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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Rain, Coffee, Facebook, and Conspiracy, Coming Straight at You in Startling New Sensurround (transcript)

Published December 1st, 2018

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Hello ramblers, gamblers and sweet talking ladies men, my action faction, my spinal traction, my fairground attractions, ’tis I, Mr. Michael Bublé – or is that Michael Phillips? Yes, just confirming now…it’s coming in over the wire…yes…yes! I believe it is Michael Phillips. Or I am Michael Phillips. I believe I am me, and I know that THIS IS NOT A TEST. I know it is because I say it is, and word sound is power, right? Besides, I am the world’s most well-respected, pre-eminent and learned expert witness regarding what comprises THIS IS NOT A TEST. So – as it’s been said already, let it be done. Selah. What is a Michael Bublé, anyway? Call in to the request line and explain it to me.

I’m recording this at the last minute, which isn’t terribly unusual, but it’s raining as I stand here speaking to you, which is unusual. It does rain in southern California, I’m not trying to exaggerate here, but it feels like it doesn’t rain very often. Probably because so much time passes between each rainy season. It’s only 9 months, but it feels like 2 years. Everything is upside down here. But we get about 15 inches of rain every year in the beautiful Los Angeles basin, which is probably 15 inches more than some people would like. When they talk about the weather on the news here they always say it’s going to be “a nice day” tomorrow, then go on to give the usual 80-degrees-and-sunny forecast. I will never understand how unrelenting, never ending sunshine is “nice,” I guess it’s just my frame of reference. Sometimes I feel like I’m living on the surface of the sun, and that ain’t “nice.”

Where I grew up we got twice as much rain as I get to feel here now, and we had four actual seasons that you could tell apart from each other. Fall was really a separate thing that happened between summer and winter, not just a change of decorations in a store window. You could feel the seasons, and it gave you a sense of the passage of time, you know? Your mortality. Look, everything dies in the winter, get over yourself. But I’ve lived here in Los Angeles much longer than I lived where I grew up, so you’d think by now I would be acclimated. That I’d be used to the one long season that we have. The never ending, unchanging mono-season that is southern California. Okay, duo-season, it’s not completely unchanging. I’ve lived here for almost 35 years, so I don’t know why those old memories of weather or climate stay with me after all this time. I guess that’s why they call them “formative years,” eh? Because they form you for better or worse.

Which isn’t fair when you think about it. There you are being formed before you have any say in anything. You don’t know what you want or who you want to be, but your entire personality and persona are just involuntarily formed by everyone around you who happens to be older than you are, and by whatever your physical world happens to be made up of. I mean, if I had grown up in Bangladesh I’m sure I would have quite a different relationship with rain, wouldn’t I. Everything in our lives is more or less an accident of birth, and some of us are lucky and most of us are not. But I was up there in Minnesota, not in Bangladesh, so that’s my frame of reference. And the Minnesota climate certainly forms you. You can’t not be formed by those winters. And the summers too, I should say, since they’re just as extreme, only you’re laid low by heat and humidity and mosquitos rather than ice and snow. Six of one, six of the other.

But there’s just something wonderful about rain. I don’t know if it’s the kind of built-in justification for staying inside, which is where I usually am anyway, or just the cleansing properties of rain. Properties that have been so eloquently expressed by great American poets like Travis Bickle. I’ve just always liked rain, and even its frigid cousin, snow. Snow is crazy – after a lot of it falls and you go outside it’s so silent. I don’t know the scientifical reasons for that, but I assume it’s something to do with sound absorption, which I’d imagine huge mounds of snowflakes are pretty good at, you know, absorbing sound. I have found a replacement for that silence out here in California though, that strange, otherworldly silence that surrounds you when you step out the door. And that’s out in the desert. It’s so quiet in some places out there that it’s a little freaky. It takes a couple of hours to acclimate, before your ears stop feeling weird from lack of noise. And, of course, you don’t need to wear mittens. Usually.

