Multi-Grains of Truth

My hotel in Beijing is located in what seems to be a shopping district, just a few-minute stroll from the intersection of two wide avenues lined with high-end shops offering mostly Western luxury brands. From my window, I can only see a couple: Chanel and something called BlancPain, which is French for WhiteBread. Little wonder the latter hasn’t caught on in the States, nor that it has in China, where even the most generic cultural detritus of “Western individualism” is processed, packaged, commoditized and sold at low margins to a huge-and-getting-huger middle class starved for identity.

My combined travel time today was over 20 hours, of which I slept only two, but I decided to venture out into the city for dinner, anyway. A few blocks down the road, I stumbled into the Dong’anmen Night Food Market, where for a small handful of yuan one can feast on such delicacies as fried scorpion, silkworm cocoons and sheep’s penis. Having sampled a variety of insects and animal parts on my last trip to China (and having lived to regret it), I kept moving until I found essentially the opposite end of the gustatory spectrum: a vegetarian restaurant.

Fuhuiciyuan is tucked away inside a deceptively large, multipurpose Buddhist compound, which itself is hidden down the sort of dark alley where the red lights above its door might be mistaken for something more salacious. Virtually no English is spoken, and while the menu — which gives off the impression of a catalog — is printed in both Mandarin and English, the descriptions largely eschew ingredients in favor of dubiously specific health benefits. I ordered the hypertension relief.

To be more honest, I have no idea what I ordered. I merely pointed to a nice looking picture and then the nice girl who had waited patiently next to my table while I thumbed through the entire 30-or-so-page menu smiled and typed something into a weird, yellow device that looked exactly like how you’d imagine a PlaySkool cell phone. Not half a minute later, another nice girl brought the menu back and handed it to me again.

Had they run out of the thing in the picture I’d pointed at? There seemed to be no way to know. “Order again?” I tried. She made a hand gesture that I can only assume was intended to be helpful. After a moment, she said, “You … noodles?”

Me … noodles. Hmm.

“Yes?” I answered.

And five minutes later I had noodles — a whole mess of them, Sichuan-style in a spicy pepper sauce that made my nose run and still makes my mouth water thinking about it now. But that’s not all. I also had the first dish I’d pointed to, a colorful medley of … well, of largely unidentifiable vegetables. I spotted some lotus root in there, and surely one of those other things was a mushroom. To be sure, they were all delicious, but they were no match for the noodles.

Me noodles. Me definitely noodles.

After I paid (47 RMB, or roughly $8 for two large servings of delicious and probably healthy if not hypertension-fighting food) and got one of the nice girls to show me how to operate the exit (‘twas neither push nor pull), I headed back for the hotel, still tired from the day’s travel and now from the full belly.

Making my way past Dong’anmen, I was stopped by a homeless woman, probably a migrant farmer from the country living illegally in the city, one of millions willing to give up PRC government entitlements for a chance at Western-style free-market opportunity — which probably tells us as much about communism as it does about the human spirit.

“I’m very hungry,” she said in surprisingly good English. But it was too late. Before I’d even processed the words that came out of her mouth, I’d responded purely out of habit (“Sorry”) and continued pushing through the crowd. See, I come from San Francisco, where dodging the homeless is practically a sport. But in retrospect, I’m honestly not sure which is more shocking: the fact that a woman begged me to buy her a sheep’s penis, or the fact that I turned her down.

I yawned, stuffed my hands in my pockets and charged across the street before the light changed, hurrying past WhiteBread on the way back to my room.

Throwaway culture is here to stay

To be sure, the state of popular culture today is loathsome. Television, music, movies and books have become commodities, mere commercial goods intended to satisfy some momentary yen for instant gratification, only then to be tossed aside in pursuit of the next quick fix.

This should not surprise us. It is, at least to some extent, the very logical and probably inevitable result of the evolution of our distribution networks. In the time it takes to read this sentence, you could instantly listen to the new Rihanna song on Spotify, get the latest John Grisham pulp thriller on your Kindle, start watching the latest episode of “So You Think You Can Dance” on iTunes or cue up (or, more likely, queue up) any one of thousands of movies on Netflix instant streaming.

