EVERY SATURDAY IN THE BIG OPEN SPACE IN THE OLD FARMERS Market (where it's still possible to pretend that the new Vegas-like Grove shopping mall next door doesn't exist), some tables are pushed aside to make room for a stage and a few large speakers. It starts getting crowded early -- all tables are taken by 7 -- and then there's a wild scramble for the next hour as strangers come up and beg to sit next to you. If you're holding a chair for a friend, you'll have to say "Yes, this is taken" so often that you become surly. By the time the karaoke starts at 8, the sign-up sheet is filled for the night. If you're a first-timer, you might not get to sing, even if you are on the list, because there are so many regulars who are in with the emcee, Danny Ray, that they automatically go on before anyone with a name he doesn't recognize. At 11:30 one Saturday night, I saw a first-timer, who had been told for two hours that she was next, jump onto the stage in utter exasperation and demand that Danny put on her song (she brought the house down with, I think, one from the Dixie Chicks). But people aren't there to see first-timers anyway. It's the regulars who make the evening so much fun.
There's the young, skinny Vegas guy who is decked out in a leisure suit, gigantic Elvis glasses, big chain and open polyester shirt. It's hard to tell if he's kidding or not, but who cares? His dance moves are so original (especially the one where he leans back like he's going for some limbo world record as his arms and hands shake toward his partner) that you're just glad he's there. Then there's the woman in the crazy, gigantic multicolored feather outfit waving a giant bone and singing Spanish songs with a lot of screeching ay yay yays. Some of the regulars are great -- doing a dead-on Sinatra or a perfect Alanis, or just singing classics in their own style. Most of the best singers dress normally. Some are real performers, walking amid the audience, getting on a knee to croon; others stand, shyly, and hug the mic stand. Nobody gets to sing more than once, and it seems that for a lot of the regulars those three and a half minutes onstage are the greatest of their week. (After an older, skinny African-American man sang Sinatra's "The Summer Wind" to great acclaim, I heard him in the men's room muttering, "I fucking own this town. This is my town.")
There are many regulars who never sing at all. They just come for the fun or to dance or to be in a place in Los Angeles where you can have a good time with old people and young people, gorgeous hipsters and normal shlubs. The entertainment industry fuels some of the excitement -- clearly some singers are hoping to be discovered -- but that's easy to ignore. I can't think of another place in town with such a free, accepting, silly atmosphere.
Most people's favorite is Diana ("I just go by Diana. Like Cher"). She won't say how old she is. "I just tell everybody I'm a senior. Let them guess. Let them guess. I'm in my second childhood."
She takes to the stage in a big overcoat, then whips it off, and there she is, wow, in a sparkly miniskirt, fishnet stockings, colorful top. She might sing "Last Dance" or some Creedence Clearwater Revival. "My signature song is 'I've Got the Music in Me.'" She sings well and with passion, she kicks her amazing legs and struts around the stage, and gets everybody up and clapping.
She's having so much fun, we're having so much fun, everything just seems perfect. She won't say this is the happiest time in her life, because she'd give it all up to have another day with Frank, her husband of 42 years. Six years ago he died; not long after, her two sisters passed away. "And my son, my only child. I was very depressed for a long time. I had a very wonderful husband, and I just wanted to die with him, to be honest." For three years, she didn't leave the house. Then a neighbor dragged her to a senior center. "The lady said, 'Sign here.' I said, 'What's that?' She said, 'It's karaoke.' I said, 'What's that?' Because I'm always thinking of my husband, I sang 'Unforgettable.' It was terrible. The tune wasn't mine. I was shaking. Nobody was listening. I went home and turned on the radio, and I said, 'I'm going to sing.' I heard 'I Will Survive.' What a wonderful song."
IDEAS: What You See and What You Get
ONE EVENING LAST WEEK A stylish group of 300 students, professors and various intelligentsia types crowded into an auditorium at Westwood's UCLA Hammer Museum to hear Yale professor emeritus Edward R. Tufte, who was in town for the opening of "Escaping Flatland," his own visual display on view at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in the Bradbury Building downtown. Tufte (pronounced tuff-tee) has spent the past 30 years dissecting graphs, charts, maps and, more recently, Web pages -- anything that uses visuals to convey information. He examines the visual presentation of the factual whether in cruise-missile-payload diagrams, a timetable for a Javanese railway line, family trees of modern art or the book How To Ski by the French Method. He views the world as if peering through a panopticon, with one eye on the big picture, the other on the minute.
A spry, lean man, Tufte glides energetically in front of the audience, his grayish-black hair lofted up and back, making his Scotch-Irish features stand out. This evening's talk is centered on a 19th-century map, designed by the French engineer Charles Joseph Minard, showing the miserable fate of Napoleon's army in Russia in 1812. Tufte says, "It may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn." Why? Because Minard was able to depict in a simple image the brutal fate of an army of 442,000 men, just 10,000 of whom survived the retreat from Moscow through sub-zero winter temperatures. Napoleon's death march looks, in Minard's graphic, like a trunk of a felled redwood, doubled back on itself, stout and powerful at the roots, wispy and brittle at the top. Miraculously, the map shows you everything you need to know: how many men perished, where and when, and under exactly what conditions.
"Minard made the map because he hated war," Tufte tells the audience, who line the aisles and spill out onto the patio. "He was driven by a deep knowledge of the content. Quality, relevance and intensity of content," Tufte chants. "Just imagine that. A content-driven business to assist thinking. Not decoration, not technology, it is to enable people to think better."
