Sunday, December 7, 2008

Rogue Leaders

Congratulations are due my old friend, colleague, and all-around top man Rob Smith on the publication of his book Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts, just released by Chronicle Books. It's a gorgeous coffee-table edition that tells the tale of George Lucas' videogame company, and represents the culmination of almost two years' effort by Rob.

And it's a distinct honor for me to be named in the Author's Acknowledgments on the back page. Too kind of you, sir.

Plus: Check out the very bottom of the book cover. How freakin' cool is it for Rob to have his author credit right next to "Foreword by George Lucas"? Answer: completely cool.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Night -- victory and defeat

CBS News and FOX had both called Ohio for Obama by the time I left the office at 7:30. The presidential race was over; on the way out the door, I passed by our African-American security guard, who was staring at the election returns on the front-desk computer. I said to him, "It's a helluva thing," and he grinned and said "It is."

I made my way into San Francisco to the Westin St. Francis Hotel, where the "No on 8" campaign had set up its election-night headquarters. Among friends equally gripped by hope for the moment, I watched Obama's victory speech on a jumbo screen and felt for the first time in my life the call of a real national leader, in a moment when we badly needed one.

(A little old man, Spanish or Italian, wandered in and obviously couldn't speak a word of English or read a word on the TV screen. He asked me, with hopeful eyes, a single mangled word: "Oh-bama?" And when I nodded a comforting "yes," he lit up and walked back out of the room, deeply satisfied.)

I listened to Obama's speech in the grip of powerful emotions, and I don't have much to say or write about those emotions just now -- I was reminded earlier today of Frederick Douglass, who upon witnessing the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation declared that it was "hardly a day for prose" -- but I do want to relay how mixed the feelings were in that ballroom at the Westin St. Francis.

Because Obama's speech was quickly followed by the early returns on California's Prop 8, amending the state constitution to deny the right of marriage to same-sex couples. And even though only 5% of precincts had reported, I understood (along with all of the professional political operatives in the room) that the 56% support rate indicated a crushing blow to the hopes of Californians seeking equal protection under the law.

It will be interesting to tell people decades down the road exactly where I was the night America elected its first president of color -- in a hotel ballroom among hundreds of gay men and women and their straight friends who watched Obama in hope that the discriminatory legislation being passed in California that same evening could eventually be undone, overcome with the same kind of cathartic redemption. Someday. Hopefully soon.

In any case, Union Square was filled with jubilant San Franciscans, and we joined them. We got ourselves good wine at the Four Seasons bar. After eight breathless years, it was time to exhale.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


In a previous election year (2000, to be exact), I asked my friend Ariana for her political philosophy. She quoted Gandhi: "Non-cooperation with evil." That's what I had in mind as I cast my ballot today, at the reassuringly packed County Registrar. Here's hoping for a brighter day -- for example, Wednesday.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

David Sedaris @ SF Opera House

There is one category of literature that has always escaped my appreciation -- the humorous memoir. I just don't "get it." Maybe it's presumptuous of me, but it's never seemed like much of an accomplishment to set one's absurd stories down on paper and trumpet them as somehow more compelling than (say) the absurd stories you hear every day from everyone that you know. I hear a lot of good stories day in and day out; my attitude is that you'd better have some damn good stories to justify my shelling out bucks when I've got plenty of friends and acquaintances who can regale me with entertaining stories for free.

David Sedaris is the bestselling memoir author whose wit has been compared to Mark Twain. Now, that's some f---in' praise you don't want to be throwing around lightly. After all, Twain is the guy who wrote, "Clothes make the man; naked people have little or no influence on society.")
I've heard Sedaris read numerous times on NPR and never really got much out of his stories; he always seemed more like Jerry Seinfeld than Mark Twain..."observational" humor about the foibles of family and friends. Sedaris adds florid language to Seinfeld's mundane insights, and the result is a literary elevation of Jerry's episode-intro sketches. But that's just one man's opinion; the fact is, Sedaris sells more books than just about anyone other than Oprah Winfrey, and lots of my friends swear by him.

So I finally took the opportunity to see one of his live performances at the Opera House, where he read a series of essays about mundane events that culminated in -- brace for it -- a lengthy description of a shopping trip he made to Costco.

In fact, I thought it was telling that the funniest bits of his performance were his re-tellings of jokes other people had told him. (Like the couple he met on a book tour, a Hindu man and his Jewish wife, who joyfully declared that they were "the Hin-jews.")

That's good stuff.

But maybe I'm just a playa-hater...I may well be the one NPR-listener in America who just doesn't get it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Adventures with Rob Baker

Photo essay time.

Rob T. Baker, Esquire: My old friend (and esteemed counsel for MGM) is a helluva guy from my brief tenure as an L.A. resident. In town for a Sigur Ros concert, Rob crashed with me for the weekend and we had a blast, drinking and eating our way through Berkeley and San Francisco. The photo below says it all about Rob -- this is not a posed shot, but rather a candid glimpse of an inspired guy making inspired points, his train of thought made somehow more commanding by the presence of an artfully gripped cigarette.

