Sunday, September 17, 2006

Divine intervention


Sunday September 17, 2006

Divine intervention
* Believers A Journey Into Evangelical America Jeffery L. Sheler Viking: 324 pp., $24.95

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

EVANGELICAL Christians are responsible for President Bush's presidency, but electing a fellow born-again only made them hungrier. Now these 60 million soul-winners are intent on transforming our democracy into a theocracy under Christ. At least, that's a common conspiracy theory among liberals who, still shell-shocked by the emergence of evangelicals from their cloisters of non-engagement, see them as simple-minded people of unified intent.

But evangelicals are not a monolith, political or otherwise, as Jeffery L. Sheler illustrates in his compelling and important survey of evangelical America. (Evangelical, like fundamentalist and born-again, can be defined in different ways.) Most evangelicals share a few characteristics -- the Bible as God's word; salvation via a personal relationship with Jesus; spreading the "good news" -- yet as Sheler converses with evangelical preachers, academics, televangelists, missionaries, teenagers and cowboys, it becomes increasingly difficult to lump them together.

Sheler successfully taps into the vast complexity and pluralism of evangelical Christianity -- and it is a sizable achievement. Too many nonbeliever journalistic and scholarly authors reduce religion to the sum of its statistically measurable parts, particularly when addressing evangelicalism, which from the outside can appear simplistic and mechanistic. On the flip side, believer accounts are often awash in theological assumptions and fail to take a critical view. The trick is to balance respect for religious experience with an informed analysis, and Sheler walks the line with aplomb.

It undoubtedly helps that he was a longtime religion writer and editor for U.S. News & World Report and a former evangelical himself. The meta-conceit here is Sheler's own spiritual journey -- as a teen he rebelled against his parents' mild religiosity by joining a fundamentalist Baptist church -- and he wonders if this journalistic exploration will rekindle the spiritual fire of his youth.

The evangelical story comes alive, its roots in the Protestant Reformation, the optimism and social benevolence of the early 1800s followed at the end of that century by a darker outlook -- premillennialism and the idea of the Rapture -- and, over the past century, by the seesaw of political and cultural engagement and non-engagement. What results is a book that's valuable for anyone who seeks to grasp the nuances of American evangelicalism.

To begin untangling the knot of evangelicalism in politics, Sheler visits Washington and meets with Richard Cizik, a vice president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals. Cizik is a force for the life-cycle concerns of the 30 million NAE members -- anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-embryonic-stem-cell research -- but he and like-minded colleagues are also steering the evangelical lobby toward a more diverse range of causes. To the list of what they oppose, append some "pros": pro-humanitarian aid to Africa, pro-religious freedom and, perhaps most vociferously in Cizik's case, pro-environment. The "shadowy forces" of the Christian right in Washington are not engaged in an epic battle only against Darwin, it seems, but also against global warming. Protecting God's creation is the broad Biblical rationale, and Cizik is busy forging alliances with fellow evangelicals and with unlikely political allies such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Even among leading evangelicals, disagreement about how to define and execute the cause is common and sharp. There remain, first of all, those who believe that religion and politics should not marry, but the large turnout of evangelical voters in the last two presidential elections, combined with substantial anecdotal evidence collected by Sheler, indicate that most evangelicals are not headed down the path of noninvolvement.

So evangelicals are ready to engage on a multiplicity of issues, and some have shrugged off the anti-intellectualism that handicapped the movement for much of the 20th century. The task at hand, then, is defining a political and social agenda that appeals to the wide diversity within evangelicalism but fails to alienate its traditionalist roots. This gets hairy. When Cizik and other NAE leaders published a statement interweaving typical evangelical concerns with environmental and humanistic ones, radio and TV host James Dobson co-signed -- while the vice president for public policy in Dobson's organization, Focus on the Family, opined to a reporter, "The movement to preserve marriage characterizes evangelicalism. The issue of global warming does not."

What is the future of evangelicalism, then? Some of its most prominent stewards are aging, most notably Billy Graham, who at 87 suffers from Parkinson's disease and prostate cancer and is by his own account nearing the end of his life. Who will take Graham's place? The sheer variety of perspectives in Sheler's book suggests a plurality of futures for evangelicalism rather than a singular destiny, and yet there will always be overarching trends.

Sheler channels two opposing visions. On the one side is radio host R. Albert Mohler Jr., who lays into the universalism and inclusivism that he sees sneaking into progressive evangelicalism. Opposite Mohler is Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. Mouw agrees that hard truths are essential to evangelicalism, but he allows for some mystery in the mechanics of how Jesus goes about saving souls, how exactly the spiritual phenomena happen. Perhaps ecumenicalism and evangelicalism need not be mutually exclusive.

No amount of left-brain analysis can unveil the experience of religion, however, and although Sheler weaves in statistics and expert opinion, he's at his best when traveling with missionaries to build a hut in Guatemala or hanging by the campfire with teenagers at the Christian rock festival Creation 2005 or interviewing a middle-aged couple still dripping from their baptismal dunking at a mega-church in Orange County. These voices are often refreshingly disengaged from divisive "join-us-or-be-damned" rhetoric. Agree or disagree with the theology, it's tough not to recognize some of yourself here, in the desire to call on God personally, to invite celestial order -- or, better yet, grace -- into the messiness of life.

And so it is a bit disappointing that Sheler, our shepherd through this complexity, doesn't reveal much about his own spiritual struggle. He embraces evangelicalism as a child, leaves it as an adult, and when, in researching this book, he revisits the church of his youth, he is unmoved. It's fine that there's no dramatic reawakening or rejection of faith, which would probably seem inauthentic anyhow. But didn't his exploration of a vein that spoke so fervently to him at one time evoke some personal journeying? If yes, it would have been valuable to hear about it. If no, well, it doesn't seem right to wish that Sheler had revised his spiritual arc for the book's benefit.


Steven Barrie-Anthony is a research fellow in religious studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles and journalist-in-residence at NewSchools Venture Fund.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Taking more than candy?


Monday July 24, 2006

Taking more than candy?
* Jill Greenberg's photo technique has Internet bloggers up in arms.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

STEAL a toddler's lollipop and he's bound to start bawling, was photographer Jill Greenberg's thinking. So that's just what Greenberg did to illicit tears from the 27 or so 2- and 3-year-olds featured in her latest exhibition, "End Times," recently at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles. The children's cherubic faces, illuminated against a blue-white studio backdrop, suggest abject betrayal far beyond the loss of a Tootsie Pop; sometimes tears spill onto naked shoulders and bellies.

The work depicts how children would feel if they knew the state of the world they're set to inherit, explained Greenberg, whose own daughter is featured in the show. "Our government is so corrupt, with all the cronyism and corporate lobbyists," she said. "I just feel that our world is being ruined. And the environment -- when I was pregnant, I kept thinking that I'd love to have a tuna fish sandwich, but I couldn't because we've ruined our oceans."

"End Times" debuted in Los Angeles in April (a portion was previously posted to the gallery site,, and soon thereafter an Internet brouhaha broke out that has continued to this day. Bloggers such as Andrew Peterson called Greenberg's lollipop technique abusive and exploitative, while Greenberg, her husband, Robert Green, and gallery owner Paul Kopeikin defended the work, the process and one another. The conversation, cycling between rational and hyperbolic, says as much about Net communication as about the art in question.

"Jill Greenberg is a Sick Woman Who Should Be Arrested and Charged With Child Abuse," Peterson wrote under his pseudonym Thomas Hawk at, a blog that focuses on new media and technology. For Peterson, Greenberg's technique was "evil."

"When the Michael Jackson trial was going on, people kept saying, 'What kind of parents would let their child spend the night alone in a room with Michael Jackson?' " wrote Peterson, an investment advisor from San Francisco. "It seemed absurd. And it seems absurd that any parent who loved their child would purposefully take their children to Greenberg's studio to then be tormented to the point of emotional outrage."

Green responded with an e-mail that Peterson appended to his blog: "I'm married to the artist in question. With that said, some facts: Jill did not 'abuse' the children.... The parents were there monitoring the whole time. This is the exact technique used in ads and movies and TV." Cordial at first, but later, on his own blog, AnotherGreenWorld, Green wrote of Peterson: "He has no morals, no ethics, nothing that would make me recognize him as a fellow human being."


'Much ado'

THE mixture of debate and invective spilled into the mass media -- the New York Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, Slate -- sidestepping the art world almost entirely. Few photographers or art experts, when questioned, seemed to take umbrage with Greenberg's technique.

"It's much ado about nothing," said CalArts professor of art and photography Jo Ann Callis. "Jill was trying to create a metaphor between a child crying, looking desperate, and the times. It's a perfectly logical thing to do. She should just have lied," Callis said with a laugh, "about how she did it."

But while the art academies slumbered, bloggers worked overtime, debating far and wide across the informal syndicate that is the blogosphere. Internet users without their own sites took up residency in the comments section of Peterson's and Green's blogs, often under the shroud of anonymity; some even found websites that Greenberg and Green had made for their children -- so that family could keep track of the kids' photos -- and wrote nasty comments in the guest books.

The anonymity of their opponents enraged Greenberg and Green. "What this has unleashed, this inchoate rage that's prevalent in the Internet atmosphere," Green said, "has a lot to do with anonymity and power, the ability to express sentiments online that you cannot express to someone's face." So Green did some Internet sleuthing using the "whois" database (accessible at to look up the registrant of the domain Thomas, thus unveiling Peterson as the man behind the pseudonym.

