31 May 2009


Before I get started, I want to assure everyone reading this blog entry that I do not regard any one religion as any better, or worse than any other. I am an atheist and proud of it.

Yesterday I visited the Los Angeles Cathedral for the first time. It is also known locally as the "Rog Mahal" or the "Taj Mahoney" after the local cardinal, Roger Mahoney, who oversaw its construction.

I really, really wanted to hate it. Here's why:

The estimated final cost of its construction was $190 million. That doesn't even include the land or the furnishings, such as the main altar that cost five million bucks. The front doors that cost three million. The lectern that cost two. The bishop's chair cost one million dollars, the president's and deacons' chairs cost $250 thousand each. Every single one of the numerous chandelier/speakers cost $150 thousand each.

And the exterior is hideous. It looks like it's sheathed in plywood. It has no character.But, meanwhile, in the year that the cathedral was opened, 2002, the L.A. Archdiocese, facing a budget shortfall of $4.3 million (about 14 of those magnificent chairs), closed its ministries for students, the disabled, minorities, and gays and lesbians.

In 2006, faced with court settlements from child molestation cases that Cardinal Mahoney had attempted to sweep under the carpet, that might amount to a portion of forty million dollars, the church plead poverty.

The real estate portfolio of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, more than 1,600 properties, is estimated at over four billion dollars in value. Only $175 million of that is not exempt from property taxes. (If the Archdiocese had to pay property taxes, it would owe about $50 million per year to the County of Los Angeles. That would pay for a school or two.)

(By the way, I don't want to single out the Catholic church. If you took all the tax-exempt property holdings of all the religious institutions in Los Angeles County, and taxed them at the standard rates, the county's budget would be in surplus rather than deficit.)

In 1976 a very rough, low estimate of tax-exempt church property nationwide, was about $120 billion in value. If you only adjust that for inflation since, not even taking the general rise in property values, or further purchases by religious institutions into consideration, the 2008 figure would be about $450 billion. That was a low estimate.

So, like I said, I wanted to hate the place.

And though I do hate the idea of it, on the inside, architecturally, artistically, I liked it a lot. I think it ought to be taken away from the church for back taxes or whatever excuse the government can come up with, and turned into a public performing arts center. Maybe the furnishings can be sold to give the operating budget a kick start.

This picture doesn't come close to doing it justice: (This is the only picture in this blog entry that I took.)Now this is coming from someone who generally loathes church architecture. I think Notre Dame is an abomination. Westminster Abbey ought to be leveled, the Vatican crushed under the feet of some giant reptile risen out of the Tiber.

Why I detest church architecture is best summed up by one building, a primary example of architecture as the expression of an ideal. (Please keep in mind that I'm speaking aesthetically here. Ideologically, I find equal fault with all religions.)

The Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain was once a mosque. It is now a cathedral. This picture gives you a rough sense of what it was like when it was a mosque:It was in a garden setting, largely open to the sky, a series of graceful arches with very little internal decoration. A place where people were encouraged to come, sit on the floor, read, think, discuss. From an architectural perspective, it was built to enhance the senses and thoughts of the people who came to it.

Now here's what it looks like after the Catholic architects got to it:They stuck a huge, vaulted, ornate ceiling over all of it. They filled in a great many of the arches with heavy, dark sculptures and paintings and altars. What little natural light finds its way into the building, does so through thick, dirty stained glass high up. It has been built to render the people entering into it awestruck, dumbstruck more like it, it suppresses the senses by overwhelming them.

What I like, architecturally, about the Los Angeles Cathedral is that it is relatively simple. Sure, it's got high vaulted ceilings, but it has enormous skylights and surfaces and colors that make use of all that natural light. The art is not oppressive, heavy-handed, it is in soft, organic colors and in spite of its religious nature, does to an extent reflect the community. It is beautiful, but not overwhelming. A place in which a person can reflect upon things, rather than be beat over the head with them.

It would be a great addition to Los Angeles, if only it could be wrested away from the control of the tax-dodging charlatans that run the place. And there's a whole lot of other buildings around town that I could say the same thing about.

In the course of researching this blog entry, I came across a quote from Ben Franklin that should appeal to my readers who believe in free markets and who believe that churches should be no more tax-exempt than you or me.

"When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obligated to call for help of the civil power, it's a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one." -- Benjamin Franklin

19 May 2009


It's Election Day, again, here in California. This is the second election day this year and there will be a third in November, if by some miracle a fourth doesn't somehow crop up between now and then.

It will also be a miracle if the turnout for this election exceeds, oh, say, 14 percent.

I'm all in favor of democracy. I think of all the stupid ways to run a country, it's generally the most benign. And I have yet to hear of any actual smart ways to run a country.

But here in California, democracy has been sorely tested and has been, in some ways, found wanting.

