Credit Where Credit’s Due

Five months in, and another landmark should arrive in the post here at some point over the next week, with the arrival of my first American credit cards. This is something I’ve unconsciously resisted, having been brought up with a Scottish Presbyterian upbringing view, that any kind of debt inevitably leads to immorality, an eternity in hell, and possibly even Papism. I managed to get through my student years without accumulating a single penny of debt and, even now, it’s something of a badge of honour that I have always paid off the entire balance on my credit card each month. Thus, the suggestion that I acquire more debt (ok – potential debt) is something I viewed with a jaundiced air.

However, the steady and inevitable loosening of my British ties makes it probably inevitable, assisted by my current credit card company giving the impression that I might as well be on the surface of the moon, as far as customer service goes. You and I may think we’re in the third millennium, but the Royal Bank of Scotland might as well be scratching away with ye olde quill pens, before popping their epistles onto a galleon, going by the speed of their customer service department. A simple query about my credit card, submitted by email, took almost a month to get a response – which arrived here in Scottsdale by snail-mail, written on papyrus. I am tempted to run up an enormous debt, safe in the knowledge that I would probably have died of old age before they actually noticed.

So, Chris is now apparently arranging credit for me. I’m not quite sure how she’s doing it, since I don’t have any actual income here at the moment, have only lived here for a short space of time, and effectively possess no credit record at all. Perhaps this is actually a good thing, and they treat no credit record as a totally clean one? The good thing is, this will actually be an American card with an American address – and will thus be usable by PayPal.

As regular readers will be aware, I’ve had a few recent clashes with them. I finally received an admission that their rejection of my credit card was not, contrary to all their previous claims, because I didn’t know my own address, but was because I was using a British credit-card in the United States. [My bank confirmed that PayPal never even attempted to verify my credit-card] I’ve now set up an international account with them, using my old Tulse Hill address, which it accepted quite happily. How long this will last, I don’t know – I expect a PayPal-sponsored SWAT team to come crashing through the door any morning now, and arrest me for fraud.

Even more ironically, while making such a fuss over the precise wording of the address on my credit card statement, thanks to our business PayPal sent us one of their debit cards, which we could cheerfully wave around all over the place. I refuse to use it on principle, figuring that this is too much like climbing into bed with the devil. When Satan comes a-calling, he brings an unlimited line of credit. There are those who reckon that the Mark of the Beast, as described in Revelations, is actually the barcodes you seen on almost every product nowadays. Personally, I reckon it’s more likely to be your PayPal login id.

7th Los Angeles Film Festival

Hollywood, Los Angeles, April 20-28, 2001

You know you’re in California when every piece of electrical apparatus, from automatic doors to lifts, has instructions on it detailing what to do when the power fails. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Film Festival was mercifully spared any of the rolling blackouts which been all too common in the state recently – the thought of projecting movies by pulling the film past a candle really doesn’t bear thinking about.

This year, the film was incorporated into part of the Independent Feature Project/West, a strangely named group looking after indie film-makers and cheerleading for their movies. One was left to contemplate the significance of the logo – as seen at the top. This portrays someone desperately pushing a film reel up a very steep slope, which is a good enough metaphor for the process of movie-making by all accounts. The fact that, at the top, there appears to be nothing but a precipice is presumably a good enough metaphor for the eventual fate of most non-studio product. Is that a Blockbuster video card lurking at the bottom?

This CD will self-destruct in 5 seconds

The nine day festival had over ninety films, but due to time constraints we could only sample a few, opting (as you might expect) for the ones that didn’t involve powerful coming-of-age sagas, poignant and sometimes hilarious stories about what happens when life moves on, or fresh takes on the subject of sex and the single girl. [All three could be found in the festival program] For what’s the point of being independent if you’re going to churn out the same kind of thing as a mediocre movie-of-the-week on a mainstream cable channel? Thanks, but we’ll pass.

Most of the screenings took place at the Directors’ Guild of America headquarters on Sunset Boulevard. Naturally, I took the chance to play at being Spielberg, striding into the building, barking loudly into a cellphone about weekend grosses and pay-for-play deals. I think my poor mother was very confused by the end of the conversation, but never mind. The screening rooms were fine, if a little spartan – I mean, no drinks-holders, and while they sold food in the foyer (this being California, it was sushi and cappucino rather than popcorn and Coke), they wouldn’t let you take anything into the screens. So much for the cinematic experience. Still, nothing that couldn’t be solved, thanks to a capacious hockey-shirt, capable of holding an entire picnic in its sleeves.

The LA Film School and the Laemmle Sunset 5 also provided venues, though we never got to the latter, presumably because it was playing the kind of fodder appropriate to its multiplex nature. The Film School was further along Sunset Boulevard, with the cinema tucked round the corner in a low-key manner inappropriate for anything to do with film schools, but we did discover a really decent BBQ joint up the street which helped keep those of us less keen on sushi nutritionally sustained.