Green promptly posted Peterson's true identity on the relevant blogs, and then he took it further, noting that Peterson was writing blog posts during the workday and calling Peterson's employer to complain. Peterson reported the development on his blog, and super-blog picked up the battle cry. "Greenberg and her husband have threatened to sue [Peterson] for libel and called his employer," the post read. Peterson's "response is a good one: He argues that if they disagree with him, they should disagree with him, not attempt to silence him."

The day Boing Boing ran its post, the Kopeikin Gallery website rocketed from its usual 1,000 hits to 14,000. Kopeikin was receiving enough angry e-mail to consider hiring extra security. At one point, Kopeikin posted a comment on Peterson's blog: "I sincerely thank you for the attention you have brought to the exhibition and my gallery," he wrote. "I have made several sales to people who you have introduced to the work and who understand and appreciate it."

In fact, that assertion was false, Kopeikin admits, but then Kopeikin views Peterson as a fount of untruth, from his pseudonym onward. "I was just sending him information to see if he'd print it," Kopeikin said. "Jill and I were like, 'Let's tell him we're thanking him, because we're selling tons of prints.' ... Which wasn't true.... He totally took it."

American Photo magazine dubbed "End Times" the most controversial photo exhibition of the year in its July-August issue, and the two-page spread received a greater response than any other article printed in the last five years, said David Schonauer, editor in chief. Most respondents have been shocked and angry. An online forum on the magazine's website dedicated to discussing Greenberg was shut down because of abusive posts, Schonauer said.

The media coverage has focused almost exclusively on reiterating the he-said, she-said blog battle, and few outside sources have been brought in to comment -- such as Ilene Knebel of Los Angeles, whose 3-year-old daughter, Elise, was among the children Greenberg featured.

"We got a call through Ford Models," Knebel recalled. "I believe the agent said something like, 'The children are going to be crying.' I said, 'She does that all day every day, so whatever.'.... To me, this is the same as if we go to a photographer who says your daughter's going to be in a swimsuit or a ballet outfit. Your daughter's going to be laughing. Your daughter's going to be crying."

Elise stood shirtless on a wooden box, her mom just feet away, Greenberg behind her lens. An assistant handed Elise a lollipop; Knebel took the candy away. The wailing and the shoot lasted 20 or 30 seconds, Knebel said. Elise "sniffled a little" afterward, but then she got multiple lollipops in trade for the stolen one. These days Elise doesn't remember it happening.

Peterson, who has four young children himself, bristles at the notion that parents or Greenberg can predict the long-term effects of the lollipop technique. "These very public photos will get put up in other contexts, will continue to torment these children," he said. "We don't know what kind of an impact it's going to have. You need to err on the side of caution." (Greenberg said that the children who attended the show's opening were delighted to see themselves on the gallery walls.)

Greenberg is primarily a commercial photographer and has done work for magazines, including Time, Rolling Stone and The Times' Sunday magazine, West. Her first exhibit at the Kopeikin Gallery was 2004's "Monkey Portraits," in which monkeys posed similarly to the toddlers in "End Times," only dry-eyed. The controversy hasn't hurt her commercial career, Greenberg says; in fact, at one point Macy's inquired into buying the entire "End Times" series for use in its advertising. The 42-inch-by-50-inch prints, in editions of 10, start at $4,500 apiece.

Career aside, accusations of child abuse deeply offend Greenberg, who lives in Los Angeles. "I have a loving family, I come from a normal family, I've never done anything awful in my life," she said. "Pictures of crying children are upsetting, powerful. There is something instinctual that makes you want to protect them.... But people are taking the pictures literally, as if they are evidence of awful things happening to these kids."

It's true that things are not entirely as they seem; the images were enhanced during postproduction, Greenberg said, to make the children appear more upset than they really were. She used Photoshop to darken furrows in brows, shine tears until they glistened.

In the end, "This is more a story about blogging than about photography," said Stephen White, formerly a gallery owner and currently a private dealer and collector in Studio City. "It's about a generation that's so caught up in itself that everything it says it thinks is significant, even though it's not saying anything at all.

"People in the photography world, anyone who is sophisticated about photography, knows that this is not offensive," he said. "Taking away a lollipop is not child abuse. There's no irreparable harm. I'm just not sure there's any significance to the photographs, either."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cellphones: Just a leash for children?


Wednesday June 21, 2006

Cellphones: Just a leash for children?

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Fifteen-year-old Jordan Murphy loves to play hoops, so after school he and his brother Joshua, 13, jump on bikes and troll their neighborhood in Shawnee, Kan., for pickup games. Often they pedal through a hectic blind intersection to get to courts at the civic center, and then toss their bags on the ground and start dribbling. They don't hear their cellphone ring-ring-ringing, don't allay the fears of their single mother who's telling herself that all's fine, probably, but if only they would just answer the phone....

Then in April mom Jacqui Fahrnow bought Jordan and Joshua a cellphone from Sprint Nextel that doubles as a tracking beacon. Now if the kids haven't arrived at the civic center or other designated courts by 3:15 in the afternoon, Fahrnow's phone jingles and up pops a color map of their location, replete with street addresses. If they're at or near the courts or at Aunt Valerie's house or the grocery store, Fahrnow doesn't worry; if they're far afield, she knows where to find them. Peace of mind for just $9.99 a month.

"It's like having another set of eyes," says Fahrnow, who owns an office management business. "This will be even more useful when they get older and start driving. With four wheels under you, a lot of things can happen."

Keeping tabs on the kids

Sprint Family Locator, which debuted in April, is just one of many newly released cellular services that use global positioning satellites -- originally developed for military use -- to allow family members to keep tabs on each other via their phones. Disney Mobile, which opened for business earlier this month, includes child tracking among its basic features. Verizon Wireless' Chaperone service lets parents enclose up to 10 areas in virtual fencing, and to receive a text message if their children breach a boundary.

This technology isn't cutting-edge, exactly; similar location based services have been marketed with limited success over the last few years, notably Nextel's Mobile Locator designed for companies to track employees. But cellular carriers are in a tizzy to fulfill a Federal Communications Commission mandate that 911 operators be able to pin down phone locations -- and it stands to reason that they recoup their investment by offering that same capability to subscribers. Carriers make beaucoup bucks, parents like Fahrnow rest easier; everybody wins.

Everybody except the people being tracked, say teens and privacy advocates who peg this trend to an unhealthy desire for control. "What do we get out of this?" says Hunter Ligon, a 16-year-old from Oklahoma City who has discussed the technology with his mom but as of yet remains untracked. "We go to school every day, we work our butts off, and there are such strict limitations on our life already. We need to expand our boundaries, to become more independent, and yet now we have one more thing to pull us down."

Communication technology has become synonymous with youth, says Hunter, who carries a T-Mobile Sidekick II so that he can text and instant message and occasionally even call his friends. Kids these days rarely galavant around the neighborhood until dinnertime, as their parents did; boogeymen on the evening news have driven them indoors, and community has in large part gone virtual. Which makes it particularly galling that technology would become a turncoat, an informer. "Most parents can barely turn on a computer," Hunter says. "They're always asking us for help."

As is the case with Kansas mom Leila Pellant, who couldn't figure out how to set up Sprint Family Locator -- and asked her son Spencer, 14, to activate it for her. Spencer obliged, and thenceforth the service "keeps Spencer on point all the time, knowing that I can find out where he is," says Pellant, a real estate agent. "As far as privacy goes, my children don't deserve total privacy."

The argument that it's OK to track kids because it'll keep a few of them from being kidnapped or making mischief is specious reasoning, says 17-year-old Katt Hemman, from Hutchinson, Kan. It's the same argument that the Bush administration makes in defending warrantless wiretapping, she says. A marginal increase in safety isn't worth forfeiting our civil rights, and adults who balk at being spied on and then turn around and spy themselves are hypocrites.

Hers is a generation always looking queasily over its shoulder, says Katt, whose parents haven't (yet) signed up for cell tracking but do monitor her Internet activity. "I don't trust as many people as I want to," she says. "I have moments where I don't trust my own family because I feel as if they're reading everything I write on the Internet."

Of course, kids will fight back, much as they do when schools attempt to block access to MySpace and other "noneducational" websites. One teen guesses that encasing his phone in aluminum foil might divert the signal; another especially crafty teen reveals his plan, should mom and dad ever begin phone-surveillance: 1) Tell parents he's going to a friend's house. 2) Go to friend's house. 3) Tie his cellphone to their dog, so it moves around. 4) Leave to live an unobserved existence.

Privacy versus safety

But what if your kid is too lazy or obedient to fight back? Or if you track her without her knowledge -- and catch her in a lie? How do you explain that you've been watching her through a satellite in the sky? (The Sprint Family Locator notifies kids via a text message when they've been located; other companies, such as Disney Mobile, do not.)

"It's an invasion of privacy in a huge way," says Charles Sophy, a psychiatrist and the medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. "You're sending them a message that you don't believe in them, don't trust them to make solid decisions."