You see, any fuckwit with a clipboard, a ream of paper, some pens and a few bucks for a filing fee can, through the initiative and referendum process, attempt to put whatever the hell they want on the California state ballot. Collect enough signatures and you can force an election on even the most idiotic, narrow-focused, short-sighted, self-interested inanities.

If I want to have myself declared the "Honorary King of California," and paid a million bucks a year by the state, I can go stand around in front of supermarkets with my petitions. Collect enough signatures, and it's on the ballot. If there's a small enough voter turnout when election day rolls around, and I can mobilize the people who want me to be "Honorary King of California" or think it's funny enough that they'll vote for it, I might just win.

Well, that's what's been happening for quite some time. Year after year, a tiny minority of eligible voters in California have been passing this, that or the other entitlement program or bond measure or spending bill that mandates more or less spending.

One estimate is that only about eight percent of the budget of the State of California can be spent in whatever way the legislature deems necessary to deal with the State's specific needs in any given year.

There isn't much flexibility in that. And now, with the economic crisis on hand, budgets need to be able to bend with the gale force winds, or they'll break. And California's has snapped.

So today, here in California, some tiny fraction of the electorate will vote on six ludicrously complex and massively flawed state measures intended to prevent an even greater economic catastrophe than has already struck.

I will vote yes on them. Not because I like them, or even think they are good ideas, but only because I am fearful of the more massive calamity that will strike my state if they don't pass. I say, if you have a choice between being hit by a 60 foot high tsunami or a 50 foot high one, try to save yourself that extra 10 feet of grief.

But at the very best, even if somehow these measures do alleviate some of the pain and suffering to come, they are only stop gap measures.

The real problem in California is democracy, or at least the sort that we practice here. The sort that has allowed the inmates to run this asylum for enough years that trouble is inevitable, and inevitably more troublesome than it might have been otherwise. Initiative and referendum look good on paper, but they bear a lot of the responsibility for what got us into this mess.

07 May 2009


No, I don't mean priests. I mean Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, those guys. As in Performance Enhancing Drugs.

Manny just got caught using and was suspended for 50 days. He wasn't using a steroid, but another type of banned substance. Rumor has it, he was using it for ED - a whole other type of performance enhancement.

This has made my father very happy. He's a Boston Red Sox fan and in his eyes, and the eyes of many Red Sox fanatics, Manny can do no right ever since he did the Red Sox wrong.

Now if you read my last blog entry, you know that I love baseball. I am a lifelong Dodgers fan. And as such, I have been very excited to see the impact that Manny Ramirez has had on my team. And I am disappointed by his suspension, but not devastated. I think the Dodgers have a good team without Manny (a better defensive team even.) But still, all the commotion around a flamboyant future Hall of Famer on the team was a lot of fun. And the man can HIT.

But, it is very rare that a 37 year old can hit as well as Manny does. So rare, that it's sort of suspicious when they can.

But you know what? And here's where I'm about to get into big trouble with my father and most of the other sports fans I know. I don't give a damn if Manny or any other athlete takes PEDs.

And a whole lot of fans out there, if they were honest with themselves, would agree with me.

Baseball players aren't curing cancer. Basketball stars aren't bringing peace to the Middle East. Football is not one of these new "green" industries. Sports, no matter how much money is involved, no matter how many people take them seriously, no matter how many inspirational stories emerge, is a business and a game.

Sports is a form of entertainment. And what the consumer most wants from sports is to be entertained, thrilled, excited. What the owners of sports franchises, TV and radio networks, merchandising manufacturers and sellers, memorabilia dealers, most want from sports is to make money.

And you know what, PEDs give everyone what they really want. They make superstars even more super, and for longer. They make average players just enough better that they improve their supporting role abilities. And that makes the level of play better. And in turn that makes bigger, happier, more excitable crowds watching games. And that makes everyone who turns a buck out of sports happier, from the owner of the NY Yankees and the CEO of ESPN, to the guy with a heavy box of hot dogs slung around his neck at a minor league ballpark.

The fact of the matter is that PEDs do lead to farther homeruns, faster fastballs and feminine breast development in men. And that's what most of the crowds want to see. And what the sales and marketing people want to promote. (Okay, maybe not the breasts so much.)

I prefer little ball - lots of singles and sacrifices and squeeze plays and tense moments, and intelligent pitching - the sorts of things that steroids don't enhance. I prefer Ichiro Suzuki to Barry Bonds; Greg Maddox to Roger Clemens. (Some of you might not know what that means, but take it from me, I just told you a whole lot about my baseball preferences.) I'm in the minority, apparently.

I know the objections:

What about the kids? Athletes who take steroids set a bad example.

So what? So do people in every other walk of life. Why should sports be any different? It's up to kids parents and teachers to point out who's a good example and who's a bad example and to make a convincing case for it. (Okay, so maybe athletes who use PEDs ought to have to say so, to help parents and teachers figure out who's who. And maybe, like booze, they should be restricted to people over a minimum age.)

What about the athletes? It's bad for their health.

