rajiv Joseph would shift gears so dramatically.

That said, Getman and Fernandez-Coffey have arrived. As if these two young stars weren't already shining lights on the DC theater scene, this performance puts both at the top of the game. My advice: don't miss anything either of these two are in from now on.

**** out of ***** stars

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Apple's Most Ingenius iPhone App Yet

OK, the iPhone is amazing and there are lots of great applications.

Who can argue with News Fuse (which offers dozens of newspapers in one app, although I still prefer just getting my news through Google Reader on the Safari app), FourTrack (for my big-studio recording sessions any time my mind comes up with a song-snippet idea), and BlogWriter (which allows me to post photos and stories on my blog from anywhere in the world)?

But I've discovered the most ingenious app of all. Created by Apple, Remote is a remote control on your iPhone for your iTunes library from anywhere within wireless range of the computer where your library resides.

Unlike some apps, this one works flawlessly and takes about 30 seconds to set up. No more constant opening of your laptop or running back to your computer desk to change tunes. I was sitting on my front porch the other day and flipping from song to song as the music flowed out the front door.

Remote also creates great mixes from you library and allows you to rate songs from your iPhone. The information on the app is completely synched with you iTunes homebase.

Just another reason I will probably always remain a Mac man.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Obama's Dirty Shoes and Environmental Naivety

Here's my weekly environment column for NetGreen News. You can see all my columns here.

A little more than a year ago, I thought it was strange that President Obama showed up in fancy dress shoes at an Earth Day event that my wife was leading. He got mud on them while planting trees. Well, no duh.

Now, finally, he shows up on our Southern beaches nearly 60 days after Deepwater Horizon began spoiling the Gulf of Mexico. And it seems he may have gotten the memo. The work boots he's wearing in all his photo-ops look appropriate for the dirty job of cleaning up this mess.

Obama's boots also present a striking image of what's tragically become of these beaches, long white-sand stretches that used to be places for only sandals and bare feet.

This anecdote of Obama's footwear supports Maureen Dowd's June 15 column about the oil spill in The New York Times. She concludes:

"President Obama’s bloodless quality about people and events, the emotional detachment that his aides said allowed him to see things more clearly, has instead obscured his vision. It has made him unable to understand things quickly on a visceral level and put him on the defensive in this spring of our discontent, failing to understand that Americans are upset that a series of greedy corporations have screwed over the little guy without enough fierce and immediate pushback from the president."

I still vividly remember the hope I felt on the Mall in Washington DC the day Obama was inaugurated. And history will certainly show that he has been an improvement upon the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush. But that's an extremely low bar.

Obama has done an admirable job with the economic stimulus and health-care package. But he must find a way to quickly produce more economic relief, reverse the high unemployment rate, establish meaningful climate and energy policies, and take control of the Gulf quagmire.

Obama's national address on the Gulf response this week was uplifting, but like figuring out how to wear the appropriate footwear, it came disturbingly late. To say that we will "fight this spill with everything we've got" so long after the spill began seems almost laughable.

He was correct to classify the nation's worst-ever environmental disaster as a call to action to pass meaningful climate and energy legislation. Now is the time for oil companies like BP and ExxonMobil to gain incentives and work with government bureaus like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Minerals Management Service to make massive transitions toward cleaner energy production.

And while it pains me to join the bandwagon of disapproval for Obama, it's getting more difficult to stomach the Obama bumper sticker on the back of my car. I remember wondering how people could still have Bush/Cheney bumper stickers eight years after they were elected. Now I'm beginning to wonder the same thing about myself so soon into Obama's first term.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sandra Bullock Has Had Better Years

Legendarily lovable Sandra Bullock may have won best actress this year, but her woes easily outweigh her positives of the past 12 months. First, she has a pending divorce that is as nasty as it gets. Second, she forces me to watch All About Steve.

On paper, this less-than-Hallmark dud should be a classic. It features a stellar cast: Pre-Hangover Bradley Cooper (all good looks and vapid forgetableness here), Thomas Haden Church of Sideways (as the sturdy but cliche news correspondent), Ken Jeong (always far-out wacky but here wasted as a producer with no funny lines), and super-dork DJ Qualls as another completely-pointless character who drives a Gremlin and carves heads out of dried apples.

None of these side players have good performances. But stinkiest of all is Bullock. Her agent should certainly be fired, or at least seriously fined. It's amazing that she would take the role of a completely unlikeable idiot. There is no reason for the audience to cheer for her escape after ridiculously falling down a mineshaft. A happy ending would have been one in which Bullock, who never stops spewing meaningless crossword-bound trivia throughout the movie, all the while in her dumb red boots, would remain in the shaft forever.

Her rescue by the hunky Church is just plain unexplainable. Seriously, you should watch this film just to witness the absolute depths of achievement that Hollywood can accomplish. If the filmmakers were attempting to replicate Forrest Gump or Rain Man, they even failed in that endeavor.

At least all's well that ended well. Bullock won a Razzie for worst actress. The following day, she picked up best actress at the Academy Awards for The Blind Side.

