Cheesy undercover disguises? The #greatoutdoors? Derring-do? I should have been a @nationalparkservice ranger! Not even joking. Got to hang out with a bunch of old school rangers for an @mensjournal story about a plane full of #weed that crashed in #yosemite in the #1970s. Just #adventure loving dirtbags who found a way how to make it pay. Guy above mentioned a big problem in the park at the time was the tendency of #climbing junkies to drop #acid scale #elcapitan and wig the f#$K out. “Literally hundreds of rescues.” #camping #outdoors #journalism
The total thickness of the cover of a U.S. passport is 0.70mm. The cover consists of a durable card stock bonded to an inlay that holds a contactless integrated circuit, "the chip." Now standard in American passports, the chip can store 64 kilobytes of data and contains descriptive passenger information, such as height and eye color. It also stores a digitized passport photo, which may soon be used to perform facial recognition verification at U.S. inspection points. It will likely contain fingerprint information in years ahead.
As the young ticket agent behind the counter inspected my passport, she found nothing wrong with its thickness or any of the numerous security measures designed to deter theft and thwart counterfeiting. Her issue with my intention to travel was simpler. She had on a trainee badge and exuded nervous kindness. She looked at my passport as if it were another quiz in her long apprenticeship. "Oh," she said at last, handing back the hack-proof booklet with the triumph of a star student. "This is expired."
I laughed. "No," I said. "I just renewed it."
I had done so after discovering that my visa pages were nearly filled. I was headed to Cambodia on assignment, and a Thorntree forum suggested that Cambodian officials used two full pages to affix the ornate entry visa. I had three left. The assignment was big for me, a feature for a new magazine. My subject was a colorful self-made millionaire. He had invited me to a dinner of local dignitaries in Phnom Penh. One of the promised dignitaries was a Cambodian senator. Another was the press secretary for the Cambodian prime minister. The magazine was flying in a Spanish photographer from Thailand to capture the scene. I was operating out of an abundance of caution.
"See," the trainee said, "it says so right there." She lunged a helpful index finger over the counter and pointed to the date.
"Huh," I said, not nervous. "That's weird. It's just a mistake, though. I renewed it a few weeks ago. See here? Look at the date it was issued. Who can I speak to?"
She paused. Another test.
"I guess whoever gave it to you," she suggested. "The government?"
I looked at her for a long moment. She smiled.
"Uh-huh, okay." I thought for a moment. "Well, this is a total disaster." I said it in the same tone I might use to describe any real-but-essentially-remote-to-me disaster, like a negative economic forecast or an alarming update on the state of the honeybees. I gave her a chuckle and turned around. The automatic doors whisked open, and then I was curbside at LAX. I leaned against a concrete pillar, took a breath, and slumped down. Then panic swept over me.
Governments use passports to control who gets inside their borders and who is permitted to travel abroad with the full rights and privileges of a citizen. It is a testament to the intrinsic, almost magical value of a passport that so much effort has gone into its authentication. Put a passport against a blacklight and it becomes a psychedelic treasure map. Deconstruct it and you're left with 60 different materials. It is a physically simple object, beautifully designed. But the embedded security features—there are 30 in the current U.S. version, many of them invisible—nod at the power a passport bestows. It is the power to explore and to pursue a prosperity not confined by borders. It is the power to flee. For journalists, the passport is a professional tool, a necessity. It is also a gateway to adventure. In my experience, journalists are all sublimated adventurers, would-be explorers waiting for the right assignment to satisfy a slightly shameful impulse.
I should have checked the expiration date. Obviously. Now I wasn't sure what to do. Here's where I landed:
1) Started punching the stonework on the ground at Terminal B while working the phone with the other hand. I mean punching.
2) Emailed the editor-in-chief. It was our first assignment working together, and a big deal for me.
3) Called Orbitz to cancel my flight. On hold for what seemed like forever. Second-guessed my menu choices, hung up, and called again. On hold for 45 minutes. Watched the clock outside the terminal tick toward my takeoff time. Lost hope of getting on my flight.
4) Called my wife, who was at work, and left a despairing message. To date, she has not replayed that message for me.
My editor called back just as the Orbitz rep picked up. I didn't dare switch over, so I let it go to voicemail. I asked the woman on the other end (she sounded French) to cancel the ticket, and she asked me to wait while she verified information and initiated what ended up being a long process. Every couple minutes I tentatively interjected with, "Hello?" After the third time she put me on hold. Twenty minutes later, after my scheduled takeoff, she said she had successfully cancelled the flight and that I would get a refund for most of my ticket. That was pretty astonishing.
