God Free

It is Easter Sunday on the second floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel near LAX. I walk down a hallway and hear the excited, lilting voice of a young boy: “How do you spell atheist?”

This voice comes from a tyke with an impressive mullet hair-do, happily sequestered in the Kids Camp, as his parents participate in the 11th Annual Stars of Freethought Convention, sponsored by the Atheist Alliance International. They are a well-groomed, nice-looking bunch of mostly white folks who have come from around the country to gather with their fellow nonbelievers. You might think, why bother getting together? Why not just stay away from church and relax?

Gathering is just a natural instinct. Whether you’re a Catholic or a Ted Nugent fan or a wolf, there’s a specialized get-together just for you. And here there have been many attractions for the practicing atheist, if that’s not a contradiction. Talks on things like “America’s Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair,” “Einstein’s Religion” and “The Religious Roots of Homophobia and Sexophobia.”

But today, Sunday, the alleged anniversary of the alleged Son of the alleged God’s alleged Resurrection, while millions are dolled up in their finery, glowing with Belief and slipping into pews, the atheists are sitting down to a nice breakfast, awaiting the arrival of a Thomas Jefferson impersonator. Next to me are Steve and Shirley, who’ve come from St. Paul, Minnesota (the state is a bastion for atheists). They are pleasant and friendly in that Midwestern way that’s almost heartbreaking. They’re middle-aged, and look so normal (by cynical, hip L.A. standards) as to be almost invisible.

They met at an atheist get-together 15 years ago. Shirley is a second-generation atheist. Steve wrestled his way out of Catholicism.

“I had to pick a confirmation name,” he tells me. “It was the early ’60s, so I picked Fabian. The priest said there was no way I could use that name, but I had found that there was a Pope Fabian. He had to do it.”

Anyone here will tell you that everybody is born an atheist. But, like Steve (a.k.a. Fabian), they’ve gone through their own trials to shed the skin of the religion in which they were inculcated. Even Thomas Jefferson had to deal with these questions, according to the guy dressed as Founding Father T.J. Oh, he’s good, he knows his Jefferson. He talks about things like the need for separation of church and state, and freedom of reason. He says things like “Whether my neighbor believes in one or 20 gods, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” There is much applause.

After the dead-president experience, the Future of Freethought Parade takes place. A handful of kids get up onstage to show what they’ve created in the Kids Camp. One adorable little girl lifts a T-shirt and announces what she’s written on it.

“Jesus, No, No, No, No, No.”

Then vehement non-God enthusiasts Penn and Teller are honored with the Richard Dawkins Award. Named for the “world’s most famous atheist,” it’s being given to the gifted magic team for being, well, good atheists. Penn speaks, as always, but then the professionally mum Teller steps up to the mike:

“I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who appeared to me last night and said, ‘I’d like you to spend the anniversary of my specious Resurrection in a room full of fuckin’ atheists.’ ”

Everybody laughs, and so do I. Here’s one certainty: We’ll all be seeing each other in hell, or not at all.

—Peter Gilstrap

Super Mario Battles King Kong


Just as the barker outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater began to entice the trickle of early-bird tourists to come in from the sun and visit the room where “just hours from now, Sandra Bullock will appear for the premiere of Miss Congeniality 2,” a picket line emerged on the shiny black sidewalk. This wasn’t a labor dispute but a lobbying effort to grant a new star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to a short, mustachioed Italian plumber from Japan. His name: Mario.

Nintendo PR women frantically flagged down youngsters and other passersby to take part in their “protest,” doling out ready-made picket signs: “Video Game Characters Are People Too!!!”

A Southern woman with a pink leather purse made a frown. “Well, I don’t think so. How much does it cost?”

As Mario — or at least a guy in an oversize Mario head — pulled up in a red Mustang convertible, a guy shooting b-roll video footage stage-directed the half-dozen drafted activists to circle and chant: “Ma-ri-o! Ma-ri-o!”

