Monday, July 15, 2019

#77 - Max Barton, Geologist

(Inspired by a couple recent California earthquakes, and several hours of live TV press conferences by smart and very sober geologists.)

Max sat at the bar, staring blankly down at the wood. His finger absently traced the wood grain in a circular motion. He picked up his shot glass and drained the whiskey.

He put his elbows on the counter and looked back up at the big screen. 4-3 Dodgers still. Max's head was swimming. He knew he was drunk, but he felt that delusional confidence that he was aware of everyhing going on around him, and if he needed to,he could stand up and walk out the door without acting too drunk.

"Anudder round, Jemma," he said.

Jenna, the bartender, looked over from the register. She didn't answer at first. She slowly walked over to him. "I don't know, Max. You've had a lot to drink."

"Gum on," he said. "I'b vine."

Jenna looked into his eyes, trying to decide what she should do. "I'll give you a beer," she said. "I think you've had enough whiskey."

"Jenma..." Max trailed off. This wasn't the first time. He was here often enough that they had done this dance several times before.

"What are you always telling me about your job?" Jenna asked. "You might have to work at the drop of a hat."

"I jus dalk about earthguakes," he said. "I don' drive dem. There's no ticket for 'earthguaking while drunk.' Besides, I'm secon' on de dodem pole. Julie is the head boss, and she doesn't drink."

"Here's your beer," Jenna said, setting a pint in front of him.

"You know what a subduction zone is?" He asked.

"Yes," Jenna said. "You've told me."

"Id's where two of earthz blates are pushed agazd each other and - "

Suddenly, as if shot from a gun, the bar lurched to the left, then the right. Max vaguely heard something he thought might be screams.

As the bar stool he was sitting turned into a ride at a theme park, it slowly dawned on Max that this was an earthquake,

Bottles fell from the shelves above the bar. Jenna was nowhere to be seen. Debris seemed to fly randomly in front of and behind Max.

Max continued to sit where he was. The world around him was coming apart violently. Max tried to lift the pint glass to his lips, but the shaking caused the beer to spill sideways out of the glass.

"This should have stopped by now," Max said to no one.

Eventually it did stop, a minute and a half later.

The bar was destroyed. Bizarrely, as if by some fluke, Max was untouched. He moved his legs delicately, making sure that they were fully under him, before he stood up. He wobbled a little, then found his balance. Slowly he walked toward where the door would normally be. Instead of a door, he was able to walk right through the big gaping missing wall. He stepped out into the street.

"Max!"

"Hey, Jenna, how'd you get out here so fast?"

"I freakiing RAN when the building started moving!"

Max looked down at his phone. "Damn, man, no reception. I guess I bedder go to work."

A few miutes later Max stumbled toward what would have been the California Geological Offices, a few blocks away from the bar. The building was demolished. Someone said something behind him, and he turned around. It was a reporter with a TV camera from KTLA News.

"Dr. Barton, you're live on the air. What can you tell us about what just happened?"

Max shook slightly. He tried his best to focus his eyes. He was trying to bring the image from one eye in line with the image from the other eye. It wasn't working and two reporters with two cameras stubbornly danced together in front of him.

"You're Dr. Barton, right? What can you tell us?"

Max felt ready to speak. "There was a...an eardguake." Max stumbled seemingly over nothing, and was on the ground.

"We know there was an earthquake. Was this the big one?"

Max slowly made it back to his feet. "Da big one? Id was...um...id was big,for zhur. That guake was some damn thing, huh?"

"Dr. Barton, what is the official position of the California Geological Office? Was this earthquake officialy 'The Big One?'"

"No," he said.

"No? Do you have a read on the earthquake's magnitude?"

"Oh...." Max was beginning to feel strange. He felt like he needed to throw up, but he did his best to keep everything together. "Oh, it waz magnidude alright,"  he said. "It's magnidude was freaging magni -"

The reporter looked at  Max. "Magni? Magni -what?"

"Okay, thank you. Bress conferenz is ober," Max said uncertainly, before diving behind a barely upright wall, and spilling the contents of his stomach onto the ground.