The big buzzwords at the festival appeared to be “digital video”, with several of the screenings coming off this medium, yet looking barely inferior to regular projection. People like Bernard (Paperhouse) Rose are extremely enthusiastic about its possibilities, and with good packages available for just a few thousand dollars, it does seem to offer low-budget film-makers a great deal of flexibility and possibility. Disturbingly for those in the business, it may eventually also mean an end to the need for special lighting, cinematographers and a lot of the other paraphenalia traditionally associated with “movie making”. We script-writers, however, should be safe. 🙂 For an example of the possibilities, check out

But enough of such technical issues! Film festivals are, after all, about the films. So, without further ado, I’ll point you in the direction of the reviews, while I keep on trying to discover how I can get a Trash City star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame…

Festival Reviews 

Meet the Peeps

“More, faster, sugarier, marshmallowier!”

Strolling through a dollar store here in Phoenix, earlier in the week, my attention was drawn to a stack of brightly-coloured boxes. On closer inspection, they contained uber-cute marshmallow chicks, almost fluorescent in their artifical yellows and blues, oozing succulent sweetness from every centimetre of their lovableness, right down their little edible-wax eyes. This was my first encounter with Peeps.

But certainly not my last brush, for come Easter, they are omniprescent as Cadbury’s Creme Eggs are in Britain. At that time, they are the biggest non-chocolate confectionery item in the United States, and while efforts have been made to extend the range to other times of year, with Christmas trees, pumpkins and hearts, it is at Easter that Peeps really come into their own, both as chicks and bunnies.

“You bite their heads off,” informed Chris helpfully. I was aghast. How could anyone be so cruel to something so innocent, cute and adorable? Particularly when made by a company with the decidedly double-edged name of Just Born [I later discovered that the company was called this, not as some kind of sick joke, but after its founder, Russian immigrant Samuel Born.] But biting their heads off is not by any means the worst fate that can befall a Peep.

Certain twisted individuals, in the name of “science”, have performed animal experiments on both avian and rabbit varieties. Popping them in a microwave is the most common method of testing, causing them to blow up to a grotesque parody of their former selves. Liquid nitrogen, bricks and lasers have also been used in this senseless torture. I was, however, more than a little worried to discover that peeps are insoluble, not just in water, but in sulphuric acid, which does beg the question – what the hell happens to them in your stomach?

Nutritionally, they are intense. Although they are pleasingly free from fat, they are pretty good at leading to fat, with each Peep being 32 calories of sugar-blitzed madness – and you can never just eat one. For some, even an entire packet isn’t enough. Now in it’s fifth year is an annual ritual called the Peep-Off, where participants compete to see how many they can cram down in thirty minutes – plus a five-minute post-Peep period where vomiting will disqualify a competitor (or at least, “If you puke, you have to eat the puked Peeps to stay eligible,” according to the organiser). The record is a frankly-disturbing 88.

There’s no doubt that Peeps have been big business, ever since 1953, when Just Born took over another sweet-maker, Rodda, and began streamlining their process for Peep-making. Nowadays, their factory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is capable of turning out 3.8 million of the little critters a day, with some six hundred million being sold over the Easter period. The process takes six minutes from the first squirt of marshmallow, throgh the dotting of the eyes, to the last rustle of the cellophane.

Why it’s such a hurry is a mystery, given they have a shelf-life of two years, and it’s estimated that one in five consumers prefer them stale, with some even liking them frozen solid. Roast, or used as a pizza topping are other ‘unusual’ possibilities. More generally, yellow Peeps are the most popular, followed by pink, lavender, blue and white.

While Just Born have a fan-club, it’s the unofficial devotees who are perhaps the most interesting, with the cult of the Peep continuing to grow. The Internet has provided an outlet for all manner of individuals, from the sublime to the ridiculous – even the NASA web site has Peep content. Art, science, cuisine – there’s almost no area of popular culture Peeps have not touched, though they have yet to achieve the level of movie product-placement as Twinkies – despite the efforts of some Netizens.

Speaking of which, like Twinkies, they remain an almost exclusively American product, though an attempt was made to introduce them to Britain in 2000. As part of the promotion, Just Born ran a website survey to find out “which notable British personality best illustrates the Peeps character and style.” The winner was Benny Hill, with Sir Elton John in second place. I confess I would be interested to discover whether the latter swells up to four times his size in a microwave oven…

Selected Links

Hitting the Hundred

Summer is a-coming in, loudly sing cuckoo… Not here in Phoenix, where the cuckoo was recently found dead of heatstroke. For it may be only April, but the temperature earlier this week cruised past one hundred degrees Fahrenheit – to put that into perspective, it’s more than the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere in the UK (98.8F, in Cheltenham on August 3rd, 1990, fact fans).

We still have plenty of time for it to get even hotter, so some kind of survival plan has to be put into action now. “Not going outside for five months” certainly has its appeal, but I do need to leave occasionally, if only to stock up on supplies of black cockerels – I will shortly be embarking on a program of daily sacrificial rites, to appease the gods of air-conditioning and hopefully ensure there are no breakdowns. If that happens, I will climb inside the freezer and pull the door shut as an emergency measure, not coming out until the repairman has visited.