Already Sophy has encountered a number of sticky situations surrounding cellphone tracking, "especially with these high-end Hollywood people in L.A.," he says. Tracking without permission often leads to painful family meetings, with everyone -- not least of all the parents -- apologizing for their misdeeds. Still, Sophy says that in a world of natural and man-made disasters, tracking can "absolutely" be of benefit if prefaced by honest family conversation. Even teens find the safety net appealing if they ignore the Big Brother (or Big Mother) aspect, and some admit that tracking might coax their most out-of-control friends back from the brink.

Of course if kids and the rest of us continue using technology for ever greater self-revelation, the debate over surveillance may be rendered moot. Soon MySpace will be accessible on cellphones, and experts say that mobile social networking, instant messaging and the rest are poised to merge with tracking technology to provide not just virtual access to all friends at all times, but physical access as well. "It will be hard for science fiction to outpace what's going to happen," says Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University. "You'll walk into a cafe in Paris, and ask your cellphone if any of your buddies are in Paris. Or you can ask it if any of the friends of your 10 best buddies are in Paris."

Alan Phillips is an ardent proponent of this revolution. In 2002 he caught his 14-year-old son skateboarding when he was supposed to be at a friend's house, and Phillips promptly founded uLocate Communications, in Massachusetts, to develop location-based services for mobile phones. These days the Phillips family can check each others' locations via a cellphone click (or on the Web) and can even view the rate of speed at which family members are traveling.

"My son plays soccer," Phillips says. "We set up 'geofences' so that when he's coming back from games on the bus, every time his phone comes within five miles of the school, we are alerted. So that we know when to pick him up."

Very convenient; but even Phillips admits that sometimes the ever-present eye is a little much. "I have intentionally turned off my phone to suppress data from my wife," he says. "If I'm leaving late and had told her that I'd meet her somewhere...."

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Through hell, high water or Web filters


Wednesday May 31, 2006

Through hell, high water or Web filters
* As Congress mulls action, some schools already limit MySpace access. But it hasn't kept teens off the site.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Excuse me, Congress? You know that bill you're thinking about passing, the one that would prevent kids from accessing social networking websites like at schools and libraries? Kris Sosa, a junior at West Ottawa High School in Holland, Mich., has something to tell you:

"Anything that youth attaches themselves to, the public gets scared about," he says. "And with this, just like with anything else -- underage drinking, for example -- youth is going to find a way to get what they want. It's inevitable. Even if this law passes, even if it goes into effect, there's going to be a way around it. It's just a matter of time."

Sosa is sure that he'll beat such a prohibition because he and many of his teenage compatriots already have. Like a growing number of schools and libraries nationwide, West Ottawa blocks students from social networking websites. But instead of glumly relinquishing access, Sosa and "a majority of the other kids at my school," he says, use technological workarounds to access whatever they darn well feel like. When administrators block one route, kids find another.

Which suggests that the mess of politicians, teachers, parents and other adults engaged in a feisty debate over the bill recently proposed by Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the Deleting Online Predators Act, are perhaps asking the wrong question. It's not whether lawmakers should bar kids from accessing social networking websites but whether they can.

"There's no question that kids have become savvier," says Michele Shannon, senior director of product management for San Diego-based WebSense, a maker of Web filtering software. "If anyone's going to figure out a way through, it's them. We try and stay a step ahead."

In this arms race, Team Youth has an important adult ally. Bennett Haselton, a Seattle-based computer programmer who works on contract with the U.S. government to fight Internet censorship in places like China and Saudi Arabia, spends his free time doing the same thing on American turf. Through his website,, Haselton provides free access to tools that Saudi Arabian citizens and American students alike use to tunnel through their respective barriers. (Authoritarian governments and school districts often employ the very same filtering software.)

"Historically, teenagers have been much closer to adults than children," Haselton says. "It's only in recent decades that the teenage years became classified as an extension of childhood rather than part of adulthood. Just because kids stay in school longer, it doesn't mean that the natural age of human maturity and responsibility has gone up."

The technology behind blocking software, and the software to circumvent it, have remained mostly the same since Haselton began this crusade about 10 years ago, when he was a freshman at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Peacefire was then, as now, a "students rights organization." Its motto: "You'll understand when you're younger." The challenge has been less inventing new technology, Haselton says, than disguising the same technology over and over so that the enemy can't recognize it.

Filtering software generally resides on a school or library's central server computer, a gateway to the unfiltered Internet beyond. All the connected computers direct their Internet traffic through this server so that if a giggling adolescent in a computer lab types in, the server intercepts that request and sends back a blank page instead of a naked woman.

Problem is, the Internet is a vast landscape of billions of sites, expanding by the millisecond. It's obvious that a school would block Playboy, a known entity, but what of the unknown? Despite receiving daily or even hourly updates from filtering-software vendors, it's simply impossible for software programs to censor the Web in its entirety. So Haselton and teenagers everywhere set up and abandon porthole after porthole under cover of anonymity.

Let's say that instead of typing in, that same giggling adolescent typed in Chances are that the server would grant his request because this new address isn't on the list of blocked sites. Unbeknown to the server, however, is one of a never-ending stream of "circumventor" websites created by Haselton and others, each one located at another random, innocuous-sounding Web address (for instance, and

Now all the kid has to do is scroll down on the new page to where it says, "Enter the URL below that you want to access," type in, and voila: His request is rerouted not through the central server but through an outside server willing to retrieve whatever he so desires. Freedom ... for a few hours or, if he's lucky, a few days, until the filtering software bans the portal, called a "proxy server," and it's time for Haselton to think up another silly address, which he e-mails to a cast of thousands and word-of-mouth does the rest.

There's intrigue and subterfuge. "We have Yahoo and Hotmail and other free e-mail accounts that we use to subscribe to [Peacefire's] mailing lists under crazy names, so we can be informed about these proxies," says Drew Yates, a network administrator at South Fulton High School in South Fulton, Tenn. Yates also relies on teachers to identify and report renegade students.

"The right of free speech is alive and well, and that's fine," Yates says. "But in an educational system, Haselton's position on free speech does not exist. It wouldn't bother me a bit if they passed a law that banned stuff like MySpace." (It certainly wouldn't change much at South Fulton High, which already blocks social networking.)

The collateral damage from this arms race, says Benjamin Edelman, a Harvard doctoral student and an expert on Internet filtering, is that as filtering companies fight to hide all forbidden content and students fight to reveal it, the Web gets censored in an increasingly broad, slipshod way. Google's image search, for instance, has long been known as an easy way to access images residing on banned websites; but if it gets blocked, "then when a kid wants a picture of Nelson Mandela, they can't get it," he says.

Or, rather, they can get it -- but they find themselves using forbidden techniques to access allowed material. Cameron Stolz, 17, of Griffin, Ga., recently tried to research the Bay of Pigs, was blocked and employed circumventor software to complete the class assignment. Stolz, by the way, is in favor of moderate filtering: "I'm not an anarchist kid who thinks that we should be able to do whatever we want," he says. "We shouldn't just be able to roam the Internet."

Joel Key, a Spanish and art teacher at New York's Bronx High School for the Visual Arts, is likewise in favor of filtering but says that currently it just doesn't work. Students on an Internet scavenger hunt for collage images found that all basketball photos were blocked, Key says, "but for some reason they can get porn, and they can get Internet television sites, such as We've tried to get those blocked many times." MySpace and the wildly popular social networking site are blocked, but kids find ways to access them anyway, Key says.

OK, so it's clear that kids don't take Internet censorship sitting down, and a congressional ban might well make them more belligerent. But let's say that a social networking ban does work, on some level, for some kids. What then?

It'll strike a blow to the ne'er-do-wells "who are crawling through the profiles that our children are creating at school while their parents are not around," says Fitzpatrick, the congressman who wrote the bill, which is currently in the Energy and Commerce Committee and has 21 cosponsors.

No, what it will do is create a "participation gap," says Henry Jenkins, co-director of the comparative media studies program at MIT. Kids who are wealthy enough to have a computer and an Internet connection at home will access social networking from there, while whoever must use school and library computers "will be locked out of participating in the defining experiences of this emerging generation."

Everyone just hold on a second, please, asks Brad Novreske, a high school freshman in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This war is based on a misunderstanding: Social networking isn't evil, he says, "It's just friends. Growing up, you have to have friends and social ties. Otherwise you feel alone."

Until his school district, and Congress, come around to his way of seeing it, Novreske will continue to access social networking illicitly. But he'd rather see kids and adults MySpacing together in peace.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Early `Code' risers


Saturday May 20, 2006

Early `Code' risers
* Does 6 a.m. seem a little extreme for taking in a screening of the `The Da Vinci Code'? Not to this crowd.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

USUALLY, when obsessed fans line up for an early-bird premiere, it's the cape-and-tights and light-saber crowd. But these were book people -- and grown-ups at that -- who showed up at 6 a.m. Friday for the first screening of "The Da Vinci Code" at the Hollywood ArcLight. Fanaticism was not required.

Or was it?

Janan Jem, a 26-year-old advertising student, traveled all the way from London to catch this showing -- yep, you read that right -- and dubbed the big-screen version of the bestselling novel by Dan Brown a raging success. The overseas trip, she said, bobbing her head giddily, was well worthwhile.

Early indications from multiple sources outside Sony, the film's distributor, suggested that midday attendance figures were strong but unlikely to set any records, despite book sales that have surpassed 60 million copies. Steve Elzer, senior vice president of media relations for Sony Pictures Entertainment, said business was "very encouraging," adding that "matinees are strong."