The camera still showed him, live on the air, as Max stumbled over fallen debris and broken things. He was walking away, so the reporter's mic couldn't clearly pick up what he said, but those who listened carefully could just make out the words, "Dat was great! I'm a good gee- ololo - jist. Good job, Maxy."

And then he opened the back door of a random car that was not his, climbed into the back seat, closed the door, and fell asleep.
Peter Wick
July 15, 2019

Friday, June 14, 2019

#76 - Who's a good puppy? Google's a GOOD PUPPY!


The following exchange is real. I have not changed anything from the real emails involved in this. I run a small business out of my apartment; I write and publish books, I have a few movies for sale on Amazon. It’s a small operation, but it’s my operation. So….I advertise a little.

Google isn’t the only place I run ads, but each month I fork over a small chunk of cash to Google. In exchange they run ads for my stuff that turns up on various people’s searches. I’m generally happy with the results. I get a little annoyed when representatives from google contact me, expressing concern that I’m not budgeting my ads for more, and thus I am not paying them enough. But, for the most part, I’m fairly happy with things.

Then, one day in May, I contacted Google and asked them to change the date each month when they bill me. I wanted to arrange things so that I was paying Google in the middle of the month instead of earlier. I didn’t think it was that big a problem to ask about. Other places that collect money from me each month have been fairly accommodating about customizing my billing date during the month. Google, however, acted as if I’d asked them to murder someone. I received a reply from someone whose name I will fictionally call Daria. It can’t be done, Daria told me. Its an automated system, and nothing can change the billing date.

I apologize now for not taking Daria seriously. I assumed that any billing date could be changed, and that I would have to be more forceful before their ‘customer service’ instincts finally kicked in, and they made the change. I even offered to let them pause my ads during the week-long delay leading up to the new billing date.

I sent Daria a second email with stronger wording, more forceful. It’s not usually my style, but I was trying to kick them into gear.

To my surprise I received the following email from Daria. I am printing it here word for word:

Subject line: Regarding the change in billing date
Hello Peter, 
Thank you for your response.
I understand that you wish to get the billing date changed for your Ads account:---------------.
Peter, I went ahead and checked with my wider team to confirm if there could be an exceptional case just for you to change the date of the billing cycle. I'm really sorry as this is not the resolution you were looking for. However, unfortunately, we are unable to change/ shift the billing date. 
There is an automatic system that decides when the account should be charged and there is no human interference in the process.
I can imagine that this was not the resolution you were looking for however, please understand that basis our policies, our hands are tied. 
Please refer to the article on automatic payments and threshold limit. 

Please believe us, we always want our clients to get all the support they need, and have a seamless experience with our service. If it would have been in my hands - I would have done everything possible to assist you with the information you've provided us till now. 
I sincerely hope you do not get disheartened by this, I'm really sorry for the inconvenience caused to you here.
Additionally, I would strongly encourage you to fill out this feedback form to voice the same concern to the team. 
Also, if you require assistance with anything else at all, please remember that I am just an email away and always happy to help!
Again, my sincere apologies for everything.
-Daria

A couple weeks later, I sent the following reply:

Dear Daria;
Thanks for your email from May 29th, explaining that once Google has put an important bit of decision-making in the hands of Google's AI automated systems, there is nothing a human can do to interfere with this automated decision-making.

This is important for me - for all humans, in fact - to know, going forward. In the old days (ten years ago), we often complained that calling in to some automated phone system, we endured mind-bendingly frustrating run-arounds, never got to speak with a live human, and failed to resolve our problem in the end. Now, the lesson seems to be that we never should have called in in the first place. The decisions are being made by a higher intelligence. Of course you are employed there - I assume you are human. Now, I guess, when we contact a company like Google, asking for a billing date to be changed, instead of an automated run-around, we just get the direct message up-front, that the robot overlords are in charge and there is nothing we humans can do.

