Archive | Articles RSS feed for this section

Phone Home

IMG_2356

As we drove from Blois to Nantes, Ivan told me that when he was a kid, everyone in the theater had a good laugh when E.T. pointed to space and said, “Telephone Maison!”

I guess the intended poignancy of that line was lost in translation. Or maybe the guy who did the E.T. voice-over in French thought it was a comedy. In any case, I definitely need to telephone maison. Part of it is physical exhaustion, but also, I have been a bit like E.T. here—in ways that have been good and bad.

After being here, I’m now fairly certain I couldn’t take up permanent residence in a country where English isn’t the primary language. Could I do it for a year? Yes. Several years? Maybe. Forever? No way. Language, its nuances, and the pleasure of speaking and listening are just too central to my experience of life.

That said, I have bonded with this place. In some ways it feels like discovering a lost relative or sibling. Actually, I think that’s a really useful metaphor for the relationship between France and America. We’re like siblings with brother and sister aspects. There’s love and tension, waxing and waning depending on our recent history.

At the moment, I think America is like the big brother who’s kinda been a dick lately, and our dickish behavior is lamented and resented by our smaller brother. Now that we’re on roids, we’ve forgotten all the times when we were little and they saved our asses on the playground. Since WWII, we’ve projected an emasculation onto the French. Too often we disregard our shared history because, hey, we’re bigger now, and big bro gets to tell little bro what to do.

Since I’m not a woman, I can’t fully speak to the sisterly aspect of our sibling relationship with France, but I suspect it’s through the feminine that we’ll eventually rebuild and heal the damage we’ve done being arrogant big bros. Hopefully in the future, we’ll be like sisters who are best friends, sharing the things that have real value (instead of male valuations) like good food, jazz, and joie de vivre.

In Paris, I remember standing in the train station, looking up, and seeing this massive painting. A train has arrived at the station, everyone is in the midst of intense emotional reunions, and at the center is a man whose arms are thrown open not for another person, but to his home.

I understood the painting intellectually at the time, but I’m feeling it now. Home. E.T. phone home. E.T. exhausted from symbiotic relationship with Elliott. E.T. need long bath, sleep. E.T. need other E.T.

Blah Blah Blois

lucius-cs

Spokesman for Blois

 

We’re in Blois, a provincial town two hours south of Paris in the Loire Valley. The area is famous primarily for two things.

First, for burning 40 Jewish residents. Their martyrdom inspired a style of poetry and an annual day of remembrance in Europe.

Second, for being the site of a giant castle built by the Medici family, infamous inventors of fractional reserve banking—the very thing that makes our economy one big house of cards, and the means by which banks create money for themselves out of thin air (a gas which must be made liquid by government bailouts now and again).

Today I signed and sold copies of Ultra Chômeur in Blois, and during the process was subjected to several hundred disdainful sneers and stone faces from passersby.

A high concentration of aristocrats often live sheltered and self-reinforcing lives in a provincial or suburban place. A place (apparently) like Blois. We have towns like this in the Bay Area, too. Orinda comes to mind.

One hallmark of aristocracy is a disdain for the poor—often the very people they (or their ancestors) dispossessed to become wealthy. Obviously, as Ultra Chômeur, I’m a symbol of “those people.” How dare I be one of them AND be so bold about it!?

Prior to Blois, we promoted Ultra Chômeur in two places in France. The first was Toulouse and nearby Colomiers, an area that is essentially a massive college town. We had nothing but good exchanges with folks there. The next stop was cosmopolitan Paris, and we had great interactions there, too.

I haven’t had a horrible interaction with anyone in Blois—actually, I’ve had several fantastic interactions with specific individuals, enough to make me doubt whether I should even write what seems like a condemnation of Blois.

That said, I felt it was important to reveal the whole truth of what I’ve seen here, because it gets at the heart of so many things in Les Aventures D’Ultra Chomeur. Remember, Ultra Chômeur starts out as the Ultimatum, an aristocratic “hero” who is at turns aloof and disdainful.