Opening-day tracking also suggested the movie might hold more appeal for younger adults than earlier research indicated.

The ArcLight crowd seemed to bear that out. Consider Corey Jovan, a 26-year-old L.A. video game tester who normally doesn't rise before noon. Period. "I'm lazy," he says. But there would be no waiting until after work to see this film, so Jovan and his fiancee joined some 800 bleary-eyed Angelenos who packed the lobby before sunrise, collecting free T-shirts emblazoned with the movie's motto -- "So dark the con of man" -- and choosing between popcorn and soda or the breakfast foods (juice, pastries) made available at the concession stand.

Lauren Ocean looked quizzically at the offerings. "Orange juice just doesn't seem like legitimate movie fare," said the film producer from Hollywood. "I guess I have to get a soda." Ocean had stayed up late Thursday night, racing through the last few pages of Dan Brown's international bestseller, the basis for the film. The book was a Mother's Day gift, but even so, Ocean left her kids and husband slumbering and arrived solo.

"It was my turn," Ocean said, grinning. "My husband got to see the midnight showing of 'Mission: Impossible III.' "

That critics generally disliked the movie didn't seem to faze a soul.

"I'm my own person," Jovan said. "We've come to see the best movie of the year." Nearby in the lobby, Marlene Picard, a writer from Santa Monica, chimed in: "The critics have had their say, now we're going to have our day."

The ArcLight wasn't alone in betting that Angelenos would trade sleep for an early showing; the AMC in Santa Monica rolled back its curtains at a brazen 5:15 a.m. In Hollywood, at least, the bet was a good one: The ArcLight's Cinerama Dome filled to capacity by the time a Gilbert Gottfried sound-alike asked the audience to refrain from text-messaging during the film, gestured grandly toward the screen, paused for applause, and the lights dimmed.

For such a passionate bunch, the next three hours were surprisingly sedate. Little discernible laughter, hissing, cheering, crying. The applause before the film was far more spirited than after, and few people stuck around to hobnob or catch breakfast, touted as "The Last Breakfast," in the theater's cafe.

"It was pretty good," said Sandarsh Kumar, 26, rushing to his job as a biomedical engineer at USC. "At times, though, they compressed the timeline. When I watched the movie I was left hanging. When I read the book, I was never left hanging."

There was some criticism from the crowd. Donnie White took issue with Tom Hanks' physique. "In the book, his character was in better shape," said White, a personal trainer visiting Southern California from New York. "He's a swimmer, and that's a lot of cardio. His lats would've been very defined."

And then just 15 minutes after credits rolled, the theater and the lobby were empty, save for employees and a few journalists trying belatedly to document the hype.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Take a number, pal


Wednesday May 10, 2006

Take a number, pal
* Web etiquette goes wacky when ranking friends becomes an exercise in lifeboat ethics.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

LET'S begin with an exercise. First, name the eight most important people in your life -- friends, family, rock stars. These are your Top 8. Now rank those people in order of importance. Finally, send a copy of this list to everybody you know, including people who didn't make the cut. Be careful not to hurt the wrong feelings, or you may end up getting bumped from other people's Top 8s.

Go ahead and bite your nails. Realize the magnitude of these decisions.

OK, so, you're either lost in terrifying flashbacks of middle-school cruelty -- or you've already made such a list, already showed it to all your friends, and since you didn't make all their Top 8s, you've already deleted the offenders from your list (and prayed they noticed). In other words, you're already on or one of the many other social networking websites such as or, doing your best to navigate this complex new world of friends-of-friends-of-friends-etc. with as few social casualties as possible.

If the Internet was once ungoverned by etiquette, those days are gone; MySpace and its siblings, by many accounts the future of the Net, are rife with discussions of good manners versus unforgivable faux pas. There isn't an aristocratic class, just yet, but you can see the lines forming in the sand, renegades and bad boys posting bulletins pell-mell, uploading risque pictures, collecting "friends" as if it's all some big popularity contest -- while mannered netizens look on disapprovingly. Screw up and you just might get dumped, online and off.

J.D. Funari is hoping that clarity prevents offense. A week after logging onto MySpace, the 24-year-old TV editor from Studio City posted a disclaimer above his Top 8: "Since this 'preferred' listing of friends can quickly become unnecessarily political, I'd like to briefly explain my sorting technique," he wrote.

"The first spot will always be my brother (for obvious reasons) and the second spot will always be my friend Katie (for reasons obvious to Katie and I). The third and fourth spots are reserved for music and movies of interest. Five and six are wild-cards which may be related to how well I know the person and/or if I'm dating them (opposite sex only) and/or if they've paid me for inclusion. The final two spots are, to be perfectly honest, the two most attractive current female photos from my list of friends."

The posted explanation sent ripples through Funari's 97 interconnected friends. "It's very flattering," says Katie Rose Houck, 23, an actress in Los Angeles who occupies slot No. 8, reserved for attractive females. "We've only known each other for a couple of months, and we have a flirting banter going on between the two of us. This reaffirms that he knows that I'm pretty, that I know that he thinks I'm pretty, and all of his extended friends know that he thinks I'm pretty."

Houck admits laughingly that she has browsed through Funari's other friends to see whom she bested. Then again, she is No. 8 on the list, while No. 7 went to Amy Vo, a 25-year-old receptionist from Maryland, who happens to be wearing a bikini in her MySpace picture. "I have an outfit on, so of course Amy is going to get the first spot," says Houck. "Naked wins over pretty."

Vo has never actually met Funari in person; the two connected through Funari's No. 1 friend, Katie. It went like this: Funari clicked on Katie's picture and was whisked to her profile, where he spied Vo in spot No. 3. He clicked over to Vo's profile and sent her a message. "He said, 'Oh, you're so pretty,' " remembers Vo. "And I said, 'Oh, you're so nice.' " Then Funari requested Vo as a friend, she accepted, and soon she rose to spot No. 7 on his page. (Alas, Funari, you're absent from Vo's Top 8.) These, the newfangled dances we dance.

At first it seems as if Funari's strategy might just work. Play the honesty card, let people know where they stand, watch them celebrate or nurse their wounds and then move on. But life threatens to throw a monkey wrench into his beautiful absolutes. "The first spot will always be my brother," his rules explain. Problem is, Funari has two younger siblings who will soon be logging on themselves. What then? And what if he gets serious with a girl -- will she be happy at sixth place?

"If he was my boyfriend, and he didn't put me in the top 5, I would be a little offended," Houck says. "And if he kept his best girlfriend at No. 2 -- and she's pretty! -- I would be a little offended. Maybe that's why he's still single."

Well, he is single. It says so right on his page: "Status: Single." MySpace profile pages are customizable in many ways; you can add pictures, music, write blogs, list your interests or skip all this entirely. You can allow friends to jot comments directly onto your page, viewable by all, or you can retain absolute control. But try as you might, you can't avoid classifying your relationship status, which isn't always easy to do.

After the Top 8, relationship status causes the most ire in the MySpace world.

"It gets highly dramatic," says Danah Boyd, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley who is studying the culture of social networking. "Sometimes one person thinks they're single while the other person thinks they're dating.... You can't have your status be, 'I'm in a relationship that I'm not entirely thrilled with, I'm waiting for something better, come talk to me.' "

What results is an inordinate amount of "swingers," an allowed choice that's sufficiently deviant for teens, ironic for adults (minus actual swingers) and has quickly become socially acceptable within the MySpace mainstream. Still, there remain many conventionalists who choose "single" or "in a relationship," and watch their physical and digital worlds intertwine.

Five months ago, 27-year-old James was "in a relationship," according to his MySpace page. Then James, a New York public relations executive who declined to provide his last name, broke up with his girlfriend and switched to "single."

In the real world and online, James and his ex remained friends, so when James started dating another woman, he didn't want to rub it in his ex's face. He delicately broached the MySpace topic with the new girlfriend, and they agreed not to switch their designation to "in a relationship" just yet. So: single online, together off.

It was four months of limbo before James and his girlfriend decided the time was right. "I was at her Easter family dinner," James remembers, "and that pretty much constitutes a relationship."

They went online, made the change and all's well -- unless things go sour. "There's a tension that never existed before," James says.

In this case, James and his girlfriend were making the safe assumption that their exes engage in "MySpace stalking," the practice of secretly keeping tabs on friends, lovers, co-workers, celebrities or complete strangers by reading their profiles.

If stalking in the real world implies some dangerous psychological imbalance, on MySpace it's essentially the norm, although etiquette suggests that you keep your stalking to yourself. Mention so-and-so's dating status too loudly in the wrong context or without the required I'm-just-kidding jocularity and you risk being judged a stalker in the regular sense.

Where there's stalking, there's reverse stalking. After all, wouldn't you want to know who's watching you? To watch them watch you without them knowing they're being watched? Um, of course you would. At first. And then you realize that if you watch whoever's watching you, then you'll also be unveiled to everybody you're stalking, which puts a real damper on the initial voyeuristic enterprise.

Some social networking sites, such as Friendster, allow users to view who has visited their profiles; MySpace does not. Which simply means that MySpacers are more desperate than ever to unearth a reverse-stalking technique and then hide it from everyone they know.

In February, James hit gold. He came across a website,, which gave users the ability to watch the watchers. Unlike the dozens of hoaxes circulating throughout MySpace, this one actually worked. "It showed who visited my page and the exact time they visited. One girl, an old friend, checked it almost every hour." James was omniscient for nearly two weeks until MySpace blocked Whospyme, returning him to darkness.

