Tuesday, July 22, 2003

A storm is downgraded to a cliche


Tuesday July 22, 2003

Style & Culture
A storm is downgraded to a cliche

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

"SARS is a 'perfect storm' of a disease," according to the Los Angeles Times. 50 Cent is the perfect storm of the rap world, proclaims Billboard magazine. Newsweek has designated Jayson Blair, the plagiarizing New York Times reporter, as "journalism's perfect storm."

The war on terrorism is the perfect storm of the airline industry, American recession is the perfect storm of European tourism, conservative politics is the perfect storm of public school orchestras everywhere....

And somewhere, beneath the thunder, you can hear an English professor crying.

"If you stare at a wall long enough, the wall disappears," explains Dan Fineman, a professor of English and comparative literary studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Likewise, a phrase reiterated endlessly loses its original meaning -- and sometimes all meaning whatsoever. It's about "habituation," Fineman says. "Even a complex object, if it doesn't get moved around, becomes status quo."

The term has been around for years already. "The Perfect Storm," the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger, was published in 1997. "The Perfect Storm," the blockbuster movie starring George Clooney, was released in 2000. But "the perfect storm" is still gathering force. In the last year, the New York Times printed it 11 times, the Chicago Tribune 47 times, the Washington Post 54 times -- and the Los Angeles Times 65 times.

We can trace the term's origin to a certain Boston scientist, on a certain Sunday afternoon in October 1991. Bob Case, then a deputy meteorologist with the National Weather Service, gathered breathlessly with his colleagues around their instruments and computer monitors.

What they observed was a meeting of storm systems 1,000 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. A typical "northeaster" off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, was on a collision course with Hurricane Grace. While both were unremarkable as solo phenomena, the cold winds propelling the northeaster, combined with moist, warm air that Grace had picked up off Bermuda, promised to ignite a Molotov cocktail on the high seas.Meanwhile, cub journalist Sebastian Junger weathered the tempest from his home in Gloucester, Mass. "This enormous storm came through and trashed most of New England," Junger says. "It was all around us. It almost blew the house down."

Having recently been injured while working as "a tree climber," Junger was considering "writing about dangerous work," he says. Then, he heard that a local swordfishing boat, the Andrea Gail, had gone down in the maelstrom. It was a -- dare we say, perfect? -- crossroads of adventure, human interest and tragedy.

Case, since retired, had spent his "entire career trying to eliminate meteorological jargon in speaking with the press," he says. Explaining science to laypeople is always, of course, a delicate balance between not dumbing down too much but simplifying technical jargon just enough. Case's biggest challenge was not forecasting and following the storm but rather relaying his findings to the press.

Junger was "just another reporter," Case recalls, but their conversations would send reverberations through the English language for years to come.

There were many situational characteristics that had to fall into place, Case explains. "Had to have the night's cold air coming out of Canada....The systems had to mesh at the right time.... The moisture had to be available from the dying hurricane. It was the combination of extremely cold air and warm air. Combined with the final kicker, all the moisture influx. Like throwing gasoline on a fire."

Neither man will take credit for what came next.

"Sebastian came up with it," Case says.

"He claims I did," Junger says, "but in my notes, he says it."

Junger's article stretched into a book. It was originally titled "The Storm." Given that people were killed, he says, "the phrase 'the perfect storm' ... seemed tasteless, but the idea of using it grew on me."

With publication of the book, the phrase came back to haunt Case. "Unfortunately, 'the perfect storm' got misconstrued," he says. He began getting calls from meteorologist peers telling him, "No, it wasn't the biggest. The storm of '62 was worse."

"But that was never the idea," Case says, still adamant after all these years. "This wasn't the biggest, wasn't the worst, wasn't the most deadly. It's not even in the top 10. It was a unique situation and took an atmosphere that had the perfect elements in space and time to occur."

When the movie came out, Case was inundated. "Everybody has their 15 minutes," he says. "I got an extra five."