I checked my editor's message with as much trepidation as a dude tapping a dud grenade. Has he ever met a bigger schmuck?
His message was incredible, a lesson in how to be empathetic and motivating. I had sent him a picture of the passport, so he could see the error, but I got the sense he would have given me the benefit of the doubt. I could have cried. Here this guy is launching a magazine, spending tons of money to send me somewhere so I could bring him a good story, and his response is to pick me up off the ground, dust me off, and say, "Hey, no sweat, get back out there."
My wife pulled up to the airport and found me in a weird state. My luggage was piled around me. I was wearing the cargo pants of a bona fide foreign correspondent. She had taken off work early to pick me up, and bless her, she was all action. She'd found a few companies online that offered same-day passport services. I got two of them on the phone, but I couldn't for the life of me tell if they were legit. We quickly figured out the question to ask was "Do you have any appointments tomorrow?" It seemed roughly equivalent to asking a drug dealer if he had any lift tickets.
The best either of the places could do was an appointment in a week. All things considered, a new passport in a week sounded pretty good, but it still meant my trip to Cambodia would have to be completely re-planned, the photographer diverted, the Cambodian senator put off. There had to be a faster way. How exactly were those companies able to get their clients same-day service? After some more research, we figured out they were just using the same-day appointment system at the Bureau of Consular Affairs that's available to the general public, and then charging a mint to go in lieu of the client. Aces.
More research. Maybe the best journalism I've done. The official website of the Bureau of Consular Affairs said an appointment was necessary at all locations in order to renew a passport, but it seemed people had been successful showing up at the Federal Building in Los Angeles, standing in line, and praying. You needed a printed-out itinerary showing an international flight leaving within a couple days, and there were no guarantees, but it was my best shot. On the way home we swung by a CVS, where I got a new passport photo taken. It was a lot worse than my previous photo, which I liked a lot.
Then, saint that my wife is, she took me to a bar.
Next day I hopped on my motorcycle at 4:45 AM and set off for the Federal Building. There were already 15 people waiting when I arrived. A few hours later, when the will call window finally opened, the line was easily 150 deep. When I got to the front, I handed over the application forms and donned the politest smile in my arsenal. I had booked a new flight for the following day, ponying up for flight insurance for once. The guy glanced at my itinerary and handed back a ticket with a number on it. I was directed to a cafe just across the plaza, where I was told we would receive further instructions. Inside, I bought a cup of coffee, plopped down with a magazine, and waited an hour.
Eventually, a uniformed officer came in and told us to line up. We would need the ticket we received, but the numbers printed on them were meaningless. There was a mad dash to fill in the line, and it broke my heart to see a woman who had been in front of me early that morning come out of the bathroom to find that she was relegated to the back. She pleaded with the officer, but he wasn't sympathetic. She glanced around for support, and I lowered my eyes. All animals are equal, I muttered to myself.
One by one we marched through a security checkpoint into the belly of the Federal Building. We presented our forms at another window and got another number. Then we took a seat and waited to be called up, deli style. When I got to a window and handed over my carefully filled-out application, the agent insisted I had the wrong forms. My heart sank.
Because the printed duration of my passport was so short, he assumed that I had an expired temporary passport, the kind issued on a conditional basis. If that were indeed the case, I would have to apply for a passport as if I'd never had one. As calmly as I could, I explained what happened, told him the passport was a renewal for a full-fledged, all rights and privileges model, that I'd had my previous passport for years, that the date printed on this now-useless booklet was a simple mistake. He told me to hold on, and then disappeared to consult with his manager.
"Okay," he said when he returned. "Come back at 3:00."
Paranoid about missing the pickup, I camped out under a tree on the lawn in the courtyard. I had been reading Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, and this seemed like as good a time as any to relax, let the blood pressure ebb, and enjoy some peace. In the book, which is a riot, a hapless journalist accidentally gets promoted to international correspondent. I swear to God this is true: A few pages from the spot I'd left off I came to a scene where the bumbling scribe, completely out of his depths, arrives at the airport in high spirits and laden with an excess of ridiculous gear ... only to find that he's neglected to bring, or even apply for, his passport. Plans are altered, emergency arrangements made.
Ten hours after I arrived, I cleared security at the Federal Building once again and lined up with the other passport hopefuls. When I got to a window, a young woman took my name and expertly flipped through a bin full of pink envelopes. She plucked one out and handed it over with a smile that was as bright and life-affirming as any I'm likely to see again.