Tom Anderson, president of MySpace and its most beloved member -- he regularly receives marriage proposals among the thousands of comments on his profile -- explains: "We can't allow somebody to create a service like that, which reveals who's looking at your page. That's a violation of privacy." If MySpace were to unveil such a feature, Anderson says, each user would get to make an individual decision about whether to be traceable. Yet another decision fraught with online and offline complications.

There are plenty of other decisions to make in the meantime:

Number of friends: Too many, you're deemed a "MySpace whore," too few, a loser. (Caveat: If you're in a band, or you're a middle-school kid who lied about your age to get on MySpace and are competing with friends to see who's most popular, "too many" is a good thing.)

Profile picture: Posing in your skivvies opens you to scorn, but, depending on your friends, it may also increase the probability that you'll score some Top 8 spots. "I can't stand it when people put pictures up, trying to look all sexy," says Lori Carter, 25, a Salt Lake City office manager. More specifically, Carter can't stand it when her husband accepts such people as his friends.

Grammar: "I am not a grammar Nazi," says Michael Block, 23, an L.A. search engine marketer who uses MySpace and "But I do feel terrible for words like 'probably' and 'someone' that are constantly bastardized into 'prolly' and sumone.' " Etiquette here is often divided by age, with teens writing in slang that evokes fury in their twentysomething elders. Block has been unable to decipher this message, for instance, which he received from a 15-year-old stranger from Florida: "y u want people 2 look at u 4. u thinken that u looken sweet 4 da females."

Bulletins: These are messages that users post to virtual bulletin boards. Perhaps the most common social networking pet peeve are posted versions of the chain letters of yore, the "if you don't send this on you'll never fall in love again and then you'll die a horrible death" variety.

If you've steered clear of social networking so far, enjoy that simple existence while you're able. Sooner or later friends will ask -- then demand -- that you migrate toward multidimensionality. There are more than 76 million people on MySpace (about 270,000 join daily), and Anderson wants to expand the MySpace experience until the entire Net rests within it. "Anything you do on the Internet, I want you to be able to do on MySpace," he says. "That's the goal and ambition. Almost all the things you can do online can be enhanced by the social structure of MySpace."

Which suggests that the Top 8 will become only more central to the human experience, more dizzyingly complex.

"It's the Seinfeldian Speed Dial Dilemma of our generation," says Sarah Ciston, 22, a page designer at the Long Beach Press-Telegram. "I love it. But I think you should also get a Bottom 8, or a Bottom 20. A hall of shame of sorts."

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Digital memories overwrite real thing


Tuesday May 09, 2006

Digital memories overwrite real thing
* Camera phones let anyone capture the moment -- but they risk missing the experience.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

None of the 250,000 or so protesters who crowded around Los Angeles City Hall on May 1 have license to forget that day. Nor to remember it incorrectly. The Nation of Islam SUV rolled by just after the mariachi band, not the other way around. Don't believe me? Review the tapes, archived on more than a dozen public photo and video sharing websites like and Opinion is irrelevant. We've got the facts.

It's tough to find a cellphone these days that doesn't double as a camera, and at the demonstration, cellphones joined countless digital cameras, video cameras and even conventional film cameras to document history in progress.

Truth is, practically anything beautiful or terrible or just slightly unusual calls for the interposition of a lens these days -- stop along PCH to watch the sun set over the Pacific and you're bound to encounter passersby holding up their phones, watching the digital version. At the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, hundreds of people packed into UCLA's Royce Hall to see Arianna Huffington interview Gore Vidal, and I watched a man watch the entire hourlong conversation on his 1-inch-square cellphone screen, snapping pictures along the way.

Photographing the moment is only the beginning. Next stop is dissemination, in which that experience, that memory, is transferred, at the push of a button to other cellphones, to computers, to any of the several dozen media sharing websites, joining more than 122 million photos on Flickr alone and millions of videos on And then it spreads further still, filtering through some of the 57 million pages and onward through and, and the rest of the social networking universe.

A memory for one is a memory for all; the fallibility of memory is no more. Arriving home, sweaty and satisfied after an exhilarating immigration protest -- or cool and quiet after watching an auburn sunset across the sea -- talking about your day becomes a different exercise than it once was. Remembrances are no longer ambiguous collages of past and present experiences but rather the well-defined digital records sitting in front of us. We don't close our eyes to invoke memory; we open them wide to decipher the proof, the truth. It's clarity of one sort, though maybe blindness of another.

A stranger across the globe who knows me only as my Internet moniker can stare through my camera-eyes and interpret my experience, perhaps more accurately than I can. Perhaps she notices a smaller mariachi band just before the Nation of Islam SUV, at the border of the frame. Perhaps that sunset was more red than auburn. Perhaps Gore Vidal was rising to stand, at the moment of applause, when I remember him lowering himself toward his wheelchair.

Whatever I remember, the image overwrites it. Computers may catch viruses, may be prone to crashing, but they don't have creative imaginations that color their memories.

We perceive images and videos as "ground truth," says Elizabeth Loftus, distinguished professor of psychology at UC Irvine and an expert on memory. Studies have shown that when people are presented with doctored family photographs, they often adjust their memories, even invent false memories, rather than questioning visual evidence.

Didn't Aunt Betty die in '93? Well, I guess not -- here she is at the reunion in '95. I remember now! She played piano with Cousin Lou!

Technology marches giddily forward, and it's a safe bet that cameras and other recording gadgets will proliferate further, that distribution channels will become more immediate and accessible, and that in sum, collective memory will interact with individual memory in ways we cannot yet comprehend. In one sense, this web of interconnection is the awe-inspiring stuff of Buddhist "inter-being"; it conjures a thousand mystics saying in their various tongues, "we are all one." It threatens to disappear the fractious boundaries of place, time, race, sex, self even.

But it also can be seen as rendering the moment something other than the moment, transporting us into the past and the future -- anywhere but the present -- and transferring our experience to everybody except the self.

It's difficult to imagine Robert Frost, say, stopping in the woods on a snowy evening, giving his harness bells a shake with one hand while holding a camera phone with the other, and still taking in enough of the experience to conjure it later in verse. Another poet could write from Frost's photo record, although whose woods those were he might not know.

Enlightenment or alienation. Or something in between.

"The whole idea of personal experience, if it were simply left to the person alone, would be pretty meaningless and superficial," says Ken Gergen, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and author of "The Saturated Self." "It's only because we're engaged in relationships that it becomes something. We never do see things through our own eyes; we always see them through the eyes of others. In some sense, it was always the others' sunset, the others' City Hall confrontation."

Yes, humans long to share, and we begin to conceptualize memory before the moment ends. We fantasize about future conversations, rehearsing them in the car and the shower until they finally come to pass. Yet the culture of immediate connectivity is something else -- not good, not bad, but with possibilities for both.

"We're a culture in transition," Gergen says. "We thrive on the notion of authenticity, individuality, interiority. At the same time, there's something isolating about that as well. The techno-civilization is moving us into connectivity very rapidly. There is something to be glad about, which has to do with breaking down these isolations, bringing us together. My sense is there's reason to be optimistic. But only if we start thinking, considering, debating about it."

The danger, I guess, is that we'll watch everything change through our viewfinders and then get so carried away with sharing that we forget to reflect.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

If Big Brother had a blog, he would be its webmaster


Tuesday April 18, 2006

If Big Brother had a blog, he would be its webmaster

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Lightning struck near the tiny valley town of Livingston, Mont., the other day, frying a radio tower and, for a few long hours, plunging some of its 7,000 residents into an Internet-less world. "I wasn't above having thoughts of God's wrath," says Walter Kirn, one of those residents, a novelist and critic who lives by himself on 500 acres of hay and roving herds of antelope. The laptop sitting on his kitchen table rendered useless, Kirn tried typing into his cellphone, then drove through town, trolling for anybody with an unbroken connection. A segment of his newest novel was set to be published in a matter of hours, and it wasn't even written.

Kirn, given his pastoral surroundings, might seem an unlikely candidate to be writing an "online novel." But the author of "Thumbsucker" and "Mission to America" is hardly a transcendentalist loner, either -- he's well-connected in New York publishing circles and isn't averse to attention, having written, for instance, an article for GQ about his experimentation with Ritalin. When the editor of the online magazine Slate approached Kirn last December and asked if he'd be willing to write a novel, posting chapters to Slate as he went, Kirn says he warily agreed.

"I was both enthusiastic and doubtful," he says. "The old school part of me was brainwashed into thinking that writing on the Internet was a form of slumming or self-cheapening, kind of like publishing your own book at Kinko's." On the other hand, the editor assigned to the project was Meghan O'Rourke, formerly a fiction editor at the New Yorker and hardly an illiterate Web nerd.

The result is "The Unbinding," a serialized Web novel and a rumination on technology today, its first segment posted at in March with postings continuing twice weekly through June. Kirn depicts technology as a looming Orwellian force, spying on the citizenry, turning our insides outward; yet Big Brother is not an ominous other but we, the people: We've internalized the totalitarian apparatus, and thus technology becomes at once our attempt at salvation, connection, love, meaning, and the vehicle of our own oppression. The loss of privacy makes for comedy, at first, and then for a sense of foreboding as trampled boundaries refuse to reappear.