That might be some time – come summer, aircon engineers here in the Valley become like gods themselves, with all the fickle omnipotence that implies. Even at the best of times, people here have a tendency not to turn up when they should, so I dread to think how long we might have to wait for a repairman. To speed up the process, after two days, we’ll move in to the local mall; after three, we’ll recruit Chris’s elderly mother to pretend she has some kind of terminal illness; and after four, daughter Emily will be on offer as part of an incentive package. Both her and Robert have been heard saying how cold it is in the house: I sit there, in a pair of shorts and nothing else, and marvel at those who possess nuclear fuel for blood.

If I haven’t yet been out to experience the heat in the middle of the day, what I have encountered has been quite enough. Last night, went to the baseball, and was looking forward to seeing it in air-conditioned comfort, since the stadium here has a retractable roof specically for this purpose. But for some reason they didn’t close it – like a hundred degrees isn’t warm enough to merit it – and so the crowd were forced to swelter like 28,000 barbecuing T-bones. I should mention here, that Phoenix may be the only place you put steaks on the barbecue to keep them cool, and where “medium-rare” is achieved by waving the meat out of the window for thirty seconds. The idea of storming the swimming pool (yes, the baseball stadium has one of those too!) was highly appealing.

In addition, the stadium lights brought in every flying insect in the state – I kept expecting two small Japanese women to appear, and see Mothra circling lazily overhead. Speaking of lower life-forms, such inconveniences were minor beside the joy of taunting two opposition fans who were being particularly obnoxious, especially after their side jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first innings. By the end of the game, when Arizona had whipped Atlanta’s ass 13-6, virtually the entire section was, very pointedly, cheering in their direction for each home team hit. Ah, there’s nothing quite like taunting loud-mouthed, arrogant rednecks — at least, when you’re on your home turf, something which Steve Buscemi recently failed to grasp.

So the sun beats down outside, I hide inside, attempting to remain “pale and interesting”, and packing all my dark T-shirts away until October. A quick check of the paper reveals that the high in London yesterday was a mere 56F – guess you’re all still huddled round carcass bonfires to keep warm. Me, I’m off for my nineteenth cold drink of the day. I’ll cope…

Violently Happy

After last week, where I came to the conclusion that I had become my parents, I have decided that I am not really cut out for this child-rearing lark at all. This conviction was forceably brought home to me on Sunday afternoon, when three small children, belonging to Chris’s step-daughter visited for their annual Easter Egg hunt. They were the human equivalent of a mountainside full of snow – very pleasant when stationary, but when it starts to move, you’d better watch out, and lock away all valuables. I have nothing but the deepest respect for the parents; or, indeed, any parents who manage to get through eighteen years of child-rearing without once reaching for the nail-gun [“Mummy, why am I limping in a circle?”] as an effective tool of child-control. Children should be seen and not heard. Or better yet, neither seen nor heard, and a combination of duct-tape and the cupboard beneath the stairs would assist mightily in this goal.

However, they’ve gone, and I think we have a good chance of getting the urine stains out of the cushions, so I am left to contemplate my birthday. This sees me perched precariously in the middle between thirty and forty, precisely half-way through my alloted three-score-and-ten, and wondering how I managed to make it thus far without being beaten up by someone I’d managed to piss off. Such as Jimmy Saville – the story of which will hopefully appear here in the next week or two, I’m just waiting for Demon’s legal department to approve it.

Chris, the darling, threw a surprise party for me on Friday. I should really have guessed, given the ones she organised in 1999 (James Bond) and 2000 (toga), but for some reason, didn’t, and went innocently off to her sister’s house on Friday afternoon to install some memory. When I came back, the house here had been transformed into an alien grotto – this year’s theme was ‘Men in Black’. So everyone was appropriately clad in suits and shades, while Area 51 posters decorated the room. A fun time was had by all, with the highlight perhaps…but if I told you, then I’d have to kill you. Suffice it to say that plotting will begin now for the end of July, when it will be Chris’s turn. Bwah-ha-hah… [Laugh largely aimed at investing her with an appropriate sense of paranoia for the next three months]

Birthdays are supposed to be a time for taking stock. The problem is, if anyone had told me five years ago, that I’d be living in Arizona, writing programs for a jewellery supplies web-site, I’d not have believed them. I should therefore be loathe to predict where I will be in another five years, except for the fact that I am, at the moment, deliriously happy. It’s taken me a good few years to achieve Nirvana – and, boy, what a long strange journey it’s been – but I can now state with confidence that if I’m sitting in exactly the same situation in another five years, I will be every bit as content as I am now.

Indeed, perhaps even more so, and without having to raise a finger to change my life, since the kids will, by that point, be all grown up and saving whales and stuff. This will leave Chris and myself to roam the world, laptops in hand, selling beads remotely and perhaps writing the editorial from an Alp somewhere above Salzburg. Does that sound like a fine goal for my fortieth birthday?