Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Vampires Really Do Suck

When you thread your way up the southern coast of Oregon, you eventually come to a small seaside town called Gold Beach. The village itself isn't much, just a strip of motels and restaurants and the odd business that caters to West Coast sensibilities, like surfing supplies and doggie cupcakes.

But nestled against the unspoiled sand dunes and the impossibly wide beach is a place called Ireland's Rustic Lodges. The sign on the road proclaims that it's World Famous, and it stood out to such a degree from all the cookie-cutter motels on my recent trip north that I did a U-turn and checked in. The rooms are knotty-pine with vaulted ceilings, and they promise you all the firewood you can burn in the enormous stone hearth. Burn it I did, though the night was warm and still, and I fell asleep to the sound of the surf dragging across the sand.

In the morning I went down to take advantage of the complimentary breakfast room, and found it filled with a group of eight or so young people. From my vantage point it's impossible to gauge the age of youngsters these days but I'd guess they were college freshmen, falling somewhere between the classifications of hipster doofus and nerd, with the sort of self-possessed confidence that young people have today. They seemed to have some sort of shared purpose or direction, and though I was concerned that they would turn out to be members of a church group or, worse, chastity pledges, I began to talk to them. The reality was worse: they were on a self-guided tour of filming locations for the Twilight movie franchise.

"Wasn't that filmed in Washington state?" I asked, deliberately trying to rain on their parade.

"Oh, no," replied one boy in skinny black jeans and heavy black-framed glasses. "People think the location shots were all done in Washington. But a lot of it was filmed here in Oregon. Some scenes were even filmed nearby," he added in what I'm sure he thought was a tantalizing tone.

"So, what do you do when you get to one of these sites?" I asked, suddenly remembering being stopped on a street in San Francisco years ago by a New Jersey couple looking for Mrs. Doubtfire's house. "You know it's a movie, right?" I had said uncharitably before continuing my morning run.

The kids exchanged glances -- they were humoring me. "Sometimes we take digital pictures of ourselves where the characters were," a pretty brunette girl explained patiently. "And sometimes we just, you know...take it in."

Someone's bagel popped out of a toaster with a sad twang. "So you guys are really into this Twilight stuff, huh?" I said. "Why do you think it appeals to you so much?"

The only fat girl, her blondish hair dyed in chunks of blue and vermillion, answered almost tearfully. "He just loves her so much!" she exclaimed, color rushing to her wide, oily cheeks.

"What other books do you read?" I asked.

"We were really into Harry Potter," a skinny blond boy with a pierced eyebrow responded. "But that's, like, over." Big surprise, I thought. During the Harry Potter heyday, there were endless articles about how the series had driven kids back to reading. But if you asked those same kids what else they were reading, the answer was that they were rereading Harry Potter.

"You know, there are so many great books to read," I ventured. "Especially if you're drawn to the idea of obsessive love. Have you ever read D.H. Lawrence, or Jane Austen? Or how about Madame Bovary, by Flaubert, or even The Collector, by John Fowler? Most of them have even been turned into some really great films."

The kids looked at me blankly; the pretty brunette was texting someone on her iPhone. Only the fat girl answered me. "Are they about vampires?"

I went back to my lodge and started packing up the car.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Humanity's Oldest Argument

Years ago, when my mother and I were discussing my abandoned Catholicism, she said, "You know, there are no atheists in foxholes." Meaning, I guess, that when faced with the certainty of impending death most people turn back to religion.

That's why I have such respect for author and journalist Christopher Hitchens on what has been designated "Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day." Stricken with esophageal cancer and wracked by chemotherapy, the 62-year-old atheist, when asked about the religious movement arranged for his benefit through viral online networking, said, "I shall not be participating."

The fact that Hitchens is sticking to his guns in the face of the ultimate challenge is heartening to an atheist like me. It's a public display of a philosophical stance that gets very little exposure in a world where politicians invoke God at every opportunity and even our currency kowtows to the divine deity.

Hitchens says that the people praying for him today break down into three distinct groups: those who see his cancer diagnosis as vindication that he has displeased God with his outspoken anti-theism, those who want him to "see the light" and join their particular religious faith, and those who are asking God to heal him to demonstrate the Almighty's, well, might.

Hitchens told the Associate Press that he intends to stand by his atheistic views to the end, and would like to be recalled as one of those "who are attempting to uphold reason and science against superstition."

"This is a very long, long, long story," he said. "It's humanity's oldest argument. If I played a small part in keeping it going that would be enough for me."

I'm not going to be praying for Christopher Hitchens today. But I wish him the best, and sincerely appreciate his sage words on this most volatile of topics -- and how he's still fighting his final battle from that foxhole.  

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cheating Death

How we each deal with adversity and the grim realities of what it means to be human says so much about who we are as individuals. Take the case of two public figures who revealed this summer that they are both "battling," as they say, cancer: noted author and journalist Christopher Hitchens and actor Michael Douglas, both in their sixties, who suffer from similar afflictions. 

Douglas, the offspring of Hollywood royalty, grew up in privilege that surely boosted his rise up the ladder of success, starting with a prominent role on TV's The Streets of San Francisco in the 1970s. Now suffering from advanced stage 4 throat cancer, he trumpets "I'll beat this!" in 30-point type from the cover of People magazine. Hitchens, on the other hand, an avowed anti-theist who's the product of a hardscrabble English military upbringing, continues to write eloquent, realistic observations about facing the death that his metastic esophageal cancer, which has spread to his lungs and lymph nodes, seems to indicate is inescapable.

