Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Essay #7: Twitter Me This, Twitter Me That : Conversations with Talk Show Host Larry King

<---Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

"Have you ever known anyone who was murdered?"

I stared into the oily hot lights. My mind blanked. My eyes watered. "Why are you asking me that question?"

"Very well," he bellowed, pivoting his chair away from mine. "Back with more after the break."

The red RECORD dot of the camera disappeared. We were off the air. "I'm confused," I told Larry, he of the ubiquitous glasses riding high on his pterodactyl nose. "Why am I even here?"

"You're been following me," he said simply, shuffling the stack of papers in front of him.

"Following you? Why? Why would I follow around a 75 year old talk show host?"

He set down the papers and chuckled, suspendered shoulders bobbing.

"I'm sorry." I peeled off the microphone clipped to my shirt collar. "This interview's over."

"Number 264,300."


"You're on my list."

I looked at him. He looked at me.

"On my list of followers," he said. "Please, put the microphone back on."

He was talking Twitter, the express short messaging service embraced by celebrities and common people alike, a place where a talk show host could ask his hundreds of thousands of followers, "what ever happened to galoshes?"

I was "following" Larry King on Twitter, and I had to pay.

The RECORD light flicked on. We were back. "On April 17th, you asked New Raleigh writer Acree Graham if you were, and I'm quoting, 'selling out the future of the written word by Twittering.'"

"I did say that."

Larry nodded. He wanted more, so I gave it to him.

"I was skeptical," I said, "Twitter seemed like the ultimate language killer. Nonsense, really. Like the Internet doesn't have enough crap?"

"On April 21st, you tweeted basketball star Shaquille O'Neal?"

Damn, the lights were hot. "I don't recall, Larry."

"You don't recall?"

"Maybe...probably," I said. "Yeah."

"What did you ask him?"

I looked down at my hands. I was rubbing them together, hard. It was almost as if they were a separate entity, disconnected from all bodily thought. "I asked Shaq, 'What's in your iPod these days big man?'"

"Does that fit under your definition of nonsense, Alex?"

"I don't know! It seemed like a smart thing to ask at the time!"

Like a psychiatrist Larry deftly slid his thumb under his chin. "Did you learn to love Twitter?"

"No, that's too much," I said, recovering. "It can be entertaining, that's all. I'm not some holier-than-thou Maureen Dowd who dismisses it completely."

"What do you like about it?"

"Comedians. Paul Scheer tweeted, 'Just found out Dr. Dre isn't a real doctor, now I understand why he botched my hernia operation.' I laughed, Larry. I laughed."

"Why do some baseball players wear the brims of their hats flat?" he asked without missing a beat.

"You asked that from your Twitter, right?"

"What's the difference between a frankfurter and a hot dog?"

"I don't know, Larry."

"My sons will be bat boys at tonight's UCLA baseball game -- I am not sure who's more excited, them or me!"

"Do you want me to respond to that, or - "

"Have you ever known anyone who was murdered?"

"I think you tweet from the dark side."

I waited for Larry to laugh but he didn't. He stared at me, waiting for an answer. "I didn't murder anybody," I said, the words sounding, oddly, like a murder's on my tongue, "but I do know you spoiled the finale of The Celebrity Apprentice for me. You congratulated Joan Rivers before I watched the episode!"

For some reason, that snapped Larry out of it. "As an admitted user of the service, do you think this Twitter phenomenon will last?"

I shook off the verbal whiplash. "It might not. I read an article in AdWeek that said, 'about 60 percent of people on Twitter end up abandoning the service after a month.' That's a bad retention rate. People apparently don't stay. The other night, I was listening to Loveline with Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew -"

"Dr. Drew tweets."

"I know, and that sentence sounds filthy, but they were discussing our society's obsession with pushing the boundaries of what's extreme and what's immediate, whether it be energy drinks, sexual practices, or satellite television. They were suggesting that perhaps there will come a day when we can no longer go any faster or get any more now, and that the scales will tip towards delayed gratification. Longer will be cooler, if that makes any sense."

"A return to the days of hand-writing letters with quill pens?" Larry asked.

