Wednesday, September 18, 2019

September 18

Today is my college girlfriend's birthday. If I had the power to go back in time and redo any relationship, this one would be it. I have never loved anyone more innocently or deeply than her. If you asked me to pick the 10 greatest days of my life, she plays a prominent role in at least 2 of them, maybe 3 or 4. When you meet someone at that age, when the possibilities are endless and time seems to go on forever, it is easy to take it for granted. As you get older, and the time behind you is greater than the time in front of you, there is a tendency to wallow in regret, especially if you are like me and unhappy with the path you have created for yourself.

Instead, you take comfort in the past, a weekend spent at a beach in Delaware, a night of partying that ended with a straight-out-of-a-rom-com-grand-gesture profession of love. You wish you could whisper in your younger self's ear and tell him not to fuck this up, to appreciate the young woman with the frizzy blonde hair and the smile that lit up a room. The one who believed in you but would also call you on your shit. The one whose heart was generous and big. Who could make you feel a purity of love by just looking at her while she talked on the phone over the strains of "No Woman, No Cry." What you are left with is those memories, seared into your soul and tormenting you with the idea of what could have been.

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Monday, September 16, 2019

Succession Power Rankings - Argestes

Previous Power Rankings:

This week on Succession … Logan gets sick, Tom goes for a walk, and Greg needs some coke. And now, the Power Rankings: 

1. Nan Pierce (last week: 2): It turns out there was a limit to the amount of fumbling you would tolerate from the market before you closed your skirt and went back to your funny little house. Your head kept trying to justify a “yes” but your heart was screaming “no” long before you found out Mo(Lester) was playing Mr. Fiddle Sticks with cruise line dancers and blackballing those who did not submit to his advances. You’re not going to wear a lanyard around your neck and you’re certainly not going to get in bed (metaphorically) with a crazed man who claws at the locked door to your Mercedes as you speed back to Tern Haven, where Rosa is waiting with a fresh Break Bumper and a bill for at least one new set of bed linens while you consider candidates to serve as CEO. 

2. Logan Roy: (last week: 1): We here at the Power Rankings take our cue from the godfather of the art form, Mark Lisanti, whose rule of thumb when it came to this feature when writing about Mad Men was that Don Draper got the top spot unless something drastic happened. We think both literally and figuratively vomiting all over yourself meets that standard and that is not even taking into account smacking the hell out of your son. Maybe it was the altitude, or perhaps Kendall was not as diligent with the pills as he should be, but our hairy old newsman was off his game this week. With the PGM deal now dead, bad publicity about the cruise line division in the news, and Stewie and Sandy still circling, the Waystar Gulfstream may not be the only thing running out of gas. A temporary demotion is in order. 

3. Kendall Roy (last week: 3): There were some clear signs of life this week for our number one boy, I am just not sure they were all channeled in the right direction. Dressing down the suits Logan has tasked with hashing out the fine points of the PGM acquisition seemed gratuitous and Ken’s opinion on how to handle the New York magazine piece left a bit to be desired, but he did have the canned corporate response to it down cold until Shiv kneecapped him. The more she tries to force her way into the conversation, the closer the old man pulls Kendall into his orbit, but did Logan shake loose Kendall's dormant humanity when he cold-cocked Roman? Kendall's instinctive defense of his younger brother would suggest there once again appears to be a human being lurking in that body, not just a robot with skin and a coke habit he is (sort of) managing. 

4. Shiv Roy (last week: 8): Shiv revealed all of the things that make her both Logan’s logical successor and not-ready-for-prime-time. Her instincts when it comes to crisis communications are strong and she is the one person the Pierces view as palatable even as the New York magazine story breaks. But she also has a tendency to try and bigfoot things. As she put it in Safe Room, “clumsy old Shiv stomping all over it in my work boots.” Making a public pitch to do a dinosaur cull of your own family’s company so fresh eyes and clean hands can take over is not going to go over well with the old man, regardless of how it plays in the room, and swooping in nine minutes before your brothers go onstage to gum up the scripted explanation they are going to give ended up as a Tern Haven redux of dueling-banjoes sibling rivalry. She may be going with a “fuck it” strategy of antagonizing her dad as a means of standing up to him, but this one-foot-in-one-foot-out power play can only take her so far. 