But rain, yeah. Rain is even better when you have a porch, or some kind of covered area where you can sit out amongst the raindrops but not get wet. If you’ve got that, and you live somewhere where you get more than 15 inches of rain in a year, well, you’ve got it made as far as I’m concerned. But I get it, some people don’t like water falling from the sky. I know when I lived in places where water would leak into the house when it rained I had a different view of the rain. I cursed the rain, yes I did. And California, especially southern California, is lousy with leaky buildings. You can’t swing a waterlogged La-Z-Boy without hitting a roof that needs to be repaired. Or rebuilt because no one bothered to make it waterproof the first time around. But there are no leaks where I am now, so I guess I’ve got it made. If we’re ranking having it made on a sliding scale, you know. And you have to use a sliding scale, really, or you’ll never feel like you have it made.

Rain, or snow if you live near snow, are also great excuses to drink. And by drink, of course I mean hot liquids. What did you think I meant? Not that most of us need an excuse, since most people drink coffee every day. Is that true? Do most people drink coffee every day? That’s one of those things that seems like it could be true, but then as soon as I say it, I think it’s probably not true. You know what, if you drink coffee though, do yourself a favor and get some Blue Mountain coffee. I used to hear people talk about it, “Oh, you simply must have some Blue Mountain coffee! Oh, it’s marvelous! Try this, your lips will literally melt from your very face!” Blah, blah, blah, and I was like, yeah, sure, whatever you say. Coffee is coffee, man. But it really isn’t. Coffee isn’t coffee, just like bourbon isn’t bourbon or scotch isn’t scotch. Meaning there’s bourbon and there’s BOURBON. And I’m here to tell you, there’s all the different kinds of coffee in the world, and then there’s Blue Mountain coffee.

If you use coffee as a way to wake up in the morning and you don’t care about the taste, or you put so much stuff into your coffee that you can’t taste the coffee, forget what I just said and stick to Folgers or Starbucks. Those are the same, aren’t they? Or Sanka. Ha – you never hear that anymore, do you – “Sanka? Sure, that sounds fine, gimme a cup of Sanka!” Instant coffee is still a thing, I’m sure, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m about as far removed from coffee snobbery as someone can be. I’m not drinking Blue Mountain coffee every morning while the maid decorates my English muffins with gold leaf and truffles. I’m usually gulping down some hyper caffeinated generic brew or some everyday French or dark roast. Nothing fancy. But if you like the taste of coffee, and the lovely aroma of coffee, get thee to the Blue Mountains and partake of the cup. Sip the cup. I mean, you don’t have to go to the Blue Mountains, since they’re in Jamaica and that’s probably pretty far from where you are right now, but you can find their product somewhere near you. That’s Blue Mountain coffee, get some Blue Mountain coffee today!

Don’t shit your pants or anything when you see the price. As you may have gathered, it’s expensive. But it’s worth it. Just buy some and hide it somewhere in your house. Keep it around and have a cup once in a while as a treat. You wont be sorry. They’ve been growing it on a narrow strip of earth on the sides of the Blue Mountains for like 300 years, and it’s the only place in the world with that particular climate, so the beans are distinctive. It’s like Bordeaux wine: no other place can grow it or properly process it. Blue Mountain isn’t super bold – it’s a mild brew, and part of the magic is there’s very little acid or bitterness, so it’s about the smoothest coffee you’ll ever drink. I guess it’s expensive because of those mountainsides it grows on. It has to be harvested by hand and sorted by blind shepherds and roasted over the bones of the local magistrate or something. At least those are the kinds of things they say to justify the price. Maybe not exactly those things, but you know. It’s scarce in relation to the demand for it, so like any other thing in that category, it demands a high price.

Why are we talking about coffee? Oh, rain. I guess rain and coffee kind of go together. So yeah, it’s raining, big deal, I know. And recording this at the last minute? I said that’s not unusual, and that’s because I’m what they call a procrastinator. Always have been and probably always will be. I don’t think there’s a cure. Well, there may be, but if there is, I don’t know about it. I have a book about beating procrastination, but I haven’t read it. Ha ha, rim shot! Saw that one coming from a mile away didn’t you. If only it weren’t true. Well, all comedy is rooted in tragedy, right? I think that’s what they say. The experts on such things. Are you an expert on anything? What’s that like? It must be a terrible burden to bear, walking around being an expert, everyone always consulting you and interrupting your dinner.

