Sunday, August 22, 2010

Marijuana Or Martini? The Choice Is Yours 8/22/10

It’s a thin line between being laid back and being lazy, a fact to which several hundred people I have met here bear witness.

While there are many incredibly hard-working individuals who come to California in search of fame and fortune, there are even more who come in search of a lifestyle that allows them to be even more bone idle than they managed to be back in their home country.

Because the US is a country in which everything seems possible, and anyone can be anything they want to be, the spirit of optimism rides high; the problem is that the spirit of delusion rides equally high, and everyone thinks they are going to make it, irrespective of talent, and irrespective of their ability or desire to put their noses to the grindstone.

Personally, when I arrived, I worked very, very hard, often right through the night. I rediscovered a passion for writing that I had not experienced in some years, the toils of journalism having knocked out some of my creativity for different sorts of projects.

But as time has gone on, I have felt a slight lethargy creeping in, a desire to “chill out” more, which, while being beneficial in many ways to my health, has made me feel increasingly irritable and restless.

Excessive chilling out can be as frustrating as excessive stress, and it can smooth the rough edges of creativity – you only have to look at the crap that Hollywood turns out to know that.

The endless warm weather is undoubtedly a relaxant. In the UK, if the sun shines on a Bank Holiday, we rush to throw ourselves into vats of Stella in pub gardens and beachside bars; but if you drank every time the sun shone here, you would never be sober.

The misery of bad weather makes Brits drink a lot more, and their lifestyle is a lot more stressed. The cycle is one of stress at work/worry about money = drinking to forget and reduce stress = more stress, because nothing has fundamentally changed.

When the sun is permanently shining, it is actually very hard to keep drinking, because dehydration induces a craving for little else other than water or, in my case, gallons of PG Tips.

The vast open spaces of LA in particular, are also contributory to the emotional spaced-out-ness of its residents. You just don’t literally bump into anyone in the streets here; yes, people spend an inordinate amount of time in their cars, but when out and about, there is a feeling of spaciousness that, coupled with the ability to live so much of one’s life outdoors, cannot help but contribute to a feeling well-being. I walk miles every week and love the fact that I see so few people along the way (even if the police are a little suspicious of folk a pied).

When I recently returned to London, I felt like a marching ant in Oxford Street: being hurtled along, against my will, to whatever hell my body was being forced. I was terrified.

This week, however, I discovered another contributing factor in California’s laid-back state of mind: marijuana. Lots of it.

I know a handful of people in the UK who are prescribed marijuana for medical reasons, and others who have taken the drug recreationally. Among the first group, I have seen the benefits; among the latter, I have seen a few people who appeared to function perfectly well taking it.

But I have also witnessed that heavy marijuana use often goes hand in hand with unemployment (and yes, I appreciate that most people are unemployed for a whole host of other reasons) or, at best, under-achievement; I have seen it lead to usage of heavier drugs.

There have also been, sadly, a few in whom I have witnessed increasing use of the drug appearing to induce psychoses, with often tragic results.

As with all drugs, the goal-posts are ever shifting, according to medical research and our own experience, and in the case of marijuana I am no expert as to the short or long term physical effects.

But in California, it is synonymous with the laid back lifestyle, and it's everywhere. When I arrived, a few people told me that they could recommend some doctors where I could obtain “medicinal marijuana”, a phrase that apparently gets around the legalities. I politely declined and haven’t heard or seen much about it since.

Occasionally, it gets a mention in TV court shows, and in one recent People’s Court, a man was suing his ex, because he gave her marijuana, which she smoked but didn’t pay the full amount for – and she was counter-suing him, because it was allegedly inferior stuff. “California! Dontcha love it!” said Judge Milian.

This week, however, I went to Venice Beach, which might as well be called Marijuana Marina, for all the cannabis on offer there.

Every few steps, another man approached, pointing to a doorway, where, apparently, a highly reputable doctor was inside, handing out medicinal marijuana. The smell of the stuff was so intense along the board-walk, I felt I was getting enough already, without having to pay anything for it.

Gosh, it was bad. A really sickly, sweet smell, that seemed to permeate every pore in my body.

Venice is where the really, really lazy people hang out, I discovered. I hadn’t been there for 20 years and thought that maybe it had cleaned up its act, but nothing of the sort. It’s dirty, scruffy, a bit scary, and makes the Kiss Me Quick culture of Blackpool look like Key West.

There was only one place where you could have anything remotely decent to eat or drink along the front: the Sidewalk Café (apparently famous, though heaven knows why), barely better than a roadside caff, and with every table boasting a plastic bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup the size of a small baby.