After 20 years of staring at Minard's map, Tufte says he finally noticed something more than the data. "Something subtle is going on here: The word Napoleon does not appear on this chart. Minard's point is not to celebrate surviving celebrities, but to memorialize the dead soldiers."
This is Tufte at his pointed best. Neither information nor its visual representation is neutral. Minard's deeper message has Tufte revved up. "The best of analytical design is just as powerful, just as historically important as a one-off painting. Guernica and Minard's map of Napoleon's march -- both of them belong in the same museum of forever anti-war art," he says with bulls-eye candor.
Toying with a fold-up pyramid he's using to demonstrate effective, economical design, Tufte remarks, somewhat boastfully, "I have a copy of Euclid's Geometry from 432 years ago, and the pop-up pyramid from that book can still be lifted today. Think your Web site will be able to do that?" He's just entered his warm-up on the cyber age. He begins with a one-liner. "There are only two industries that refer to their customers as users: illegal drugs and computers." The knowing in-crowd laughs. "No one in ä history who searches on a computer wants a frame," he goes on. "We want content. In some cases of corporate Web sites, the time of the average download of the opening screen is longer than the average visit. As we watch the corporate logo opening . . . 'Ooh, there's some music . . . damn, I'm out of here.'"
Under what could be a chapter heading titled "Operating System Imperialism and Icons on Steroids," Tufte points out that just 25 percent of the average computer screen is dedicated to content. "This is a scandal," he erupts. "They're stealing space." When the designers at Xerox made one of the first personal computers, Tufte says, the screen was nearly 100 percent content. "There were no applications, no advertising. It simply showed content, a little trash can and a little printer symbol. You opened only documents. There was no hint of a marketing system," which is how Tufte describes all the debris and detritus filling up screens everywhere: tools to promote the manufacturer, product placement. By contrast, computer screens at places like NASA or in an industrial setting are 100 percent content. "When analysis gets serious, all that stuff disappears. That's a big hint, isn't it?"
A few nights later, at a quiet reception in his honor at a Mar Vista house designed by Gregory Ain, Tufte is chatting with a curator from the Getty. He can't resist commenting on the directional graphics at Richard Meier's architectural masterwork. "The Getty is just festooned. All these signs everywhere in English, Spanish, Japanese. I know it's big. I know it's confusing. But what's wrong with getting lost? It's a museum: You want to get lost." Yet further proof that Tufte, like Hemingway, believes that what you leave out is more important than what you leave in.
GATHERING OF THE SURFERS: Where's the Aloha?
FOUR SURFERS WALK INTO A COFFEE shop. The hostess begins to seat another party behind them before realizing her mistake. "That's okay," says one of the four. "In the spirit of 'aloha,' go ahead and seat them first." Two more parties wander into the restaurant and are seated while the surfers remain standing. One turns to the others: "Let a few people get by you in the lineup," he says. "And soon everybody starts snaking your waves."
This isn't a joke, but an actual scene from Saturday's rain-swept Surfing Arts, Science and Issues Conference at Surfer's Point in Ventura (which began and ended on surfer's time -- 10 minutes late). Sharing the Holiday Inn with a chess tournament, a square dancers' convention and a gun show, SASIC presented its 100-plus attendees with paper palm trees, dioramas of reef-restoration projects, displays of vintage Hawaiian longboards and a staunch moral challenge: "Modern Surfing: Where's the Aloha?"
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Many of the 18 different hourlong seminars -- "The Pros and Cons of Artificial Reefs," "Malaria Sucks! A History of Surf Aid" -- rested on building new generations of activists. Mostly, the organic, non-combative, all-encompassing passion bordering on the mystical that surfers feel for their beloved sport was brought to bear over protecting the cultural membrane from the corroding influences of the mainland.
One lively debate featured sprightly attorney Gary Sirota, who co-developed the Margaritaville-sponsored tour of longboard contests, versus Malibu's churlish activist Flip Cuddy, who related embittered horror stories about his dealings with corporate sponsorship -- Margaritaville being one of them. "Jimmy Buffett is a snake in the grass!" Cuddy fumed. "I put together a deal with Seagram's and Oxygen TV for three hours of coverage on women's surfing. I'm driving from L.A. to Santa Cruz when I get a call from Buffett's partner, whom I've never met: 'Your TV show's been canceled; we don't approve of it.' We had worked on this for three weeks! Women had actually gone out and bought new wetsuits to be in these interviews! In King's City I stopped to get gas and threw all my Jimmy Buffet CDs into the trash." Cuddy received an enthusiastic round of claps and a few calls of "Waves are free!" from the Hawaiian shirts in the audience -- prompting Sirota to jump up and start passing around color photographs of toilets in Indonesia built with nonprofit money donated by surf companies like Billabong and Quicksilver.
Across the hall, "Women and Waves: From Gidget to Blue Crush" was co-hosted by pro champions Mary Setterholm and Jericho Poppler, who in her maroon suede boots and tropical-print Coolies buzzed around like a mix of Chrissie Hynde and Janis Joplin. "Women are the aloha," Poppler announced in her typical brassy style. "We calm the banshees in the lineup!" Tom Morey, inventor of the boogie board, spoke up: "If I'm in the lineup, I don't care what sex you are -- we're there to surf. Any man acting like a man or woman acting like a woman is obnoxious. How come guys have got trunks all the way down to their ankles and girls have everything skimpy with all their bulbs and curves showing? Are we going to be functional human beings or are we going to be boys and girls?" Morey was later seen in the coffee shop, stoically and forlornly eating his lunch alone. No problems for the hostess. No joke.