I reminded myself of the millions who struggle financially and face the same kind of emotionally degrading onslaught every day—from their in-laws, or the bank teller, or maybe even their own friends. I imagined myself embodying those millions. When people looked at me disdainfully, I didn’t look away. I met their disdain, but didn’t return it. Instead, I bore witness. There was a quiet power in that, and I think they felt it, too.

The day ended on a good note. I had a great conversation with an intellectual about the levels of satire in the book. He talked about the influence of Dadaism in Europe, so I showed him the page where Master of Degrees explains something really complicated, and the other heroes say they’ll “have to read those panels again later.” He was delighted by this and talked about Magritte, the artist famous for painting an object like a smoking pipe with the words “This is not a pipe” on the painting. Then he added, “The point is that art is created in our minds.”

As our conversation ended, we shook hands and shared a look that said, “We get each other” or as the French say, “D’accord.”

To Keep It Around Forever

My expatriate American friend Stephani and her children Seneca and Ukiah took the high-speed train from Stuttgart to Paris just to see me, which was humbling and amazing (like so many things have been on this trip).

It was not only great to see old friends, but I could tell both Stephani and I were happy to speak to another adult—a friend and an American no less—without thinking about it.

At some point, I lamented the news about French Toast (that the French have never even heard of it). Stephani told me that French Toast is a regional dish (meaning it’s only eaten in certain places) and it’s called Lost Toast because typically it’s made with leftover bread (and some people look disdainfully on the American practice of making it with perfectly good fresh bread). When I later mentioned Lost Toast to my hosts, they’d never heard of Lost Toast, either. Thus: I am making French toast for them tomorrow for breakfast!!! I will report back on their mind-blown faces.

I told Stephani that my first impression of Paris was that, in one way, it’s like the Mission (a neighborhood in San Francisco) because it looks a lot better at night when you can’t see all the filth. “Absolutely” she agreed.

Stephani and her family have been living in the pristine cleanliness of Germany for a few years now. They once lived in San Francisco (in the aforementioned Mission) then moved to Portland (a migratory pattern I’ve told artists here about) and from there to Stuttgart.

I told her I occasionally think about leaving America because of the lack of universal healthcare and free quality education. She told me Germany just made school free all the way through university. Her kids have three teachers in every classroom. Health care is universal and basically a non-issue. It’s hard to imagine. It’s hard to imagine that it’s hard to imagine. It’s sad that Americans don’t see themselves as one people.

We went to the Eiffel Tower. Standing under it is an awesome spectacle. The scale of the thing is lost in photographs (even from a modest distance, the structure visually flattens into two dimensions). We took one of the funiculars that travels up one of the four massive legs. Ukiah and I marveled at the fact that it’s hard to find a right angle anywhere in the construction. It’s such a potent and glorious example of the way things were made in another time.

IMG_2346

The tower reminded my of something Gan once said. I was in the town of San Luis Obispo and I saw something that reminded me of the work we were doing on the book: hand-chiseled wooden beams in the roof of the old mission. You could see each chisel mark. I sent him a picture. He replied, “It just goes to show that when you take the time to build something by hand, people want to keep it around forever.”

From the tower you can see all of Paris. The city retains its old beauty in part because there’s a height limit for buildings—within those limits are fabulous structures and a decadent density.

The previous evening I briefly met an American who told me that French companies have to provide a specific set of benefits once they have over 50 employees, and for this reason a lot of them stay at 49. “It prevents growth” he said. I thought that was a beautiful idea.

Seneca wanted to see the river Seine, so I gave her a boost. We pointed at boats, parks, and cathedrals. She said she wanted to go to the merry-go-round below. So we took the funicular down.

I enjoyed the company of my friends for a few more precious hours. We stopped by a chocolatier and ate chocolate covered cherries, and drank coffee and chocolat. Stephani speaks excellent French. I gave her a copy of Les Aventures D’Ultra Chomeur and dedicated it to her and her family. We said our goodbyes at the Gare de Paris-Est (a gorgeous old train station filled with these stunning bullet trains they have in the first world).

IMG_2356

From there, I went underground and took the Metro.

The Paris Metro is a beautiful disaster. A catacomb of confusing tunnels. Stench and ancient disrepair. Signage that seems to have been made with no regard for where it would be placed. But I will give it this: Using tires instead of the usual metal train wheels was a stoke of genius. It’s a much quieter ride than ear-piercing MUNI in San Francisco.

