Monday, August 31, 2009

LA Burns

This photo from LA Times' Don Bartletti illustrates what greeted me as I landed in Los Angeles a few hours ago. I've already heard one newscaster say that the smoke from the EIGHT fires currently burning in Southern California "may even stretch all the way to Denver."

So the troubles of my homeland will find me no matter where I go.

(Wally Skalij/LA Times)

The "angry" fires have now burned more than 105,000 acres with no end in sight. Already two firefighters have died, 53 homes are gone and over 7,000 people have been evacuated. The fires threaten Mt. Wilson, which contains the great majority of cell phone towers, radio and television towers for the LA area. If these fires aren't contained soon, communications in the area could be wiped out ... which means I'll be following the action on Twitter, just in case.

My childhood friends and I don't recall raging fires being an annual summer event like they are now. It's getting to be where the destruction is more reliable than hurricane season in the South. What is going on?

(Genaro Molino/LA Times)

I could even see the mountain sides burning from my mother's 7th floor hospital window in Long Beach. Thankfully, she passed her angiogram with flying colors - no blockage anywhere. She also gobbled her dinner down like a hungry baby bird - poor gal hadn't eaten anything in 25 hours thanks to all the testing going on.

Tomorrow, we'll hear from the doctor about next steps. I'm hoping the view from her window gets less exciting as the days go on.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Lately, as in the last 25 years or so, I've pondered this word 'home.' It is kinda like 'love' or 'God' - meaning many things to many people.

On Friday night, riding the H Line home from a drinks/dinner/drinks-fueled meeting downtown, I was thinking that I'm finally starting to feel like I truly live in Colorado - like I have friends, a life and possibly a future here. Of course, getting a local number helped this mind shift tremendously; it was like cutting an invisible cord that stretched all the way back to San Francisco. Painful but freeing at the same time.

I've been anticipating a trip next week to North Dakota, my #1 favorite underdog state. (Mississippi is #2.) We'd be seeing family, our farmland and stopping by my mother's childhood home, which is in the process of being slowly reclaimed by nature, somewhat of a North Dakota tradition. Animals occasionally set up camp in the living room where we once played board games and tree limbs are gradually crushing the structure in a suffocating embrace. It is ghostly, sad and yet somehow justified.

Years ago, the time had finally arrived when the house had to be emptied of valued furniture and mementos - an emotional task that my mother long dreaded. I booked a flight to meet up with my mother and Cousin Linda and hopped in the Super Shuttle. There, I met a young woman and as travelers often do, we exchanged facts about where we were headed and why.

When I told her my strange mission, she exclaimed: "Wow. Your mother is so lucky. We moved so often when I was growing up, I don't even have a childhood home, let alone one that I could still visit." This gal put an entirely different light on the situation; she could only dream about a run-down farmhouse frozen in time and yet, to my mother, it was one big emotional wringer sitting on the prairie, haunting her.

Anyway, I got a phone call on Saturday that has canceled this trip and inspired a new one. My mom called 911 on herself around 3 a.m. that day, fearful that she was having a heart attack. She's now in a hospital and tomorrow, I head back to my hometown, Long Beach, to be with her. I HATE the idea of her being alone in a hospital bed when she was there every second of so many of my hospital visits. I am anxious to be at her side, squeeze her hand and make her laugh about anything at all.

Am I going home? Am I leaving home? I dunno but my best friend, Lisa, is picking me up at the airport and taking me to the very same house I grew up in. Like my mother, I am fortunate to have a standing museum to my childhood and though it is in tip-top shape, it also carries both joy and some echoes of sadness.

Maybe in the end, it doesn't matter where you pick up your mail or what address it says on your lease or mortgage agreement. Maybe home is just wherever you find love.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

BlogHer Cross-Post: Interview with Matthew Gasteier, creator of "F U, Penguin" blog

I often forget to share my BlogHer stuff here but today's a good 'un.

Last October, 27-year-old Matthew Gasteier got fed up with all the cuteness of animal blogs such as ICanHasCheezburger and CuteOverload. The result was the creation of the devastatingly funny "Fuck You, Penguin" - "A blog where I tell cute animals what's what." Flash forward to present day, where the blog gets 10-20,000 hits daily and Matthew's blog-based book, "FU, Penguin" hit store shelves yesterday.

BlogHer's Animal Concerns Editor caught up with the busy boy to find out what his deal is.

So, Matthew, what's your problem with cute animals?

I don't have a problem with cute animals on their face. I just think that there's a certain way that cute animals should carry themselves that shows a certain level of respect to the person that is looking at the cute animal. If an animal is interacting with me on a normal level where, say we can discuss intellectual viewpoints on the geopolitical climate, then that's fine. But if they are going to just roll around on the ground and show me their belly, then I have I problem.

Are you not cute? I heard you were handsome, which is not even remotely the same thing.

I've gotten my share of compliments ... from made-up interviewers. The blog isn't about me, it's about what I've done for the world, which is the blog.

The blog is what you've done for the world?

Did I need to do anything else?

Does your entire human family have a heart of stone or just you?

I guess I should probably take offense to the idea that I have a heart of stone. I love animals and I love people. Just as there are good people and bad people there are good animals and bad animals. For example, I love krill. Krill are hardworking and trying to make their way in the world and penguins come along and eat them. Also, penguins love pyramid schemes.

Did you always have a potty mouth? Did you eat a lot of soap as a kid?

I try to keep the blog as clean as possible but the animals make me upset and I lose control. At a certain point, it becomes so ridiculous that I can't help myself. When you are dealing with something that is so dark and depraved, you really have to fight with fire.

Have you received any threatening letters - perhaps with hearts over 'i's' and smiley faces in the margins - from pro-cute sites like 'ICanHasCheezburger' and CuteOverload?'

I did have a brief battle with Cute Overload but that played out mostly in the comments section. I did, at one point, compare them to Nazi Germany but it's all in good fun.

What animals pisses you off the most? Who is the most manipulative? Is it indeed the penguin?

I named the site obviously after the penguin but after I've receiving lots of emails and looking through my own collection, I've concluded that it may be the panda, ultimately, because they are so entitled. They just sit around all day, eating bamboo while they wait for us to set them up with attractive women to have sex with. I don't appreciate it.

Yeah, it does sound like a pretty sweet deal. And what about the Red Panda?

Red panda is a complete farce - it's not even an actual panda. Its other name is the Firefox and it is not actually a fox so I don't understand what the panda is going for there. If there is one thing I'm not looking for in my pandas, it's a smaller version of them.

Are some animals more uppity than others?

The #1 uppity animal is the dolphin. It thinks that it's better than everybody else. It will never hesitate to point out that you are not shooting that basketball the correct way or bouncing that beach ball in the correct way. I just don't appreciate their attitude.

Also, they do seem to have a permanent smirk ...

Absolutely. Overall, think that they are better than us. Even though it is probably is true, they should keep it to themselves and be more discreet. After all, I don't go around to a sloth telling him all the things I did today.

Thoughts on cross-species canoodling?

I am opposed to it. That's all I have to say on the matter. A lawsuit is still pending.

Do you think there is an evolutionary reason for cuteness? Do you even believe in evolution?

Yeah, I believe in evolution although I never really thought about it. Reason? I guess so in the same way that there an evolutionary reason for lying. It's not that I don't respect the effort that these animals are putting up. I understand.

For example, I like cookies, I'm a big fan. I will do pretty much anything to get a cookie. When I see a puppy roll around on its back to get a cookie, I'm thinking, "Touche" but that doesn't mean I'm going to accept that from the puppy. I would hope that if I were in that situation I wouldn't resort to that. Then again, if the situation were reversed, I would hope that that were someone as equally as wonderful as me to set them straight. I'm here to keep the animals honest.

I notice in the book (pp. 96-97) that you were basically won over by the incredibly plump prairie dog, admitting that his fat folds were "as cute as shit" and you go on to say, "Damn you and your scheming ways." Is this a crack in your steely snarky armor?

I think occasionally an animal will get to me for a moment but I've shown time and time again and that I will return to where I am firmly in control of the situation. I think that's why people come back to reading the site because they know they can trust me because they know that it is 100% literally how I feel.

Do you know any cute animals personally? Do you live with any?

I don't live with any cute animals. I have known a few on occasion. Recently, I had a puppy stay with me but it left to go back to its owners and it's okay. I've moved on ... kind of. Things have been hard in life but I'm putting the pieces back together.

I'm looking for a dog right now and I've met a few applicants but I haven't really found one that has clicked with me on an inter-personal basis. I mean, you want a dog that you can walk up to, shake hands with and say 'How do you?' and I think people have stopped demanding that from dogs. People have really lowered their puppy standards.

It's almost a dumbing down of puppy-dom.

Yes, and I really think that the TV and the Internet are to blame. Most of the kids these days can't even spell cheeseburger, which is really strange.

Especially considering it is a major food group for them.

Very odd.

Do you ever visit zoos or circuses just to yell at animals in person? It seems kind of cowardice to only insult them online.

I haven't left my house in awhile so .... but sometimes I take virtual zoo tours online which is basically the same thing.

Isn't your book just a republish of your blog? Is there anything new here?

There actually is. 1/3 of the posts are new and I've spent years in the field doing research coming up with nano-facts for each animal. There's cold hard truths about penguins. There's also a whole suggestion section for domestic animals - a 'Try this at home' section. It's a how-to on the proper way to raise an animal. There's pitfalls that the conventional books don't teach you and I want to make sure you don't fall into those traps.

To make sure you don't have an asshole for a pet?



(The rest of the interview Matthew kindly conducted out of out-of-character.)

How much time per week do you spend on your FU blog?

When I first started, it was every day. Some posts will take 5 minutes and others will take an hour and half, including moderating comments, answering emails and such. I probably spend two to three hours per week on the blog, maybe four.

Do you have a day job?

Yes, I do film market research. I even called myself a 'soul sucking vampire' today.

Where do you get the photos for the blog?

I pull them off web for the blog but for the book, everything was cleared. I've been using a stock photo house that's been pretty good to me. All the domestic animals are from people - readers send them in, pet owners - and you'll notice I call those animals by their real names. These days, about one-third are specific photos sent in from owners.

How many readers?

It ranges - somewhere around 10-20,000 hits a day.

Can you quit your job?

No! I don't see myself quitting my job. It's a nice thing to do but ...

Here's one piece of advice to anyone thinking of starting something like this: Use user-submitted material! Cheezburger posts 200 times a day - all from readers. It's a lot harder to keep it fresh when it is all you. Fortunately, I still producing funny work and people seem to like it but who knows when it will no longer be funny? I want to make a good site but I don't want to make a career out of it.

Where do you see you and the blog a year from now? Do you expect to run out of annoying beasts to vilify?

I have no idea. I didn't think it would last this long, to be honest. When I was approached about a book, I didn't think the blog would last through all the way to publication. I don't know where any of this comes from so I don't know how long it will last.

When did you know it was big?

It all happened really, really fast. The blog started last October and the book came together in late January, when I was approached by publishers. It got popular in early December. The first big thing was being linked by VeryShortList. It was building before then but that day I got 80,000 hits or something ridiculous. That's when I realized. Agents and publishers started contacting me - which was weird and silly. Being on Jezebel ...and in WIRED! You're thinking nothing else big is going to happen and then something else happen.

Why do you think it is so popular?

People like cute animals and cursing - two of the most popular things on the Internet. It does seem like this weird combination of things. I didn't know that there were so many people out there who share that sense of humor and to see it on a website was exciting.

Is it the same people who love Cheezburger and Cute Overload?

It's a sliver of those people who like that kind of stuff but also have this other side to them that is snarky. There's also people who read my blog who hate that kind of stuff and they see it as a response to that. As long as people are laughing, it doesn't really matter.

Have you heard from PETA?

It was funny - I got followed by PETA on Twitter, that was surreal, but I haven't heard from them. I have received submissions from people who work in other animal rights groups. I think they are in on the joke.

Matthew Gasteier, 27, lives in Massachusetts with his wife. He also wrote another book, this one about music: "Nas' Illmatic" Evidently, Matthew was a hip-hop music critic for awhile and the book is part of a series on classic hip-hop albums.

'FU, Penguin' can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders and Indie Bound.


(Image Credits: Top - Villard Publshing; Middle - doggie - FU Penguin; Middle - RedPanda - Rolf Hicker; Beaver - FU Penguin; Bottom - zebra-ass - FU Penguin)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Clizzy is Bizzy

When I recently purchased an iPhone, the chirpy AT&T salesman asked me a bunch of pertinent questions, including:

"Who is your employer?"


"Um, me. I guess."

"Lucky you!"

Looks like I got a promotion.

Yes, well after giving myself the summer off (I'm the greatest boss, ever!), it's time to get on the short bus and head back to work. Thanks to some amazing new friendships, it looks like I might have some work helping out the Colorado film community.

(Please enjoy the photo above - a 1917 film camera complete with lantern box - sitting in the lobby of Post Modern, a very cool post-production facility here in Denver.)

I adore working with film folks for they are my people. Coming from LA, it's like I found a remote branch of the family tree far from the original source. Like the time I ran into my neighbor on a beach in Greece, only with less Ouzo.

Back to the set!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Late Summer

This gorgeous fellow hung out under my patio lamp for exactly two days and two nights with a distinct message: "Summer is slipping away, my friend. Do not waste it." I'm certainly doing my best and have a few projects on the stove ...

I'm working on a new project with my pal, Sam - photographing and investigating the history of all the cool neon signs in Denver. Okay, so Sam is the pro photographer here and I'm the writer but it's fun scoping out different neighborhoods and talking to random folks. It's a great way to get to know the nooks and crannies of this city.

I finally gave in a bought a new iPhone 3G-S today (16GB). I even acquired a new Colorado phone number! A big step. That means I'll be getting rid of my San Francisco 415 number which I've had since Sun Microsystems forced me to get a cell phone in preparation for CES back in January 2001.

More than anything, it is the final declaration that I live here now - that I gulp thin air and wear fleece to parties that start at 6 p.m. - and not in the Bay Area. And yes, it is bittersweet.

The garden is starting to really produce gems of yumminess and I'm trying to keep up. The zucchinis, of course, keep me busy and I've already made pesto to freeze for winter but the tomatoes are slow. The cilantro has expired, the dill is staying strong but the eggplant and acorn squash are certainly taking their sweet ass time.

I'm getting lots of the little yellow pear tomatoes and a few peppers but I fear that everyone will show up and once and much will go to waste. It's like throwing a party when all your guests arrive and leave at the same time and you never really get to talk to anyone for longer than five minutes. Blech.

I've got some fun stuff cooking with the film community here in town. I'm so jazzed to finally put all my evil skills to use, specifically, to increase the success and fortunes of creative types with little or no PR know-how. I think it's the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

And yes, we've still got five more weeks of summer so plenty of time to acquire more bad tan lines, drink frozen concoctions, go for bike rides and read trashy novels. Hangin' on ....

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Evening With Les Paul

Les Paul, the guitar legend and inventor who changed the course of music with the electric guitar and multi-track recording and had a string of hits, left us today. He was 94.

Of course, we music lovers are sad but let's face it, 94 years on Earth - much of them jamming on a guitar - can absolutely be considered success. I will surely spend the evening strumming my own humble guitar in his honor and remembering my brief encounter with Les.

In October 2006, I found myself in New York for work. I'd come back to my NYC homebase, the Roger Smith Hotel on Lexington, after some corporate-themed wine-tasting event but was still mighty restless. New York has that effect on me. So I headed out for a stroll and in a move I will never forgive myself for, opted NOT to take my camera.

As I headed toward Times Square, I recalled a tip from a random CEO I'd met earlier in the evening. "Drop by the Iridium club if you get a chance," he'd said, in between fancy cheeses and the exotic olives, "I hear Les Paul still plays there once in awhile."

And so, I had a goal, to find the Iridium. I had fun asking folks all over the place, mostly street food vendors, about the club. At last, I found myself happily forking $25 for the honor of seeing the Master perform.

Being only one person (always the big upside), I easily found a spot in front in the tiny underground club. When Les finally took the stage, he was greeted warmly by a crowd who knew a legend was in their midst.

Of course, he worked his guitar (a Gibson Les Paul, natch) like a virtuoso with soul. Les told stories upon stories about the days when he "and my Mary" (his musical partner and wife, Mary Ford) would perform together. There really should have been a campfire going with Grandpa telling tales by the moonlight - this is what it felt like. I felt so smart for being there.

It was similar to when I'd interviewed the fellow who'd invented the birth control pill, I was overwhelmed with the man's global effect. This is the dude who basically invented the electric guitar! Unbelievable. Bob Dylan should be washing his feet.

At one point, the room broke into singing "Happy Birthday" for Les, even though he'd turned 91 four months before. Clearly, he loved it and commented, "When you get past 90, everyone wants to celebrate your birthday all the time, which is fine by me."

After the lengthy show (I remember thinking, 'Um, I thought old people get tired. No?'), a handful of us stood in line to buy a CD from Les' brother. He had them in a big cardboard box behind an amp. A few of us stayed a bit longer, as the club staff cleaned up around us, in hopes of meeting The Man.

Sure enough, he came out and an autograph line quickly formed. Now, I am not much of an autograph hound and have only asked for one other in my life. (I'd asked Phyllis Diller to sign her 1955 comedy album.) This was the exception - Les Paul is musical royalty.

When I reached the front, I fawned like a Beatle fan circa 1965. He loved it.

"What's your name, doll?"


"That's a beautiful name. Thanks for coming down, Heather."


(Laughing now) "I feel pretty lucky to be here. Hey, maybe I'll get a kiss for my birthday?"


I planted a big wet one on him so fast and he threw his head back and laughed some more. What a delightful man. I love it when legends don't let you down. I floated all the way back to my hotel and read the inscription on my CD, "The Best of Les Paul: The Millennium Collection" over and over again.