"Be sure to check it for accuracy before you go," she advised.
Here's the piece that resulted from that trip to Cambodia. Huge debt of thanks to Editor-in-Chief Doug McGray and Photography Director Jacqueline Bates for walking me off a ledge and being so understanding: https://story.californiasunday.com/ted-ngoy-california-doughnut-king
Dropped two old friends off at the airport tonight after their three-month adventure in America. We cracked bad jokes to break the tension, and they described their feelings beautifully: A sense of nostalgia for something that hasn't quite passed, a sadness, but a full kind of sadness, like a thing accomplished. That gets to the heart of what travel is, for me.
The closest I've come to an edict for creative fulfillment is this: Don’t dwell on accomplishment, but let yourself bask in the afterglow of risk taken. My stint with a months-long beard stands out for shear humiliating obstinacy.
Facial hair and creativity are entwined for men who fancy themselves creative. I think it’s because the beard is symbolic of the solitary pursuit, reinforcing a separateness that jives with the romantic picture of creativity: a lonely genius toiling nobly, a swarthy adventurer. Hemingway, basically. The creative beard isn't as destructive as stints of drinking or drug taking, but I’m convinced it sprouts from the same escapist impulse. It sets you apart and also makes your auto-isolation okay, like the fulfillment of some onerous but masculine duty. Clerics wear the lodestone of their otherness in twirling locks and bushy bristles, and so do poets, artists, and buccaneers. Dumbledore didn’t have peers.
My bristly red shock started at the end of a creative funk, and so the decision to let it grow felt causally linked to the reemergence of a creative fire. I was reading a lot of John Muir and feeling penned in and anxious. Then, one night, a few drinks in, I realized that my dusting of stubble was longer than usual. I thought for a bit, Googled some choice beards, had what felt like an epiphany, and then made the revelrous decision to let it grow.
The next few weeks, I felt total mastery over fate. It’s a trope that women do drastic things to their hair during stints of uncertainty, a cut signaling a retaking of control in the face of buffeting winds. The beard is a longer game, but the daily affirmation adds up to the same kind of bold rebellion.
The problem with the beard, as opposed to the wild haircut, is that it expresses itself exponentially as time passes. At first it’s an accessory more than a characteristic. Its impact relies on other components: the attitude, the clothes, the setting. But very quickly it becomes the defining feature, an identity unto itself, and it’s at this point that the reasons for growing it become harder to pin down. The mantle of being a guy with a big beard becomes less attractive. And with anxiety you start to hide behind the beard, losing confidence and inadvertently cutting ties with your pre-beard self. Your ploy to defy convention leaves you trapped and alone. So it worked. Sort of.
There wasn't an awkward period so much as waves of awkwardness. Depending on mood or on the angle of whatever reflection I’d catch, I'd see a free-willed rascal, a bumbling woodsman, or a crazy person. One minute I was a picture of rugged certainty. The next a wild-eyed loner sucking his mustache. At worst I saw myself as another proto-adult with moderate coverage, a dude who had waded beyond his depth and looked for all the world like a poser. Sometimes, overcome by a welling fury or lost in anxiety, I unconsciously pulled hairs out two at a time. I often resolved to shave the thing the moment I got home. But then I’d look at the account of time banked and talk myself down. Just one more day.
I stopped seeing myself. I became the beard. I watched other people interact with the beard. There was a kind of detached tickle at the double takes and side eyes, the uncommented thoughts. People I have known forever, and who had recently chided me gently about "the project," stopped laughing.
Long after the beard had become my dominant feature, I relaxed into an unexpected ease. It bordered freedom. I have always cared about how I look. It’s vanity, but no source of confidence. Now, undeniably, something had changed. I no longer felt undercover, like the beard was hiding me. And neither did I feel the beard was an expression of any particular aspect of myself. I simply felt comfortable, absent self-reflection or abuse. If there was a creative benefit to the beard in the long run, it was in the relaxed focus of this period.
One morning I sheared the thing off without much thought. It was an odd end after holding out against so many earlier impulses. But growing it no longer felt like a challenge, and I no longer felt strongly one way or another. It was never a very good beard—I looked too much like an old friend of my dad’s, a guy whose social awkwardness had merged in my mind with his scraggly beard. And I was watching too many videos about beard care, trying out beard oils. I began to wonder what I would look like without it, and so I plugged in the clippers and lopped it off.
My chin felt indescribably small.
Think there's no way to change the system? Here's what Yvon Chouinard has to say about that.