5. Tom Wamgsgans (last week: not ranked): When you’re up on that stage and the lights are bright and you can’t see the smirks of the audience members as you stumble your way through what should be the kind of presentation an executive can do in his sleep, it is easy to imagine the best version of yourself - not the one who gets cock blocked by his own wife when he is trying to close the deal at the nightclub or the one whose Airbus Culture and Leadership Walk is interrupted by an underling telling him the tag line he assiduously poll tested can no longer be used. No, in that moment, with the mic looped around the back of your head and your wife telling you how turned on she got from seeing another woman trying to get into your puffy vest, you imagine getting both the nut and fruit box and the champagne and paper weight. 

6. Cousin Greg(ory): (last week: not ranked): A nice bounce back week for Greg. Just getting an invitation to the ultra-elite Argestes conference would have been enough, but when your chalet is stocked with cashews the size of boomerangs and you may have touched Bill Gates, you know you have arrived. Sure, you still lack the experience of carrying your own powder for that little boost of confidence needed in the company of tech titans and super models, but at least you and Tom came up with a clever tag line. Be Best, Greg(ory).   

7. Gerri Killman (last week: 6): On the one hand, there is a future for you as CEO (or Chairman, whatever) of Waystar Royco sitting atop a pile of fuck you money that would allow you to ignore the existential threat of climate change because you will own a swath of land in New Zealand guarded by a small army, on the other, all that dirty talk with Roman got you was a backhanded compliment as a competent filing cabinet who will play Mole Woman to his Tarzan. You’re better than this, Gerri. 

8. Rhea Jarrell (last week: 4): Playing both sides is a dangerous game (just ask the woman right above you in the Power Rankings). You need to be deft and nimble, always vigilant for shifting tides, but you got caught short. Maybe it was the vision of a huge payout dancing in your head or maybe you thought once the Roys took over PGM there would be a spot for you; either way, you now have to update your LinkedIn profile.

9. Del Simmons (last week: not ranked): Things were going south between Nan and Logan before you stepped onstage to emcee the Argie Awards, but a few zingers at Waystar Royco finally pushed her over the edge. Kudos Del, a few minutes of lukewarm comic roasting torpedoed a $25 billion media merger. You have earned what will surely be a one and done spot on the Power Rankings. 

10. Roman Roy (last week: 6): Maybe you were better off swirling caramel apples at Brightstar amusement park because all your old habits - the smarminess, the immaturity, the overt attempts at manipulation - are back with a vengeance. While it is comforting that your siblings rode to your rescue after you spent the weekend belittling and mocking them, that they had to do so because you tasted the back of the old man’s hand is not a good sign. 

Not Ranked: Marcia Roy; Connor Roy; Stewie; Sandy Furness (who may or may not have syphllis); Hugo Baker; Leah; Jess; Karolina; Shakespeare Frank; Willa; The Quarterly 10-Q Meeting; J. Alfred Prufrock; The $75 Cobb Salad; Toxic Masculinity Monthly; the new Jonathan Franzen.

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Sunday, September 15, 2019

Podcast Review - The Last Days of August

On the night of December 5, 2017, while wildfires raged in Ventura County, a twenty-three year-old adult film actress named August Ames (real name: Mercedes Grabowski) hanged herself in a public park in Camarillo, California. Ames’s death and the murky underworld of the porn business are the subject of Jon Ronson’s interesting, if somewhat unsatisfying podcast The Last Days of August.