Also, on the Metro I caught a fleeting glimpse of probably the coolest thing I’ve seen in France: an entire underground station made to look like the inside of an old submarine, with copper-covered walls and little round windows. It was another occasion to admire the French dedication to making things beautiful.

Maybe I Have a Brother

In Toulouse it was cloudy, raining, and too cold to don the Ultra Chômeur costume, so I just put on the mask and opened my shirt to reveal the U on my chest. I teamed-up with Ivan and Marine from Presque Lune and we headed to the bookstore.

We met Jean-Pascal, one of the owners of Terres De Legendes. As we talked, I recognized in Jean-Pascal both the entrepreneurial spirit and the passion of someone devoted to his work. For those of you who don’t remember, George W. Bush once said that the trouble with France is they don’t have a word for entrepreneur (which is the French word for, um, that).

When we sell Ultra Chômeur to people here, one of the main selling points is: It’s a critique of the American financial system. When those words are spoken, people visibly warm to the book. In America, saying those words in a such a matter-of-fact way feels like criticizing Larry Ellison on Lanai.

Recently, comedian Louis C.K. was talking about global capitalism and said (I’m paraphrasing) it’s grown so predatory and grotesque, that the guy who started Wendy’s is a like a hero now. In an age when multinationals extract and destroy all in their path, we look back fondly on businesses that were merely stultifying and ubiquitous! And we look back most fondly on the proprietors of small businesses—people who live to serve the public, with no desire to go public.

Jean-Pascal asked me to dedicate several copies of the book to customers who weren’t there because he knew they’d want a copy. One of his customers, Halim Mahmoudi, arrived. He already had a copy of the book and loved it. Halim is the author of Un Monde Libre. Jean-Pascal handed me a copy and I opened it. In the background were beautiful resort hotels, and in the foreground were the gritty lives of people living there. I told Halim I understood because I grew up in a tourist town. He smiled and turned to Marine and said: Maybe I have a brother.

Since my American ear isn’t good at hearing the nuances of French, I hand people a notepad and ask them to write down the name of the person they want the book dedicated to. Below is a partial list of people the book has been dedicated to here in the Midi-Pyrenees.

Laure
Claire
Floreal
Céline, Jahco & Nino
Bruno
Quentin
Jean-Rene
Marine
Adrien
Sophie & Manu
Sylvain
Thomas
Rimka
Yan
Nicolas
Sébastien
Marjorie
Christophe
Alain
Etienne
Jean-Paul
Jean-Christophe
Phillipe & Maryline
Cedric
Regis
Nathan
Sylvie
Jean
Stephan & Gabin
Julien & Lucie
Alex
Christophe
Patrick
Valentin
Matthieu
Cecile
Vladimir
Antoine
Sarah
André
Jean-Marie
Damien, Zelda & Gaspar
Yoann
Fabrice
Christine
Jean-Pascal

And below these names, I inscribed the following.

NOUS SOMMES TOUS
DES HEROS, ET NOUS
POUVONS CHANGER
LE MONDE—ALORS
AU BOULOT!

Or…

WE ARE ALL
THE HEROES, AND WE
CAN CHANGE
THE WORLD—SO
GET TO WORK!

IMG_2311

IMG_2325

IMG_2324_2

Heroes and Villains

The Thumb from The Adventures of Unemployed Man

The Mistral Wind has awakened me at 4 AM here in Toulouse, France, on the eve of the Festival BD Colomiers. In a few short hours I’ll be wearing orange lycra as Ultra Chômeur!

In the world of Ultra Chômeur, everyone is a superhero or villain. So one question that comes up is: Are there REALLY heroes and villains in our economy? The book confronts this question in several scenes (most notably the scene between The Thumb and Spin Doctor in the Hall of Just Us) but allow me to address it here directly.

The short answer is yes, there are economic heroes and villains. But we can’t stop there, obviously. If we want to prevent future people from becoming villains, we need to understand how that happens.