They're adults, after a fashion. (A lot of them suffer bad cases of arrested development.) Like all adults they're already entitled to engage in a fairly broad range of self-destructive behavior. As a matter of fact, I'm in favor of legalizing all self-destructive behavior, so long as it remains SELF-destructive; from steroids to heroin, ED PEDs to autoerotic asphyxiation.

It's cheating.

It's only cheating when some athletes have the opportunity to do it and others don't. Sure, plenty of smart athletes don't want to take PEDs because they aren't good for their health. Some athletes lift weights, others don't. Some go on special diets, others don't.

Besides, sports is about tradition, among other things, and doping to enhance performance is a long standing tradition. Athletes used various herbal concoctions for thousands of years. In the early 20th Century they used cocaine, then amphetamines, all sorts of stuff. Chewing tobacco has long been popular, in part because it helps to calm the nerves. There are people who swear by acupuncture. What's going to happen when ballplayers start sticking needles in themselves in the dugout between innings?

And new PEDs are being invented all the time. And as fast as anyone comes up with tests to find them in blood or urine, lab rats come up with new ones that can't be tested for. There's a whole lot of money in it, just like there is in anything that's illegal but people want. And athletes, as well paid as many of the professional ones are, can afford it. If PEDs were legal, even some of the ones making the Major League Baseball minimum - currently, a "miserly" $400,000 a year - could afford them.

Sports, like all forms of entertainment, panders to its public. There's a reason why so many moronic, mega-budget blockbusters show up on movie screens in the summer (and throughout the whole year, really.) That's what puts the butts in the seats.

If everyone liked the kind of baseball that I do, and no one gave a damn about the idiotic homerun derbys, ballplayers wouldn't be as interested in PEDs. But most people prefer the kind of baseball, and other sports, that PEDs help to make bigger, stronger, faster, harder, farther - and in their minds, better. So why shouldn't the pros be allowed to do whatever they can to give it to them?

05 May 2009


There is something about the rest of the year, when it isn't baseball season, that is just a bit incomplete, poorer somehow. I'm not one of those uberfans, someone who watches every game, buys season tickets, cancels perfectly good engagements because the Dodgers are playing the Giants. Nope, none of that. I do watch some games, listen to them on the radio, go to a few - both major and minor league games.

Ballgames make me feel better. Last night I was in a really crappy mood until I heated up a bowl of leftover noodles, opened a beer, and sat down in front of the ballgame on TV. I felt better fast.

I've been a baseball fan - a loyal Dodgers fan - since I went to my very first ballgame, which was one of the first games the Dodgers ever played in Los Angeles, back in 1958.

This picture of my sister and me was taken in September 1959: Of course I had no choice but to be a baseball fan. My father would have left me to die of exposure on the beach at Venice if I had given any indication of being anything but a baseball fan.

So, I've been a Dodgers fan for 51 years. Holy shit! No, really? Why did I write that?

But, Vin Scully, the Dodgers' announcer, has been with the team for 60 years. There is no human being on the planet I would rather hear speak. Lauren Bacall, when she was 17 and turning Bogie into a quivering mess of hormonal jelly simply asking him if he knew how to whistle, would at most play a good second aural fiddle to my ears.

And Vin, at 81, is still going strong. These days, if you want to hear him announce an entire game, you need to listen to him on TV when the Dodgers are at home or playing in the West. But do yourself a favor sometime, figure out a way to turn off the picture but leave the sound on. Listen to Vin like I used to on the radio. (You can still hear him for the first few innings of each game on the radio, but you can't hear the whole thing.)

With Vin talking, you don't need no stinking pictures. He lays it all out for you, with an economy of language and in a cadence and tone that makes the televised game superfluous. Sometimes the pictures even get in the way. By the end of a game you'll know far more about baseball and about the people who play it and watch it, and some other stuff too, then you did before. That'll happen by the end of any game Vin announces.

I swear that Vin Scully taught me more about English than any teacher I ever had. He's inspired me as much as Melville, Twain, Chester Himes, John Fante or Flannery O'Connor.There's a chance that this is his final year announcing for the Dodgers. I can't imagine them without him. I'll still be a fan, but once Vin retires, even the months when baseball is in season will feel a bit incomplete.

SPEAKING OF BASEBALL, I've been going to games out in Rancho Cucamonga over the past few years. The Quakes play there, at the Epicenter. (Where else would Quakes play?) It's a sweet little ballpark and games are a whole lot of fun. Not to mention, far cheaper than at Dodger Stadium. Here's the Epicenter:Now here's a good chance for you to come out to a game at the Epicenter.

On Friday June 19th, there will be a special event involving writers at the ballpark. I've helped round up a group of writers to participate. It should be a lot of fun. Come on out to cheer on the Quakes (they're playing the Lake Elsinore Storm that night) and meet some of us writer types. Baseball is, after all, the most literary sport. Here's the flyer for the event: