Monkey House Made of Glass

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

In tribute to Santino, the 31-year-old chimp whose apparent ability to ?plan ahead? recently became food for thought in cognitive science circles, I?ve served up a few tasty morsels of monkey media below.

Here?s the back story: As an exhibit at Sweden?s Furuvik Zoo, Santino had apparently tired of his human voyeurs whom he assaulted with rocks. What?s salient, however, is that fact that Santino would stockpile his arsenal in advance of the attacks ? an act that, according to the Guradian UK, ?takes considerable cognitive skills, because it requires an animal to envisage future events it will have to deal with.?

Zoologists apparently uncovered hundreds of caches of stones prepared by Santino suggesting a veritable arms race against the damn dirty humans. Moreover, the chimp clearly appreciated the lethality of stones (some of which he would fashion from concrete pried from the floor of his pen) versus the improvised weaponry more often tossed by his primate brethren, such as shit.

?Forward planning like this is supposed to be uniquely human; it implies a consciousness that is very special, that you can close your eyes you can see this inner world,” remarked cognitive scientist Mathias Osvath, who authored a study on Santino and his warring ways. “We are not alone in the world within. There are other creatures who have this special consciousness that is said to be uniquely human.”

And what did Santino?s human captors do with their ?special consciousness? in anticipation of another simian assault from Santino? In a move analogous to that perpetrated against Randall Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo?s Nest, they put the monkey under the knife, but instead of a lobotomy, they went right for the, um, stones. Cogito ergo castrato.

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The Words, Words, Words sketch from playwright David Ives? All in the Timing features three research monkeys tasked with writing Hamlet as per the infinite monkey theorem. Here?s a serviceable performance YouTubed by The Footlight Club of Massachusetts.

This American Life, Episode 350, Human Resources, Act Three, ?Almost Human Resources,? [43:28] Reporter Charles Siebert talks with Ira Glass about retirement homes for chimpanzees, which he studied for his upcoming tome ?Humanzee.?

An All Things Considered interview with James Lever, author of Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood, published by HarperCollins Publishers.

Monkey?s Nephew, a short film I made in honor of our closest relatives.

They Call Him Bruce

Passed the torch to the Mac guy.
Passed the torch to the Mac guy.

Actor and life-size action figure Bruce Willis and his pal, Kevin McNeely, chairman of the Sonoma International Film Society, were recently bold names on the New York Post’s infamous Page Six.

According to the gossip column, McNeely was “instrumental in getting (Willis) on a plane to the ‘cattle call’ casting that led to his co-starring role in ‘Moonlighting.'” As you know, the 12th annual Sonoma International Film Festival is presenting Willis a lifetime achievement award this April, wherein mutual assertions of gratitude will surely be the order of the day. I too, am grateful to those instrumental in getting me on a plane, but all I’ve ever gotten from vodka tonics is a hangover. Come to think of it, that’s what often results when I hang around the generous McNeely (Good on you, Kev – I’ll trade the plane for a wine flight any day).

For the record, I accept that I will never be an action hero of the ilk Mr. Willis has portrayed throughout his lifetime of achievements (a résumé that includes “The Fifth Element” penned by screenwriter and local Kamen Estate Wines owner, Robert Kamen). Given my nefarious nature and need of naps, I could, at best, pass as a super-villain if such people conducted their evil doings whilst splayed on a couch (see how I used both alliteration and the word “whilst?” in a single sentence? Diabolic, aren’t I? Archaic English is intrinsically evil because it’s hard to spell and alliteration is pure ear-candy to minds fatted on foulness).

I can vividly imagine the climatic scene in which Willis finally smites me just after he throatily mumbles the soon-to-be iconic catch-phrase: “Get off the couch.” My feeble retort, “Dude, you’re standing in front of the TV,” likely won’t catch on, but alas, it wasn’t written by Kamen. … Yet.