Heroism and villainy exist on a spectrum of action. We make choices that put us somewhere on that spectrum every day. To be called a full-blown hero or villain, you need to consistently choose one direction or the other, ultimately crossing a threshold that puts you solidly on one side. Even then, opportunities to choose a different direction are ever-present.

Our economic system currently makes it all too easy to choose villainous actions and be rewarded. You might be experiencing that right now. Here’s an example of everyday villainy I encountered recently.

I was at a social club in New York, talking with the president of a university and a hedge fund manager. I brought up a subject relevant to both of them: the trend of universities divesting from oil companies. The hedge fund manager dismissed the whole idea of “green investing” by explaining that it was far better (in terms of the End Results) for one to keep investing unethically, and do ethical things outside of investing, like donating to charities (see Hurricane Sandy). The university president was mum, but in this month’s Yale alumni magazine I read an exquisite rationalization from Yale’s president for why the university wouldn’t divest from oil.

So what’s really going on here? How can the hedge fund manager be so glib about his villainy? (Remember, he’s not just looking that other way at his personal stock portfolio, he’s financing other villains.)

The rulebook of our economy, which is written by lawmakers who too often work for villains, allows people (and faceless organizations that have the legal rights of people) to divert wealth to themselves at everyone else’s expense, principally by making it possible to move all the costs of doing business (especially environmental costs) off their own balance sheets. Thus, a small class of people “enrich” themselves while we get left with the bill (see latest oil spill/war/ecological catastrophe for reference).

Earlier I mentioned thresholds. A man is more villainous if he’s consciously aware of the damage and pain his actions are causing, but chooses to continue his actions for his own selfish reasons. To some degree, this applies to all of us when it comes to environmental damage—but your choice to produce more CO2 by driving across town does not have the same consequence as, say, an oil company president choosing to finance the campaigns of lawmakers who regulate (or not) the oil industry. Thus, the impact of your choices is also a factor in where you fall on the hero/villain spectrum.

While a villain’s choices may have greater direct consequences than the average person’s, when taken together, our choices can be more powerful. Over the last few decades there’s been a lot of emphasis on the collective choices we all make as consumers (like choosing eco-friendly products). While this is very important, it’s time we move beyond the idea that we can save the planet by buying the right stuff. After all, we are not merely consumers, we are citizens who actively shape our society in many ways.

We must begin to recognize all the places where we (and others) are choosing villainous actions for temporary gain, and make a different choice, consistently. No matter how great the short-term rewards for villainy seem, we must make it possible to choose a different path for ourselves, and for the next generation. We must also rewrite the rules of our economy so that villainy can no longer offer so many false rewards.

In every epic story of heroes defeating villains (including Ultra Chômeur) the heroes must act TOGETHER in order to win. How will we know when we’ve won? When choosing to be a hero no longer means being part of a “rag tag rebel fleet” and is instead synonymous with true prosperity and sustainable abundance. When the Mistral Wind is a source of free energy (the Mistral Wind asked me to say that).

The Anti-Sinister Plan

Cape Town, USA

As I travel to France this week to promote Les Adventures D’Ultra Chômeur, I’m looking forward to being interviewed as Ultra Chômeur in the French media. So I’m thinking about the character’s message to the people of France, especially the sans emploi.

If you’re like me, you grew up with superhero stories where sinister plans threatened the entire Earth. Perhaps these stories were preparing us for our present reality?

Today we face a global environmental crisis that threatens humanity and the planet. If ever there was a crisis that required all hands on deck, this is it. And yet… millions upon millions of us are unemployed. How could this be?!

Believe it or not, the same sinister plans that produced the environmental crisis also produced the unemployment crisis. Just ask Wonder Mother: The same things that impoverish mothers impoverish Mother Earth.

Separately, both the environmental and unemployment crises serve as mind-blowing indictments of the global economic system—including its total failure to “assign value” to anything that’s actually valuable. But when taken together, we have a real Wonder Twin Powers Activate situation.

The process of transforming our economy (into one that actually works) is already happening, but we need everyone to do their part. Are you ready?

Phase One: Transition of Power

The first step is to take the economic tools and methods used by villains, and use their own devices against them. We won’t stop there, of course, but disempowering villains is an important first step.