Junger, too. Nowadays, "if I meet someone and they ask what I do," he says, "I can't even bring myself to admit I wrote the book. I really try to avoid any relation to it."

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Gripping the Wheel


Saturday July 19, 2003

Gripping the Wheel
* Irwin Hearst is 95, and that's exactly why he has surrendered his keys. After driving eight decades, the word for him is 'adjust.'

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

It was 1922. In Montreal, Canada. Some irresponsible kids lent their neighbor, 14-year-old Irwin Hearst, the keys to their Packard automobile.

Hearst remembers it well: the ascent -- "there were step-on seats on the side of the car" -- and, of course, takeoff. "Exhilarating. I was king of the mountain."

Eight decades later, he has surrendered his keys for good. He sits shirtless in his two-room apartment, gray slacks tethered snugly to his midriff, active eyes behind large-rimmed black glasses. Hearst lives in Westwood Horizons, a group housing facility that advertises "Adventures in Senior Living."

"It's lonely being by yourself," he says. "So I moved here two years ago, when my wife passed away. They have a shuttle to the hospital, which is convenient."

Hearst still could drive if he wanted to. Ninety-five years old, he has a regular California driver's license and owns a car. He has had "no major accidents" and considers himself a "good driver."

Still, Hearst believes that "no elderly person should drive," and he is no exception. "We haven't got the reflexes. Why kid yourself?"

When he put his car up for sale, "everybody told me, 'You'll be sorry,' " Hearst says. "But I meditate and decide what's good for me. And what is good for other people. I'm ready," he says, and gestures, palms up. "Here's my car."

And then he smiles. "I've got an electronic walker now! It can turn all the way around! It was a bargain -- I got it from a lady who only used it for two weeks before she died. I'll just go on trips from here!"

The room is silent for a moment. "You feel as if your hands will be tied," he admits. "As if you'll be left alone. As if the whole world is passing you by."

"I got my first car for $200," Hearst remembers. "I was living in New York City. It was a convertible, but I couldn't put the top up." Instead, Hearst fashioned a roof of cardboard, which he used on rainy days. "I really must have been quite a sight."

Hearst spent his working life driving. He was a traveling salesman, so his car was a second home. "My car was one of my tools," he says. He would often "travel 70 miles away from my base" -- just him, his goods and his wheels.

It is fine to start slowing down, Hearst says. After living for almost a century, "the word is 'adjust,' " he explains. "I don't ever forget it." He will see friends less frequently, but one of his daughters lives close by. And Westwood Horizons sponsors activities and shows movies.

"The L.A. freeways are abominable," Hearst says, so in a way, good riddance. "And young people don't know when to stop or slow down." And "the average person is negative toward elderly drivers." As Hearst got older and drove more slowly, "people always honked," he says.

Or worse. One day, when Hearst was 85, he was driving onto a freeway onramp from Santa Monica Boulevard. Suddenly, the driver behind him started honking. "He wanted to get in front of me," Hearst says.

Apparently, Hearst didn't move quickly enough. "I heard a loud crash, and when I turned around my rear window had shattered. He had shot a gun at me," Hearst says. "That scared the hell out of me."

Hearst drove directly to the police station, but the cop on duty was no help.

"Did you make any dirty signs at him?" he asked, and extended his middle finger in demonstration. "Is an 85-year-old man going to make those signs?" Hearst still wonders.

His daughter nagged him to stop driving for some time, and although the old man is fiercely independent, her persistence had something to do with his decision.

"I used to just pooh-pooh her," he says, "tell her that I'll take care of myself." But, like the word "adjust," Hearst has taken certain life lessons to heart: "If you become stubborn, then woe is you," he says, without explanation.

Westwood Horizons holds a special "candlelight dinner" once a month. Tonight's will begin soon, and Hearst would like to attend. He rises and moves slowly across the carpeted floor to his mirrored closet. He chooses a bright yellow sweater. Dressing is a lengthy process: One hand pulls the garment down a few inches on one side, then the other hand echoes, and the steps repeat.