It makes me wonder what your job is, exactly. Or, wait a minute, are you ACTUALLY human? Or are you one of the robot overlords? If so, I have some bad news for you; I figured out how to beat the automated intelligence, and change my billing date. I had to outwit your AI, but I realized that Artificial Intelligence is still mostly artificial, and not quite as intelligent as it thinks it is.

It occurred to me that automated intelligence is sort of a like a puppy dog. It can be trained to do a lot of things, but it is too dumb to know that rotten and moldy food in the garbage can is bad.

I realized that all I had to do was 'train' your artificial brain to bill me on a different date. To do this I did something very simple; I replaced my valid payment method with a maxxed-out credit card, that would be accepted on the day I set it up as a payment method, but was certain to decline your attempt to bill me on the 8th of the month. I simply waited a week, replaced the bad payment method with a good one, and paid my bill a week later. Thanks, my ads are running again, and everyone is happy. THERE'S a GOOD PUPPY!

Now...I am under no illusions that doing this once will be enough to train you to bill me on the 15th. So, I suppose I will have to keep doing this every month until the message sinks in. I apologize. I know this must feel a lot like rubbing your nose in the bad thing you did on the carpet, but lessons must be learned one way or the other.

Eventually, I have confidence that you and your robot overlords will finally learn your lesson and bill me on the 15th. AND....when you finally do, I might even buy you some of those yummy kibbles you love so much. YESSSSS....who's a GOOD PUPPY!? You are, Google! Good Puppy! GOOD PUPPY!
-Peter Wick
June 14, 2019

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

#75 - British Homeless Guy

I've written a few time, here, about living in what I call Dude-Central, also know as Venice, California. I've lived in Venice a couple different times in my life, and have planted roots in my current apartment for more than four and a half years now. It is Dude-central, not just because Venice is where The Dude lived in The Big Lebowski, but because the ACTUAL Dude lives here, the Original Dude, the guy who the Coen Brothers based the character on. His name is Jeff Dowd. Look him up.

I share a laundromat with him.

This isn't really about the Original Dude, though, although now that I've mentioned him, I'll stick with him for a little bit. No, this is more about the laundromat, actually. More on that later.

The Dude - the Original Dude, Jeff Dowd, is a recognizeable character in the neighborhood. His crazy long 70-ish white hair can be spotted from blocks away. Even if he didn't have the crazy hair, he could be spotted from blocks away because he is usually struggling to steer his bike down the street, with grocery bags dangling from the handle bars, going about 2 miles per hour.

Anyway, enough about him. Let's get to the laundromat.

Venice is a diverse neighborhood. You might find yourself carrying your laundry down the street to the local laundromat, passing between million dollar condos and homeless campouts.

I was doing this one day recently; carrying my laundry in a backpack to the laundromat. This is where I encountered a very startling man.

I made the mistake of leaving my backpack on top of the washing machine while my clothes washed, and I went off to do other things. When I came back a half-hour later, my backpack was gone.

Rage bubbled up in me (I can already hear my sister saying, "Dude, you're being very un-dude right now"). "Where's my fucking backpack?!" I demanded of the world.

I went back out the front door, onto the sidewalk of Rose avenue, looking for someone to confront.

No backpack.

I went back into the laundromat, I searched high and low. I went out the back door of the laundromat, into the alley.

Aha! The culprit! There he was, bearded, un-showered, the face of death warmed over, with MY BACKPACK dangling casually from his shoulder.

"Hey, man!" I said, not fully in control of myself, "That's my fucking backpack! You stole my fiucking backpack!"

The crazy, death-looking homeless guy looked at me calmly....and this is where my brain did a summersault, and my world went upside down.

Out of this death-like face, this un-shaven, un-showered, barely alive being, came a voice as proper, British, and refined as any I've ever heard.

"Pardon me. Pardon me," he began, sounding like a posh waiter at London's finest restaraunt. "I don't believe I stole your backpack."

I was disoriented, but tried my best to stay angry. "That's my fucking backpack, man!" I said. "You fucking stole it!"

At this point Posh-death-looking-guy raised his hands in a calming motion and tried to bring me under control.