"Who knows? The point is, I don't know if Twitter will be around forever, but in the meantime I'll check it out now and again. I get a kick out of comedians and other smart folks who wring a visceral reaction from limited words. I mean, it's no replacement for any real communication; by comparison, it makes Facebook look bed-sharingly intimate. But Twitter can be a supplement, and as long as it makes me laugh, it's not the worst way to burn a minute or two."

Larry turned to the camera. "If you want it to rain, wash your car! I guarantee it will rain... happens to me everytime!"

"Thanks, Larry. Thank you very much."

Related posts:
Breaking Up With Facebook for a Week, Part I
Breaking Up With Facebook for a Week, Part 2
Breaking Up With Facebook for a Week, Part 3

<---Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

Last Sunday I almost burned my face off.

I can still feel the tension of the wire bending against the clomp of my scissors, the SNAP and SIZZLE like a firecracker splitting, me yelping "Oh!" like a grandma with a mouse in her pantyhose, and smoke: waxy, electric, hanging like a cloud in the den. Smoke.

Thinking I had unplugged the broken DVD player, I'd picked and jogged its rear cord through a mystical jumble of wires. The quickest way to clear the mess would be to chop the leash off the machine. After all, it had been squatting unused in a dusty bin for eight years. What could go wrong?

This: the TV gone black, the cable box too, a near fire, and me inches away from winning a Darwin Award, a monument to, "improving the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it."

I've always thought myself a cautious guy. One of the first words I learned was "hot," which I'd say when I was eighteen months old, pointing my little finger at the oven. "Hot," I'd state with the firm eloquence of a junior fire marshall, keeping a good two feet away from the oven and stove. When I got older I didn't climb limp-limbed trees or bike down 90-degree hills. My parents raised me for a life devoid of jackass moments. I didn't do dangerous things, but there were cracks in my armor.

On a dare from a friend with a mustache (we were ten), I ran across the green tarp of a swimming pool covered for the winter. The tarp slackened under my weight as I padded across it, a blur in black mesh Bulls shorts and Penny Hardaway sneakers. I was cool, hazardously cool. "Are you stupid?" my seventeen-year old sister asked. She approached the fence with a look somewhere between befuddled and dissapointed. That was the last time I ever raced across a covered pool.

The MTV show Jackass premiered in 2000, inspiring a whole generation of teenagers to stick worms into their nostrils and smear themselves in refried beans. I was not one of these teenagers; I had no desire to watch a grown man taser his testicles. Little did I know, I would create my own Jackass episode in my living room years later. All that was missing was a camera and me cocking my eye brow with a squirmy arrogance to say, "Watch this!"


The Burned Scissors Incident of 09' falls in between chapters of my life: college is done, Korea is over, and grad school doesn't start until August. One of my high school buddies, now a Ph.D student at an Ivy League university, was in a similar what-the-hell-am-I-doing-now stage last year: "I'm listening to Rhianna's 'Umbrella' and inputting stock at Book Traders," he said, "my life is great." Did the most memorable moment of my week really involve scissors and electricity? Is that how I'm taking my lessons until I move on? Well, yeah. I did learn something: if you turn off your brain and sleepwalk towards the Next Big Thing, you just might grow into a Jackass.

By the way, my grandfather is an electrician.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Essay #5: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

<---Sunday Essay #4: Cracking Open the Mailbag
--->Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

Vladimir splashes a shot of vodka into one glass and a shot of vodka into another. Both drinks are for him. His black hair, sweaty and flatly curly, halfway between John C. Reilly and a mullet, crowns a cherry tomato face with still beads for eyes. "I have genius idea," he warbles, "you will write it and I will correct it and we will receive Pulitzer." I expect him to smile but he doesn't. "Do you want to receive Pulitzer, Alex?"

I'm at my Uncle Jacob's 70th birthday bash and I'm surrounded by Russians. This is no Bolshevik Revolution; this is a family celebration, a kind of gathering to which I've grown accustomed over twenty-four years. When I was little, I sneered at the plates of toast slathered in butter and red caviar. Russian food was gross, I thought. Who'd want to touch a beet salad when you could eat bologna on Wonder Bread? But that was the point of view of my six-year-old self, a skinny kid who read Bernstein Bears and snapped legs off Ninja Turtle action figures. Now I'm a graduate student in my mid-twenties. I've lived overseas and fattened my belly with live squid and raw cow liver. No longer do I find Russian food gross. Now, I find Russian food weird-looking.

