22 July 2006

Lunatics, They're All Lunatics!

There will not be peace in the Middle East in my lifetime. And probably not in yours either. There are so many reasons for this that it really doesn't make any sense to analyze them. It's "whack-a-mole." You bang one of the reasons on the head and push it back into its hole, and another one pops right up. None of the principals involved in the region - not one of them - is reasonable. So, there's no understanding their reasons and there's no reasoning with them.

I can make some observations though about the most recent round of carnage. Why not? Everyone else is.

1. There's a difference, or at least there ought to be, between soldiers and civilians. If, during a raid in an area where hostilities exist, soldiers are captured, kidnapped, whatever you want to call it, that's a shame, but it's part of their job. Being a soldier in an area of hostilities puts you at risk. When you signed up, or were drafted and didn't resist, you signed up to take that risk. That doesn't mean that your government, in this case Israel, shouldn't try to protect or defend you, or respond to the provocation in a manner that might prevent the same thing from happening again. But it does mean that your status as a soldier, and the inherent risk in that, must be part of the equation in figuring out what the response should be. In any event, the response must be measured so as to avoid making the situation worse.

2. Israel's response is making the situation worse. This is in part due to internal Israeli politics, which is a terrible reason to go to war. The Olmert government does not have a military track record to call its own. Unlike the Sharon government, which responded to nearly identical provocations in a far more measured fashion - because with Sharon's reputation it had nothing to prove - the current Israeli government feels the need to show how tough it can be. Hundreds, possibly thousands by the time the smoke clears, of civilians are paying the price for the Olmert government to make itself look manly.

It seems to me that if you're killing non-combatants over combatants at a ratio greater than 10 to 1 - which is what Israel is currently doing - I don't care what the rationale is, you're undermining the legitimacy of those actions.

3. Israel's response is also destroying any progress that had been made toward a more stable Lebanon, something that Israel was benefitting from and would have benefitted further from in the future. Hezbollah was launching its attacks on Israel from a small area near the border, a long way from Beirut. Yet Israel has attacked Beirut, stopping its recovery in its tracks, destabilizing and undermining the weak, but strengthening, Lebanese government and wrecking the fast recovering Lebanese economy.

So now, rather than an increasingly prosperous, politically stabilizing Lebanon on its border, Israel is going to have a basket case for a neighbor. Since Hezbollah is apparently better organized, and possibly even better funded, than the actual Lebanese government, who do you think is going to benefit most from all this chaos?

On the one hand I can understand what has long made Israel so touchy. It's a tiny little nation, surrounded on three sides by people who for the most part hate it, and a strong defence is seen as a matter of life and death. So, with its back against the wall, Israel needs to be as strong as it can militarily. But as a long term survival strategy, that isn't nearly enough. Sooner or later someone who hates it is going to find new, more devastating ways to attack it. Sooner or later its few allies, for their own internal reasons, might abandon it. Masada was seen as nearly impregnable. It was as strong a defensive position as the Jews ever held. That didn't end so well.

Israel also needs to be as strong diplomatically as it possibly can. And first and foremost that means trying to make friends and partners with its neighbors. And to do that, the neighbors need to be at peace within their own borders, their governments need to be stable and their economies need to be at least providing hope for their people. Trade, economic ties, cultural exchanges, cooperation on all fronts is the only long term defensive strategy that is really going to protect Israel. The current ruckus is hurting, rather than helping that effort.

And One More Thing - The Free Market Solution to the Problem of Jerusalem
Jerusalem is one of the world's major bones of contention. Take it out of contention. Take it away from all those snarling brutes. Declare it an international open city. Move the U.N., the World Court, the WTO, all the international groups there. Contract out the running of all the religious sites to Disney. Let them build "Religion World." Use the proceeds to help fund the international groups there and to give good paying, secure employment to the religious nuts who will provide the local color in the same way that employees in Donald Duck and Mickey and Minnie Mouse suits do at other Disney theme parks.

06 July 2006

Whatever Happened to Hollywood?

When I first moved back to L.A. after an absence of 14 years, there was an after hours club I'd hang out in near the rather insalubrious intersection of Western and Santa Monica. It provided nearly everything anyone could possibly want. Patrons could order cocaine, pot, ecstasy and occasionally some other drugs, from the waitress. They were all high quality and came with the necessary accoutrement for indulging in them. There was a good selection of booze, at very reasonable prices, available long after bars were supposed to be legally closed. There was poker and blackjack and a couple of slot machines. There was a craps table, although I never saw it in use.

My fellow customers were a diverse crowd. I recall sitting around one of the large low-lying tables one night with a nuclear physicist from CalTech, a stripper, an elderly bartender from a big name hotel, a young guy from the Israeli consulate, a wannabe rock star and his silent girlfriend, a grip (I've never quite known what they actually do), a high-priced "escort," a cook and me, an ex-financial journalist just then turning to writing books. The physicist was buying us all lines of coke and the more lines he bought the closer the escort sat to him.