When we can almost instantaneously satisfy nearly any cultural craving with the press of a button or the click of a mouse, we are never left to want for something more substantial. To put it another way: When you can have dessert now, why bother with dinner?

That said, there seems to be a growing perception that disposable culture and its attendant pack of fame-whores are entirely new phenomena that sprang up virtually overnight, and this line of thinking — while seductively self-affirming — is wrong.

Not only did we have throwaway culture in the 20th century (anyone remember the Guilty Pleasures column in Film Comment in the late 1970s and early ’80s?), we had throwaway celebrities, too. In fact, we had them in droves.

Just before Y2K, I wrote an article (itself, ironically, a throwaway piece of journalism) for a local newspaper that was originally intended as arch commentary on the then-ubiquitous end-of-the-millennium listmania that had overtaken mainstream media. Looking back at it now offers plenty of reminders that all our celebrities were not brilliant performers, theoretical physicists or astronauts.

They were people like Rip Taylor and Jaye P. Morgan, who basically made their entire careers out of being game show panelists. (Game shows were to the 1970s as reality shows were to the naughts.) They were people like Charo, who was on “The Love Boat” 21 times. (Incidentally, Friday nights on ABC — “Love Boat” followed by “Fantasy Island” — were basically a cottage industry to prop up Hollywood has-beens and milk every last dime from their fading celebrity.) They were MTV veejays, and “Dance Fever” judges, and “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” VHS peddlers, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Look, I’m not saying popular culture in the 20th century wasn’t superior. But let’s at least try to argue for its eminence from a position we can defend with facts.

After all, when it comes to being famous for being famous, Zsa Zsa Gabor was a mother***in’ trailblazer.

Solve the health care crisis: Eat well

Health insurance premiums continue to rise. Hassles abound for patients and physicians alike. Tens of millions of Americans are uninsured. And these problems are only expected to worsen in coming years. The system is flawed, to be sure. But isn’t the main problem with U.S. healthcare the fact that it’s simply overburdened?

People are sick and getting sicker. In particular, rates of heart disease, Western cancers, type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and osteoperosis only seem to keep climbing.

So many doctors these days are treating symptoms rather than causes. Health care reform, to a large extent, seems to be taking the same approach — ignoring the real underlying problem.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of health care is the role of the patient, and the average patient in the U.S. today is making themselves sick by putting garbage into their body, meal after meal, day after day. Issues of personal responsibility aside, overly processed crap is killing us and costing us a fortune in the process.

The food industry peddles addictive substances for enormous profits, then the health care industry strings along its “patients” (read: customers) with a pill for every ill.

Remember that adage you heard a million times growing up? “You are what you eat.” It was overused for a reason: because it’s true.

Remember that other one? “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”? While it’s a gross simplification, it holds a profound economic truth: They are substitute products for one another.

So here’s the question: Where is the money in educating people, making them healthy and getting them out of “the system”? How do you incentivize health care professionals to steer patients (or potential patients) toward their own substitutes?

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? This appears to be one of those situations where regulatory policy would be a fantastic boon for the public interest — if we could reach some semblance of agreement on what the actual problem is.

Unfortunately, there are wildly varying viewpoints on what is “healthy,” and the science often flies in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, existing educational efforts, such as MyPlate (the new food pyramid), recommend a diet rich in dairy products, which most independent research suggests can be quite harmful. Meanwhile, much of the so-called science is tainted by corporate interests and many of the researchers are guided by personal biases, so it’s difficult to know what to trust.

At the same time, food marketing “facts” and even government regulated nutrition labels are notoriously deceptive. For instance, the label on the front of a can of soup might say it is “98 percent fat free,” but when you turn it around you find that the nutrition label shows it derives 70 percent of its calories from fat. (The FDA and USDA allow companies to calculate fat by weight rather than by calories for front-of-package claims.) The classic example is Pam cooking spray, which says on the front of the can, “Fat Free.” But think about it: What is Pam made out of? Oil, which is 100 percent fat. Dietician and nutritionist Jeff Novick has a brilliant routine about how they get away with this. (It’s definitely worth a watch.)

The water is further muddied by an increasing number of Americans who equate weight loss with health (while they often go hand-in-hand, one does not necessarily imply the other). Long story short, it’s an incredibly complex issue, but one that has extremely far-reaching implications for not only our economic and ecological sustainability, but for the very future of our species.