At least I don't play with Ninja Turtles anymore.

Vladimir's Pulitzer question hangs in the air, unanswered. Meanwhile, I watch the toastmaster as he rises from his chair to entertain fifty guests with fifty opinions. Who is this master of ceremonies? He's the guy with a gray tangle of chest hair bristling apologetically from an underbuttoned silk shirt. His smile a you-think-I'm-funny-like-a-clown warning, his silver-spiked hair a certificate of a thousand past toasts at a thousand past weddings, he's Andre the Giant-tall and he has brass rings on his knuckles. He's no DiMaggio, but I bet he's swung a baseball bat. Paging Marty Scorsese, here's your lead for Goodfellas 2. "My Russian is not so good, so I will give toast in English," he jokes, before launching into a hearty Russian-tongued introduction.

My understanding of the Russian language is either laughably bad or surprisingly good, depending on your expectations. When I assure people that my vocabulary can't outwit a Moscow toddler's, I shock them with a casual, "Knee mah goo jaw vul lutz uh" or "I can't complain." For that reason, my Aunt Inna has enlisted my help to translate tonight's toasts for the American couple sitting across me: Mr. Weiss, a friendly but finicky-eyed gentleman, and his wife Ms. Weiss, a heavyset brown-eyed women with a metaphorical leash tapering her husband's ankles. "You lived in Atlanta?" Mr. Weiss asks me, his left eye blinking quickly, a tic. "Have you ever eaten a hamburger at The Varsity?"

"Shh!" hushes Ms. Weiss. "Listen to the toasts!"

I smile at Mr. Weiss, who rolls his eyes as if his wife were his drill sergeant mama.

As for the toasts, I completely understand maybe one of every seven beats, just enough to use creative liberties: "Family is important," I say, underlining fragments of my uncle's sister's words to Ms. Weiss, "Happiness...Jacob's wife...very good...can't want anything more...very good," I say. Lina and Katya giggle at my stuttering performance. They're recent high school graduates, teenage twins who I remember still as little girls in t-shirts stretched to their toes, spinning around in circles at the Cherry Rd. apartments thirteen years ago. We've spent a good chuck of the night talking about college, and then my childhood best friend, whose parents hit it big with a chain of popular liquor stores and subsequently moved into a house with a widely ballyhooed golden toilet. Vladimir bothers the girls with pointed questions about their majors, questions they answer with respectful smiles and I-dunnos. He then turns to me: "You want to be like Coen Brothers?"

"The Coen Brothers are great," I say.

"Academy authority say they are good," he says with a wave of the hand, "but that movie No Man, No Place For No Man, boring. Slow."

"I liked No Country for Old Men," I say.

He waves his hand again. "Do you want to hear my genius idea, Alex?"

I'm distracted by my cousin's three-year-old son, unfazed by the scratch on his nose, marching with a staff through the den as if he's a baby Moses. I offer him a high-five, which he delivers crisply. I offer him another one, but this time, I pull my hand away at the last second. Spooked, he looks at me. "Okay," he says, turning away and walking off. Sorry, baby Moses!

I don't always have a good time at these Russian-heavy functions, but tonight is an exception. "Law school, Alex, go to law school, Alex," my Uncle Jacob says. He is not my biological uncle, but he fills the role with back-slapping advice-giving warmth. His son Eugene, a product manufacturer lawyer, intervenes with commaless precision: "Don't go to law school don't go to law school don't go to law school." He summarizes his father's words with a classic one-liner from The Graduate: "I want to say one word to you. Just one word....Plastics."

After a few more drinks, Vladimir finally offers me up his genius idea; unfortunately, I don't really understand it. It involves an old woman, cancer, an affair, and some lugubrious twist muddled by whiskey. I lose interest. He wags his finger at me and says, "If you don't like it, you can be small teacher at Florida school!" In no uncertain terms, Vladimir is telling me to forget about the Pulitzer. Oh well.

There's always plastics.

