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Thursday, February 28, 2002

Living the Dream: The Home Office

“I work at home.” I’ve always liked the way that sounds; it’s so casual, so nonchalant. High tech people call it the virtual office, virtual work. After thinking that over I realize I don’t know what that word means so I look it up in the dictionary. Virtual: being so in effect but not in fact. I still don’t know what it means but it sounds easy. I’ll start tomorrow—tomorrow or the day after. I’m not looking to work myself to death here.

08:16 Exactly sixteen minutes late on this first day of working at home. On the bright side I woke up at 08:05—try doing that if you have to drive to the office. I tried it all the time. I promised myself I’d dress as if going to work every day just to be more professional about this whole experiment. I’ll put on something besides a pair of boxers when it’s time for my first break away from the computer. Now I’m just going to concentrate and let the inspiration overwhelm my senses.

08:17 I need a little light in here. I’ll open up the blinds. What are those workmen doing down there? It looks like one of them has climbed down into a hole in the street. I’ve heard stories about people flushing baby pet alligators down the toilet only to have them grow to Amazonian lengths. They stalk the nether worlds of the sewers. But never mind all of that, I have work to do, important ideas to express.

08:31 The workmen are just fixing a water main. It only took a couple minutes out of my hectic day to clear that up—plus it forced me to get dressed. The guys said they had never seen a giant alligator in their years of working beneath the city, but they didn’t rule out the possibility. One of them said he saw a rat building a nest out of car tires. As soon as I get back upstairs I close the lid to the toilet and put a stack of heavy books on top of it. A four iron leans against the sink. Lock and load.

09:21 I can’t get over all of the benefits of working at home. No commute, no distractions from coworkers, no silly Machiavellian games, and if I get drunk and make an ass out of myself at my employee Christmas party, I’ll be the only one to know. On the down side it isn’t much fun stealing office supplies from myself. One more thing that may become a problem: I don’t get paid.

10:11 I had to walk over to the office supply store to buy a new printer cartridge just in case I finish the piece I’m working on. I picked up a few other things for the home office—or for the ‘old Home-O’ as I told the girl at the store. She smiled at me. I’m sure she’s had her fair share of fantasies about freelance writers. What woman hasn’t? I also bought a refrigerator magnet of Mussolini hanging from the gallows. It’s a promotional thing for a new TV show, World’s Funniest Public Executions (airs this fall).

11:24 Time to break for lunch. I like taking lunch early because then I can dedicate the entire afternoon to work, absolutely no distractions, a tabula rasa, which is Latin for “my bootleg cable is out.” I order carry-out from the Thai restaurant next door. I get something healthy. I need to keep my body and senses honed like a razor to make it as a freelance. I also remember that I no longer have health insurance.

11:57 The Thai food was delicious although I did augment it with a little something from my refrigerator. Have you ever noticed that most foods taste better when you add bacon? Even tofu. Especially tofu.

11:58 Now it’s time for a little routine I have developed through years of martial arts training and the study of Eastern thought. I take ten minutes to put myself into a meditative trance, much like sleep but infinitely more beneficial and rewarding. Afterwards I feel refreshed and alert. In the words of my Sensei, “Napping is a tool of the lazy.” I’ll be right back.

3:12 I need to hit Starbucks.

3:33 I must have hit my head on something while in my transcendental state to knock me out cold for over three hours. No more procrastinating, time to buckle down and get some work done. I’ll listen to my favorite radio call-in show while I work.

3:56 I can’t believe they’ve had me on hold for twenty minutes. Don’t they know how valuable my time is?

4:25 I’m a little behind today so I’ll just have to stay past quitting time. It’s not like I’m any stranger to hard work. I wonder how much money I’ll make being a freelance writer. Speaking of money, let me take a second to call my broker.

4:35 Surely he is speaking hyperbolically when he says that if my stock portfolio drops any further two big guys in bowling shirts will show up at my apartment to rough me up. I’m not worried because by putting pen to paper my money concerns will soon be far behind me. But I’m an artist and I really don’t care about all of the money I will make. Money is the concern of merchants and businessmen. The artist is above all material concerns.

4:48 Just took a few minutes to call some jewelry stores to find out who has the best deal on Rolex watches. Is it still uncool to wear fur coats? OK, back to work. I’ll work into the small hours of the morning if necessary. I guess you could say I’m a workaholic.