I walked to nearby Santa Monica, roughly three miles away and a tad more civilised. It still has the air of a slightly downmarket UK seaside town, but at least you can breathe the air there.

But the edginess that inspired me when I first arrived and which sustained me for about six months has definitely diminished. Many of my reasons for leaving I wrote about two weeks ago; but another reason is my feeling increasingly out of kilter with this all too laid back lifestyle - and, in my case, that's nothing to do with the availability of marijuana. The drug is just one of a whole host of factors that keeps large sections of this city in a state bordering on rigor mortis.

As I said, it’s a thin line between laziness and being laid back, and I don’t want that line to get any thinner.

At the end of the day, there’s more to life than sunshine.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

That's Another Fine Mess . . . 8/21/10

Has there ever been a nation in the history of civilisation that opened its mouth so much and yet said so very little as the USA?

Yes, it’s been another nightmare week in the LA service industry that so enamoured me when I first arrived.

Having finally managed to sort out my ongoing saga too boring to detail with Best Buy, this week it was the turn of the grocery store, Vons.

As I do not have a car, I have been mostly using the store’s online delivery service. Vons, like its sister store, Pavilions, is, in fact, Safeway, and far cheaper than, say, Ralph’s or Wholefoods. Every few weeks, Vons will deliver your groceries for free, although this is usually dependent upon your purchasing five items from whatever their specials of the week happen to be.

So, for example, when they had a healthy options week, you could get a free delivery if you bought things such as vegetable juice, bran flakes, oatmeal bars – stuff you would never normally touch, let alone swallow, but, for the sake of saving $6.95, were prepared to spend three times that amount on the useless products.

I was having a party and therefore bought the wine in bulk, when I saw a special offer allowing you free delivery on an order over $150. So far, so good – well, almost. Apart from the defrosted pizzas, the bulk order of creamed corn instead of peas, and soft drinks clearly belonging to another order. Customer service ignored my complaining e-mail.

When the party came around some weeks later, two of the bottles of Pinto Grigio turned out to be corked, so I contacted the store to see how they might be replaced.

Now, you have to know this about every single American in LA (at least, the ones I have met): they know nothing, nada, zilch, about wine. Every restaurant, every bar, every snooty bloke sitting down once a month with his mates for a blind “tasting” (basically: rich, ignorant, old guys with nothing better to do - and you see them in many hostelries) – they wouldn’t know a decent wine if it spat at them.

On the few occasions when I have had to send back a corked bottle, the members of staff have examined the glass, declaring that they cannot see any cork floating in it; or they have just looked at me blankly.

And it's not just a problem with corked wine. This week, I had to send back a 2007 Tavel because it had, quite simply, been kept too long in the wrong temperature and had turned to sherry; I know that Tavel is a dark rose, but honestly, I’ve seen more attractive diverticulitis.

The waiter was polite in removing the offending receptacle, but with the comment: “Well, if you don’t like it.” “No,” I said. “It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s bad.” More blank stares.

Bar, restaurant, or five star hotel, it’s been the same story every time, so I wasn’t holding out much hope for the Vons sommelier.

Sure enough, after being put through to various people on the phone, each claiming to be a different branch of Customer Service, I tracked down the store from which my wine had originated. But no. I could not return it, as it had been bought online. More calls. This time: no, any goods had to be returned within 48 hours; it was “company policy”.

So, I said, if I buy 20 bottles of wine, I have to taste them all within 48 hours, purely to ascertain whether they are corked, in order to be allowed to bring them back? Apparently, yes. But then, according to the small print, no; I discovered that it’s not even that easy. Once wine has been delivered for an online order, it cannot be returned – for any reason.

None of the people I spoke to knew what a corked wine was, anyway, so I have downloaded the Wikipedia definition, which I intend to show to everyone I meet who pleads ignorance on the matter.

It’s an awful lot of effort to go to for the presence of a bit of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) (that’s corked, for those of you still in the dark; and smell a wet dog, if you’re still confused as to what you should be sniffing for); but why should anyone lose their money because Vons has a policy on refusing to accept returns on what are, essentially, damaged goods?

So, my disillusionment with the service industry that so impressed me when I arrived, continues. The “Yes, ma’am, I can help you with that today” continues to mean “No chance” with every single company I am trying to wind up my affairs with.

I’m going to need more alcohol just to get me through it. I’m just not going to be buying it from Vons.

I’ll just head for the Napa Valley, hook myself up to a vine and cut out the middle man.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Amazing, Awesome, Aw, Just Shut The Hell Up 12th August 2010

There are only two words that Americans in LA use to express their enthusiasm: awesome and amazing.

Unlike Brits, for whom “quite good” and “enjoyable” are regarded as commendable expletives, nothing here is ever less than knocking your socks off, being blown away by, knocking you down with a feather, dog’s bollocks, et al – in other words (two, to be precise): awesome, or amazing.