Hearst dons a suit jacket, and looks quite the dashing dinner date. But he walks slowly down the hallway, back stiff, bent forward.

A woman in uniform approaches, looking tired. "Irwin, your daughter wants to know what medicines you need ordered," she says.

Hearst turns, fire in his eyes. He sheds years. "I will order it!" he says, raising his voice in anger and embarrassment. "I've always done everything for myself! She better not come near me. She'll have to get a new father!"

The woman nods and speaks into a cell phone. Hearst arrives at the elevator. He drops heavily into a chair. And, gazing toward the floor, waits resignedly for transportation to whisk him to the shindig downstairs.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Grabbing a fast pass to fame


Monday July 14, 2003

Grabbing a fast pass to fame
* A party celebrating the release of a book on gaining instant celebrity is a magnet for the sort-of-famous set.

by Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

But Warhol didn't say how long it would take to get your 15 minutes.

Up to two weeks, according to Melissa de la Cruz and Karen Robinovitz's new book, "How to Become Famous in Two Weeks or Less" (Ballantine).

"Once you start telling people you're famous, they believe you," de la Cruz says.

"We should be able to slip past any velvet rope. Everybody should be able to," Robinovitz says.

All you have to do is follow their eightfold path, outlined in chapters such as "A 'Brand' New You," "There's No Such Thing as Bad Publicity, Darling," "Managing the Press Machine" and "The Schmooze factor."

The book began as an assignment for Marie Claire magazine, and it got the authors ink in the New York Post and beyond. Now they've sold the movie rights to Disney. And the Times is covering the book party at the Tracy Ross store on Sunset Boulevard.

The party is hot. Sweat beads on Joel Michaely's forehead. "Apparently they're going to tell us how to become more famous," says the actor ("Rules of Attraction"). "I have a finite amount of fame. I'm looking to become more famous."

Nearby, Jenna Lewis, from the first "Survivor" series, lounges on a black leather sofa. "I hated becoming famous," Lewis gushes, grinning, "but either you embrace it, or you become a hermit like Howard Hughes. Celebrityhood is our royalty, and," she says, grabbing an hors d'oeuvre, "I get free shepherd's pie.

"Do you know who that is behind me?" Lewis asks, chancing a quick glance over her shoulder. "That's Brennan Swain. He was on the first 'Amazing Race.' "

"I was the first 'Amazing Race' winner," Swain emphasizes. "I was a lawyer, then I ended up on the show, and next thing you know -- I was famous." Swain left his law firm. But he is far from idle. "A bunch of my buddies from reality TV series all got together, and we're starting a cable network called Reality Central," Swain says. The network will feature "lots of reruns of the reality shows we know and love." "I'm from the sixth 'Survivor,' " pipes in Alex Bell. "All I did was get on national TV and hit myself with a machete."

In a tent in the parking lot, partyers browse the Silent Auction of Celebrity Swag to benefit the Colombia Presbyterian Herbert Irving Child and Adolescent Oncology Center. Heiress and yoga instructor Anna Getty drops by to check in on her donation of "yoga tea events." She has yet to read the book but says that "there are so many ways to become famous ... go for it."

Has anybody here actually read the book?

"I love the title -- it's so L.A.," says heiress and party girl Paris Hilton. Had she perused the book, she would've come across a section titled "Why Don't You Throw Food at the Hilton Sisters?" in which de la Cruz and Robinovitz consider finding fame by doing just that.

Hilton will soon join the reality TV ranks herself: In Fox's coming "A Simple Life," Hilton will cope without a cell phone or credit cards, and she even has to work ... at a Dairy Queen. She'll become even more famous by pretending she's not famous.

The authors arrive fashionably late to the Thursday night affair. De la Cruz is in Christian Dior, while Robinovitz chose Escada and a pair of custom-made Rock & Republic jeans.

"Calvin Klein called our publicist, but we were already taken," Robinovitz says.