5:12 I was just taking a brief look at the newspaper. I read all the box scores, did 1/16 of the crossword (I could have finished it, I’m just too busy), read the comics (man are they stupid), my horoscope (only for losers but it’s fun to read), any and all articles with the word “sex” in the headline, and finally the movie section. Got to wrap it up for the day; there’s a bargain matinee playing Sunset Boulevard. I’ll finish up the writing thing tomorrow. Tomorrow is Friday and I'm supposed to go skiing. After tomorrow is the weekend, so make that on Monday. Wait, Monday is Arbor Day. Anyone who works on Arbor Day should just go back to Russia or whatever country we’re mad at these days. So make it the day after.

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Rich and Famous

I was at the gym today for the a.m. sweat-fest. The aerobics machines face two TV's, right and left. TV left was blaring some show concerning tonight's Grammy Awards gala and had the attention of quite a few people. I went over to TV right, turned it to the Spanish network, and turned up the volume. To my joy, and I'm not making this up--I couldn't make this up, you can look it up--there was a talk show in progress about Mexican midget wrestlers.

I had a magazine to read, so I wasn't going to watch the tube, but I like to fight fire with fire--and then some. "Somebody comes at you with a knife, you come at them with a gun. Somebody comes at you with N'SYNC, you come at them with a guy in a mask and cape who's three and a half feet tall." I defy anyone in the aerobics room to low-ball me on this bit of pop culture. This show makes today's Jerry Springer episode--which I passed on the way up the dial--So You Want To Be A Porn Star, look like public television.

I have never understood the idea of award celebrations, the most abnoxious being the Academy and the Grammy awards. These people are already more famous and have more money than the average wage-slave could even dream about, yet we insist on paying attention while they give each other prizes. Someone also needs to explain to me the whole concept of best this or best that. What are we talking about here, a 4-H livestock show? I understand sales figures. If you want to give Titanic an award for making the most money, that's cool with me, but why does anyone have to say it's the best movie?

Don't get me wrong, I understand why they give out these awards: it's about sales. These awards help sell more cd's and movie tickets. The thing is, we don't need to pay attention to their self-satisfying glorification. Celebrities have taken the place of the gods in the classical Greek era. They are exempt from decay (at least as much as modern plastic surgery affords), they have more power, and they are just plain better than you and I. We are practically overwhelmed with gratitude for what they have done for us.

The place that celebrities hold in our culture would have turned the pre-revolutionary monarchs green with envy. They have wealth that would have made Louis XIV blush, they are above any sort of criticism, and they have been excused from any sort of responsibility--monarchs at least had to run their countries.

People worship celebrities for the same reason they eat at McDonald's. They don't go to McDonalds because the food is good, they go because it is easy. Everything about it is easy. People can sleepwalk through fast food. They don't have to leave their cars, if they so choose. They can order entire meals that have been reduced to a number. You don't even need a knife or fork. What could be simpler? Why is the simple fact of being easy such an appealling concept to the masses? Because they are lazy. Once in a while fast food is not such a bad thing; I think most people would agree that a steady diet is a bad thing.

People worship celebrities because it is easy. Like a happy meal, corporate America has packaged their product of celebrities in very convenient and unconfusing packages. These packages are remarkably free of ideas and completely devoid of real controversy. They may dress up the rock-star-du-jour in a tawdy get-up but that's about it. I challenge anyone to name anything in our pop culture for the masses that in any way questions the status quo.

It is right at about this time in the discussion when someone says to me, "I just want to be entertained." I have always thought that was an odd statement when put in this context. As if everyone spends their entire waking lives in deep thought from which they need respite. As if anything that would prompt them to think couldn't possibly be entertaining, and anything entertaining is, by definition, mindless. 'I just want to be entertained' should replace E Pluribus Unum as our national motto.

Tuesday, February 26, 2002

The Reason I go to Starbucks

It doesn't have to be Starbucks. Hell, I hate corporate America as much as the next pseudo-intellectual dipshit, but I just have to have a cup of coffee first thing in the morning and I don't care who gives it to me. Most of my serious self-inflicted bodily injuries occur before I have had my first cup. If I don't seriously injure myself then I do something that I regret with extreme prejudice, like the time I dropped an entire glass of milk behind my refrigerator. Even the people who cleaned up after the Exxon Valdes would have taken pity on me for the mess I made. I dabble in quite a few languages but you would have been thoroughly impressed with my fluency in profanity on that particular undercaffeinated morning. I seriously thought about moving rather than do the clean up. If I had somehow accidentally killed somebody and had to get rid of the body, I don't see how it could have been a bigger pain in my ass.

Starbucks, Tully's, Uptown Espresso, it doesn't mattter to me. They keep building new ones in the neighborhood but they all seem to be equidistant to my place--they never get closer. I wish they would put a coffee joint in my building; I'd let them build one in my apartment. I'm not picky, I'm not a connoisseur (I can't believe I spelled that correctly although it is French and I should know. god damn you spell check for making me such a crappy speller, god damn this lack of spell check)--I'm a drug addict and I need a fix.