Have you ever worked for a villain? If so, you have something in common with Ultra Chômeur, who was once an unwitting villain called The Ultimatum. At Painecorp, he worked with villains including Greed Goblin and The Broker. Our hero is painfully familiar with sinister plans.

To confront the environmental and unemployment crises simultaneously, Ultra Chômeur has devised an Anti-Sinister Plan. It shifts power away from villainy, a system that promotes and even requires villainous actions, and toward heroism – a system that nurtures and expects heroic action. The plan has three main parts.

The Anti-Sinister Plan

1. Green, Awesome Infrastructure and Agriculture (codename GAIA).

Remember the WPA? Think of this as a Green Works Progress Administration, building green energy and green agriculture projects that produce long-term prosperity (as opposed to pathological growth for its own sake). It would be global in scope, but local in administration and execution. Do you have a community garden in your town? Can your city feed itself? Power itself? Manage its natural resources? Get to work.

2. Publicly owned infrastructure banks (to fund GAIA and other projects like school construction).

This isn’t optional. Today, infrastructure projects are financed by the same private banks (DBA The Greed Goblin and The Broker) that threaten the planet and impoverish millions. We must stop these villains from enriching only themselves. Establishing publicly owned infrastructure banks is a key step in reempowering ourselves.

3. Keeping our sense of humor (and other superpowers).

This is precisely where Ultra Chômeur and his allies come in. We need humor to keep our wits about us – and to inoculate ourselves against sinister plans of the future. We need to use our considerable superpowers to transform ourselves into the superheroes our world needs.

Stay tuned for more about the Anti-Sinister Plan. A bientôt and bon courage!

I Am Grock

I’m sure most of you have heard the story of the man who, desperately ill, goes to an analyst and tells the doctor that he has lost his desire to live and that he is seriously considering suicide. The doctor listens to this tale of melancholia and then tells the patient that what he needs is a good belly laugh. He advises the unhappy man to go to the circus that night and spend the evening laughing at Grock, the world’s funniest clown. The doctor sums it up, ‘After you have seen Grock, I am sure you will be much happier.’ The patient rises to his feet, looks sadly at the doctor, turns and ambles to the door. As he starts to leave, the doctor says, ‘By the way what is your name?’ The man turns and regards the analyst with sorrowful eyes. ‘I am Grock.'”

—Groucho Marx

The Worst Thing in Life

worldsgreatestdad

About a month ago I started watching World’s Greatest Dad with Robin Williams, but I stopped in the middle because the story was so cringe-inducing. So tonight I watched the rest of the movie. Near the end, Robin has a great line.

I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

It’s true, isn’t it? You can be surrounded by people and feel horribly alone. Especially when those people become less human by developing a reflexive disdain for anything weird and a violent contempt for people who dare to be weird.

Sadly, “those people” can include ourselves in our weaker moments. I’m guilty. I’ve made people feel lesser-than and unaccepted so I could feel greater-than and more accepted. When I was younger I did it reflexively as an adaptation to our society.

This is one of the key reasons why I was so fond of Robin Williams: He consistently and gloriously embraced being weird and—this is key—he related to people in a way that acknowledged their fundamental human dignity. That combination was the antidote he carried around, inoculating people with the glint in his eye.

He recognized that our society had a bogus organization chart, and he elevated those who felt relegated to the bottom, and brought those who perceived themselves to be at the top back down to earth. And he did it all through weirdness, because celebrating weirdness and dignity was what made people feel human again. That was the beauty of it.

After his epiphany about people who make you feel alone, he runs down the hall, eyes alight, grinning and stripping his clothes off to “Under Pressure” and jumps into a swimming pool. Then he befriends his departed son’s one actual friend, and together they go to his strange and wonderful neighbor’s apartment, and they watch Night of The Living Dead, a movie about surviving zombies with aplomb.

We can all become zombies from time to time, but we can also return to our senses and save others. To do that, we need to put on some bells and ennoble ourselves for crying out loud. There are worse things in life.

Terribly Sad

World According to Garp, The - L 1605

No. Robin, no. Your great body of work will seem sadder now. That was my first thought.