It’s quite a tangled mess, but if we don’t start teasing it out soon it will only get worse. One way or the other, government probably has a role in that. Obviously I’m not advocating government regulation of what you’re allowed to put in your mouth. I absolutely believe in personal responsibility, but I also happen to think it’s wrong that a company can sell you shit and use taxpayer funded programs to tell you it’s shinola.

Policy doesn’t just fall from the sky. It exists for a reason. Anyone who’s really curious what the “invisible hand” of a completely unfettered market would feed us can get a glimpse of that disturbing reality (and the conditions that led to the establishment of the FDA) by reading Upton Sinclair’s muckraking classic, “The Jungle.” It was written over a hundred years ago, but it couldn’t be more relevant if it was penned just yesterday.

Now pardon me while I get off my soapbox and get back to this 32-oz. cup of Mr. Pibb.

Put the social back in social media

I’ve worked for two companies during the social media era and both have used it almost exclusively for one-way bullhorn marketing efforts, and even with ambitions that low they’ve mostly failed. Social media presents unique new opportunities to reach customers, engage audience and build community around your product or service. Nevertheless, of the millions of companies with a Facebook page or a Twitter account, only an infinitesimal percentage of them are using the technology well.

In the newspaper industry (where I worked before getting into restaurants), newsrooms across the country were constantly abuzz with discussions of Facebook and Twitter, Foursquare and Flickr. But the bulk of the conversation was always about using social media as opposed to becoming a social medium.

(Finally, three years later, The Washington Post Social Reader, flawed as it may be, attempts to get it right. Is it too little too late?)

At my current gig, our restaurant chain’s Marketing Director maintains a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, but misses the point by using it only for one-way broadcasting. The nice thing about social media — indeed, its defining feature — is that it’s interactive. If we never respond to our customers’ comments, if we never ask for their feedback, if we never engage them in discussion of our products or service, we’re putting a converse twist on Maslow’s law of the instrument: If all you have are nails, every tool looks like a hammer.

It’s important, too, to consider the reasons you feel more connected to certain businesses via social media. I’m willing to bet they act like human beings, maybe even put their own faces on their accounts, and that they’re allowed to introduce at least a small measure of personality into their tweets or Facebook posts. I’m guessing that the information they share doesn’t read like an official press release or like it was prepared for them by a team of publicists, but that instead it reads like their own thoughts in their own words. I’ll bet there’s even an occasional opportunity for discourse with someone who would otherwise be completely inaccessible to you.

Would it feel the same if they hid behind a generic company logo? If they spoke only in officially sanctioned platitudes? If they never responded to your questions or comments? Would you bother checking their feed at all?

In any business, the ultimate goal is to create shareholder value, but how do you do that? You do that, of course, by meeting the needs of your customers better than your competitors do. Given that, it seems like a decent idea to get to know those people a little bit, doesn’t it?

Not long ago, businesses had almost no connection whatsoever to their customers. They relied on mass markets and mass-media communication to target huge swaths of generic “customers.” They focused on marketing products and services or creating transactions rather than on cultivating relationships.

What did this lack of meaningful engagement give us? As customers, it gave us things like planned obsolesence, so-called “negative externalities” (a k a pollution), false advertising and the burgeoning (dis)service and (mis)information industry. As business people, it gave us customers who were about as loyal as Judas.

Social media changes all that — or, at least, it could. Businesses now have unprecedented tools at their fingertips for understanding and interacting with their customers, not just as broad demographics but as unique individuals.

I say “unprecedented,” but in a way it isn’t. Before the industrial revolution came along and customers were suddenly reduced to stereotypical consumer segments by faceless behemoths whose employees were alienated corporate cogs, there was a time when local business people — often our friends and neighbors — worked hard to gain our trust and meet our needs.

For instance, as a teenager I frequently shopped at a local record store where the owner, Pete, and his employees, Marshall, George and Jen, all knew my name, my tastes and my budget. I’d walk in the door and they’d cue up a CD they were sure I’d like, and eight times out of 10 they were right. can make recommendations like that to me today, but I have no relationship with Jeff Bezos or anyone else at his company. If another online retailer offers a better price, well, guess what? Smell ya later, Amazon. On the other hand, I’m still friends with Pete and Marshall 20 years later and if their store was still open, I wouldn’t shop anywhere else.