In short: Everybody's spying on everybody (including themselves). At the center of it all is Kent, who works for the omnipresent corporation AidSat, which monitors millions of sensor-transmitters worn by its subscribers. Lost? Having chest pains? Can't remember your brother-in-law's boss' birthday? Press a button on your AidSat enabled bracelet or earring and you'll reach an operator like Kent who tracks you with satellites, monitors your vital signs and provides whatever help or information you so desire. Sometimes, operators track you unbidden.

Meet Sabrina, Kent's comely, single neighbor -- and an AidSat subscriber. Kent's interested, Kent has access and Kent can't resist doing a little background research. But Sabrina notices being noticed and calls upon her own connections with their own computers. We watch Sabrina watch Kent watch Sabrina; we, the readers, are implicated in the watching. The story unfolds through "found documents," such as Kent's blog-like online diary. "I decided this month to write it all down," Kent explains. "Everything, my morning and my nights, and to file it for perpetual safekeeping in the great electronic library of lives. I'm an interesting person, I've come to see. We all are. We don't deserve to disappear."

Kirn watches, also, through the Internet, sitting up nights at the kitchen table at his farm, wearing boxers, an owl hooting in the blackness beyond. He watches the world, watches us. He follows the political furor surrounding the National Security Agency wiretapping controversy, the parental furor arising from teens baring their souls (and other things) on social networking sites and video repositories such as News of our world filters into the world of "The Unbinding," which filters back into our world -- say, this article -- which filters back into "The Unbinding." The first mainstream media review of this novel-in-progress, in the Boston Globe, appeared as a link in a following chapter. An AidSat operator tracked it down; apparently, their computer systems index multiple worlds.

Want to appear in a Walter Kirn novel? Now's your chance. Quick, do something crazy, and do it publicly. The clock's ticking; "The Unbinding" won't be evolving forever, it's set to be published as a book -- to be bound -- after its run at Slate. Kirn is considering selling the print rights on EBay.

"One of the essential lessons this book has already taught me," Kirn says, "is that the greatest threat to our privacy may not be the intrusions of Big Brother, but our own instinct for self-exploitation. People put out more stuff about themselves on than the government could ever hope to collect about them. The fear that we're being watched, these days, is evoking a kind of exhibitionism that may be as dangerous as being spied on."

Kirn's isn't the first online novel; the Internet boomed with hundreds of amateur "hypertext novels" almost as early as the birth of the medium, filled with links giving way to links, a postmodern pastiche of traces, although most of these read more like code than literature. Stephen King began publishing his online novel, "The Plant," in 2000, about a supernatural vine that infiltrated a paperback publishing house, offering up limitless wealth in exchange for human flesh.

"What made 'The Plant' such a hilarious Internet natural," King wrote in 2001, "was that publishers and media people seemed to see exactly this sort of monster whenever they contemplate the Net in general and e-lit in particular: a troublesome strangler fig that just might have a bit o' the old profit in it. If, that is, it's handled with gloves." King netted $600,000 from readers who paid on the honor system, then ceased publication after six chapters.

Dave Eggers serialized a political novel for the online magazine Salon in 2004. "I wrote that really as a chance to react quicker, in some oblique way, to what was actually going on in the political world," Eggers says. "There were references to things going on in the real Illinois senate campaign, the one Barak Obama won, and references to the Bush family. But most of the time, reality outpaced my ability to create fiction from it. I wish there was a bigger audience for this kind of thing, I think it could be very exciting."

The audience for "The Unbinding" hovers between 3,000 and 9,000, depending on the day, says O'Rourke, the editor. "Even if we had 700 readers," she says, "I was going to be very happy." O'Rourke is pursuing other writers -- well-known writers, although she declines to say names -- to publish their novels online in Slate. "If you're going to write a novel, the deal we're offering is very good," she says. "It's not an insignificant amount of money for just working on the novel. It's a model that writers have had for a long time, since going back to Dickens, being paid to serialize a novel." O'Rourke says that online readers are also likely to buy the physical book.

Of course what separates "The Unbinding" from previous serializations is its intertwining of form and content, its evolving investigation into the membrane between writer and reader, these umbilical cords, these flickering screens. Kirn has little idea where the story will take us, whether Kent and the others will embrace technology until all walls crumble and they find nirvana in the freedom of self-revelation -- or whether they'll turn away, if they're able, seek solace in ye olde flesh-to-flesh.

He receives guidance, constantly, from the nethers of the Net. "It's creating a little bit of a paranoid atmosphere," he says. "Just as my characters in the book are making friends with people who are actually spying on them, just as my characters are spying on people they're pretending to befriend, I get e-mails from readers, and you have no idea who's writing and why. I have lots of uncertain karma," Kirn says, and chuckles -- he's known for publishing harsh literary criticism. "At first, getting e-mail delights you: 'Oh, they're reading, someone's thinking about it!' But every once in a while I look at an e-mail and say, 'Well, here's someone determined to push me off track.' "

So, lightning struck, the Internet died and Kirn went searching for access. He found it, at a coffee shop downtown, plugged in, began to write; as he did, the watchers showed their human faces. "Literally, while I was writing, the town eccentrics were looking over my shoulder, asking about what I was writing, listening to my explanations, offering their two cents," Kirn says. "It had gotten around town pretty quickly that what Walter was doing inside his house could be viewed easily on a computer. I thought, 'This is more interactivity than I can stand!' But it was interesting too."



Eyeing and spying love

A sample from "The Unbinding," an online novel by Walter Kirn published in installments at

Big news from Sabrina: I have another stalker. His name is Kent Selkirk, he lives across the courtyard, he drives an older black Ford mini-pickup with bumper stickers proclaiming that he's a Democrat, a paintballer, and an organ donor, and on Wednesday I got a weird anonymous note quoting a diary the guy's been writing about some tricky scheme of his to go through my file at AidSat, where he works (you know: "AidSat -- Always at your Side"), and use the info inside it to seduce me.

The funny thing, and the thing that makes me think the letter-writer must know both of us, is that I've been eyeing this Kent since he moved in here. He seems like my type: a fouled-up jock with brains who goes around wearing flip flops and pocket T-shirts and a ridiculous pair of thick dark shades that wrap around his head like plastic bat wings and emphasize the squareness of his huge skull. He reminds me of one of my crushes at U Mass, that guy who supposedly date-raped all the swimmers but wriggled off because of his top tennis ranking, except that he's less obviously psychotic in terms of his walk and posture and general aura. If he passes a dog, he pets it just like I would, and I've seen him hold doors for old ladies in his unit and carry a pregnant Hispanic woman's grocery bags. He also happens to be about half-gorgeous, with one of those partly caved-in boxers' noses sprinkled across the bridge with sandy freckles.

Which all adds up to a favor, little sister. Is there somebody clever in your tech department, some nerd you can maybe bat your lovely lashes at, who can use this guy's name to find out what he's been up to before he spotted yours truly and fell in love? It's pure high school, I realize, and totally unfair. But it might be good for [grins]. Maybe that isn't how computers work, though. I wouldn't know. I'm just a facialist.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

A judge of characters


Wednesday April 05, 2006

A judge of characters
* `Who Wants to Be a Superhero' lures those seeking to impress comic book legend Stan Lee and emerge as the next great crime fighter.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

It's a dark and stormy Tuesday morning in Hollywood, just the kind that draws villains -- purse snatchers, hobgoblins -- from their shadowy lairs to terrorize the gentle citizenry of this vast metropolis. Rain splatters the cavernous soundstages at Sunset Gower Studios and streams off the rooftops, turning sidewalks into rivers.

On the street, a green van sputters and turns but won't start. And slowly, quietly, masked and caped men and women arrive. And though they're armed -- the usual stuff: guns, knives, musical instruments, bananas -- it's easy to see from their smiling and handshaking that these are friendly heroes. Angelenos are safe -- for now.

Anonymous crime fighting is so passe. It's high time, these superheroes say, that they got theirs. Fame, that is. Money. Sex appeal. So when comic book god Stan Lee announced last June that he would hold tryouts for his new reality show, "Who Wants to Be a Superhero," set to air in July on the Sci-Fi Channel, word spread almost instantaneously through Internet message boards, comic book conventions and clubs. All told, about 300 superheroes would brave the rain and muck to demonstrate their powers to Lee.

Big Pappa arrives nearly two hours before auditions are set to begin and stands outside, unbothered by the rain. He looks a little like a pimp, with a giant gold "BP" on a chain around his neck, a garish "$$$" ring and a black cape. "My walking stick moves so fast that it can stop bullets," Pappa explains in a gentle voice. "It can also smash steel, and it emits a laser beam from the bottom. My pocket watch freezes everyone in time, but I can only use it once a day. Most important, I have the power to enchant the ladies." By day, Pappa is Bob Carey, 37, and he teaches test prep courses at Kaplan.

"Two years ago, my wife started calling me Big Pappa," he says. "And I started calling her Baby. I constructed all this to irritate her."

Only 11 contestants will be chosen next week to inhabit a secret lair and compete on various missions and shenanigans, with Lee as judge. But the final prize is enough to make any superhero quiver in her tights: an original comic book about the winner, by none other than Lee himself, and a movie version for the Sci-Fi Channel.

