Sunday, October 30, 2005

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Celebrity Designed Lunch Boxes

This is the coolest thing! A lunchbox auction. I love lunch boxes. I found it on James Frey's blog. He designed one of the boxes. So far, David Bowie's lunchbox is the highest bid. The auction raises money to buy lunch for poor kids in Africa and New York City.

David Bowie & Family's box

James Frey's lunchbox is the second highest bid

Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Mike D of the Beastie Boys

Charlize Theron's box

Note: These photos are by Thomas Dozol

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Oprah and James Frey

***update James Frey will be on Oprah's Oct. 26 show
Read my review of A Million Little Pieces here or at blogcritics
Fans of either or, this is your post!

Thanks to Ruthie of Chicago, who allowed me to live vicariously through her.

I found her blog about "A Million Little Pieces," one of my favorite books. She wrote that she was in the Oprah show audience when Oprah announced the return of her book club. She was invited back yesterday for the taping of the show that featured James, the author of the book.

So I asked her a few questions and she kindly responded. So if you ever wanted to know how to get an Oprah ticket or what she's like or what the show is like, read on.
First, Ruthie's observations of James:

The whole show was devoted to James Frey and A Million Little Pieces. His mom and dad and brother were in the audience. Oprah showed several video clips. In the first one, and Oprah camera crew took James back to the small town in Michigan where his trouble with drinking and drugs really began. It was the first time he'd been back since they lived there, and just being there brought back a lot of bad memories and feelings. He pointed out the street where he would buy drugs to sell to other kids. The next clip showed a woman who credits James and A Million Little Pieces for saving her life and getting her into rehab for her addictions. The entire Oprah studio audience was made up of people who had written in to Oprah about the book, so there were a lot of people there who had been through similar experiences themselves, or had a family member struggling with addiction. James in person is a lot like I imagined he would be from reading his writing: frank, honest, and incredibly tough. When Oprah called on the audience to ask questions, several people asked very probing personal questions about material in the book, such as "Did you ever speak to your college girlfriend again?" and "Where would you be now if Lily hadn't died?" and James admitted that talking about painful events like those is still very difficult for him.

One of my favorite moments of the show was when Oprah brought up the agonizing scene in the book when James gets two root canals without any pain medication or anesthesia. James' response was something like, "Physical pain is just physical pain. I can deal with that. Emotional pain is so much worse. I would much rather get my teeth fixed again than get my heart broken again."

Another great moment came when Oprah asked about the non-standard punctuation and style of the book. James responded that when he decided to be a writer he wanted to be a really great writer, so he went and looked at Morrison and Faulkner and people who had written truly great books, and the one thing they had in common was that when their books came out nobody had seen anything like it before. So he decided to strive to do something really new and different that hadn't been done before, which was to tell a true story about addiction and rehab and do it in a completely honest way, and in a conversational style. He also mentioned that A Million Little Pieces was a nightmare for proofreaders because of the non-standard punctuation, line-breaks, and capitalization.

There was lots more, but I don't want to give everything away! I was actually in the Oprah show audience the day she announced the book club selection as well. James' mom had been planted in the audience as a surprise, and her reaction when she heard Oprah say the name of her son' book was priceless. It was neat to see her again, this time all made-over with a great new haircut and stylish outfit. Someone in the audience even asked to give her a hug before the show started, and both parents got a standing ovation.

James Frey is married and he has a baby girl. The video clip of James and his wife playing with their baby at the park was very touching. The whole show was very touching, really. Oprah always makes me cry, but if you've read A Million Little Pieces or have been personally affected by alcoholism or drug addiction, definitely plan to have some tissues ready when this show airs.

Next up, a Q&A:

What was Oprah like in person?
Oprah is poised, beautiful and funny, just like on TV. She doesn't interact much
with the audience at all, and we were told ahead of time not to ask for a hug or
a picture. There is very tight security coming in, and the security guards
confiscate and hold any paper they find in your purse, even receipts, so that
nobody will be tempted to ask Oprah for an autograph. One thing that she
talked about the first time I went was that she has a big scar on her shin from
wearing too-tight boots when she was visiting hurricane victims in New Orleans.
She said she didn't say anything about it at the time because it would have been
silly to complain about her boot when everyone around her was in such terrible
condition. She mentioned the scar again this time, too, because she had to wait
to start the show until her make-up artist had come out and dabbed some
concealer and powder onto her leg.