Ronson, whose 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed examined what happens when public figures are roasted online for their misdeeds is an apt narrator for a story that starts as an extreme example of that phenomenon. At the time of Ames’s death, reporting suggested she was driven to take her own life because of online bullying she experienced when she tweeted that she had refused to partake in a sex scene with a male partner who also shot gay porn. One reply to her tweet that drew particular attention after she died was one that told her, in so many words, to go kill herself. But Ronson is after more than just a tidy rumination on the evils of online bullying because he tells us early on that the pointed-to tweet was sent after she was dead - she never saw it. 

With this reveal (which occurs early in the second of the show’s seven episodes) behind him, Ronson delves into Ames’s backstory, finding the people in her life - her brother, her husband, her close friends - and others in the world of adult entertainment to try and untangle things. And to his credit, Ronson does yeoman’s work. He is cursed at, insulted, hung up on, and dismissed. His interviewees toggle between friendliness and undisguised animosity. But each also has an agenda, and as they all admit, the industry they work in is full of hustlers and liars. All of which makes them unreliable narrators and separating truth from fiction an almost impossible task. 

Ames’s husband Kevin is eyed with suspicion as a controlling misanthrope who Ames was ready to leave and whose behavior the night she died (and his description of the events) seemed rehearsed and unemotional. Kevin, on the other hand, lays blame at the feet of another actress, Jessica Drake, who helped lead the online pile on after Ames’s initial tweet. Ames’s own mental health problems, stemming from childhood molestation and including at least one prior suicide attempt, are also considered, as is the negative effect a scene she shot shortly before her death had on her. Her male partner, a porn actor named Marcus Dupree, it was suggested, was overly rough with her, veering toward (if not across) the blurry line of consent that exists in the industry. 

The best Ronson can do is compare stories and, where it is available, look to objective evidence to figure out where the truth lies. For example, he does identify some minor discrepancies in Kevin’s story of the night August died, like when the power went out at their home (which he explains, is the reason he stayed at a hotel almost 20 miles away while she was still missing). More importantly, Ronson views the unedited scene Ames shot shortly before her death with Dupree who, Ames claimed, went beyond her consent, roughed her up, and basically made her feel like she had been raped. The scene plays out in some respects just as Ames had described it contemporaneously to a friend named Ryan, but in other respects cannot be verified.

Similarly, Ryan tells an entirely different story than Kevin about Ames’s prior suicide attempt - Ryan said Kevin did not show up to the hospital for seven hours, Kevin said he was with doctors during that time. Kevin claimed Ryan and August were not friends and that she changed her phone number after she was released to avoid people like him. Ryan shows that he had her new number. But while this information is helpful, it does little to answer the underlying question of why Ames ultimately decided to take her own life. Instead, it reinforces the unreliability of the people telling the story, leaving listeners to draw their own conclusions. 

Last Days also searches for, as is understandable when someone takes her own life, alternate explanations. Some people Ronson speaks with speculate that Ames would have been unable to climb the tree she was found hanging from. There are also suggestions that Kevin’s overbearing personality drove her to kill herself. But again, the objective facts (to the extent they exist) elide neat conclusions. A pathologist who reviews Ames’s autopsy finds no sign of foul play and opines that Ames’s decision to hang herself in a public park was likely the result of not wanting a loved one to find her. The one clue Ronson cannot unearth is Ames’s suicide note, which remains in her widowed husband’s possession but which he will not reveal the full contents of. Meanwhile, he acknowledges the flaws in their marriage but disclaims any responsibility for the mental state she was in when she died. 

And therein lies the limitation of Last Days. There is a lot of smoke but no fire. When word gets out that Ronson is sniffing around the story of Ames’s suicide, he gets a nasty talking to from a woman named Lisa Ann, a well-known actress who berates him for causing trouble. Others rise to defend Marcus Dupree, the man whose rough scene with Ames is viewed as a triggering cause for her decision to take her own life. Still others come to Kevin’s defense, indicating that there was love between he and Ames even though, like many married couples (forget ones who work in porn) they had their difficulties. The industry is revealed as cliquish and quick to defend itself but there is just not the evidence to lay blame on it or any one person within it for Ames’s suicide. If anything, the series argues for greater access to mental health treatment for adult performers, because Ames was one of several women who died just that year from suicide or drug overdose. 