"I haven't paid for anything since I became famous," de la Cruz admits.

Which is apparently the case with some other attendees as well. "One woman tried to pull a switch on me," says security guy Kerry Meets of O&R Protective Services. He is wearing a black suit and an earpiece.

According to Meets, the woman slipped on a blue topaz and diamond ring that was being auctioned, replaced it with her own and walked away. Meets "grabbed her by the arm" and elicited an "Oh, I'm so embarrassed!" before she sauntered off. "That happens more in this atmosphere than in middle- or lower-class areas," Meets says, frowning.

Indeed. Later on, a certain rock star's daughter was seen helping herself to a pair of socks. "She was rummaging through a display," says an onlooker, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "She grabbed a pair of socks, took off her Ugg boots, put the socks on and ran off."

"I know who stole the socks," store owner Tracy Ross says when called the next day. "She told me she was stealing them. And I have her credit card on file.""Celebrity is almost the easy way out," says Ben Coyle, an artist who claims he's not looking for personal fame but, rather, recognition in the art world.

He is in the minority here.

"I feel famous too!" enthuses de la Cruz's mom, Ching. To keep up with their daughter, she and husband Bert "have to keep on reading entertainment magazines," she says. Bert has yet to read his daughter's book -- but he does find a moment to browse People magazine at the party.

Around 9, De la Cruz and Robinovitz try to project energy but, in fact, look exhausted.

"It's fun signing autographs," de la Cruz chirps.

Robinovitz drops and retrieves her autograph pen. "Fame doesn't fill the void," she admits, finally. "There is a difference between this and who we are at heart."

She eyes the door. "I can't wait to get back to my hotel and order room service," Robinovitz says.

As for de la Cruz: "I'm going home with my parents to Pasadena to watch our big TV."

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Distinctive debut


Sunday July 13, 2003

Distinctive debut

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Just short of midnight, partyers taking a breather from the Mountain Bar's opening festivities crowd around Arlo, the evening's hippest VIP.

Although Arlo is about 20 years short of drinking age, his cherubic mug is already a lady magnet. "He's a hit with all the girls," says mom Francis Stark, as she rocks Arlo gently on a bench in the courtyard outside.

Stark and husband Steve Hanson, the proprietor of nearby gallery China Art Objects, are part owners of the new Chinatown bar. Nearby, a second owner, architect Mark McManus, feeds quarters into a mini merry-go-round and hops on for a ride with his giggling daughter, Lilly. McManus' pregnant wife, Emily Decrescenzi, sits and watches. The third and most famous owner, artist Jorge Pardo, skipped the opening shindig for more important business in New York.

Inside, it's not your typical Los Angeles premiere. There aren't any celebrities so there aren't any cameras, there is a shocking lack of hors d'oeuvres, and instead of schmoozing and comping cocktails, the owners are lounging outside with their kids. The sum of which could be underwhelming ... but isn't.

This bar is an "accumulation of happy little accidents," says the general manager, Max Duncan. It has been three years in the making, explains Hanson, "a labor of love." Now that it's finally open, "I don't know what to think about having a bar," laughs Stark. As for the July 5 opening itself, she says, "I didn't send invitations out ... I'm a busy mom!" Arlo drools.

The crowd -- artists, architects, musicians and an insurance salesman who looks lost -- is more intent on exploring the interior than chatting up the opposite sex. Flip-flops stand next to spike heels, mojitos sweat next to colorful martinis, and everybody points at the intense red walls covered with red paint drips, at the huge hanging lamps fashioned out of wood, bent laminate and paper, at the carved wood booze cage that hangs above the bar ...

"This looks more like hell," observes Cathy Pack, an architect from Echo Park. "But you're with such happy people, drinks in hand, that it feels like heaven."

"It's sci-fi modernism filtered through baroque," offers a shy artist who declines to give her name.

Pardo -- known internationally for his "functional art" -- designed the space, once occupied by Chinatown's beloved General Lee's. Artist barhoppers say it will probably be known as "Pardo's place" rather than the Mountain Bar.