Jeez, this is a lot of preamble, a lot of fluff before the meat, a lot of coming attractions or cartoons before the movie. I’ve almost forgotten what I was going to talk about, but luckily I have it written down here. Okay, here we go. Set you phasers to stun, you’ll want to be awake for this, it’s very important. See, now that’s too much buildup. I’m not playing this right at all. Now you probably expect something terribly important or interesting or worthy of your time. Ha, who are we kidding, you listen to THIS IS NOT A TEST, so we both know there’s nothing particularly important or worthy of your time coming. What’s the worth of your time, anyway? Life is short and your time is valuable. No podcast is worth your time. Nothing you can do on a computer or space telephone is worth your time. No one else will say that to you because they’re afraid that you might think, “You know what, he’s right,” and turn off the podcast and never listen to another podcast again. But I’m not worried about that. If you turn this off and never listen to another podcast again, I congratulate you in advance for being a reasonable human being who still remembers what it means to be human.

Okay. Still here? Good. Did you happen to catch that two hour Frontline documentary about Facebook? Oh lordy, it was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time. The strangely sweaty, robotic Facebook founder and his undead army of spokesrobots repeating over and over how they “didn’t see it coming” when asked about Facebook being at the root of massive amounts of political divisiveness here and around the world. They couldn’t have anticipated it, didn’t see it coming. Um hmm. Did these people just get onto the Internet last week? Because anyone who’s been on it more than a few weeks knows that any place where two or more people are having an online conversation has to be moderated. If it isn’t, it becomes a shitshow before you can hit “refresh” on the browser or your phone. But Facebook, they didn’t see that coming.

You can see that every executive in that company has gone through the same training, the same coaching to teach them how to give non-answers to questions while appearing to be concerned with the subject of the question. Tell them they’re responsible for something awful and every one of them responds the same way: “That really caught us by surprise, but we’re aware of it now and we’re working on solving the problem. We have X number of people in the WHATEVER division working on that every day.” Which – I can tell you from my own experience making up non-answers for a tech company – what those answers mean is they aren’t working on it, whatever it is, and furthermore they don’t give a shit about whatever it is. They don’t even care enough to make up a unique lie, specific to the issue. Facebook knows they elected Trump, they just don’t care. I mean, they care insofar as it makes money for the company. But beyond that, no.

I keep thinking, well, now we live in times where there is no truth, no facts. Now politicians – or anyone else, really – can say whatever they want, meaning they can lie as blatantly as they’d like, and no one questions them. No one challenges them. I keep thinking about that, but really, is that a modern affliction? Politicians lying to our faces? I don’t think so. Politicians, especially, have been lying to our faces since the first election was held, whenever that was. In a cave somewhere. The haves have been lying to the have-nots since the have-nots noticed that things didn’t seem quite right in their world. Lying is such a natural part of humanity that it just comes naturally to most of us, especially those of us who have certain kinds of jobs. Like politicians. But politics may not be the worst place to get your lies, since we expect them from politicians, so we’re kind of ready for them. It’s much worse when they come from entertainment or news sources. And these days most news could be classified as entertainment, so there’s that.