CUT TO: Car chase. Or, rather, lack thereof. Any chase that might occur in Sonoma in the coming weeks would be no-go due to all the local roadwork underway.
Town-bound from the Springs, I tried to avoid the construction traffic on Highway 12 by shooting down Boyes Boulevard, hooking a left on Arnold and another on Leveroni, only to have to come to a screeching halt. A neon-orange-clad crew was feeding a wood-chipper debris from some recently shaved brush.

Though they did their best to usher us along, the roadside attraction of the chipper proved rubber-necking Nirvana.

Willis, of course, is inured to such spectacle, because he is a spectacle.

His enduring screen persona is that of the reluctant-hardboiled-anti-hero-with-a heart-of-gold-around-whom-things-never-cease-exploding. This is why I want to upgrade from super-villain to comic-sidekick. It’s safer to stand near Willis. “Armageddon” notwithstanding, he generally doesn’t blow up.

We could be like Batman and Robin, but, um, not as close. Bruce would look stoically into nowhere while knotting a rag soaked in gasoline around his fist (seems like something he would do) and I would make wisecracks about his pending suicide mission, until he growls “Let’s go.” Dumbfounded that he’s included me in his plan to take on an entire road crew and their wood-chipper, I comically reply “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” Everyone laughs. Except Bruce.

He just cracks his neck, spits out a cigar butt and walks heedlessly into the pyrotechnic pandemonium. After a beat, I scamper behind him, secure in the knowledge that where there’s a Willis there’s a way. And then I blow up. Send my obit to Page Six.

Hip Neighborhood Alert in Sonoma

Here comes the neighborhood
Here comes the neighborhood

Whenever I encounter the phrase “hip neighborhood,” I’m overcome with both quiet contempt and even quieter envy. I’ve lived in a few hip neighborhoods, admittedly by accident, either by staying in one place long enough that the place became hip around me or by chasing some ill-fated dream of living in a hip neighborhood and failing such that I inadvertently moved into the next big thing, which was usually adjacent and cheaper by an exponent. I’m just not instinctively that cool.

I witnessed the hip brigade arrive in Venice, CA. (CUT TO: Mandatory montage of roller-bladers slicing past beach-bound pedestrians and bodybuilders caged within the cyclone fence of Muscle Beach). I was lured to the locale by a three-month house-sitting gig for a filmmaker who had gone on-location in Germany to direct an indie flick (my Venetian vacation eventually grew to three years when the movie’s financing inevitably fell apart and the filmmaker realized it was cheaper to stay abroad). In those years, I watched the main drag, Abbot Kinney (named for the developer who tried to import a water-logged slice of Italy to Californian shores), mature into a something of a cultural epicenter, brimming with cafes, bookstores and bars with doormen whose sunglasses cost more than my car.

Suddenly, my neighborhood was cool, which dare I say conferred some fleeting coolness on me. Until the Germans sent my absentee landlord home. Why this trip down Memory Lane to apartments past and garrets gone by? I believe another hip neighborhood is arising in our midst.

If last Saturday’s wine-drenched block party at Eighth Street East is any indication, I’d say the burgeoning vino mecca among the warehouses of winemakers and related industries is well-poised to seize the mantle (a brilliant time was had by all, including the mayor who was kind enough to drive my car home for me). And, yes, I dig that I’m clearly the last to learn about the Eighth Street East phenomenon, but permit me to be the first to say that live-work lofts will surely follow. They sprout like corrugated metal mushrooms wherever lifestyle and light-industrial concerns collide. Here, I do not condone or condemn, but merely observe (and, as always with these matters, the specter of gentrification looms, but I submit that if you’re developing near the tony enclaves of the wine trade, the gentrification has already occurred).

So far as I can tell, there are at least two rules an area must abide while becoming hip: 1.) Don’t try. Just like in junior high, exhibiting any aspiration to coolness invariably results in ultimate disaster.
For example, Petaluma’s relatively under-populated “Theater District” was developed by someone who should have been stuffed into his locker. 2.) Remain relatively inexpensive – at first.