The market for creative work has undergone huge changes in the last few years, and nowhere is that more apparent than television. I had the chance to sit down with Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer at Netflix and the guy who greenlights all your favorite shows. This interview came on the heels of Netflix’s announcement that it would acquire 300 hours of original programming from DreamWorks Animation, the largest TV order in history.
ME: I’ve heard you say that Netflix really isn't trying to define itself through any one show. I wonder, is there a common thread, creatively, to what you put money behind? Is it just stuff Sarandos thinks is cool?
TS: I think that what the Netflix original shows, adult and children, have in common is that it's content that would be difficult to get made elsewhere. At the level of quality that goes into it, the economic model, if you had to support it with advertising, I don’t think it would get made. It would be too high risk. Three hundred hours of animation from DreamWorks is a massive commitment. It’s probably larger than any other network's total programming budget, and we were able to do that, which enables them to build out the infrastructure that enables them to produce quality at near-theatrical levels every single episode.
ME: One thing I heard repeatedly at DreamWorks, and this is something repeated by people who have done original series for you, is that it’s not at all like making a show at a network. What do you think they mean when they say that?
TS: I think the role of the network executive in creation really varies by corporate culture depending on what network you’re talking about. I believe that for my business people, the art of what we’re doing is to pick the great storytellers and the worlds to explore and then to get out of their way. In other words, I’m not interested in what my executives think the color of the mushroom should be. I want that to reflect the creator’s taste because that’s what we bought into.
What you end up with if you don’t give them a lot of creative freedom is you end up with this Frankenstein of a product that no one’s accountable for. For me, I want to say let’s pick the right people to do the work, and DreamWorks is a great example of that, and explore the worlds that they want to explore. You only want to get involved when it’s catastrophic, and fortunately, none of these have been catastrophic.
ME: So you’re investing tons of money in shows, and you’re giving creators a lot of freedom. Explain how you can do that when every other network seems to leave a trail of embittered writers and producers.
TS: It’s our scale. We’re aggregating huge audiences for all this content. With the things on Netflix, it’s like a hyper-network. I mean, we have a hundred shows that get more than two million people watching them on Netflix and 30 that get more than five million, so it really is not just a creative flowering, but we’re bringing a scale to tons of shows that no one’s seen before.
ME: And make the leap for me between scale and creativity.
TS: Well, that scale will then seed the things you saw when you toured DreamWorks, which is, you know, we can invest in a show at a different level than everybody else. It drives a ton of innovation but also it enables them to build infrastructure to make better and better shows, so it’s kind of a nice self-fulfilling prophecy of quality.
ME: So you pick the creators, you give them tons of runway, and then you don’t expect something that’s packaged for a specific demo?
TS: Right. I mean I always go back to the old story about Duke Ellington when his label dropped him and said your albums aren’t selling so we’re not going to continue your contract, and he says, it’s your job to sell my albums. I make them. I think it’s the same thing.
What ended up happening is that the scale itself much better lent itself to being able to create scale. You need the big order up front to make great shows that attract huge audiences. It’s the way that House of Cards is a better show because we ordered 26 hours of it than it would have been if we had ordered three and said we’ll see how you do. They wouldn't have invested in the sets at the level that they did on House of Cards or been able to bring in the best people to create the images around it or the best writers in the world to write those scripts. The size and scale of the investment actually afforded the size and scale of the output.
ME: Obviously the key functional difference between Netflix and linear television is that there are no time slots, there’s no Saturday morning versus Thursday night. How does that change the business of investing in creativity?
TS: I think the demographic buckets aren’t that important for us. There’s a newness or preciousness to primetime hours that need to be measured, because everything that’s not working in primetime is a massive opportunity concept. There is no such thing as primetime on Netflix. If I buy a show and we own it for 10 years it’s no more or less valuable if you watch it 10 years from now or the moment it goes live. You’re barely more likely to discover it the day we go live than you are 10 years later. We’ll have more viewing of House of Cards season one when we’re getting ready to launch a new season. People who have never discovered the show are no less valuable to us because they're about to enjoy 13 hours that turns into 26 hours that turns into 39 hours of viewing.
To me the reason why Seinfeld was almost a miracle was that back then if you didn’t work in the first three or four weeks, you were out. Seinfeld wasn’t a hit for a few seasons. It’s not just Seinfeld. If you ask James Brooks about Mary Tyler Moore, it was sometime in the third season where he thought, okay, now we’ve got a show. Today, you know, there are shows that are literally getting cancelled in their second week during the primetime lineup.
ME: So how do you know you’re investing in the right shows?