Speaking of Sigur Ros: I went to the show (at Berkeley's Greek Theatre) knowing nothing about the band. Here's what you need to know: They're from Iceland, and the singer sings in a falsetto in a gibberish language he invented himself...which he calls Hopelandic. With his usual gusto, Rob described their sound as "the lament of the sole Heaven's Gate eunuch who missed the Hale-Bopp comet." It was definitely a crazy show, but indisputably memorable, and it culminated in a beautiful crescendo that I happened to capture with my trusty iPhone camera:

...Noted in Berkeley:
It's been a while since I've had the pleasure of visiting Henry's bar (in the lobby of the Hotel Durant in Berkeley), so I took the opportunity of Rob's visit to drop in there. In my trip to the loo, I happened upon this wonderful Berkeley tribute to arch-rival Stanford:

The city:
This was some days later, during a quick detour off of the Bay Bridge onto Treasure Island. I got a view of San Francisco that I rarely get to appreciate and took the opportunity to frame an image of a city that never ceases to charm me. This is a place to be.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

New York and "Falling Man"

I landed in New York City last Wednesday evening, with just enough time to get to the W Hotel near Times Square and get a bite and a drink before bed. I was up at 7AM local (which was 4AM according to my nervous system) for a pair of business meetings and then caught a late-afternoon flight back to San Francisco. This is the fourth or fifth time I've made an overnight business trip to New York, with absolutely no time to see or do anything interesting in the city. In fact, the only reason I've been to the Empire State Building is because I was walking down the street between meetings and happened to look up and realize that I was standing right in front of it.

I usually come into Manhattan from JFK via the Williamsburg Bridge, which affords a sparkling view of the skyline where once I might have observed the twin towers.

They're gone now, of course. I never got a chance to see them. My first trip to New York wasn't until a few years after what Islamists euphemistically call "the planes operation."

I took a book along with me for the flight home, and the book was Don DeLillo's Falling Man, our greatest novelist's sad meditation on 9/11. I read it front to back over the course of the flight. As usual, the author casts no judgments about our times, offers no political opinion. He makes precise and haunting observations, and leaves it at that.

There won't ever be a time that I look out from the backseat of a cab traversing the Williamsburg Bridge at night to see the New York skyline lit up and don't imagine the towers, in the spot on the southwestern tip of the island where they once stood. There is a skyline in the mind that is more permanent.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Petraeus for President

I want Obama to win this election. I've donated hundreds of dollars to his campaign. Not because I'm particularly impressed with his resume, but because I'm deeply shocked by the Bush II Era and want to do whatever is in my meager power to help make an authoritative political break with his "legacy." I have no idea what kind of leader Obama is going to make, but he'll be a statement to ourselves and to the world that America is turning the page on a sorry eight years.

But the fact is...I have deep doubts about whether a one-term senator with zero military/foreign-policy experience is up for the challenges ahead. Obama is a brilliant guy who gives inspiring speeches and advocates sensible policies. That's a start, I suppose. But I fear that what we really need in our next commander-in-chief is...well...a commander-in-chief.


Guerrilla wars. August was the most lethal month for NATO soldiers in Afghanistan since we first got underway in 2001. It's now almost seven years on, and while a friendly government is nominally in control of an increasingly violence-wracked Kabul, the tribal regions are dominated by the Taliban and these dudes aren't playing around. We crave soft drinks and videogames; they crave martyrdom. We're in a death struggle with these hombres, and recent history does not offer much consolation for what it takes to beat them at this game.

A nuclear Iran. It's not that I worry about Iran ever using the nuke. They won't. However, the mere fact that they have nukes means that we won't be able to fuck with them when they do things like, oh, say, conduct terror operations all over the world, or flex their muscles in dominating the Persian Gulf oil lanes. With the Bomb in hand, they will be able to turn the Gulf into their own private sphere of influence and we will be helpless to challenge them -- held entirely in check by their membership in the club of nations that can blow one of your cities to kingdom-come. Remember the Cold War? I sure do, believe me. Here we go again, only we won't be matched up against atheist bureaucrats this time -- we'll be matched up against apocalypse-obsessed Islamists. Sound like fun?

Pakistan. Little-known fact -- there's already a nuclear power shooting at U.S. troops. Right now! Pakistan's civilian government is barely in charge of its own military and (ultra-powerful, as well as ultra-fundamentalist) intelligence service. The whole government narrowly missed being blown to smithereens the other night. And this country has the bomb already. Its senior nuclear scientists sat in a cave with Osama bin Laden advising him on how to develop nuclear weapons. Swell.

A resurgent, militarist Russia. Why move on to new Cold Wars when our old nemesis Russia is still fully up to the task? Putin is still large and in charge of the Kremlin, and his recent ball-stomping of Georgia was proof that Russia still thinks of itself as a military power with muscles that need the occasional workout. With massive oil reserves on the line in the Caspian Sea region and fragile democracies on the line at Russia's borders, we're entering a whole new era of percolating conflict with the big bear.

I could go on -- Chinese cyber-warfare teams; instability and power struggles within the Saudi royal regime; the ever-looming threat of al-Qaeda "spectaculars"; and of course, this small matter of the Iraq war.

All of which brings me to David Petraeus, U.S. Army general.

Long story short: Petraeus is the best of a new breed of military intellectual -- the soldier-scholar. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton. A lifelong student of counterinsurgency. In a training exercise in 1979 he was accidentally shot in the chest by a new recruit; he was discharged from the hospital days later after doing 50 push-ups in front of his surgeon.

Most importantly, Petraeus has been one of the rare officers to leave success in his wake everywhere he's operated in the war zone of Iraq. As commander of the 101st Airborne Division he oversaw a pacified city of Mosul while the rest of the country burned in revolt against our occupation. Employing a civil-affairs approach to counterinsurgency, he won the loyalty of local tribal chiefs and forged broad local alliances against terrorist cells. Along the way, even the fiercest critics of the Iraq occupation gave Petraeus credit as the leader who "did it right."

So I'm just going to throw this out there: let's draft Petraeus for president. The framers of our Constitution envisioned the president primarily as a civilian commander-in-chief for the armed forces, who would have a secondary role to play in checking-and-balancing congressional legislation. Given the global political situation, I'm willing to set aside lesser concerns and invest the presidency in someone who can smartly handle the high volume of killing that the U.S. is going to have to conduct in the years to come. PETRAEUS IN 2008.

Wait...what's that you say? He's a conservative Republican? Shit. Never mind.