“What you’re seeing here is what Hollywood was built on — hype!” bellowed Hollywood’s 81-year-old, Emmy-winning honorary mayor, Johnny Grant, as he posed with Mario to accept an Internet petition signed by 3,300 people who want to see a new category for video-game stars added to the Walk of Fame. Nintendo’s is far from the first such star-lobbying stunt.

“King Kong is a good example,” recalled Grant. “He followed me for a week, went into every restaurant I was in. He didn’t get a star. Probably should have.”

“If Donald Duck is on the Walk of Fame, why not video-game characters?” argued gamer Kishan Shah, 12, of Cranford, New Jersey, one of those confoundingly short middle-schoolers with glasses and braces and thatches of peach fuzz. Indeed, Mickey Mouse received the first non-human star in 1978; Lassie and Godzilla have also been honored. But it’s been about 20 years since the last new category of stars was added, for Live Performance.

Certainly video games can compete with movies in terms of dollars. Sandra Bullock’s 23 movies have to date grossed roughly $1.25 billion worldwide (according to Boxofficemojo.com), while Nintendo says Mario’s 80-plus video games have generated $7 billion. (An ill-conceived Mario movie spinoff grossed $20 million, while no Sandra Bullock video games have yet hit store shelves.) Overall, the movie industry saw box-office sales of $9.54 billion in 2004 (MPAA); video-game sales were $7.3 billion (according to the Entertainment Software Association). The best-ever opening for a movie was Spider-Man 2’s $40.4 million; Halo 2 for the Xbox saw first-weekend sales of $125 million.

Even so, Mayor Grant, a bit out of his element — he continually referred to the games as “videos” — was politely skeptical of Mario’s chances.

“I’m noncommittal . . . Well, really, I’m not,” Grant admitted, after explaining that the full 45-member board of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce will debate and then vote democratically on the video-game star measure.

“I believe in the tradition that we’ve established here. I know that, along the way, ‘videos’ will play an even more important role, and that we’ll probably have a category for it. But it was the motion pictures, radio and television that built Hollywood — not video [games]. I got several phone calls before I came over here this morning, from people in the [movie] industry saying, ‘Don’t do it!’ ”

On the flip side, the mayor received some 20 letters from “big guys” in the video-game industry.

“I think as video games and interactive entertainment and movies merge more,” argued Nintendo public-relations manager Tom Harlin, “they’re going to become very similar industries, as opposed to competitors.”

To which Grant retorted, “The Walk of Fame is to honor people, and to promote tourism. And who’s going to promote more tourists from around the world right now: Sandra Bullock or Mario?”

Sandra Bullock got her star last week.

—Mark Hefflinger

Got Your Goat

Until the recent media blitz, the only Chivas I knew was Regal — and that’s a Chivas I can’t afford.

Turns out that Chivas, when pronounced CHEE-vas, is also Spanish slang for goats and the name of the hugely popular soccer team from Guadalajara that has just debuted a new spinoff team, Chivas USA. They joined Major League Soccer after paying 26 million bucks with the intent of dominating the league. Imagine George Steinbrenner buying his way into Japanese baseball with a team named the Japanese Yankees. Same deal.

Saturday, my friend Doug and I were at the Home Depot Center in Carson for the historic first game. But it was actually the Chivas’ opposing team that we came to see. Doug, a huge soccer fan, is from Washington and is ardent about his hometown team, DC United.

Which is one of the reasons the promotion for Chivas USA gave me pause. Chivas owner Jorge Vergara wasn’t trying to woo guys like me when he declared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, “It’s the Latins versus the Gringos. And we’re going to win.”

When he also stated, “We’re taking the U.S. back, little by little,” I became somewhat concerned. My friend Doug and I may be the two palest guys in L.A., and we would be sitting alone rooting for DC United, the so-called Gringo team.