TS: Net subscriber growth. If we’re investing in content and people love the content, they're retaining and they're joining, and when that stops then we’re spending the money wrong.
ME: So you’re not scrutinizing each show’s performance the way a network scrutinizes ratings?
TS: No, because it's very hard, especially on a new show. When you have so much to watch on Netflix it’s very unlikely that some new show you never heard of is going to get you so excited you’re going to join, so I wouldn't have joined for the other thousands and thousands of things to watch, but I will join for this. There are some rare exceptions for us. Orange is the New Black and House of Card did have a chartable effect on subscriber growth, but season ones are very difficult to move the needle.
Mostly it’s the accumulative impact of having all the new stuff to watch that gets people excited, so I don’t think you can narrow it to one thing. We have so many plates spinning all the time. We’re launching a very aggressive list of 320 hours of series this year of kids, of scripted series, documentaries, standup comedy. It’s important that people will find differentiated value in Netflix for that subscription price. The mandate is to make as much good stuff as we can.
"What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be."
- Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals
The threatened fart-in was to take place at the Rochester Philharmonic. "[The group's] increasingly gaseous music-loving members would tie themselves to the concert hall where they would sit expelling gaseous vapors with such noisy velocity as to compete with the woodwinds," writes biographer Nicholas Von Hoffman in his great doorstopper Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky.
Saul Alinsky was a crass dude, and proud of it. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he was raised in Chicago and took a stab at archeology after college. It was the Depression, and archeologists were "in about as much demand as horses and buggies," Alinsky wrote. "All the guys who funded the field trips were being scraped off Wall Street sidewalks." He fell into community work almost by accident, and early in his career he helped organize the Back Of The Yards neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Using intelligence, intuition, and chutzpah, he approached community organizing like a guerrilla commander, and he developed novel tactics to "turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest."
Alinsky left instructions, a kind of operating manual for political dissent. It's giving me a lot of succor these twisted days. I feel so much anxiety just now. We all feel it. My wife feels it more acutely than I do. Like an old Indian tracker in a tumbleweed western, she senses each vibration in her feet and knows evil's rolling down the line. Every day, sure enough, some fresh catastrophe, and she's vindicated and destroyed. Sometimes she cries at work, attacks of empathy. And that's followed by the question, the same one I've had, the same one I've heard a lot of people ask: What can I do?
The marches were beautiful. A perfect outlet at the perfect time. But they also left me with a creeping sense of sluggishness. It was too easy, and one beautiful Saturday does not an effective resistance make. That's no knock on a magical day. But it's over, and the question lingers on: What can I do? Donate to the ACLU? Boycott L.L. Bean? It feels so feckless, limp. Another protest? Some blog art? Molotov cocktails?
If you feel the legacy of great political artists, the anxiety is compounded by the certainty that this is our moment, and the pressure to rise to a generational challenge is excruciating. So no matter how much solidarity I feel in my anxiety, feel with others who are open about their anxiety, I also feel alienated from this moment, awfully uncertain what I can do. I'm caught in crossfire between chattering shoulder angels of pragmatism and passion, opportunity and resignation, and I'm having trouble finding a path forward.
Which is why it's so important to remember that Alinsky left instructions.
The word "organize" is vague enough to carry lots of romantic impact without suggesting a definition for itself. Our last president, a Chicago rabble-rouser in Alinsky's image, often suggested people should organize to effect change. I would nod at that, envisioning soap box speeches and epic walk-outs, wondering when things would get that bad. But I think I had it all wrong, and I'd like to suggest a much simpler definition and a much less intimidating way in. Organizing is nothing more than getting together with people, brainstorming how to solve a problem, making a plan, and then putting it into action. And along the way you gather as many stakeholders as possible. It could be a nationwide march, sure, but it could also be some artist friends meeting for beers, coming up with a clever project, putting the word out, and pulling it off. I do that sort of thing with professional collaborators all the time, and you probably do, too. For me, thinking of organizing in terms that feel familiar--as an act that starts with a few confidants gathering for an open discussion over drinks--makes it much more accessible.
I read Rules for Radicals in grad school and liked it. It's full of great examples of organizing, and it's clear Alinsky had a lot of fun in his life. But reading now, the book feels urgent.
Here are a few of Alinsky's rules ...
“A good tactic is one your people enjoy. They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones."
“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”
“Never go outside the expertise of your people.”
“Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.”
And an epigraph that gets me every time, and that evidently scared Ben Carson to his conservative core:
"Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer."
This is my joint.