What happens during the commercials?
Because the show is not live, the commercial breaks are really only a few
seconds long. Oprah says "We'll be right back." Then one of her staff runs up on
stage and dabs some powder on Oprah's face and runs a lint-roller over her
outfit, then the producer counts down and Oprah leads right back into the
discussion. She reads her lines off of a prompter which is right above each main

When will it air?
They don't have an air date yet, check for this week's listings. It's not
on this week, so hopefully it will air next week.

How did you get tickets to the first show?
I got tickets by emailing Oprah about my interest in the topic. Someone from
her audience department called me on the phone that same day to arrange

How is the audience treated? it seems like she'd do something special.
The audience is treated well, but the whole process takes up a lot of time. You
have to get there early and wait in line. Then everyone checks their coats and
goes through security and a metal detector. Everyone waits in a nice waiting
room with pictures of Oprah with various celebrities on the walls. As you come
in you get a consent form to sign and a survey to fill out with questions for the
guest. The consent forms are numbered, so after the VIPs names are called out
and they get seated, people get seated in batches according to the number on
their form. Certain seats in the studio are reserved, and the Harpo staff who
usher everyone in sometimes pull aside people who are particularly attractive
and well-dressed to be seated in those special seats. After the show everyone
files back out, collects their coats, and there is a Harpo staff member standing
right by the exit of the building handing out any give-aways from the show.
James Frey gave everyone in the audience a copy of A Million Little Pieces,
autographed and inscribed "I [heart] Oprah!"

Is James working on another book?
He didn't say, I don't think. He did speculate on who was going to play him in
the movie version of the book, though! He used to work as a screenwriter in
Hollywood, so he has a lot of friends in the movie business. From the way he
was talking about it, it sounds like a movie is already in the works!

How did his wife handle the Lilly questions? that must be tough on her.
His wife wasn't there, we only saw her on a video clip. He did mention that he
met her when they were neighbors in LA. One day he called her up and said "I
think I love you and I think you love me. I think you should leave your boyfriend
and marry me," and she did.

Is he funny? I imagine him as funny.
He was funny in a very dry, serious way.

Does he speak like he writes?
Kind of. He's very straightforward, honest, real, and tough.

I've been to his blog. Does he do his own blogging? i don't know if they talked
about that :-)
They didn't talk about the blog, but one of the video clips showed him sitting at
home on his couch typing on an iBook. He also talked about going to the message boards and interacting with the people who were posting
there, so he probably does write his own blog.

What is the new studio like?
The new studio is just like how it looks on TV: Like a big shiny spaceship. The
audience seating is broken into smaller sections that nearly surround the main
stage where Oprah sits. The background is made up of big, tall screens which
sometimes blend in with the decor and sometimes have images specific to the
show projected on them.

Thank you Ruthie!

visit Ruthie here
James here
Oprah here

Consumerism or Survival

Here's an interesting take on why American's are in debt. Typically, debt is blamed on consumerism, using the almighty credit card to get goodies beyond your means. But this story says people are using their plastic to keep afloat.
I'm taking the liberty of posting because I believe it's a gnarly subscription procedure, albeit free, and it's a really interesting article (though I'm not sure I agree).
By Dayana Yochim (TMF School)


Forget everything you thought you knew about America's debt problems. It's not reckless spenders racking up a record $800 billion in balances on credit cards that's the problem. The problem is with average Americans just trying to make ends meet, according to a new study.

In the past six years, credit card debt has nearly tripled. And last year, 1.8 million people declared bankruptcy, up from 616,000 in 1989. What are those who owe putting on plastic? It's not designer duds and criminally priced movie theater popcorn. It's basic living expenses.

"The Plastic Safety Net," released Oct. 12 by policy research and advocacy groups Demos, the Center for Responsible Lending, and the AARP, reveals what's on our credit cards, why it's there, and what we're doing to manage our financial obligations.

More than 1,000 households were surveyed. (To participate, they had to have credit card debt for three months or longer and household income between 50% and 120% of the local median income, establishing them as low- and middle-income households.) Their answers provide context for the growing void between the haves and have-nots and reveal the fallout from more than a decade of irresponsible lending practices, increasingly predatory fees, and growing economic instability.