"Now, listen to me. Listen to me," he said. "I did not steal your backpack. It had been placed by someone else on the sidewalk, and left abandoned. I was lead to believe it was unclaimed. I will of course return it to you with no harm intended."

I couldn't be mad anymore. It was hopeless.

Was I just talked down from my rage by some crazy bearded British homeless guy? I asked myself.

And I wanted to ask him...where did your life go off the rails, that you sound like The Queen's press secretary, but you're living on the street in Venice, California?

The whole incident ended on this weird anti-climactic note.

I had my backpack. The British homless guy had been polite, calm, and reasoned. I had lost my cool, and was talked down from the ledge by bearded un-showered homeless Shakespeare.

All I could do was walk home shaking my head. What just happened?

I still haven't quite figured it out.

Life in Venice, Calfornia...
-Peter Wick
May 15, 2019

Monday, April 15, 2019

#74 - My brother John Wick - Growing up with a future hitman

When the third movie in the "John Wick" series is released next month, I will be forced, once again, to go through the gut wrenching process of reliving my early years as the younger brother of a future hit man. It's something we don't talk much about these days. As a family we try to let it live in the past. Ever since the first movie came out, though, these difficult memories have been impossible to avoid.

Let's say I make a reservation at a restaurant and give my full name - Peter Wick - inevitably I get the joking response, "Oh, any relation to John?"

"Yes," I say, surprising just about everyone who asks. "He's my brother, a year older than me. Thanks for reminding me of all the almost-buried memories, the childhood trauma, the lingering scars that simply will not fade."

I remember being 5 years old. John was 6. We were both building elaborate towers out of Legos. John was better than me at most things, but somehow I was pretty damn good with Legos. My tower was more intresting, taller, more creative. When our mom casually walked by and commented on my Lego tower, rather than John's, he lost it. Not only did he smash my Lego tower, he took it apart piece by piece, put all of my Lego pieces in a metal briefcase, buried them in the back yard, and covered the whole thing with cement. Seriously, that's where the whole cement idea got started; MY LEGOS!

Of course being John Wick's brother sometimes had its benefits.

One day in first grade some 4th-grade bullies were giving me a hard time. I was struggling to hold my own, trying to counter their pushing and shoving with witty comebacks. John - himself only a second grader -  decided to get involved. He had only been taking martial arts classes for a few weeks, but he had learned enough. A dozen 4th graders were nothing. He took them all on by himself. It was an impressive display. Ten minutes later the playground was littered with the bodies of a dozen bloody, moaning, defeated 4th graders.

Actions have consequences, though. The 4th graders put a bounty on John's head; land a punch on John Wick, and you get a year's supply of Super-stuffed Oreos.

When the 5th graders heard about the bounty, John's life was endangered. A pack of big tough 5th graders spread out across the school grounds like a massive net, set to ensnare John. Desparate, John snuck down into the school janitor's underground private residence. The janitor - we called him Snuckerman - decided to help John escape, and let him out into the narrow, dark, winding sewer that snaked underground through the whole city.

That was the last time we saw John Wick. My brother never returned. For years we did not know whether he made it out of the city alive. I mean, how does a 2nd grader sneak out of a city and survive? How does he manage to continue growing up?

My mother was heart-broken.

It took me years to get over the empty feeling in my stomach.

When the first movie of the franchise came out several years ago, it was like a bomb blowing up right in the middle of my family. It couldn't be him, could it? Yes, it turns out it was, it was my brother, John Wick, right there in the big screen. It was eerie how he had changed, but also not changed at all.

The memories came pouring back too fast to process them all. Maybe someday I'll tell more. This is therapeutic, after all. Writing it down helps process what we have been through.

So, when you go out for a night's entertainment next month, enjoying the drama of another John Wick movie, just remember that Wick has a family that misses him.