Early adopters are often those brave few with artists’ souls and their corresponding pocket books. Warehouses and other industrial settings are traditionally prime locales for hipification. Consider New York’s lauded Meat Packing District, with its decidedly working class name (replete with a vague sense of gore) that now boasts rafts of restaurants with as many dollar signs as stars in the city guides.

Interestingly, while in LA, my agent once advised me to say I was from Sonoma County rather than San Francisco, which was theretofore my shorthand Northern California experience when navigating “whence and hence” small talk.

Though at the time, arguably more Angelenos knew San Francisco, those in the know appreciated the “SoCo” cachet, though anyone who calls it “SoCo” should probably be avoided.

The neighborhood in which I presently live with the Contessa was definitely cool before we arrived, which accounts for the fact that I was able to join a band in which all the members live in a four-block radius and Skanky the Clown’s Burning Man van is perpetually parked nearby.

That the slightly inflated value of our home has simmered down thanks to the economic chill, the general temperature remains – to borrow a phrase from Haskell Wexler – medium cool.

And that’s cool enough.

Say it and Spray It: Graffiti & Marketing

All stenciled graffiti owes a debt to the handprint stenciled onto the wall of the Chauvet Caves in France, circa 32,000 BC.
All stenciled graffiti owes a debt to the handprint stenciled onto the wall of the Chauvet Caves in France, circa 32,000 BC.

In a consultation recently, a client enquired about the efficacy of ?street stencils? as part of a branded entertainment campaign. I took this to mean ?spray-painting the URL to their online video all over town to get their target demo to watch it.? Yes, I replied, this could be effective ? if the target demo is law enforcement.

Long a requisite of the street team tool kit, guerilla-minded agencies have offered this and similar services hearkening back to the latter days of the last century. Current practitioners, however, advocate using the more legally nebulous and socially-conscious notion of ?reverse graffiti? or ?grime writing? wherein a surface such as tunnel caked with particulate matter belched from commute traffic is scrubbed (often with pressure washers and a laser-cut stencil) such that an image or brand message remains. The result of marketing DNA cut with the ?wash me? meme fingered in the dust of car windows.

As with most street-level marketing techniques, the process was co-opted from artists who use the urban landscape as their canvas. For that matter, the artists themselves are just as frequently co-opted. I personally should have co-opted one of these guys: Seeing as our client is in the beverage trade, we explored the notion of temporarily staining local walkways with wine spilled into a suggestive silhouette by way of a cardboard stencil. The result of the experiment was a soggy piece of cardboard afloat a puddle of malbec. A passerby congratulated my ?moment of clarity? as the wine rippled to the gutter.

Since I didn?t have a pressure washer, I looked into other means of leaving a (temporary) mark. Alas, I discovered ?spray chalk,? which is available in both commercial and homemade form (a recipe offered by The Bubble Gum Farm, looks promising ). It?s interesting to me that graffiti has evolved its own means of biodegradation, a sort of self-erasure reliant on the environment instead of human intervention. This is the graffito?s version of a natural death ? unlike a stencil on the brick wall between the McNear and Lan-Mart buildings off Kentucky Street in Petaluma, CA, that read ?Trap-A-Poodle? and persisted for nearly two decades before some civic-minded do-gooder finally scrubbed it.
(The tag was behind the dumpster on the right).

Like tattoo removal, graffiti removal can also leave scars as the former image suggests itself through hue like points in a constellation. Pal Jon Legare is responsible for dozens of such vestigial tags that dot the old town like liver spots. The PHSLO (originally the ?Petaluma High School Liberation Organization,? then later, the ?Present Human Society Liberation Organization? upon founder Legare?s graduation) used a stencil and spray can to promote this pithy public service message:

BE PURE
BE VIGILANT
BEHAVE

Of course, the word Legare neglected to include in his teen-scene agitprop elegantly summed his motivation: ?Because.?