"To Heather. Hi, Doll! Les Paul."

RIP Les. So glad you are back with your Mary. Tell her we all said hello.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Angels on the River

My five days camping on the Green River will be difficult to accurately describe. It was more intensely spiritual than I ever expected and I know that everyone who was there will agree.

As one fellow camper, Michelle (a she-pirate living in Florida), said to me today on Facebook, "And I thought we were just going canoing."

Several factors here:

Scenery - We're talking jaw-dropping, oh-my-god, wow-wow-wow kind of stuff. Words like "eye candy", "majestic", "magnificent" and "amazing" were bandied about every day. Massive red canyons, blackened by desert varnish, rose high above our heads as we paddled down the very green Green River. The sky was powder blue and the green, fluffy (albeit evil) tamarisk lined the banks with the occasional cottonwood tree popping its head up.

Music - The husband and wife team of Rich and Jacquie make up the band, Small Potatoes, and they were the main entertainment. (Videos to come.) Of course, they were phenomenal musicians that performed every single night but as it turned out, they were not the only ones musically inclined. Nearly everyone had some talent to share. Exhibit A - these two adorable sisters, Heidi and Kristy, from Chicago:

- The first few days we faced some nasty winds, forcing us to tie up our boats to one another, and face the waves together. With nothing to do but paddle, take in the scenery and spill our life stories, we formed bonds. Technology is a wonderful thing but throw a bunch of unplugged strangers together in the wilds of Utah and magical things happen.

Group Dynamics - There's no doubt about it, we got lucky here. There were 20 of us, plus three expert guides, in our Centennial Canoe gang. (Best canoe company EVER! I take a trip with them every summer and I'm more impressed each year.)

We decided to hold a Sunday morning spiritual service to celebrate our time together before we all went our separate ways. We grouped the boats together and floated down through the canyon as we sang "Amazing Grace" and talked about what the trip meant to us. We took turns telling stories, quoting poets and philosophers and generally spilling our guts. Nobody talked over one anyone; every single person sat quietly and listened.

The service was led by a wonderful fellow in our group, Glenn, who happened to be a minister from Texas. Talk about exuding peace, humor and joy - Glenn and his lovely wife, Dottie, have cornered the market. Dottie is hilarious and Glenn rubs everyones' feet with twinkly, smiling eyes. They are genuinely happy people and you catch it like a cold.

By the end of the service, we were all quietly weeping with an unmistakably joy. I've never experienced anything like it. This was no mere vacation, it felt more like a healing retreat.

I spoke up only to say that the last time I'd been down the Green River, it was a geology trip where there were many discussions about what time does to the landscape. We should take this lesson and apply it to our own lives, which are constantly changing, and think about how we all want to spend the time we have left.

I went on to say that the trip reaffirmed my suspicion that there are no strangers in the world, only friends I have not yet met. I just added 20+ amazing individuals to my stash of buddies and I'm so honored to have paddled alongside them.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Gone Floatin'

Tomorrow morning, Gins and I are loading up my handsome truck, Jack, and heading to Moab, Utah, the Land of Pink and Red. There, we'll meet up with a bunch of friends we haven't met yet and make our way down - up? - the beautiful Green River.

I did this same trip last year with a geology theme. This year, the theme is music and we'll be traveling with a bluegrass band called Small Potatoes. It's going to be AFRICA HOT there - like triple digit stuff but hey man, it's summer. There are at least nine freezing cold San Francisco summers that I need to make up for. (Wearing wool in July is just wrong, trust me.)

Once again, my jaw will drop at the unbelievable canyons of deep reds blackened with the mysterious desert varnish. We will laugh a lot, eat too much and tell our life stories. At night, we'll look at the stars, sit around the campfire and sing songs. There will be no cell phones, no googling and no plumbing. Pure bliss.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Friend Comes Full Circle

My pal, Tony, and his lovely wife, Dani, brought home their new baby boy, Oliver, today. Yesterday, Tony published an article in Newsweek entitled: "My Father the Dope Dealer."

For only the third time since he was 10, Tony tracks down his father, now living in squalor in Cambridge, and interviews him about his long life of crime. He also interviews his own mother, his family friends and his father's business partners in an effort to piece together the mysterious and bizarre segments of his bizarre childhood.

I couldn't possibly summarize it all here but it does involve long road trips with his mother across the country to find coolers of cash, hookers brought to family functions and a son finally facing the truth, just as he enters fatherhood.

The article is a gripping read but the accompanying video - with Tony interviewing his own father documentary-style - makes for some cringe-worthy footage.

Congrats to Tony - on all fronts. You've slain the beast.