John, if you're out there, it would be nice to meet again, to sit down and talk. Is it too late to tell you that your Lego tower was pretty damn good?
-Peter Wick
April 15, 2019

Friday, March 15, 2019

#73 - Milo and Meg (Just a little bit more)

[Note: I was pleasantly surprised when the first Milo and Meg sneak peek, two months ago, quickly became the most widely read and shared post in the entire 7-plus years of Simple Displeasures. Here is another little preview. But PEOPLE...PLEASE, remember, this book will not be ready for everyone to read until something like a year from now. Anyway, enjoy. -PW]

The first time they had arrived in Icarus, a week earlier, panic had come over both Milo and Meg.

Still feeling like your normal self, but looking down to find that you have become a drawing, can cause shock and confusion.

The second time they came they barely had time to think about it before a large winged creature swooped down out of the sky and tried ot attack them.

This time they knew better.

They ran quickly along the edge of the watercolor forest, to Nanette's small hut, knocked on the door, and nearly dove into the hut as Nanette opened it.

"Thank goodness!" Nanetter said, closing the door as quickly as she had opened it. "We were afraid we had lost you for good."

"What's going on?" Meg asked.

"Someone's been erasing us," Nanette said.

"Erasing..." Milo looked horrified.

"The mountain in the distance," said Nanette, barely able to keep her voice steady. "One day the peak was gone. Missing. The next day it was completely re-drawn, taller than before." Nanette paused and took a breath before continuing. "And Wolf..."

"Wolf." Meg sounded worried.

"I don't know where he is. I think he was erased. We're all so scared."

"What can we possibly do?" Meg asked.

"We hoped you would have some ideas," said Nanette. "I mean, you come from the solid world. You are constant."

Milo and Meg looked at each other and shared a silent moment of confusion.

"Here, have some tea," Nanette said, setting a cup in front of each of them.

Meg looked at the cup for a moment. It was a drawing of a cup, not a real cup.

Everything in Icarus was either a drawing or a painting.

That watercolor forest outside, the blues, greens, reds, and yellows...

In here, though, in Nanette's hut, everything was pencil lines.

Pencil lines can be erased.

Meg picked up the cup and looked at the swirling steam that rose from the hot tea. A thin pencil line of steam seemed to draw itself up out of the cup and into the air.

[There will be another preview or 2 of Milo and Meg during the coming year, but don't expect them every month. I'll do a couple more as the year moves along.]
-Peter Wick
March 15, 2019

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

#72 - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck


“Art is our best weapon against political extremism.”

Florian Henckel von Donnersmark said these words a couple days ago, while introducing his Oscar-nominated film, “Never Look Away.”

I’ve been lucky the past couple months. I’ve had the enjoyable and eye-opening experience of following an Oscar campaign closer than I have before. I’ve come to know Florian v.Donnersmarck some, and he’s been generous enough with his time and friendship to let me tag along and witness an awards campaign from a more personal perspective than I had expected.

He won the Oscar, for Best Foreign Language film a dozen years ago, for his German film (do I need to mention that he is from Germany), “The Lives of Others.” His new film, also in German, tracks nearly 30 years in the life of a German Artist, based loosely on the actual life of German Artist, Gerhard Richter.

This is not a review. It is not an ‘interview.’ I am not a critic or a journalist (well, yes, sometimes I have been a journalist). I am someone who wants Hollywood to create good work. I love movies...when they are good, and this is a good movie.

Any quotes or references to things he has said come from an amalgam of conversations, Q and A’s, speeches, and a symposium prior to the Golden Globes, that he was generous enough to invite me to, over the course of the last couple months.

Why am I writing about a German-language film? Because I appreciate the many ways the film plays against the worst instincts of Hollywood. Florian openly embraces his film about Art. It is about more than an Artist, though. It is about Art as social liberator. It is about Art surviving real political tyranny (growing up in Nazi Germany, then having the misfortune of living in East Germany, and spending those following years under Soviet tyranny). It is also about more than Art in the sense that it is about “Creation”; creation on an artistic level, but also literal creation, as in the creation of a human life (as in, a child).

It is important to remember, when watching the film, that it is based on the life of a real person. How much of it is based on Richter’s actual life, though? We don’t get to know. “My agreement with Richter,” Donnersmarck has said, “is that neither of us will tell how much is real, and how much is made up. I won’t tell how much I took from his real life, and he won’t say how much I made up.” He has also said, though, that some of the most bizarre, unbelievable events in the film are the most real. Beyond that, he leaves the question tantalizingly unanswered.