"I'll probably be the next Donald Trump," Lee says. "Instead of saying, 'You're fired,' I'll have to come up with another line. Maybe, 'Take off your costume!' I'll be the ultimate judge. It's a great responsibility, and I take it very seriously. It's a great weight on my shoulders and I just hope that I will be up to this test. Because the eyes of the world will be upon us."

Eventually, the team of producers with clipboards takes pity on the masked masses -- rain is not good for costume makeup -- and invite them into a bare soundstage where lights flicker appropriately. When a superhero whose power is craziness screams gibberish and claims that his straitjacket can fly, a shirtless man in a corner changing into spandex tenses and says, "I think somebody let in a villain!" But that's not the case, and all remains good and right.

Dominic Pace, a.k.a. the Server, draws his power from professional ire. In his secret identity, he's a 30-year-old waiter at the Geisha House, see, but by night, "I extort money from the cheap tippers and bad customers," he explains. He carries a bulletproof silver serving tray, which doubles as a shield and a projectile, and he uses a pepper mill -- which he wears at his hip in a holster -- to "spray pepper like shotgun pellets." He carries a calculator in an arm holster so that "when I catch the bad guys, I can tally up how much they owe."

Nearby, Ice Bitch struts her stuff. She's in a skimpy outfit of see-through fishnet stockings, boots, a black bustier and platinum wig. "I've been Ice Bitch for at least 20 years," says the 42-year-old freelance art director. "It's all about the eyes, they freeze the bad guys. I am a defender of the environment. I go after litterers, poachers. I teach those who are teachable, and punish those who are not teachable."

Most of these heroes are giddy about the chance to meet Lee, who arrives at 11:30 a.m. to shake each and every hand. Conventional powers such as flight and invisibility are OK, says Lee, but "we're not going to ask anybody to fly or leap tall buildings with a single bound. We can't test that. But what we can test is this: Every superhero has certain qualities and characteristics on the inside, characteristics like courage, character, honesty, integrity, self-sacrifice, compassion, resourcefulness. We can test that stuff."

However, few superheroes seem interested in showing off their sensitivity and intelligence. One man dressed conventionally in a brown suit and spats uses a motorized pump to blow up a giant balloon and tries to climb into it without the air escaping -- to a resounding "pop!" "Sometimes that happens," Buster Balloon explains afterward. "But the world needs a vaudeville crime fighter."

POW! BAM! A woman in white and a man in black begin a vigorous hula-hoop duel in the middle of the room. An accordion player in whiteface wearing a fedora belts out a ballad at the top of his lungs: "Stan Lee, Stan Lee, he'll make a superhero out of me...." Monkey Woman polishes one of nearly a dozen bananas strapped to her garter belt and fur underwear.

And Man-Fey, probably the oddest of the admittedly odd bunch, turns and dances until the flesh of his behind, barely covered by spandex, shivers. Superheroes gather around to stare and offer queasy congratulations.

"I stand for the freedom to party down when you want to without the man telling you not to," says Damen Evans, a 24-year-old art student from Laguna Beach. "This costume started out as a bad joke," he says. "But now I've been doing this for five years."

Sunday, April 2, 2006

The last mystery of Vidal


Sunday April 02, 2006

Style & Culture
The last mystery of Vidal
* A writer steeped in history and remembrance makes his stand in a city of reinvention.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

YOU hear Gore Vidal long before you see him, the steady tap-swish-tap of foot and cane on an upstairs landing in his sunny Spanish Colonial house in the Hollywood Hills; then there's the slow whir of a mechanical chairlift carrying the novelist-essayist-playwright-screenwriter downward. Vidal is 80, with an artificial knee, and in 2003 he left his Mediterranean aerie in southern Italy overlooking the Amalfi Coast -- not far from where the sirens sang, and Odysseus sailed on -- and returned to his sometime home in Los Angeles to live out the rest of his life.

The 1-kilometer trek from the house in Ravello to the piazza became difficult, Vidal explains once he's settled into a floral print armchair in a drawing room that brims with books yet to be shelved, paintings wrapped in brown paper leaning against naked walls. "I could walk it," he says, "but it takes me half a day. Also, I have diabetes. Also, the Cedars-Sinai years are here."

Vidal pauses and gazes out across the high-ceilinged room to where a tall window reveals sunlit greenery atop an adobe wall. It's a comfortable silence; Vidal is in no hurry to recollect, but he's in no hurry to finish recollecting either. He has been drawing deeply upon his memory in the last few years as he puts the finishing touches on his second memoir, "Point to Point Navigation," due out in November from Doubleday, the sequel to 1995's "Palimpsest."

"I always knew that we were going to need a house for the Cedars-Sinai years," he says. "Which is indeed what happened. But we always rented it out, until the last few years, when Howard got sick. And here I am." Vidal rarely mentions Howard Auster, his companion for half a century, when in the company of the press. It was Auster's cancer, as well as Vidal's bad knee, that spurred the move from Ravello. And then Auster died less than a year after they arrived.

These explanations make sense; but there remains something odd about Vidal's choosing Los Angeles as his final home, his patrician demeanor and deep sense of history clashing with the never-ending reinvention that pop culture requires of this city. Why did he and Auster not return to Rome, say, where for two decades they lived in a grand penthouse atop a palace in the Historic Center, and where the hospitals are just as good as they are here? Vidal adored Rome, he has said and written, but he does not by any means love Los Angeles. A writer lives in his head, he says, and so place is mostly immaterial. But then a writer is also human and hardly oblivious to his context.

In a 1985 essay for Architectural Digest magazine, Vidal contrasted his home in the "unfashionable Hollywood Hills," near Runyon Canyon, with his idyllic Roman penthouse: "In Los Angeles we live in our cars," he wrote, "or en route to houses where a pool is a pool is a pool and there are only three caterers and you shall have no other. A car trip to Chalet Gourmet on the Sunset Strip is a chore not an adventure. But a trip down our street [in Rome] is a trip indeed."

So why not Rome? Or London, where he buys most of his books from Heywood Hill?

"Come to my funeral and ask," Vidal answers, and pauses for a long time. The only sound is the rattling of ice as Vidal sways his tumbler of whiskey. "One hospital could kill you just as easy as another."


Old wounds

VIDAL grips his brown wooden cane, lets it go. His maternal grandfather, the blind senator T.P. Gore, holds a similar cane in a black-and-white studio portrait, published in "Palimpsest." A 10-year-old Vidal stands alongside, his arm over the senator's shoulder, his eyes gentle, his posture reverent, protective. Vidal has called the Washington, D.C., estate that his grandfather built at Rock Creek Park, where he spent the happiest moments of his childhood, his "true home." When at Rock Creek, Vidal's gentle eyes stood in for his blind grandfather's useless ones. Reticent no more, Vidal enthuses -- but slowly, with aristocratic poise -- about reading the Congressional Record aloud to the grandfather he idolized. These are good memories, and warm.

Why not settle in Washington, then? The Malaysian ambassador has moved into the old Rock Creek house, sure, but there are other estates nearby.

"God, no," Vidal says. "Unless you hold office, there's no point in being there." That was the plan, in the beginning. To live in Washington and hold office. Vidal knew this as he wrapped his arm around his grandfather and his grandfather leaned proudly upon his cane and the flashbulbs popped. But now Vidal is a year older than his grandfather ever was, and he's a long way from the capital.

A clue to this mystery of place sits on the brown rattan table, here in the Hollywood Hills. A pile of books, titles like "Extreme Islam," "Did George W. Bush Steal America's 2004 Election?," "Worst Pills, Best Pills." Among them, Vidal's own novel, "The City and the Pillar," the first serious literary work by an American author to deal openly with homosexual themes. It was a death knell for a politician at the time (although Vidal ran for Senate in 1982, coming in second to Jerry Brown in the California primary) and it forced a change of course. Vidal knew the consequences, he says now; it was a calculated decision, the right decision. "It's probably the only worthwhile thing I ever did in public life," he says. "Assuming that publishing is public life. Which is a great leap."

Vidal was just 23 when he published "The City and the Pillar," but it was his third novel and he was already a literary star. He dedicated the book "For the memory of J.T.," initials that remained mysterious for years. Today, Vidal speaks openly of Jimmie Trimble, a fellow pupil at St. Albans School in D.C., and Vidal's first love. "He was an athlete," Vidal says. "Now we think of athletes as just dumb-dumb boys, they're all muscle and no brain. But our athletes, at least of the class we came from, the political class, from Kentucky -- he was from Kentucky -- they were not only body boys, they were brain boys."

Trimble and Vidal were inseparable for a while, sexually and otherwise, and then fate intervened in the guise of Vidal's shrill and beautiful mother, Nina, who, concerned about her son's mediocre grades, transferred Vidal from St. Albans into yet another boarding school, Exeter, near Boston. Vidal saw Trimble one last time, at a dance in 1942, and they fled the hall together briefly, doing what teenagers in love are apt to do, leaving behind Vidal's fiancee, a young woman named Rosalind. Of course, Vidal never married Rosalind. And Trimble joined the Marines at the height of World War II and was killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Vidal has written that he never again felt unity with another sexual partner -- at least, he hasn't yet. "It's not something you look for," he says sharply. "Things happen or they don't." He's been sliding down into the comfort of his armchair during conversation, and now a bit of his midriff peeks between his white button-down and his slacks. He's dallied with plenty of men, and some women, over the years -- more than plenty -- but none, except that first, was of lasting import. His relationship with Auster was platonic; which is exactly why it endured, says Vidal.