A couple of years ago I was minding my own business in some god damned Internet rabbit hole and I found myself witnessing an Alex Jones video. You know who that is? You may have heard or read the name Alex Jones in the past few months, since Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, Vimeo and pretty much every company on the Internet have removed his “InfoWars” channels and accounts. In the first video I saw, Jones was screaming – literally screaming – about something, I don’t really recall exactly what, but it was some kind of conspiracy, with a capital C, and the “liberal left” was responsible, and poor Alex, he was apoplectic about it. He was really wound up, this guy, he really cared. That’s what it was meant to look like, anyway. But without knowing anything about him, just kind of coming across the performance, I took it for exactly that: a performance. It seemed like parody to me. But a gentle peel of that onion revealed a seemingly endless collection of festering conspiracy and lunacy, all shouted at the top of Jones’ lungs, sometimes while he is shirtless – which, I have no idea, and I don’t want to know why – and more often than not, his tantrums are delivered with a weepy edge to his voice, as if he’s about to burst into tears for all of humanity, though I never did see an actual tear.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new either, and people believing in conspiracy theories is not an Internet phenomenon. There were the some of the same kinds of conspiracy theories that we have today floating around during the second industrial revolution, when companies were becoming larger and conglomerating and one guy or family ran steel and one guy ran railroads and they were barons and tycoons and it isn’t hard to imagine why regular people could easily see conspiracy behind that. Or be convinced to see it. Because there probably was conspiracy behind becoming the main man, the head honcho of some industry, I mean there would almost have to be. That’s what makes the wacko conspiracy theories believable to people, the fact that there could be a shred of truth to something. Then once you’ve convinced them that Rockefeller or Getty or whoever are riding high on ill-gotten gains, it’s not a stretch to believe maybe they drink the blood of sacrificial babies or give orders to the President of the country. But this isn’t an American thing either, I’m just American, so that’s how I frame it. And again, it also isn’t a modern thing. There were conspiracy theories during the Roman empire, after the “Great Fire” that burned up two-thirds of Rome 2,000 years ago. Belief in conspiracy theories is part of human nature.

But, unfortunately, accepting or embracing conspiracy theories always seems to lead to the acceptance of things like pseudo science and pseudo history. They seem to go hand in hand. I guess not surprisingly, since if you can believe that the United States government blew up the World Trade Center, then it’s not a great leap to distrusting something a government scientist says, which then casts suspicion on all scientists, because of course they’re all working together, right? Seems like a lot of people who are looking for answers to unanswerable questions find them in conspiracy rather than where most people find them: in religion. Or it’s probably more likely that they find them in conspiracy and religion. That potent and toxic and aromatic combination.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of blaming the lied-to though. The blame falls on the shoulders of the liars, not the lied-to. And I would just like to say or reiterate or testify, for the record, that there are such things as facts. Facts are real, and they really exist. You don’t get to disagree with them, because they are facts. They are not optional, they are facts. You don’t get to disagree with science because you don’t “believe in it.” You not believing in something doesn’t change it, or make it less real. It makes you more stupider, but it doesn’t change facts or science or the fact that we can still see you when you cover your eyes and can’t see us. We’re still there, science is still there, and you still walk around under the satanic spell of science and all of nature’s scientifically provable laws.

Jesus didn’t ride on a dinosaur because the leader or your church or some other brainwashing cult says he did. Jesus didn’t even necessarily exist at all just because a book says he did. People say he did, but I don’t believe them because they show me no proof that he lived. “This book is proof!” No it’s not. And you know it’s not, so why would you say that to me? We have proof of the lives of other people who were alive around the same time the character Jesus supposedly lived, but no proof of Mr. Jesus being anywhere at any time. People will tell you he lived and died – kind of died, I guess – and they will tell you stories rich with completely unknowable detail about the imaginary fellow. They can talk about him all day, at great length, but they can’t tell you who the president of the United States was 100 years ago.

They can’t tell you what happened even 50 years ago in the country that they live in. They can’t get the history of the world wars right, or of what happened in the 1960s for fuck’s sake, but they are quite confident telling you everything they know about what kind of shoes Jesus wore two thousand years ago. I suppose I understand the cult of personality that grew up around the Jesus myth, I mean, in all of the images I see, Jesus was apparently a beautiful white man who looks very kind, and as though he may have been raised in Utah. But see, I know there was no Utah in those days, so I’m stumped as to where the motherfucker in all of those paintings could have come from. The guy in those pictures didn’t come from the middle east, so I don’t know what’s going on over there in Christianity. Seems like there’s some confusion at the heart of that, but what do I know.

Ah, religion, politics, grocery shopping – none of it makes any sense. I think the president 100 years ago today was Woodrow Wilson, but I’d have to look it up to be sure. And maybe they’ll change that history, those facts, and one day I’ll try to find out who the President of the United States was in 1918 and they’ll tell me it was a guy named Elmore Crukshank Barnswallow, or one of the many grand dragons of the Ku Klux Klan, or Freddie Mercury. And I’ll have a weird feeling that that’s just not right, but all the books will say it is – or all the websites I mean – and I’ll just have to shake that vague feeling that I’m living in a cartoon. Just like I have to shake it these days, when it’s not even a really good cartoon yet. This is all just a warm up to the main show. Señor Trump is the opening act, the clown, so we’re not really paying attention yet. Not really. And we probably won’t, not until the lights go out and the headliner shows up. Then we’re going to have to watch. There won’t be anything else on.