You could argue that building relationships that strong is too tall of an order for most large businesses in today’s globalized economy, but social media says you’re wrong. (Or, at least, you’re doing it wrong.) And, really, can businesses afford not to take advantage of this opportunity? There’s something in it for them, too.

That’s the nature of reciprocity. The consumer Cold War is over. It’s time for businesses and customers to start scratching each others’ backs again.

Queasy like Sunday morning

Dog’s sick. Woke me up four times in the night to go outside.

Actually, that’s not true. He only woke me up once. I never fell back asleep after the first one.

It’s maddening, and not just because I’d rather be sleeping. You wouldn’t believe how fickle the little bastard can be about when and where he’ll take a shit.

Not there. Not there. Not there. Not there. Maybe there. Hmm. No, not there, either.

Suddenly I’m Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets.” Don’t be like me, you little sumbitch. Don’t be like me!

“Do your business,” I say helpfully, because that’s what we say. And he looks up at me with the canine equivalent of an eye roll, and I imagine him replying in John Hillerman’s droll voice, “My dear man, would you hang the Mona Lisa in a frame made of popsicle sticks?”

So we move on. Him with his tongue wagging and tail bobbing. Me with my hair sticking up and eyes at half-mast. He looks happy and healthy. I’m the one who looks sick.

Which, naturally, is when the neighbor rounds the corner with his dog.

I groan a knowing groan. The neighbor’s fine. The neighbor’s dog, too. I don’t care what I look like. I just realize what this means.

Any sighting of another dog, a human, a bird, a squirrel, a lizard, a butterfly, a particularly charming stick or, apparently, the occasional ghost means that our quest for the perfect poop-site has been completely derailed. We’ll be starting over from square one. Eventually.

The neighbor nods. I mumble, “Morning.” The dogs sniff one another’s assholes.

They disappear inside, and for the next two, maybe three minutes, my partner glances repeatedly in the direction of their last known whereabouts. Just in case they’re coming back. He’s poo-shy, y’see.

Who isn’t, really?

“Do your business,” I say again helpfully. He shrugs it off.

What do I know about business, anyway.

Attention, passengers

In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.

In the event of a shallow water landing, your tray table may be used as a skimboard.

In the event of a school lunchroom landing, your bag of peanuts may be used in a food fight.

In the event of a Portland, Ore., landing, your seatbelt may be used as a fashion accessory.

In the event of a rich fantasy life, your blanket may be used as a superhero’s cape.

In the event a fellow passenger or member of your flight crew turns out to be a Cylon skinjob, the overhead bin may be used as a sweet-ass hiding place.

In the event your irrepressible “creative juices” and/or “zany little urges” bubble inevitably to the surface, your barf bag may be used to fashion the most adorable shabby-chic hand-puppets for your Etsy store.

In the event of a quenched thirst, your copy of SkyMall may be used to order a beverage holder shaped like an armadillo for just $19.95 plus shipping.

In the event of a routine flight and landing, your contact information may be used to relentlessly send you “deals” on upcoming flights we have severely under-booked to places nobody wants to go.

The Amazin’ Adventures of Yoda the Dog

The Amazin’ Adventures of Yoda the Dog from Rommie Johnson on Vimeo.

So, deuxredshoes ditched me to go spend the week in California with her friends at Comic-Con. As a result I got stuck with the dog. We’re not having any fun¹ at all.

¹ “Fun” is a licensed trademark of Disney. This video is not affiliated with Disney or any of its companies.

Things to do when you lock yourself out of the house on a Sunday morning in the rain

  • Verify the emptiness of your pockets every fifteen minutes.
  • Locate a dry, secluded spot where you could relieve yourself should it come to that.
  • Imagine a fantastic scenario in which your landlord just happens to be dropping by. And she’s with her best friend, Megan Fox! They went to high school together, see. “Let’s get you out of those wet clothes,” she says. And they brought doughnuts!
  • Identify the sturdiest part of the awning frame from which you could conceivably hang yourself with the dog’s leash.
  • Attempt to fashion a crude lockpick from a piece of wet mulch.
  • Mutter “smug asshole” under your breath when the guy across the street returns home from a dog walk, produces a jangly set of keys and lets himself inside.
  • See an ant. Watch him crawl around. Wonder about his ant life in his ant world. Is he happy? Does he have other ant friends? What kind of relationship does he have with his parents. Name him Roland. Speak to him in a British accent. “It’s bloody awful out ‘ere, innit?” Feel slightly wistful for the good times you shared when Roland is fatally crippled by a raindrop.
  • Ask the dog, “Who’s a good boy?” repeatedly — and really mean it for the first time.