The question in my mind wasn’t, would we be pummeled? It was, would the pummeling occur before, during or after the game? But I resigned myself to the idea, because, after all, isn’t that what being a soccer hooligan is all about?

On game day, however, no pummeling would occur, even though DC United beat Chivas USA, 2-0.

Mexican pride was present but not overwhelming. A small section outside the stands was turned into “Chivastown,” sort of a mock Mexican village with an exhibit dedicated to the history of the original Chivas team. There was traditional Mexican food, music and dancing. And I discovered that posole makes a dandy sports snack, especially when watching a mariachi halftime show.

The crowd wasn’t as intimidating as I had imagined. For one thing, with everyone wearing Chivas’ traditional red-and-white striped jerseys, the stadium looked like a giant TGI Friday’s convention.

Many were families simply enjoying a beautiful afternoon together. When Doug and I moronically screamed “DC United!” after a TV camera pointed at us, no one even bothered to douse us in beer.

Near the end of the game, I witnessed something quite surprising. The crowd started a spontaneous chant of “Chivas USA!” But the emphasis wasn’t on the “Chivas.” It was on the “USA.”

That’s when I learned a valuable lesson: It doesn’t matter what color our skin is. It doesn’t matter where we were born. When we go to sporting events in Carson, Anaheim, Pasadena or L.A., we are all Southern Californians. We all share the same great weather and pay too much for event parking. And we’re simply too laid-back to be soccer hooligans.

—Dog Davis


Canned Art

“Nick is my human name. I prefer Tragnark.” This is Nick Reid’s explanation of his alter ego, a planet Zaktar native who lives and breathes art. Reid was the organizer for “Three Inches From the Street,” a traveling collection of skateboard decks designed by artists from around the world — and in Reid’s case, the universe. The show debuted in Los Angeles at the monthly roaming art show Cannibal Flower, a hotbed for underground artists for years.

Armed with civil disobedience and a Krylon can, most of the show’s artists are taggers who bombed their decks with cartoonish characters and splashed them with the colors and aggressive images of otherworldly video games — a broken-down police car, Michelangelo’s David with a gun pointing at his head (has he given up fighting Goliath?). Some artists simply refused to color in the lines — boards were cut out and carved away. It’s the rebel art form that refuses to see itself as a proper art.

“I never knew I was an artist until people started to say I was,” said Paul Mullen, 21, from Aberdeen, Scotland. “I just did it for fun.” His board featured his tag “Akiro” and a comic book–like black-and-white sketch of a mad scientist with a mind-control device strapped to his noggin.

“Skating built my confidence and that confidence spilled over into everything for me, especially my art,” Tragnark said. “All my friends are into graffiti or animation and most of us also skate or snowboard, so we combined our passions and decided to use decks as canvas and from there I decided to contact other artists whose work I admire and asked them to be a part of it.”

One of those artists he contacted was Luke Chueh, a Cannibal Flower regular whose signature distressed bear makes an appearance on a deck with flames around his neck, looking into a glass of water while a bubble above his head shows a lemon slice. Chueh said he was inspired by “lots of cartoons.” Joe Ledbetter, another underground fixture known for his Itchy and Scratchy–esque bunnies that are both sweet and dangerous, admitted, “I watched a lot of Saturday-morning cartoons.” His deck features a cute fluffy bunny with a hole in its head.

AngryWoebots, a Honolulu native, said he just wanted his board to look cool by cutting into the deck and using the negative space to suggest his hallmark panda. The rest of the board is covered with these Band-Aid-patched tattered pandas that look like they’re crawling through Dante’s inferno.

Nate Svitko, a printmaker whose art is defined by processes not appreciated by most observers of the end product, broke down his art by showing each layer of color trapped in a glossy resin. His inspiration: quantum physics’ weak holographic principle, which states, “The surface of anything is not necessarily the surface of an object.”

It’s simultaneously more and less than what it seems.

—Linda Immediato



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