There is also an overarching theme of how older men in the adult industry prey on young, vulnerable women. The cliches practically write themselves, but Ronson is not above driving the point home - lots of young women with daddy issues end up being ill served by men much older than them who lack the maturity to do anything other than use these women for their own gratification and then shrug their shoulders when things go south and they are unable to cope with it. 

In the end, we are left with a sort of Murder on the Orient Express type of solution. No one person was responsible for Ames’s death but the contributing factors - social media, online bullying, mental illness, a lack of emotional support - all came together at a time when Ames felt particularly vulnerable and did not think there was any way out other than to take her own life. 

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Saturday, September 14, 2019

September 14

It is Saturday. I do love the weekends, fleeting as they are. The overnight was cool, but a little uncomfortable, a 2 AM wake-up (bladder) and some fussy cats are par for the course, but what I would not do for a few consecutive nights of uninterrupted sleep. Anyway, I did some shopping this morning and will go to the gym in a few hours. There's a good chance a nap might happen too. This is how you spend eternity when you have nothing (and no one) else in your life ... 

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Friday, September 13, 2019

September 13

It can be hard to post every day. Life intrudes or there is nothing interesting to say or I pull my punches on something I might not want to share publicly (even though less than 20 people will read this). Yesterday was a good example. I saw a tweet that bugged me. It was sent out by someone I follow and was one of those "here is some stuff you should do to appreciate life" (e.g., "pet a dog," "call your parents," etc.) with some really dumb advice ("quit your job") that could only be sent by someone who is either clueless or super entitled and has no idea how their advice might read when they share it right after returning from a two-week all-expenses-paid trip abroad courtesy of those parents who she told you to call. I mean, if you live in NYC and most of your feed is tweets about the Bachelor and your Pilates class, maybe you're not the best person to dole out advice to, oh, I don't know, a single mom with two kids who has to rely on her parents to watch the kids while she works a job she can't afford to quit? 

I guess it also highlighted something *I* do not want to accept - that even having the time to mindlessly tweet suggests a certain amount of privilege and that it is fine (?) to tell your likewise privileged followers and friends that it's ok to eat the extra cookie and book that trip because hey, you don't know or have the struggle that most people do. I guess the difference is I am not out there bragging on it, I grew up modestly and know from humility and why it is better to just keep that shit to yourself. 

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

September 11

Today is the anniversary of 9/11. Like anyone of a certain age, I remember the day well. I remember people huddling around a TV in the conference room of the office I was working in at the time. I remember it taking me 3 hours to get home that afternoon (we were let out early) even though it usually took me 10 minutes. I remember driving past the part of the Pentagon every day for months watching crews reconstruct it. I remember having an odd feeling of missing out - that less than a year before, I had been working at the Department of Justice and imagining what I would be doing had things turned out differently.

As time went on and the revelations dripped out, that the Bush team ignored briefings and warnings about Al Qaeda, the spiraling catastrophe in Iraq played out, Afghanistan was forgotten, and Bin Laden got away, it started to look different. It started to look like competency and experience actually mattered. That putting an incurious legacy hire in the most important job in the world was a bad idea. History has erased this signal failure, reimagining it as an attack that we could not imagine (even though there is plenty of evidence that people in the intelligence community did just that) and giving Bush and his cronies a pass for the worst terrorist attack in the history on the country. 

Now, it has just sort of faded into the background. I guess it is like Pearl Harbor. At a point, it loses its impact. People who lived through it die off or we move on, but, the brief euphoria around Obama's election aside, 9/11 was just the prologue to 20 really shitty years.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

September 10

Soledad O'Brien retweeted me today. It is flattering when someone with a much bigger social media presence recognizes you. It has happened to me a few times before and I try to do the same thing I would if someone with far fewer followers retweets me - nothing. I just keep moving. I do not acknowledge it. I do not fan boy for the blue check mark. I do not reply. 