My own experiments with graffiti (sans stencil) are limited to spray painting the name of an erstwhile publishing interest on the side of a retaining wall in the verdant hinterland that cleaves Sonoma and Marin counties. Suffice it to say, ?Raunchy Raunchy Arthur World Enterprises? did not remain inscribed long. Nor did ?Let it be love like speed,? the metaphysical motto of our departed friend James Zaremba, which I tagged on the eastern wall of American Alley at Western Avenue upon his death ? 15 years ago last week. The words were gone within days. I replaced them once and again they soon vanished. Finally it occurred to me that the epitaph?s inevitable erasure was aligned with the sad, but true state of affairs, rather than my angst and scrawl.

Next time, I?ll write it in wine. Because.

The ?Romanes Eunt Domus? scene from Monty Python?s The Life of Brian:

When a Pet Project Bites the Hand that Feeds it.

Table for 9,000.
Table for 9,000.

Like most creative types, I’ve got a veritable zoo of pet projects cross-breeding in the recesses of my mind. Some are born in captivity, successfully raised and released to the wild.

Others I’ve had to “put down,” for fear of infecting the remaining ones with their inanity. Consider my “Sonoma Terroir in a Baggie” notion, which went feral in my imagination sometime back, and starved the other pet projects of my attention for a few misguided weeks. Essentially a bag of dirt, the novelty item was to be marketed as a means of owning a little bit o’ Wine Country on the cheap.

For $5 you could have a Sonoma Valley appellation starter-kit for your very own micro-vineyard. Of course, I didn’t own any Sonoma terroir to bag, and realized I’d have a helluva time explaining myself to the business end of a vineyard manager’s shotgun should I be caught, shovel-in-hand, in the dead of night borrowing a little real estate. To wit, I let “Sonoma Terroir in a Baggie,” die on the vine.

As Sonoma’s self-appointed brand equity manager, for the past couple years I’ve made a pet project out of cataloging how the term “Sonoma” is used by marketers outside our city and county limits. I was curious to see what would result when I googled “Sonoma restaurant.”

This is what happened: Cresting the search result page was “Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar.” (Pause for effect.)
In Washington, D.C. How could this be? What order of search engine optimization wizardry had occurred? How could a restaurant in our nation’s capital have anything remotely to do with our town?

I decided to call Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and demand answers. What I got, however, was an earful of on-hold music that must have been laden with mellowing subliminal messages. By the time I was properly redirected and finally connected to co-proprietor Jared Rager, my bluster had transformed into an airy bliss.

Instead of haranguing Rager about using our town’s name for his restaurant, I found myself asking for a universal discount for all Sonomans.

“I’ve never thought of that,” the affable Rager replied. “We get a lot of traffic from all over California – congressmen, senators, staffers. We get a lot of the constituents from all over California.”

Rager’s tone was disarming in the way that hostage negotiators in the movies sooth the hotheads on the other side of the line long enough to trace the call. I was sure Rager was jotting down the caller ID so that he could report me to the four top federal agents I was convinced were enjoying one of Rager’s charcuterie plates in the “Sonoma Room” (yeah, I think they’ve got one).

After a moment, Rager added warily, “It could be a big crowd.”

Apparently, too big. In fact, by the sound of it, it seemed that Northern Californians represent a fair amount of Rager’s business. Since Sonoma defines the NorCal zeitgeist, it’s no wonder Rager named his joint after us.

I succumbed to a sense of bon homme and suddenly heard myself suggesting that we, meaning Sonoma, should treat Rager to a night on the town when he next visits. This is why my accountant annually chides me for my “entertainment expenses,” which he says could “Fund a small rebellion in a banana republic” (one my accountant’s pet projects, I presume). But if one is going to put one’s money where one’s mouth is, where better than Sonoma?

“My partner and I spent a lot of time visiting the area. We travel out there a lot. It’s beautiful and it’s our business to know what’s happening in the Wine Country,” Rager continued. “You guys have it right out there.”

I couldn’t help but agree. It was only after I hung up that I realized how expertly I had been served by the restaurateur. If pet projects were on the menu, this one was “crow.”

And I devoured it.