They may be right. The owners have yet to hang a sign. In fact, the only name on the building is a remnant from previous ownership: "Man General Lee's Jen Low" is painted on the inside of the door. It will stay as is, says McManus. "Because it's beautiful."

Wednesday, July 2, 2003

For these musicians, to air is truly divine


Wednesday July 02, 2003

For these musicians, to air is truly divine

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Dan Crane plays guitar for the "faux-French '60s band" Les Sans Culottes. They've rocked Vegas' Venetian and opened for Ringo Starr. But when Crane appeared on NBC's "Last Call With Carson Daly," he didn't bring an instrument. Or at least not a visible one.

You've seen air guitar before. When your buddy at the bar jumped onto the table and tried ineptly to play along with Hendrix, resting his imagined Stratocaster on his beer belly -- that was air guitar. Wayne and Garth played air guitar, as did Bill and Ted. Chances are you've played air guitar yourself.

But it's not just you and your mirror anymore. The U.S. Air Guitar Championships were held Saturday at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip, and by the end of the night, a national air god emerged. Finally, the United States will be sending a representative to the (eighth annual) World Air Guitar Championships, held in Finland.

You laugh, but Crane is here to prove you wrong. There's "nothing funny about air guitar," he says.

Guitarists and groupies

Inside the club, afros and mullets converge. Bare-chested men go glam, in lederhosen and gold chains and tacky lipstick, as they and saunter and blow cigarette smoke in each other's faces.

The air guitarists and awestruck air groupies lounge on the VIP mezzanine. They schmooze, drink beer and grant interviews.

"I have played air guitar since I hopped out of the womb," says Jerry -- just Jerry -- from Nevada. He is wearing a furry, gray coat with no shirt, torn jeans and black-and-white checkered Keds. "I play spring break, weddings, my living room, the john....If I could play a freakin' instrument, I wouldn't be here," he admits. But still, "I think my research and development will take me to Finland. I may not be the most talented, but I will outwork you."

Jerry has two roadies named, appropriately, Veri and Berri. Both have dirty-blond hair and are showing lots of skin. "I'm old enough to know what turns me on. And that would be air guitar," says Berri. "We like it when he plays hard," adds Veri.

Standing nearby, Crane, a.k.a. Bjorn Turoque, frowns at the extravagant posturing. "L.A. is so superficial," says the Denver native. "It's filled with fake [cleavage] and fake smiles." In contrast to the competition, Crane is understated in his rainbow pants and black shirt with a yellow handkerchief tied around his neck.

Crane takes his air guitar seriously. "I'm a nihilist," he explains. "On the plane over, I read a lot of Nietzsche to get into the whole nothingness thing. I'm taking on the role of the Nietzsche Supermensch." Air guitar, he says, "is about nihilism, existentialism, showmanism and a lot of other isms."

Indeed, the Finnish Oulu Music Video Festival, which holds the World Air Guitar Championships, does so "to promote peace," reads its Web site. "According to the philosophy of air guitar, all wars would cease and bad things disappear if everybody in the world only played air guitar." Amnesty International, step aside.

Here's how the championships work: First round, the 20 contestants choose their own music. Next, five semifinalists each perform the same surprise song. The air guitarist who remains standing will go mano a mano with David "C-Diddy" Jung, the legendary East Coast champ. Winner takes all -- a real electric guitar, donated by Guitar Center, and a trip to Finland this summer.

The judges know their riffs: Nina Gordon, formerly of Veruca Salt; Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine and currently with AudioSlave; and Roy Trakin, editor of Hits magazine. They'll score contestants based on subjective analyses of originality, charisma, feeling, technical ability, artistic merit and "airness."

"Air guitar has always been my art," says Shawn "Dick Maynard" Mason, who sells electronics in Los Angeles. He's wearing a long black trench coat, Mafioso-style. "I used to play with my dad on long car trips. I always joke with my friends that I'm the greatest air guitarist. Now I can prove it."