One of the things that appeals to me about Twitter is the little "d" democratization of the public square. Ordinary people (like me) and the famous (like Ms. O'Brien) co-mingle with few barriers. The last thing I am going to do is mark out for someone just because they appear on TV or carry a byline in a publication I read. On Twitter, we are all equal.

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Monday, September 9, 2019

Succession Power Rankings - Tern Haven

Previous Power Rankings:

This week on Succession … Kendall makes a friend. Connor drinks some port. Roman goes to the bathroom. And now, the Power Rankings: 

1. Logan Roy (last week: 1): At the end of the day, after all the hoops you have been made to jump through, all the pre-meeting briefings you had to do with your brain trust, and the petty humiliation of watching your kids and your wife embarrass you in public, you know one thing deep down in the pit of your dark soul - money wins. Your company is wounded, but you have kicked the tires on Pierce and you know it is in an even more precarious state. So, when Nan goes beyond the easy asks (editorial independence, a few seats on the board, shitcanning Tom) and drifts into the no-go zone (publicly announcing Shiv as CEO-in-waiting), you pull the classic negotiating tactic of storming out - and it works. In the time it takes you to chopper back to the Big Apple, the ultimate prize is within your reach, you have brought your overly eager daughter to heel, and Sandy and Stewie’s takeover bid is on life support. Now, you’ll just have to tell Jamie you need to borrow an extra $5 billion.

2. Nan Pierce (last week: not ranked): You played your hand masterfully. You summoned the powerful Logan Roy and his dysfunctional clan to your country home and watched them self-immolate in a conflagration of over sharing, over drinking, and over excitement. And even as you were reveling in their infighting, you knew all that drama could not hide the fact that your company was in trouble and, as distasteful as it might be, accepting $24 billion so generations of Pierces unborn would never have to work a day in their lives was the right thing to do. But instead of just taking the deal (sweetened with an extra billion you would not be able to spend in your lifetime) and walking away, your pride got the better of you. You are still going to get your money, but you are not going to tell Logan Roy how to run his company. 

3. Kendall Roy (last week: T-3): Just execute the plan, son. Sure, Logan paid lip service to keeping his number one boy clean for the weekend, but when you find a kindred spirit at the banquet table, you improvise. While the other kids were trying their dad’s patience, Kendall’s night of partying with Naomi paid major dividends. Instead of torpedoing the deal, Naomi does a 180 after Kendall points out that the wealth she will secure once it goes through will allow her to start anew. Was this coke-infused wishful thinking? Of course. But when you live a life of such entitlement that you can literally shit the bed and have someone else clean it up, anything seems possible. 

4. Rhea Jarrell (last week: 2): It did appear you had one thing right. The incompatible cultures seemed apparent. The Pierces are all old money WASP tradition - Latin phrases over the door, Shakespeare quotes where grace is usually said. Wood-paneled Jeeps and sensible, low thread count sheets. The Roys are new money immigrants - brash and loud, indelicate and offensive, consumed with the material trappings of their .0001% world. You have also hedged your bets nicely. If things go south, your fingerprints are nowhere to be found. If the deal is consummated, you squeezed an extra billion out of Logan Roy, which will fatten your golden parachute if you are shown the door. 

5. Naomi Pierce (last week: not ranked): You hold a special place in Cousin Nan’s heart. You can appear earnest in public, mindlessly aping the family traditions of silver scepters and English literature, but your tongue is razor sharp. You are not impressed with an entitled little boy who thought he could order your family business like it was a meal from Uber Eats, but his older, damaged brother is catnip when it is time to drop the veneer. What you really needed was a friend, a fellow traveler who could get you to believe that money will solve all your problems. 