Douglas' upbeat outlook strikes me as narcissistic and foolish, a product of what writer Barbara Ehrenreich brands "bright-sided positive thinking." Having received a cancer diagnosis herself, she defied the self-help thinking and infantilized therapy that steers disease management and derails a patient's ability to come to terms with terminal illness. It's in keeping with the self-image of a celebrity like Douglas, who has been in the public eye since birth, to think that he can overcome what is essentially a death sentence, and consistent with the outlook of the contemporary medical industry to let terminally ill people believe that they can continuously bang their heads against the bulkhead of mortality and somehow break through. There's also a tang of hypocrisy around Douglas' fervency. Douglas is a lifelong smoker, party hound, and self-admitted compulsive sex addict who just this year used his celebrity status to mitigate the sentencing of his adult son for dealing methamphetamine. Google "Catherine Zeta Jones smoking" and you'll come across a gallery of images showing the actor's wife smoking cigarets in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

Hitchens, whose body of work has been both provocative and prodigious, makes no qualms about his own lifelong abuses of the flesh, and that's just one more layer of introspection he adds to his pragmatism about his illness. Yes, the writer is currently enduring the requisite rounds of chemo for the sake of his wife and children, but he's also contemplating the abyss with the same eloquence and realism that he's used to broach such topics as Islamic radicalism, Mother Teresa's messianic adulation, and waterboarding. In the current issue of Vanity Fair, he even evaluates online postings from supposed Christians who say his cancer is God's retribution for the blaspheming he conducted with his now afflicted throat. 

Death will always be an inevitable outcome for every living being. It amazes me that at this stage of human development so many of us still cling to the childish fantasies that keep us from making the grand exit with a degree of dignity that reflects our development and learnings as a species.  

Monday, September 13, 2010

Stressed to The Nines

These days, corporations try to appear actively engaged in making the world a better place. But so often their attempts are simply wrong-headed and neglect to take human nature into consideration.

I recently stayed at The Nines, "A Luxury Collection Hotel" in Portland, Oregon. I'm not sure if "luxury collection" means it's one in a collection of hotels or if one collects luxury there, but it's definitely a posh facility, seven or eight stories wrapped around a central atrium, all perched on top of the downtown Macy's in the heart of Pioneer Square. There is, of course, the requisite rooftop bar with outdoor terraces offering sweeping views of the city, along with several trendy restaurants frequented by Portland's most festively tattooed scruffy young things. The rooms are elaborately draped and carpeted, with 42-inch LED TVs, sea foam green velvet sofas, flocked wallpaper and marble bathrooms. And on each night stand is a card that reads:

Please note that all bedding including the duvet is cleaned prior to every arrival. We will make your bed each day. In an effort to further increase our sustainability practices at The Nines, we have also removed the top sheet of the bed. If you would prefer to have atop sheet during your stay, please contact our guest services...."

It's hard to believe that not having to launder an extra sheet per room is going to make a huge impact as to whether the Greenland Ice Shelf crashes into the sea or not, especially if the hotel has to launder or dry clean the duvet every night instead. Plus, what I quickly discovered is that when a hotel bed has no top sheet or even a light blanket, you only have the heavy down comforter as cover. So I did what I'm sure most other guests do: turn the thermostat down to 60 so the room will be chilly enough that you could hang meat in there and you'll actually need a down comforter. And what does that do but light another match under the cauldron of Global Warming?

It's great that companies like Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which owns and operates The Nines, are thinking about sustainability. But when those practices have no real-world practicality, it's simply greenwashing: the tendency for modern companies to spew the expected earth-friendly rhetoric without implementing anything that's at all likely to make "a world of difference."

And, on a separate note: as a compulsive ironer, I appreciated having a steam iron stored in the bedroom closet of my luxury suite. But could I maybe have an ironing board, too?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Six Signs That Your Company Is Going Under

With the economy still in the tank, you can expect lots more businesses to fail. Having worked at ad agencies large and small -- and keep in mind that agencies are the first businesses to reflect the health of the economy and, consequently, to go out of business -- I've seen the signs that the shop is about to be shuttered. So here are some tips on evaluating the health of your employer.

Stage 1: Perks you've taken for granted, like bottled water, suddenly disappear. Better dust off your resume; something's gone seriously wrong.

Stage 2: Your receptionist is suddenly let go. When management decides that visitors, clients and vendors no longer need to be greeted by a friendly face, you'd better update that resume.

Stage 3: They no longer provide free coffee. Start sending out those resumes and network with all your LinkedIn connections, because they've stopped caring about your creature comforts and productivity.

Stage 4: Key management personnel suddenly start jumping ship. The writing's on the wall. Take the office gossip to lunch to find out what he/she knows. But nowhere too fancy -- you've got to start being frugal.

Stage 5: Instead of your usual holiday bonus, you're handed a crisp $100 bill. You're fucked. If you don't get out now, you'll find yourself right in the middle of:

Stage 6: Your office furniture is being repossessed. Nothing says "it's over" like a burly guy in overalls wheeling away your desk.