Both words were much in evidence this week at the live shows in LA of America’s Got Talent, which for the first time featured acts hitherto known only on YouTube (which is where most of them should have stayed).

Inevitably, this resulted in a bunch of mediocrities taking to the stage with their dubious “talents”, but that didn’t stop them from expressing their delight at the awesomeness of the occasion.

Ten year-old Jackie Evancho, who wowed the crowd with her powerful rendition of O Mio Babino Caro, made it through to the semi-final in Las Vegas, and said the whole thing had so far been “amazing”. Okay, she’s a kid and can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the occasion, but it was the same for everyone else.

Don’t they teach them any other adjectives in school here?

As a side point, was Jackie that awesome anyway? She was a very cute kid, with a powerful, pure voice, and youngsters invariably do well in these competitions. But in the UK version of the show, this really annoys me at times.

Go to the annual Eisteddfod in Wales every year, where young kids with AMAZING voices are two a penny. They never make it onto the UK version of Britain’s Got Talent, because they are, quite simply, too talented. One gifted child standing out on a freak show (which is what BGT increasingly is) can be regarded as a phenomenon; put him or her alongside another dozen talented kids, and the first one’s mediocrity will shine through.

Jackie Evancho has a very strong, melodic voice, but dreadful breathing technique, which resulted in poor phrasing (less pushing for power would have solved this, so there). She is still terrific, but there are still equally impressive youngsters of her age out there (Charlotte Church was brilliant beyond belief at this age). But hey, Jackie fits the bill of the TV show.

It has also been an amazing, awesome time for Ali Fedotowsky, who, in ABC’s reality show, The Bachelorette, this month, chose her husband, Roberto Martinez, from a cast of 25 hopefuls. Ali and Roberto Martinez got engaged at the end of the series, and have this week been walking hand in hand around LA, or seeking even more publicity in a sky blue metallic Volkswagen convertible, driving around San Diego.

Their first appearance after the show’s finale was on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night talk show, where the host drew attention to the number of times the word “amazing” had been uttered throughout the series. Ali was amazing, said the guys; the guys were amazing, said Ali; Iceland was amazing (Ali); the experience was amazing (everyone). On and on and on.

Ali was amazingly irritating, with her nasally drawn out syllables every time she said “amaiiiirrrzing” or “Awwwwwsome”. I couldn’t help feeling that if Bart Simpson had turned up as one of her suitors, Ali would have expressed just as much amazingness towards him, and even towards his dysfunctional family (yes, all the families of the men she visited were amaiiiirrrzing, too).

When I first arrived here, I loved the enthusiasm that greeted me in every restaurant and shop. I liked the service at the end of the phone – “Yes, ma’am, I can help you with that today.” The irritating aspect of it now is not that it is deliberately false (they genuinely do go out of their way to help); it’s the monotony of the tone in which everything is said, and the fact that the promised help rarely brings about a satisfactory result.

I never know whether I am speaking to a machine or a human at the end of the line and now ask, just before I start detailing my problem, which it is, for fear of being given a star-key option at the end of my diatribe. And then, more often than not, the person who promises to help me at the start of the conversation can do nothing of the sort.

Take Best Buy. I think I must now have spoken to everyone in the organisation, each of whom turned out to be less helpful than the person before. I can only reiterate the slogan I adopted from day one with this dreadful store: Best Buy somewhere else.

Yesterday, I was talking on the phone to a woman from Time Warner Cable, who assured me she could help in my request to scale down my service in the weeks before I return to the UK. She told me she loved my English accent and always felt the need to compliment one when she heard it. I pointed out that it was Welsh and proceeded to give her a geography lesson regarding the four-country break-up of the United Kingdom.

In her excitement, she pressed all the wrong buttons and had to start the operation again. “I didn’t know that,” she went on. “But then how would I, if I’ve never been there.”

Duh! We are handcuffed to you on every battlefield! How about dipping into books, TV, the internet, newspapers? I’ve never been to the White House, but I still know it was occupied by an amazing nobhead before November 2008.

The LA Dictionary of Wonder is undoubtedly the smallest in the world. Once you’ve dispensed with the words awesome and amazing, there is little left for anyone to say. This inability to find suitable words has resulted in the “NoNoNoNoNo” culture, which you can find not only in everyday conversation, but in just about every TV show, whether it be reality, drama or comedy - and not just in LA.

Take a look at Friends again, and Rachel in particular. When she is not being amazed or over-awed, she is wagging her finger in a contradictory manner and saying “NoNoNoNoNo”, because she has already run out of words to express extreme emotion.