"It's C-Diddy!" somebody shouts. The champ has entered the building. He sports his signature Asian motif -- a long red kimono and tight red Chinese print stretch pants -- and is flanked by an actual entourage. Surrounded by would-be celebrities, C-Diddy projects the real thing. Cameras whir.

Sitting in a dark corner in his wheelchair, Ryan "Benjamin Walkin" Flynn, from Fontana, seems to shun attention. The mirrored cross rising from the back of his chair and looming over his head implies otherwise.

"I only came to represent Christian rock music," Flynn says. "We'll find out tonight if Christian rock gets the respect it deserves."

The real pretend thing

Everybody is already grinning as the curtain goes up. For an audience that just paid actual money to watch pretend guitarists pretend to play guitar, it can only get better.

The first few acts are uninspired. Then Mason takes the stage. He sheds his trench coat to reveal the glittery silver sleeves of his black shirt. As the Foo Fighters' "Everlong" begins, Mason bends his knees and slides his fingers up the fret board. He appears to be playing actual chords, not just air chords. He closes his eyes and bangs his head.

"Dick! Dick! Dick!" chants the happy mob.

The energy balloons as the night progresses, both on and off stage.

When it's time for Flynn to perform, nearby do-gooders lift his wheelchair gently onto the stage. "Praise Jesus," he tells the crowd. As the music begins, he drives his electric chair around the stage with one hand, works his guitar with the other. Then the wheelchair takes a violent turn, and Flynn spills out.

There is a collective gasp. But Flynn jumps to his feet and leaps into the air.

Appearances are no longer what they seem. All is air. At the end of his set, Flynn runs to the edge of the stage, reaches into his crotch and throws a handful of glitter at the audience -- which, judging from its deafening response, loved every second.

Good air guitar is actually more about technique than glitz and glam. The savants stand out because they are actually playing an instrument -- not a fake guitar, but rather a real air guitar. When an expert changes chords, the music jumps accordingly. When an expert strums violently, notes turn shrill and the amps scream.

Jerry strides onto the stage with all the bravado of a rock god. Veri and Berri come crawling after him, tear off his shirt and slink back offstage.

Jerry has the look -- hair falling over his eyes, a lanky physique. He has the sexpot groupies. He may even lead the rock star lifestyle. But when it comes to air guitar, he's a pretender. His fingers lag behind the music, get ahead of the music, just generally hinder the music.

In the semifinals, pure technical prowess -- on Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" -- trumps stage presence.

Gordon "Krye Tuff" Hintz, wearing kneepads and a pair of handcuffs as a belt buckle, is the last to perform. He is quiet and confident, and gazes out into the crowd as if to say, "Don't worry. I will rock for you."

His fingers dance. The beat flows through his body like electricity. And then he does something daring even for an air guitarist: He hurls his instrument upward.

The crowd screams. Eyes follow it up, up down, down ... and Hintz catches the guitar. His arms shudder and he jostles slightly, but he's got it, he caught it. His chords continue, flawlessly. He is the Ace of Spades.

It takes charisma

The dark club is humid with perspiration when C-Diddy arrives to battle Hintz for the title. The guy's got charisma. He unties his sash, pivots, and the red kimono falls open. Never before has a Hello Kitty breastplate looked so good. Never before has music seemed to bend -- to tremolo, to reverb -- at the will of an air guitarist.

The crowd goes crazy. C-Diddy plays with effortless virtuosity, a la Eric Clapton. He kneels, throws his head back, and his guitar wails. He owns the act so completely that the music seems to be emanating directly from him. "It can't get any better than this!" somebody shouts.

The judges agree. C-Diddy accepts his trophy and tells Hintz, "You have been a worthy challenger, my friend." He also accepts the real electric guitar, but looks unsure of how to handle it.

A champion crowned, the buoyant mob turns patriotic. "USA! USA!" they bellow. Finland, here we come!