What's on your credit card?
The study found that most debt-strapped households use credit to cover unavoidable expenditures, not discretionary purchases. We're increasingly relying on plastic loans to pay our rents, mortgages, utilities, groceries, car repairs, and insurance premiums.

Seven out of 10 low- and middle-income households surveyed reported using credit as a survival safety net. One household out of three said it was forced to put these charges on a card for four out of the past 12 months because the household didn't have the cash available to cover the bills.

The average amount of debt carried by survey respondents was $8,650; 29% were strapped with more than 10 grand on credit cards, while 24% carried between $2,500 and $5,000, and 31% owed less than $2,500.

Unfortunately, debt tends to linger. The average amount of time of debt was about three and a half years, according to the survey. Lenders certainly aren't rushing consumers to pay down their balances, despite the recent increase in minimum payment requirements. Last year, banks made $80 billion in interest charges, and the industry raked in an all-time high of $31 billion in fee income, which includes annual fees, cash-advance fees, balance transfer fees, and merchant fees.

Why can't you pay it off?
Layoffs, major medical expenses, education costs, and bad transmissions are evidently the things that separate the economically vulnerable from the fiscally stalwart. When asked to cite what contributed to their current level of debt, respondents cited the following:

  • Car repairs (48%)
  • Home repairs (38%)
  • Major appliance purchase (34%)
  • Basic living expenses (33%)
  • Illness or necessary medical expense (29%)
  • Layoff or loss of a job (25%)
  • Tuition or expenses for a child, spouse, partner, or self (21%)
  • Money given to family members or used to pay debts of other family members (19%)
  • Tuition or other expenses for a child who's high school age or younger (12%)
  • None of the above (12%)
  • One or more of the above (88%)

Misinformation about establishing credit was also cited. Thirteen percent of consumers said they were carrying debt to improve their credit score. But it's not how much debt you carry that boosts your score, nor is it that you keep a balance on your credit card. It's how you handle the credit extended to you. Time (the longer the better) and the responsible use of credit (paying your bills on time and keeping your debt-to-available-credit ratio well below 25%) are the best ways to build a solid credit history.

What are we doing to pay it off?
Despite stereotypes of deadbeat debtors, just 11% of survey respondents said they would continue to use their credit cards as they had in the past. Nearly half said they had immediate plans to keep their cards in their wallets so they could pay off the debt, and 33% said they would like to do the same but that they would have to use credit as needed.

In fact, nine out of 10 customers try to pay more than the minimum required payment each month (the average amount paid among all respondents was $700) -- and 41% of those paying more said they planned to pay two to three times what lenders required to get rid of their balances quicker.

Slackers, these customers aren't: Two-thirds of households said they were budgeting to control expenses. More than half had cut back discretionary spending in the past six months.

But good intentions aren't enough, particularly when lenders are watching every move their customers make. Increasing penalty rates -- and the growing reasons for instituting them -- are certainly keeping debt-strapped households in the cycle.

This year, credit card companies will rake in $16 billion in penalty fees -- what Mark Peace, the president of the Center for Responsible Lending, calls the penalty-pricing trap. Not only are late fees at an all-time high (less than half of consumers said they had missed or were late with a payment in the past year), but lenders also now hike interest rates after a single late payment -- even if it's a bill from another lending institution altogether.

More than 40% of lenders now use the universal default clause. Via routine credit report checks, they see whether you have been behind in any of your bills, thus marking you as a higher credit risk. Lenient lender-consumer card agreements stipulate that they can increase a customer's interest rate two- or three-fold if they want. (The average default rate is 25%. Companies cited as "steep chargers" include Providian(NYSE: PVN), Bank of America(NYSE: BAC), and MBNA(NYSE: KRB).)

A 25% penalty rate translates into more than $1,100 in additional interest costs each year for a household with the average debt load of $8,650 originally at 12% interest. "Dear valued customer, thanks for the $16 billion bonus!"

The ultimate bottom line
Covering their assets is certainly within lenders' rights. But responsible lending practices seem to have taken a back seat to bottom-line results.