0 stars out of ***** stars

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sarah Silverman Conquers Another Medium: Books

For those who think The Sarah Silverman Program is among the funniest TV shows of the last decade (along with The Daily Show, Arrested Development, Modern Family, 30 Rock, The Office, The Colbert Report, Curb Your Enthusiasm, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Scrubs, and Chappelle's Show), then The Bedwetter is your book.

I'm (obviously, see the above list, which is indeed my own) included in this bunch. Sure, Silverman's show is laced with juvenile doodie jokes, but the cleverness and originality are cutting-edge and adorable. This autobiography (don't call it a diary, which is a form of writing the author determines should be either abolished or improved by about a thousandfold) is a personal history of her 39 years rather than a joke book.

But it is often hilarious and frequently biting, especially when it comes to FOX News, the right-wing media, and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.

Silverman impressively bares all about super-personal issues. She doesn't drink alcohol but apparently smokes gobs of marijuana. She frequently goes through bouts of depression, and mostly keeps it together these days because of her Zoloft intake. She doesn't stop there. Plenty of text is given to her hairy arms and upper lip. As if that weren't enough to cripple her early confidences growing up in New Hampshire, her bedwetting well into her teens would have sealed the deal for most weaker people.

She makes some allusions to quitting the comedy game soon, but let's hope not. She is carrying on the traditions of Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and Chevy Chase in fine form. The depth of her material will hopefully sustain our comedy needs for a long time to come.

**** out of ***** stars

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill Heroes

Here's my weekly environment column for NetGreen News. You can see all my columns here.

My beach reading on vacation last week was Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, the true story of a single family's experience in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. It got me thinking about all the amazing things some individuals must be doing in the fallout of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

We don't hear enough in the media about these everyday heroes. But the bits that squeak out are certainly a lot more inspiring than the stream of gaffs out of BP CEO Tony Hayward's mouth. Here's a brief compilation of the best nuggets I've found online.

Don Abrams and Melanie Allen, friends from the Mississippi coast, launched after the disaster unfolded and, within hours, has more than 700 people signed up to do whatever necessary to protect the region's wetlands, estuaries, and barrier islands. Allen, a retired communications executive, remembered the damage in the early hours after Katrina and immediately got on the phone to drum up media interest about the gushing oil. Meanwhile, former engineer Abrams built the website.

Fifth-graders at West Main Elementary in highly impoverished Ravenna, Ohio, sold paper turtles and raised $300 to donate to the National Wildlife Federation. Other kids at the school "forfeited ice cream and popcorn to donate their quarters." The money will be used by NWF to help protect birds, fish, and other animals in the spill zone.

More than 13,000 volunteers have signed up for a brand-new National Audubon Society program that takes bird surveys, captures and transports injured animals, performs citizen science, and serves as wildlife hotline operators.

Dr. Heather Nevill of the Internal Bird Rescue Research Center has been handling some of the cleaning process by covering oil-slicked birds with Canola oil and bathing them in dish-washing detergent and water. The process takes at least an hour for each bird, with little guarantees of eventual survival.

Captain Alwin Landry and the crew of his offshore supply vessel, the Damon Bankston, rescued the 115 survivors of Deepwater Horizon by "repeatedly and tirelessly retrieved rig personnel from the burning Gulf waters into the rescue craft."

And we can't forget the 11 workers who were killed simply doing their jobs on April 20. Nine of them worked for rig owner Transocean and the other two were employed by a drilling company named MI-SWACO. Their surviving families were each presented with bronze hard hats at the memorial service.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Novel, Part #10

Our chief characters, Paul and rock star Rory, have just met out on the lawn of the Universal/Decca record plant in Upstate New York. To read the start of the novel, go here.

“My name’s Rory. Rory Cocksure. Made up name,” he said, reading me. “You don’t know my stuff, do you?”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Not into music?”

“Um, no, I like it. I listen to Casey Kasem every Sunday morning,” I said, sheepishly, thinking this might not be the answer this person was anticipating.

But Rory laughed. “Yeah, the music world’s a weird one. Just no telling where things will turn up. I still haven’t cracked the top 40. But some of the stiffs down at the record company asked me if I could write a hit ballad so it might one day run as a ‘long-distance dedication.’ Jeesh. Anyway, look me up later so I can give you my albums once the crew gets here with all the boxes and stuff. I may not be as popular as T. Rex and Steely Dan, but I’m influenced by them a little bit and you may like my stuff. What’s your name?”


“Paul, it’s nice to meet you. And thanks again for making this area look real nice. I love the smell of fresh-cut grass. And those trees will make a great background. I think my manager is going to film my set, so you should get some kind of billing in the video credits. How about lawn supervisor?”

“Ah. Ummm …”

“Great. It’s a deal then. I’ve gotta run back to the hotel to grab some stuff in a bit. But first, I’m going to sit over there on that rock and meditate and breathe for a little while. So don’t mind me.”

“Uh, no problem. And thanks for the albums and the film credit,” I said lamely.

“Not a thing. I’ve got a good feeling about you, Paul. Oh, and call me Rory.”

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Couples Retreat May Send Its Actors to Real Therapy

If you ever wondered "where are they now?" for that blond-haired kid actor from 1983's A Christmas Story, well, it ain't pretty. Peter Billingsley did executive produce the pretty-good Iron Man, but the rest of his work has been stinker city.

Billingsley has built a close working relationship with the sometimes-great Vince Vaughn (Zoolander, Old School, Anchorman, Wedding Crashers, Into the Wild). Unfortunately, when Billingsley gets involved, things get awful for Vaughn. Case in point: the deplorable Four Christmases.

And now an even lower low. I figured Couples Retreat would at least be watchable. After all, it stars Vaughn, the almost-always-great Jason Bateman, Kristin Davis, and Jon Favreau. But this is a lifeless script that shows on the exasperated and bored actors' faces.

There should be reasons to like the movie. It mostly takes place on a tropical island (actually Bora Bora, in French Polynesia) that is consistently Photoshop beautiful. There are wacky supporting actors that excel in New Age guruism, inappropriately sexual yoga positions, and creepily militaristic couples-therapy regimentationism. The thing is: these actors have very little humor to work with in the scripts, and it's painful to watch such terrible writing left to be impossibly fixed by the actors.

Favreau and Vaughn would get a pass for at least some mildly entertaining moments. However, they were the writers (along with Dana Fox). So, with Vaughn in a serious rut over the past few years (although his box-office receipts have oddly never been better), it is going to take a seriously brilliant idea to redeem him to his once-excellent status of several years ago.

And to top it all off, the movie's title is missing an apostrophe. Blech.

*1/2 out of ***** stars

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Global Warming Vacations

Here's my weekly environment column for NetGreen News. You can see all my columns here.

When my wife and I took our honeymoon to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya, we did it partly because we love adventure and partly because we figured it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit a place that would drastically change in the near future.

With global warming seemingly wiping out so many of the world's natural wonders, here's a select list of places to visit quickly before they are gone.

Mt. Kilimanjaro - The glacier at the top has retreated by more than 80 percent in the past 100 years and should be gone in the next 10. Glad I checked this off the list. It just wouldn't be the same without Hemingway's "snows of Kilimanjaro."

Great Barrier Reef - The "Blue Outback" is quickly becoming a dinosaur on this planet. It is largely agreed that extinction will happen by 2030 because of coral bleaching turning it white and brown, warming water temperatures, and acidification from carbon dioxide pumped out of our factories.

Amazon Rain Forest - Episodes of Johnny Quest as a kid have provided a lifetime of yearning by me to get to this massive land of beauty, and I may still have time yet. Reduced rainfall and warmer temperatures (along with the region's much-documented deforestation) are expected to decimate the Amazon, but possibly not entirely for another 80 to 100 years.

Hawaii - Higher storm tides will cause more frequent flooding and erosion of coastal areas. Many of the Northwestern Hawaii Islands and other Pacific lands are already being submerged and many more are expected to be under water by 2100.

Mt. Everest - As if this monsterous peak were safe to climb, it is now becoming almost impossible to mount due to reduced snowfall and melting glaciers. Sherpas are finding it more difficult to stick their ice axes and crampons into snow because much of it is now rock, which makes an extreme climb even more impossible.

Patagonia - Glaciers in this Argentina region have receded nearly a mile in the past 13 years. Forty-eight of the country's 50 glaciers are melting. That should make for a very different Patagonia if I ever get there.

Galapagos Islands - Dead coral reefs and warm waters are altering the ecosystem of Darwin's volcanic island west of Ecuador. Too much fishing and too many tourists have reduced the number of wildlife in the seas, which in turn is reducing the number of animals on land. The end of this era for the Galapagos will remove its allure as a destination.

Sahara Desert - This is the true definition of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's catchphrase "global weirding:" the greening of the Sahara. Increased rainfall is slowly turning the desert back into the grassy savanna it was 12,000 years ago. It's not that I wouldn't want to visit a green Sahara, it's just that it would be pretty weird.

There are plenty of other places I would like to see before they disappear, including Micronesia, the Virgin Islands, and the Maldives. And there are plenty more endangered places that I would like for my grandchildren to see: New Orleans, New York, London, Tokyo, Death Valley, Indonesia, Glacier National Park, and Yellowstone National Park.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

North Carolina Pop Culture Interlude

One of my favorite antique shops is down here at the south end of the North Carolina Outer Banks, where I'm vacationing for the week. The Swansboro Antique Centre always has a few good pop-culture kitsch finds.

I bought a handful of weird, pulp, sci-fi classic soft-cover novels for 50 cents each, along with a Saranac beer glass for Rachel and a Mickey Mouse plastic mug for Jackson.

Check out the sideways items in the photo that some lucky customer is soon to love.

How do I get a subscription to Soviet Woman magazine?