<---Sunday Essay #4: Cracking Open the Mailbag
--->Sunday Essay #6: My Jackass Moment

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sunday Essay #4: Cracking Open the Mailbag

<---Sunday Essay #3: Who Wants to Be a Speed Dating Veteran?
--->Sunday Essay #5: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

"You seem to have a tendency of stalking people," he wrote anonymously.

The pronouncement was a fortune cookie from hell, made by an online stranger in the comments section of my essay The Sammy Mystery. I had written about a friend of mine, an Ethiopian Jew who'd mysteriously entered my life years ago only to vanish without a trace. I'm not sure what in the piece implied that I had stalkerish tendencies: was it because I mentioned emailing the Israeli absorption embassy to search for my friend? Could the anonymous commenter be *gasp* Sammy himself?

Though my plot-twist-hungry mind wants that to be the case, the guilty party is more likely someone who googled "Ethiopian Jew," found my essay, and decided that I was a moonbat who stalked people.

Since June 2007, I've posted 114 blog entries. (WHAT YOU WANT, A COOKIE?) Most of the correspondance I've recieved has been flattering, even generous. But what I want to address today are the times I rubbed readers the wrong way.

Let's crack open the mailbag!

On Small Talks and Rent-a-Cops 7/12/2007
Laney Shin wrote..."I got the feeling of a slight superiority complex on your part; no offense but maybe that's what you were going for." (comment via facebook)

This comment came on the heels of a lightly comedic observational piece I'd written about a security guard with a colorful personality. Thinking I had been too tough on the guy, I issued a mea culpa a few weeks later. Was that necessary? If you're curious, you can read the original article and decide for yourself.

What interests me more is Laney Shin's classic use of the "no offense" card. Has anyone in the history of mankind used "no offense" as preamble for something positive: No offense, but your risotto tastes like the flesh of a fallen angel! Does that ever happen? Probably not. Instead we get, "No offense, but I will now try to passive-aggressively offend you!"

When A Neighbor's Dog Craps in Your Yard... 7/26/2007
Jeff wrote..."rather than the passive aggressive approach, how about being more direct and just saying, 'would you like a bag to clean that up?'. they won't do it again, and they'll respect you for it, instead of hating you forever for being angry at them."

Jeff does not approve of the way I stared down a neighbor whose dog polluted my parents' lawn. What starts off as a condescending reproach ("rather than the passive aggressive approach, how about being more direct") ends with a verbal sledgehammer ("hating you forever"). So, I write a tongue-in-cheek essay about guilt trips and the only feedback I receive burns with words like "hating" and "forever"? Really? I guess that's what happens when you pimp your blog on the gently Democratic Republic of Craigslist.

Teaching English in Bundang, South Korea - Your FAQ Answered! 1/29/2009
Anonymous wrote..."Ha. You were my neighbor [in Korea]...weren't too friendly either. I hope you improve on that."

Who is this person? My spidey sense tingles Canadian, Canadian, Canadian. I'm picturing a maple leaf backpack and an aura of don't-you-dare-mistake-me-for-a-U.S.-American defensiveness. I might have launched a continent-shaking fart when I shared an elevator with this individual, but I don't think I did that. Maybe I should have.

On Sunday Essay #1: Party Like a Writer! Party Like a Writer? 4/12/2009
Anonymous wrote..."I remember that party. You were the quiet guy in the Cosby sweater with snowflakes on it. I'm not sure what that means."

That sweater was a GIFT!

If you're using Cosby as a pejorative, know that I bow at the altar of Jell-O Bill. Plus, those aren't snowflakes; they're carefully-woven Eddie Bauer stiches. Though my Facebook rankings tell me otherwise, my fashion sense needs no improvement, thank you.

While my dream is to make a living writing about my life and the lives of others, do I turn strangely defensive when someone writes about me? Well, it does feel a bit weird and a bit icky to be at the mercy of another person's pen. That might make me a hypocrite, but I think that's just part and parcel of the writing game. We're all characters in somebody else's story.

Until next time, this is the mailbag. Remember to drive safely and drink your milk, or I will hate you forever.

<---Sunday Essay #3: Who Wants to Be a Speed Dating Veteran?

--->Sunday Essay #5: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!