Yes, it’s nice to be treated courteously, instead of someone throwing you your burger and never looking you in the eye (you know who you are, Burger King on Paddington Station), and enthusiasm, encouragement and positivity can cheer up the most dreary of days; but after 18 months, it’s getting in my face.

The promise of helpful assistance is rarely forthcoming in the long term, and things that people profess to be awesome or amazing are invariably less than mediocre; in fact, if I’m being honest, they’re often crap.

Not everything in life has to be awesome or amazing, and throwing these words around willy nilly may give everyone a level playing field, but it’s a very hollow one.

Sometimes, in life, things are just okay.

And you know something? That’s okay.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Gotcha! LAPD's Finest Hour 8/8/10

Sitting on your sofa in front of the telly can be an exhausting experience in LA.

Despite having witnessed thousands of car chases in TV dramas over my twenty-odd years as a TV critic, I cannot believe the difference in emotions when you know that you are experiencing the real thing.

The last car chase (well, crawl, to be precise) I watched on TV was that involving OJ Simpson, whose white van was followed by cops, following the murder of his ex, Nicole Brown Simpson and her lover Ronald Goldman (a crime of which he was found not guilty – okay, so he just fancied a long drive that day).

But on Thursday afternoon this week, a man who had walked into the Southwest Los Angeles Police Department and threatened officers, took to the streets in what I can only describe as hara-kiri on wheels.

It was incredible. Breathtaking. I was shouting at the screen, as the man went the wrong way up and down streets, speeding at 70 mph as the cars around him trudged by at 30.

How did I know the speed? The Man in the Helicopter that was following the chase told me. I tell you: I learned more about the streets of Downtown LA during this half hour than a year of studying Google maps could have taught me.

Then the guy mounted the pavement – still speeding. Any human would have been mown down in his path, had they been in his way; a walking Chihuahua would have been mincemeat within seconds.

The cops almost caught him at one point, but their car bonnets ended up in a kind of romantic kiss as the man sped away once more. “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” I yelled, as the runaway car sped off yet again.

At one junction, he hit another vehicle; then he narrowly missed hitting three others. And then . . . Oh, yegods, this was far, far better than Hill Street Blues had ever been . . . One of the cop cars chasing him crashed into a palm tree.

The MIH (Man In Helicopter) now had so much more to talk about. Not only was he instructing me in the intricacies of Downtown LA sidewalks and streets, he now had the job of filling me in on the state of the officer’s health.

Was he injured? If so, how severely? Oh no: surely the poor man hadn’t died (okay, MIH didn’t say this, but I was fearing the worst). And there he was again, the cop in the palm tree! All because our escapee was now going around the block.

I was exhausted. And then, at about 2.15pm, it all ended at 37th Street and Normandie Avenue (I tell you: I could be a tour guide after this), when the man hit a car and the cop cars blocked him in.

But even then, the drama didn’t end. Despite the fact that about a dozen armed cops surrounded the vehicle, the man wouldn’t budge. One cop started to smash in the rear windscreen; people in surrounding vehicles didn’t know whether to stay put or run (according to MIH – God, this guy was good); and then, back in the studio, MIH was interrupted.

A warning: we don’t know what’s going to happen next, so if there are small children watching or you were of a delicate persuasion (words to that effect), turn away now.

Ohyegods triplefold! They were going to blow the guy’s brains out! Even better, they were going to beat him to a pulp before our very eyes. And all because he had walked into a station and been a bit abusive.

Blimey. They should be in central Cardiff after a rugby international, then they’d know the meaning of abuse.

And our criminal STILL wasn’t getting out of the vehicle. Momentarily stunned (according to MIH), they finally got him out, but, when he came to, he was still resisting arrest.

Geez! How many LA cops does it take to nuke a light-bulb?

What impressed me the most about the chase was how considerate the cops were about other cars, pedestrians, small dogs (okay, my added colour again) et al, as they followed the guy – certainly a darn sight more considerate than he was being.

Unlike the cop cars in Hill Street Blues, where mowing people down got you promotion, the cops following this guy slowed down where they thought there was danger to Beverly Hills/Downtown Chihuahuas and their owners; and yet, incredibly, they still managed to keep up with the maniac.

My admiration of the LAPD remains resolute; it may have taken a dozen of them to nuke the light-bulb, but they got there in the end.

So gripped was I by the spectacle, however, that I realised I had missed Judge Alex, who is my Monday to Friday TV fix. Still, I had endured more than enough law, order, and assassinated palm trees for one day. As, I suspect, had our MIH.

What, though, he added, must the person driving the silver car that our baddie crashed into have been thinking?

How much money can I make from this on Fox News would be my guess.