I’m sticking with you

She was a poet and a painter and liked to say she had a posthumous crush on Buster Keaton.We met at the whiskey bar where I hang out when I have nothing better to do, which is most every night. I call it “my bar,” partly because other than work and possibly my apartment it’s the place I spend most of my time, but also because I literally claimed it in my divorce. I plopped down on a bar stool and ordered a glass of Four Roses Small Batch. She was sipping Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon neat. She had a T.S. Eliot tattoo on her back. She was taller than me and wore the same glasses. She gave me the once-over twice. I gave her my hand.

It turned out we had friends in common. Dozens, in fact.

It also turned out that she lived in my building. Just down the hall.

Another round, bartender.

From there things unfolded slowly and inevitably but not without collateral damage. She’d been attached but unhappy and so she ended it, perhaps a bit hastily. It was messy.

And then, at least briefly, it wasn’t. We’d come home from work most nights and watch old movies, smoke cigarettes and drink wine. She’d throw together an extemporaneous charcuterie plate or make borscht for dinner, and we’d debate the merits of Luis Buñuel’s “Exterminating Angel” or laugh hysterically while reciting our favorite “Kids in the Hall” skits. Some nights we’d say to hell with sleep and pile into her green mid-’70s Dodge Challenger, roll over to our favorite seedy, late-night downtown bar and share a few cheap, stiff drinks with her husband.

Oh, right. She was married. But not married married. He was gay. He was also Ukrainian. He needed citizenship to be with the man he loved. Ever the iconoclast, always an outlaw, she was happy to help.

She often sang to me, mostly at night as we dozed off to sleep. She didn’t have a particularly good singing voice, but she didn’t care. More often than not, the song she chose was “I’m Sticking With You” by the Velvet Undergound. Moe Tucker didn’t have a particularly good singing voice either, so it worked.

I’m sticking with you
‘cos I’m made out of glue
Anything that you might do
I’m gonna do, too

She sang it to me, affectionately, like she meant it.

But she didn’t. Mean it, I mean. And deep down we both knew it. From the very beginning it was apparent our relationship had a shelf-life. Ultimately she wanted things I didn’t want. Like to be married married.

And then about six weeks after it began, it ended. Her ex came back. He vowed to change. He got down on one knee and offered her a ring. A week later she moved out and, as far as I know, they’re living happily ever after.

But I don’t really know for sure. They don’t stop by the whiskey bar much anymore, and neither do their friends. From our old group of “regulars,” I’m the last man standing. I suppose nothing lasts forever.

Just ask the Ukrainian.

Nothing just happened

Those moments. The ones when you brush ever so lightly against your own mortality. The close calls. When everything slows down like “The Matrix” and the sum total of your life hangs in the balance so clearly that you can pick it up and run your fingers over its craggy surface or roll it around in your hands like some dog’s toy. It’s so small, you think. So … insignificant. But it’s all there: the pitiful little triumphs wadded together among the immense mistakes, or if you’re lucky, vice versa. But if you’re human, chances are you scan the ledger of your life and feel the weight of the bottom line in your gut: You’re operating at a deficit. Suddenly you find yourself bargaining with higher powers — forces you don’t even believe in. Making promises to yourself. Commitments to be a better person. To live well, to love well, to always do the right thing. You awe at the immensity of everything, at the indescribable beauty of the grand illusion, and you thank the universe for giving you whatever tiny role you play in this incomprehensible, maddening, twisted, ridiculous, excruciating and oh-my-god-so-unbelievably-precious continuum called life.

And then the moment passes. Neurotransmitter hits receptor and your heart drums on. And so you move forward, continuing to do all the same stupid shit you did before, just like nothing ever happened.

Because, as far as anyone can tell, nothing ever did.