Across the room, at another table, there were a couple of lower level - low B or C list - celebrities, sitting with a fairly well known local musician and a minor celebrity chef. Someone said that they'd seen - I'm not dumb enough to insert any names here - a very A-list celeb in the company of an even higher A-list rock star there a few nights back. It's good to be back in L.A., I thought to myself.

Not long after that night the place closed down. I never got the whole story. Either it was raided, or the operators decided it was getting hot and moved to avoid a raid. In any event I wasn't enough in the loop to find out where it moved to. (If anyone out there knows...be discreet.)

This morning I was hit by a small wave of nostalgia for the after hours club. That was thanks to a regular column in Thursday's L.A. Times: "My Favorite Weekend." (This nostalgia has absolutely nothing to do with the specific content of today's column or the person it is about.) I skimmed the column. I usually do. I don't know why. I think it's little more than a dull P.R. excercise on behalf of B or C-list celebrities, almost none of which I ever recognize.

As usual, today's subject's favorite weekend seems to be engaging in a variety of wholesome - or mostly wholesome - and healthy activities that are guaranteed to give offense to no one. I have the impression that fully 90% of the people profiled spend part of their weekends at Urth Cafe drinking some sort of hideous, organic soy-milk faux coffee concoction on their way to or from the gym, or some sort of vegetarian, organic (or often overpriced and undergood Westside Italian) meal. They also shop a lot. I guess even low-level celebs have more money than they know what to do with. (At least today's celeb - Russell Mael of the band Sparks - goes to the track to bet on horses. I'll try to ignore the fact that he picks up a salad on the way.)

For some reason this morning's column irritated me more than usual. The guy's in a rock band! Soy cappuccino? "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg?" Play-reading at the Getty? Salad?

Whatever happened to the Hollywood that so warmly welcomed me back home after 11 years in the hinterlands of Asia, a year spent bouncing back and forth between the Old World, isolated small towns of Chicago and New York, and two years surrounded by the young ravening dot com hordes of San Francisco?

Just once I want to read a "My Favorite Weekend" column that is admirably, cheerfully, gloriously, unrepentently unwholesome. That would be refreshing. Not that I ever had any real faith in Hollywood, but I could use a little something to help crack through the unrelentingly dull and flavorless image it's trying to foist off on us.

I know that the sleaze is going on out there, unabated, ugly, illegal.....human! Having aged a few years since returning to Los Angeles I'm not even certain that I still want to be a part of it. But I want to be comforted by knowledge of its accessibility. The L.A. Times isn't helping. Can't someone?

03 July 2006

Thrills and Chills at Thrillerfest

I'm safely home in L.A. where it is merely in the mid-90s. One day in Phoenix I passed a bank thermometer that read 116 and that seemed about right, if not erring on the cool side. In all I liked Thrillerfest well enough. It was the first one and I imagine it will improve with age.

It was mostly authors, wannabe authors and fans, which is not a bad crowd to spend some time with. But, one of the things I particularly appreciate about, say, Bouchercon (the big mystery event every year) is the wide range of people from the entire industry: publishers, editors, agents, booksellers, publicists, reviewers, fans and authors. While I don't believe that I already know everything there is to know about writing, I do know a lot more about it than the other parts of my chosen field. So I like spending time with people who do other things; especially booksellers who I think of as being on the front lines.

The panels were entertaining and even interesting, but by and large not all that useful. Sure, I love seeing someone demonstrate fighting techniques or a gory video about forensic medicine; but it's not as if I'm going to take notes then file them away on the off chance that I might need them some day. I know how to look that stuff up, if and when I need it, or who to call to find out.

I did spend a lot of time at the bar, which is where the real action tends to be at any conference anyhow. Not having an office with colleagues and a water cooler that I go to every day, conferences like this are as close as I get to that, and it's very welcome.

What wasn't welcome was the appearance of an old foe on Saturday night. I spent my 40th birthday in the jungles of Central Borneo. Among the gifts I received, was malaria. It wasn't a particularly horrible case. I spent about a week in bed in Jakarta, feverish and miserable, but I got over it. Still, every two or three years it decides to pay me a one or two day visit. It's the gift that keeps on giving. Saturday night I was with some friends at a very pleasant blues bar in Phoenix - the Rhythm Room should you ever happen to be in town - when I started to feel something coming on. I got back to my hotel room in time to be overcome by near convulsive chills, followed by someone sticking my body into a pre-heated oven, followed by every last drop of liquid in my body oozing out of my pores. This process was repeated several times through the night.

Sometimes my bouts of recurrent malaria come complete with hallucinations and vivid dreams. That at least makes it more interesting. This time it didn't. It was simply nasty.

The next morning, thanks to aspirin the wonder drug and espresso, another wonder drug, I managed to shiver and sweat through the panel I was on at Thrillerfest - "Killer Settings." It seemed to go pretty well, thanks to the moderating of Sarah Weinman - who runs the excellent blog: Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. Then I drove home in a chilled one moment, sweating the next daze. My car has a thermostat on its air conditioner / heater. For a bit it was turned up to 85, then down to Cool, then back again. It was one of those sorts of drives.