My second thought was of handing you a “Ross Perot for President” coffee mug. “Ah” you said, “The first Ferengi to ever run for president.”

And I saw myself as a young man, lying on the floor listening to A Night at the Met—the final bits about your son, which ended so poignantly and perfectly. At the time I was estranged from my own father, and it made me laugh and cry over and over again.

Then I thought of you alone in that big house, sitting there in the stillness. Deciding. You’re not afraid are ya? Fuck it.

That’s what you said when you pranced around in ridiculous, hairy chest-bearing space suits, shepherding me through my childhood with fool’s wisdom—with the world around us so absurdly dark, you lifted our spirits with absurd light.

On Inside the Actor’s Studio, there was a woman who couldn’t stop laughing. This is “a gift” you said. You were the gift. More than a comedian. Or maybe just perfect, and other comedians something less.

How appropriate, to have you stir so many thoughts at once.

When I was in high school, I’d perform standup, drunk and stoned, and my friends would try to help me get laid by telling girls in the audience I was your son. Some of them believed it—but told me I wasn’t as funny. That was sobering.

I remember you crying when Christopher Reeve rolled onto the stage in his wheelchair at the Academy Awards. I imagine you’re together now. Roommates again. Putting on a show in the clouds. Secretly placing a whoopee cushion on God’s chair.

When you told Jon Stewart, “You’re doing the work that needs to be done” I felt better about what I was doing. But you were always doing the work that needed to be done—I remember standing backstage, watching you hold a bottle of water between your legs, spraying the audience like a cat. “Mine! Mine!” You marked us, and we were yours.

When I was a boy, a child of a single mother, I saw The World According to Garp, and I wept when you said, “I never needed a father.”

What does T.S stand for again? Oh yeah. Terribly Sad. Too Smart. Tremendously Shocking. Terrifically Sacrilegious. Torrentially Slaphappy. Torturously Sober. Truthfully Sentimental. Transformatively Sensational.

 

Dear Mr. Cratchit

Dear Mr. Cratchit

Dear Mr. Cratchit:

Another year come and gone, aye, Cratchit? I couldn’t help notice you put EXTRA coal in the stove this morning. What are you, cold? Put on a coat, for heaven’s sake!

Cratchit, I wonder: Does a poor bastard such as yourself even realize that one glorious day you could BECOME a Scrooge!? It’s called the American Dream, Cratchit. Allow me to interpret that dream for you…

Continue reading Dear Mr. Cratchit on Funny or Die.

This Fall’s Hottest Bombs

The Bomb

NEWS FROM THE FUTURE 

Washington, DC—This fall’s lineup of bombs was unveiled at a star-studded runway show at the White House.

“It’s hard to remember,” said one centenarian in attendance. “But there was a time when bombs were instruments of widespread death and destruction.”

Fortunately for humankind, war has gone out of style. Bombs, however, are still in demand.

The White House bomb show featured new bombs from top designers at Lockheed-Vuitton and Comedy Central Command, following the traditional alphabet theme.

Continue reading This Fall’s Hottest Bombs on Funny or Die.

It Makes You Want to Cry

The Colonial Room

Above: “Colonial Room” at the Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite, available for corporate retreats.

A large fire is growing around Yosemite, burning or threatening to burn the family camps that surround the park, including Camp Mather, a 350-acre site owned by San Francisco.

Some friends tell me the thought of those camps burning makes them want to cry.

I hear that. I’ve been to Camp Mather, and I’ve seen what a great time people have, and how the place is shared from one generation to the next. People are proud to say their father or grandfather camped there, brought them when they were children, and they bring their own children today. Continue Reading →

Christopher Hitchens Undefeated in Heaven’s Octagon

Christopher Hitchens, Champion of Heaven

HEAVEN — Christopher “Hitch” Hitchens entered Heaven’s Octagon for his first fight since successfully defending his title against famed sucker-punch artist William F. Buckley earlier this year. Last night’s no-holds-barred title fight saw Hitchens square off against Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303, aka “The Pontiff of Pain”) before a sold-out crowd at Heaven’s newly renovated 700 Club Arena.

Continue reading Christopher Hitchens Undefeated in Heaven’s Octagon from Erich Origen on Funny or Die.