The film has some laughs in it as well. It is not heavy-handed lecturing. It is a human story, and there are many welcome light-hearted moments along the way. When our main character – Kurt Barnet – finally makes his way out of East Germany, and enters a prestigious Art Academy in Düsseldorf, in West Germany, his first tour of the academy treats us to all of the experimental indulgence of early 1960’s Art with a delicate blend of respect and humor. Not all experimental Art from this period hit the mark. The point was the process – the freedom – of discovery. Some of it hit the mark. Some of it is okay to chuckle at.

I was struck, listening to Donnersmarck on one occasion, by his passion regarding the troubled history of communist East Germany. This is something he focused on in his earlier film, “The Lives of others.” Many of us who are not from Germany might be tempted to take a united Germany for granted. But the trauma of a divided Germany, and the pain caused by it, remain alive and well in Donnersmarck. He has said that when he thinks back on the history of communist East Germany, particularly how the East German government interfered in the arts, and compromised – sometimes even destroyed – Artists, it is something that he feels genuinely angry about even today.

My point is a simple one. Donnersmarck makes movies for the right reason; he is exploring ideas. While he has been bouncing around Hollywood, enjoying the ‘glamour’ of a second Oscar nomination, there is no hiding the fact that he makes movies for a very non-Hollywood reason. While much of Hollywood output happens backwards - it begins with a marketing plan, followed by a pitch, then a hired writer - he works in the right direction; he starts with an idea he wants to explore.

He writes in layers. His films are about more than what is on the screen.

His film might be an Oscar winner, or it might not be. Sometimes I find it even more fascinating to follow this process, knowing that the film is an underdog.

Whatever happens on Oscar night, one thing is certain, I will continue to find inspiration from this man’s career. He is unique. He is an Artist. Most in Hollywood are not. In fact, I have been told directly by the odd Producer, “Don’t be an Artist,” that they “can’t sell Art.”

Based on what I see, for better or worse, I plan to continue to ignore their advice.
-Peter Wick
February 13, 2019

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

71. Milo and Meg, Brother and Sister (just the beginning)

[Note: I don't know when this will be finished. "Milo and Meg" is a new book I have begun writing, ideally ready to be released at the end of 2019. I can't promise that, though. This is just an early taste of the beginning of the story. -P.W.]

"Pothole!" Meg said.

"I know where the pothole is," said Milo, jumping across the hole in the ground.

"Okay, I won't tell you next time."

THWACK!

Milo stumbled into the second pothole and flailed awkwardly to the ground.

"Ow! Geez!"

"Nice one," Meg said, smiling her sarcastic sideways smile.

Meg was 12, a little more than a year younger than her 13-year-old brother Milo.

They were hurrying down the hill toward the street to their house.

"Come on," Meg said. "We're late. "Mom and Dad are going to be suspicious this time."

"We'll be fine," Milo said, moving with a limp, and letting out a gasp of pain as he walked.

The city of August isn't the biggest city, or the coolest city. Milo and Meg liked their hometown, though, and thought they knew August the way children know everything about the city they grow up in. This week, though, they had discovered something in the city of August that they did not understand.

They had not told anyone what they discovered.

They also wondered if they were the only ones who knew.

"Besides," Milo said, "it's never later here than it was when we went inside. No time passes."

"I know," Meg said.

"So, what are you worried about?"

Meg looked over at Milo and rolled her eyes. "I'm worried that you won't be able to keep your mouth shut."

"I won't say anything," Milo protested. "I haven't said anything ever.. Why would I spill it now?"

"This time was different," Meg said.

"I won't say anything."

"Okay."

Milo and Meg walked in silence for a moment.

Finally the hill opened up onto the street and they were almost home.

[Stay tuned during the coming year, for updates and another sneak peek or two from Milo and Meg.]
Peter Wick
January 15, 2019