6. Roman Roy (last week: 7): There are two ways to move up in the Power Rankings. You can either do something good or be less bad than someone above you. Professor Can’t Fuck did a little of both. He has (mostly) kept his head down, slinging kettle corn with the hoi polloi in management training. For his effort, he gets a small nod of approval from dear old dad as the Roys pile into their motorcade. His actions at Tern Haven are a little more iffy. His reaction to finding out that his follow-the-rules tour of duty learning the ropes of the company business has been for naught because Shiv will be taking over was almost as bad as his attempt to have normo sex. But at the end of the day, Shiv’s power move blew up in her face and by definition, that helps him. 

7. Gerri Killman (last week: 6): You did not do anything wrong per se, but you also need to remember that if you are getting into kinky hanky panky with the boss’s son, he may not keep his big mouth shut. You may be able to brush off his indiscreet admission that he spent the night pulling his pud in your bathroom, but at some point, this is going to get messy (and not in the sex positive way you perverts may think). 

8. Shiv Roy (last week: T-3): It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment your ambition got the better of your judgment. It might have been when you made an off-hand remark to cousin Mark, seemingly mocking his efforts to obtain a second Ph.D. Or, it could have been when, hyped up on adrenaline from your cuckolded husband’s pep talk, you boldly revealed your father’s succession plan publicly. But when Logan quickly acceded to Nan’s request that Tom be jettisoned while speaking favorably of your more liberal politics, the blood started to drain from your face. Your father does not like being told what to do, by you or by the head of an acquisition target. Your presence may have been merely a way for him to make his takeover of PGM look more palatable or he may legitimately view you as a future CEO, but you did yourself no favors this week. While you are still in the game by virtue of your last name and your brothers’ weaknesses, your usefulness to Logan may be nearing an end. 

9. (tied): Mark Pierce and Maxim Pierce (last week: not ranked): There is something to be said for the perfectly pleasant Pierce cousins who know from social grace and appropriate manners. While the Roy children spend most of their time seeking locations on each other’s backs in which to insert knives, the Pierces are more erudite. Mark, no longer the learned astronomer he was when he got his first Ph.D, nevertheless is working on doctorate number two, all the better to know shit twelve seconds faster than he would if he looked it up on Wikipedia. Maxim toils away at the Brookings Institute churning out white papers that will be read on the DC cocktail circuit, but this stuffed shirt is happy to compromise his ideals if you get him drunk and offer him Foggy Bottom. These guys are going to be fine. 

Not Ranked: Marcia Roy; Tom Wamgsgans; Cousin Greg(ory); Tabitha; Shakespeare Frank; Willa; Richard the Butler; Marnie Pierce; The Electric Circus; His Majesty Spinach, the King of Edible Leaves; Representative Ferdinand D. Who Gives A Shit From the Great State of Nobody Fucking Cares; Mondale the Dog; Rosa; Jess; Sandy Furness (who may or may not have syphillis); Stewie; The penis cat; Teddy Roosevelt’s butler and his secret recipe for the Break Bumper.

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Sunday, September 8, 2019

September 8

The plan for the day is simple: go to boxing class, come home, shower, eat, then spend the next 9 hours on the couch watching football and Succession. Go to bed. 

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Saturday, September 7, 2019

September 7

I read a review of a new TV show in the NYT yesterday. It's a show that follows couples in therapy and the writer quotes her own therapist, who, in discussing someone in the writer's life (I forget who) told her "he's reporting the vicious facts of life as lived by him." 

The idea was that our experiences are often minimized by others, but they are real to *us*. It is something that I think about a lot. So many people in my life, from childhood on, wanted to deny me that lived experience. I am not sure it was so much gas lighting (though there was some of that) as it was the idea that just because, on the outside at least, I appeared to have many things people want, that somehow denies me the right to unhappiness. I never quite got it but I also did not challenge it. I let other people convince me that was true. I think that is part of the reason I am so mistrustful of people now. I am constantly on alert for that sentiment and will shut people down (and out) at the first whiff of it.

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