Credit card companies aren't just encouraging card-shuffling -- hopping from one lender to another -- when they send out 5 billion solicitations annually. They're cheering on consumers to take on more credit than they can handle. "Treat yourself right this month," they tell us with "convenience checks" loaded with fees. "Oh, and if you slip up and we find out about it -- and trust, us, we're looking -- forget that sweet low-rate deal we just mentioned. Everything you've charged up to now and from here on out will be subject to a meaty interest rate."

When the bankruptcy bill goes into effect on Oct. 17, lenders get yet another hand to play in their favor. The Plastic Safety Net study shows that even the best-intentioned debt-strapped households -- and most of them are diligent about their finances -- are living in a house of cards.

For more, check out:

Dayana Yochim owns none of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is cemented in stone.

Friday, October 14, 2005

A Million Little Pieces

When I read about author James Frey in “Poets and Writers” July/August magazine, I marked in red the part where Frey said: Alcohol is not a disease. It is a choice.

I have always believed that. I was surprised to hear someone say it. I was more surprised because Frey was an alcoholic.

To say “I’m an addict and I’ll always be an addict” seems self-fulfilling. What else could you be? I say this without being ever having experienced drug or alcohol addiction. But Frey proved the philosophy works. He proved it by staying sober.

Then when I read Frey was a fan of Charles Bukowski, I knew I had to read his book, “A Million Little Pieces." Bukowski writes like no other, sparingly and raw and raunchy. He curses. He writes a lot about alcohol and sex.

In Frey’s memoir, recently picked for Oprah’s book club, Frey winds up in Hazelden, a well-known drug and alcohol rehab clinic in Minnesota. He gets there after a long and viscous spree that should’ve left him dead. He gets there at age 23 in the worst physical shape from his decaying teeth to his rotting insides. He spends much of the beginning of the book violently vomiting, describing the toilet as a familiar friend and describing the contents of his stomach.

Frey uses literary devices such as repetition of a word or a phrase. He writes sparingly, never uses quotation marks and disposes of proper punctuation. He gives the Fury in himself life by capitalizing the Fury. He curses plenty.

Hazelden uses Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program and Frey fights it all the way. Instead he leans on a book his brother gave him, "Tao te Ching," which offers simple wisdom such as: “There is simply what is and that is it,” “Detach and become,” and “Let go of all and you will be full.” Eventually he passes the book along to Miles, one of his friends at the clinic, an addicted clarinet player and judge. Miles, like all the men at the clinic, is looking for hope.

Frey also rejects the notion of God or a Higher Power, one of the tenets of the 12-step program. But when you finish the book, you could conclude that Higher Powers were on the job and I wonder if he now believes in a Higher Power.

Frey gives and receives more love in the clinic than some see in a lifetime. He meets friend for life, Leonard, the subject of his second book, “My Friend Leonard.” Leonard is wise and caring and teaches Frey one of the main themes of the book: Hold on. No matter, just hold on.

Frey gives love and hope to Lilly, the vulnerable girl with the smile. Their love breaks the clinic’s rules. Women and men aren’t supposed to talk to each other.

Frey gives and receives love from society’s hardcore abusers. He shows the reader their humanity and ironically, their innocence. He shows the reader that the gangster and the boxer and the judge are the same. Frey never judges. He never blames.

Some of his friends there are criminals and worse. Frey makes sure the reader knows that he was a criminal, too. He reminds us throughout the book. He pulls together his crimes and evil deeds near the end of the book. Then he drops a final bombshell.

But it was his relationship with Lilly, perhaps the most desperate person at the clinic, that we hope for. At the same time, we hope that they got caught. Lilly had been through enough heartbreak. Her life was brutal. How she lived through it is beyond comprehension. What Frey did for Lilly was remarkable.

The book conveyed that when it all goes down, we're all the same. We're frail, we have our vices, we've done evil deeds and have had them done to us and we need each other.

It also conveyed that addiction is brutal and your chances of surviving after once becoming an addict are slim.
James Frey's blog.

Some other links to Frey and his work:

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

World's Largest Skatepark China

Here's the world's largest skatepark. It's just outside of Shanghai China.
Here's the World Cup of Skatebooarding's North American Ladies Rankings.
The Ladies Street rankings.
This page leads to the World Cup of Skateboarding rankings for several events.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


This is an AP Photo/Xinhua, Liu Bingsheng
The only bummer about this photo is, according to the caption, the piggies were made to race for some kind of human entertainment.