"In any country on Earth but the United States, people would understand this," he says. "For grown people, [sex] is something apart from living with somebody; it's just a disturbance." But people in the States "want total fidelity from the other person, and as much sex as they can get on the side. Preferably in a massage parlor. We are not," he says, turning for emphasis, "regarded as brilliant by other people."

It wasn't a marriage with Auster, nor a partnership. Vidal doesn't like to name what they were, just as he hates being pigeonholed as homosexual. No, they were Gore Vidal and Howard Auster, two men who decided to spend their lives together. "He's a private person," Vidal demurs. "There's not much to tell."

He must feel Auster's absence? "It was only 55 years," he says. "I don't know. It's.... Everyone handles it in their own way." He stares into a distance beyond the room. "I'm at the age where I'm asked to dinner parties with numerous widows and widowers, and they're all kind of cheery in a macabre kind of way. One illustrious lady said to me, don't you hate it when people tell you that time will heal all wounds? Of course I hate it. Time just reminds you of what is lost and not coming back again."


The old Hollywood

VIDAL shares the house with his Filipino cook, Norberto Nierras, while his 23-year-old assistant, Daren, lives in an apartment above the garage. He goes out very occasionally -- he enjoys, for instance, the acoustics and architecture of Walt Disney Concert Hall -- but mostly he stays at home. Work remains the constant throughout his days, as it always has been. He reads and writes in an upstairs study, where three windows look out onto swaying palm fronds; beyond, fancy cars speed too quickly around the curves. He prefers a typewriter or pen and paper to the computer, which he calls "that machine," but he respects the Internet and has published several political essays on his friend Robert Scheer's website, He rarely writes letters, because "practically everyone I know is dead." What friends remain do come calling fairly often. He abhors the telephone.

Today, when his tumbler runs dry, Vidal glances down at leftover ice. "Where's my Filipino gentleman?" he asks, fiddling with an intercom on the table in front of him. Daren has left on an errand, so for the moment Norberto is doling out the whiskey. The intercom doesn't seem to be working; "Norberto!" Vidal bellows, and back comes an indiscernible guttural shout. "It's an ancient Philippine folk song," Vidal says, half-smiling, and then Norberto arrives, middle-aged and in street clothes, and hands over a fresh tumbler, filled to the brim. Vidal has been drinking like this for years, but there's no noticeable effect on his formidable oratory and wit.

Norberto seems relaxed with Vidal, comfortable. After Auster died, he took the liberty of installing a chair in front of the door leading from Auster's room into Vidal's study; atop the chair he placed a large wooden puppet. "It's something superstitious," says Vidal, smiling. "He's a Filipino, and they have all sorts of meanings. I intend to get rid of it. Maybe it's to ward off the evil eye."

So. About Los Angeles?

"Rosebud," he says, echoing Charles Foster Kane's dying whisper in "Citizen Kane," and the idea that a single object or place can unlock the mystery of a life. He's joking, of course, hinting at the ridiculousness of this vein of inquiry. Vidal is in this city but not of it, he accepts but does not embrace it. "Rosebud" adds another wrinkle, however -- it is born of the movies, which are born of Los Angeles. And Vidal's language, if you listen closely, is run through with references to the product and process of film.

About the way memory works, he says: "When you were 10 years old, which in my case would be 60 or 70 years ago, you broke your leg. Trauma. Duly recorded, somewhere, on the tapes in your head. But if you recall it, the moment when your leg broke at the age of 10, you're not summoning up that movie, it's not as though you can just get the experience going in your head again. What you do, which is much more interesting and strange: You remember the last time you remembered it."

And it begins to make sense, now, to ask Vidal to remember remembering his first days as an adult in Los Angeles, the days when, he says, "the magic of the movies got through to me." Perhaps here lies the anatomy of his choice of home: It was 1945, and Vidal, the 19-year-old first mate of an Army freight-supply ship, was trying to jump from the ship to the dock at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. He could not; his knees simply wouldn't spring. He had been drenched with icy water from the Bering Sea more than once, and osteoarthrosis was the result. Many years later it would require an operation, an artificial knee, but at the time it delivered him to a hospital in Anchorage and left him pondering "home."

The Army sent soldiers to convalesce close to their hometowns; for most of them, that was an easily locatable destination. Not so for Vidal. His mother, Nina, was living at the Beverly Hills Hotel after two divorces and the death of her third husband. "I much preferred my father to my mother," Vidal says, "but I much preferred Hollywood, or the notion of it, to either of them. So, 'L.A. is where I come from,' I said." He was delivered to Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys. "It was pretty wonderful. Charles Laughton used to come over and read poetry and act plays. But only for the guys who were interested; he didn't want the ones who were just in it for autographs."

Nina's friend Jules Stein, head of MCA, gave Vidal a pass to all of the studios, and he would hitchhike in and watch the movies being made. The first set he breached was that of "Marriage Is a Private Affair," written in part by his dear-friend-to-be Tennessee Williams. Vidal remembers Bette Davis, on the set of "The Corn Is Green," standing in front of a manor house "in a riot of Harris tweed" and struggling to mount a horse. "You don't need an actress," Davis was saying. "You need an acrobat!" Vidal, now in his armchair, chuckles.

New York stole Vidal for a few years, which is where he met Auster, who had given up a career as a singer and was pursuing work in advertising. "He was having trouble getting a job in a New York advertising agency, despite an NYU degree," Vidal remembers. "The agencies, in general, did not hire Jews. So I said change the 'r' to an 'n.' He did, and was promptly hired by an agency that had turned him down the previous year." (Auster was thus known as Austen, in some circles.)

Then Hollywood wooed Vidal back; he signed a screenwriting contract at MGM and he and Auster lived with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in Shirley MacLaine's old house in Malibu. He worked on "Ben-Hur," among other movies, but was ultimately dissatisfied with the studio system. It was too rigid; fluid collaboration seemed impossible. Europe beckoned; he answered. Rome. Ravello.

"I was fascinated by the movies," he says. "We all were, my generation." Fascinated, in past tense. "The problem with movies is that they're not for encouraging argument, for the mind," Vidal says. "It's for emotions. And you can excite people to a point.... Well, a medium that has that trouble is in deep trouble. And I think one of the problems of today is that literature has no prestige, while movies have all the prestige. And movies cannot do argument, they cannot do the mind, they cannot do anything -- except get your pulses going a little faster."


Despair and dreams

MOVIES, in other words, cannot do change, or at least cannot do it effectively enough. It was change that Vidal was after through politics, as well; in one way or another, he's always been after changing society, under many auspices, wearing his many hats. He is credited as the first to label the United States an empire, back in the 1970s, and has long been an outspoken critic of what he sees as American stupidity, greed, reliance on archaic moral structures. It's as bad now as it ever was, Vidal says, with Bush and the neoconservative agenda running the White House. "Did you see that story in the New York paper?" he asks. "All the money that Halliburton owes the government, and they're being forgiven this vast debt, because it's Cheney. In a well-run country, that wouldn't happen, a country of law. But we're now lawless."

"I don't see any optimistic signs on the horizon," Vidal says. "It's just, how much money can we wring out of the public, before all the oil has dried up and before soybeans can be properly processed? So we're at a curious point; obviously there are intelligent people who do have solutions, but not one of them will ever get inside the White House, not one of them is going to get to Congress, and God help you if you take on the bench. So all doors are shut at the moment."

Even in liberal Hollywood, after a year in which gay sheepherders fell in love, a preoperative transsexual reunited with her son and CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow took a stand against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, all in front of audiences' eyes, even after this, Vidal sees little reason to rejoice. After all, "Brokeback Mountain" failed to win the Oscar for best picture, exactly as Vidal predicted. "Nobody believed me," he says, relishing his prescience. "I said there's not a chance in the world the older members of the academy, the carpenters, the grips, the this's, the thats, living over in Van Nuys, they're not going to vote for that."

It seems hopeless, really, and yet, at 80 years old, Vidal continues the fight. "I have no choice," he says. "I have no selfish interests. All of my selfish interests are public interests." Under the weight of the world, at the apex of his frustration, Vidal is wont to smile. There is satisfaction in the muck, somewhere. "I'll never forget the joy," he says, and trails off, and pauses, and sips. "The four greatest words on Earth are 'I told you so,' " he says. "I have seen to it that I'm able to say that at period intervals, like a cuckoo clock."

One of the few people Vidal speaks with regularly on the telephone is Barbara Epstein, his longtime friend and editor at the New York Review of Books. "Like many people in Los Angeles, he's in exile," she says of Vidal. "Los Angeles is a place of exile. In a way, I think the one fits in the other very nicely."

Perhaps home, for Vidal, is exactly that -- exile -- a home that is not a home, from which he spies, somewhere in the nowhere of the distance, a better world.

But Vidal is not sentimental. The closest he comes is in his dreams. On good nights, as he sleeps in a second-floor bedroom down the landing from his study, he dreams of his father. "I'm always happy to see him again," Vidal says. "He starts climbing up a hill, and I follow him up, and it gets more and more full of bushes and so on. And then he vanishes." The landscape is not Los Angeles and not Ravello. "It's placeless," he says. "It's just a hill. It's wild country. When you dream of your father after a certain age, you're having a death dream. Any more of these doctors, and it won't be a dream."