When I was 13 or 14 years old, I sold candles door to door for about a month on weekends. I don’t remember how I got roped into that, probably through some girl whose boobies I wanted to feel, but I’m pretty sure, now, in retrospect, that the profits of that door to door candle sales business went to a cult. They were always telling me that I could “come stay with them,” so they wouldn’t have to pick me up every Saturday and Sunday in the unmarked white van that we were driven around in. They would drive us somewhere way the hell out in outer outside outskirts suburbia and drop us off at 7 in the morning with stacks of these 20 pound boxes of candles and disappear until 4 or 5 in the afternoon, when they’d pick us up and count the candles and take the money. We would get our cut later, they said. Since it was deep suburbia – like housing development suburbia – there were no businesses. Nowhere to eat or go to the bathroom. When I complained about that, they said I should ask the people who let me into their homes – which was about one out of every 50 doors I knocked on – for something to eat and to use the bathroom. Someone actually said that to me with a straight face: ask them for something to eat and to use the bathroom. I though my sales pitch was pretty good, but I don’t recall selling many candles. Maybe a hungry looking long haired 14 year old isn’t the best pitch man.

But whoever was behind that candle scheme wasn’t telling me the truth. Neither was the president at the time. His name was Nixon, and everyone knew he was lying whenever his lips were moving. But again, here we are living in a parallel universe of some kind where up is down, because if you ask a high school aged kid today what’s the first thing that pops into their mind when they hear the name “Nixon,” they’ll probably think you’re talking about that one lady who was on that Sex and the City show that their mom watched, but if you say, no, before her, they’ll think a minute and say, “Oh, the president!” And you’ll say, that’s right, what do you know about him? And they’ll look up at the sky or at their phone and say, “I dunno. He was the president, that’s about it.” And forget what they know about the Nazis or even the Vietnam war, because the answer is nothing.

They don’t know anything about the most turbulent and lawless shitshow of a period this country has gone through since the Civil War because they aren’t taught about it. And all of that happened only 20 or 30 years before they were born. Show them a picture of Nixon and they shrug and think it would look good on a stamp. They know about stamps because their grandmother still mails them a check on their birthday, but they’ve never licked a stamp. And so what? Why would you lick a stamp if you didn’t have to? The promise of the Internet was that it would increase our knowledge, increase the permanent retention of facts, but it hasn’t done that. Not with our relatively recent history anyway. You can’t even find a decent history of the Internet on the Internet, which should really be a red flag that something is wrong somewhere.

I don’t know. It’s only rain on the playa, us and our history. We’re just a drop in the bucket, but since we’re the drops it seems important. It’s all we’ve got, this bucket, so we spend a lot of time trying to understand the bucket and make sense of it, but there’s no sense to be made of a bucket. It’s just a bucket. That disturbs a lot of people who feel like there has to be more. There has to be a reason that they are here. There must be a purpose. Well, there is a reason. The reason is: to be here. And to be good to each other, and to enjoy the rain when we’re lucky enough to have it falling on our heads. I know, it’s hard to accept the fact that the rest of it doesn’t amount to anything – our jobs, our cupboards full of pans we never use, our baseball cards and Tesla cars, our hand woven free trade mittens, our records and our comprehensive Betamax tape collections, our lawn mowers and school books, our partridge in a pear tree. But it doesn’t.

I wish I had a pear tree, I love pears. But I can’t complain because we have an avocado tree, and the neighbor has lemons, which I can reach from our side of the fence, and what else do we need? I think I’ll go over to the grocery store and get some pears. Are they in season? Do we still have seasons for fruits and vegetables? Seems like I can get whatever I want any time I want. It’s probably grown in laboratories, but a girl has to eat, am I right? All righty then, I will see you when we meet again, which, I hope, will be soon.