I would like to apologize to the beautiful blond girl who knows me by name--although I've never bothered to ask her hers. It's nothing personal, but you are seeing me at my absolute worst, so just hand over the coffee and I probably won't kill you. Hand it over quickly and don't expect me to act like a real human being until I have injested at least ten ounces of the drug you are doling out. I always tip like a mob boss, so I hope that makes up for my complete lack of charm. All of the employees of the local coffee shops probably refer to me as the big tipping mime.

The Olympics are over and I actually watched quite a bit this time around. Amount of TV coverage I viewed of the previous two winter games: 0. My change of heart came about because I was able to watch the Canadian broadcast and not super-dweeb Bob Kosta and the rest of the happy-chatty crew of NBC. The Canadian coverage was mercifully free of up-close-and-proctologically-poignant glimpses of the athletes. I even watched about 70 minutes straight of curling while riding an exercise bike at my gym. I still have almost no freaking idea what that game is all about--but the Canucks seem to dig it. I suppose there should be at least a couple Olympic sports one can do while drinking beer.

Right in the middle of the games AT&T yanked the plug on my bootleg cable TV, so I had to get my fix of the games either at the gym or a local bar with two results: I may give Lance Armstrong a run for his money this year right after I check out of Betty Ford's bed and breakfast. Highlights: the finish of the men's x-country relay between Italy and the Norwegians. X-country skiers are right up there with cyclists when it comes to performance enhancing drug abuse, and if you've ever skied x-country you would be standing in line begging for drugs to take away the pain. Try riding a bike up Queen Anne hill and that's about as good as it gets on skis.

I read about the little American prima donna figure skater chic who screwed up and got beat by the teenybopper. All I have to say to her is I'm glad that Mary Lou Retton isn't alive to see you disgrace this country. Not so much figure skating on the Canadian TV, which is fine by me. I don't understand the interest. Here's an activity that is the butt of our jokes most of the time, then the Olympics come around and everyone is suddenly a fan. I wouldn't go to the ice capades if you had a gun to my mother's head. Sorry, mom, but I'm guessing they won't pull the trigger and that's a chance I'm willing to take if it keeps me from seeing boys in sequins.

The Canadian broadcasters were rabidly partial to their hockey team, positively shameless. It was rather refreshing to hear everyone talk so much shit as opposed to the phony 'we are the world' brand of jingoism preached on NBC. I was actually happy to see Canada beat the USA for the gold medal only because I was afraid the great one, Wayne Gretsky, might do something drastic had they lost. I lthought it was cute how they took all of the kids out of class to watch the game on friday instead of teaching them about snow removal--or whatever they learn up there to survive.

Monday, February 25, 2002

The Circus' Shit List

The circus is set up in the parking lot across from my building. There are a bunch of weird animals out there which is kind of cool--something you don't see every day. I jumped up on the fence and started yelling at the workers, " Do you guys have any midgets? I don't see any midgets. What kind of circus are you running without any midgets? I want to see a midget riding a pony. Could a really small midget ride a goat if it was a really strong goat? Where do you keep the midgets? What's in that box over there with the lock on it? Shouldn't you poke some holes in it so they can breathe?" They threatened to call the cops on me if I didn't shut up and then a guy tried to squirt me with a hose. "What's funnier: a monkey riding a pig or a midget riding a goat? They are both pretty funny aren't they? Why don't you have a rodeo like that? Wouldn't that be cool? OK, I'm leaving."

p.s. This is the kind of shit I do when I don't have anything to write about. I realize most people think I'm a total 'tard but I am also writing about traffic reduction policies--not one mention of midgets in the whole thing. Well, there is this one little anecdote about a midget that drives a bus but that sort of fits in with the story and it's cute. You can't put a price tag on cute when it comes to good, solid journalism. I have to pester someone else now.

Sunday, February 24, 2002

My Other Car Is Your Wife

I have absolutely no idea what that bumper sticker means but I thought it was the funniest thing I had seen that day. My other favorite is VISUALIZE GETTING OFF YOUR HIPPIE ASS AND GETTING A JOB. That one was on an old truck near my bank. I actually did a stake-out for a half hour or so hoping to get a look at someone who feels as strongly about hippies as I. No show. My favorite original hippie joke: A hippie steps off the curb and right into the path of a speeding semi. That's it, that's the joke. If that isn't funny enough for you then you got a problem. It even has a happy ending although it is merely implied. The down side is that the truck needed a thorough washing because hippies are filthy. It's true, I got salmonella once just from touching a hippie, well, replace 'touch' with 'punch.'

What sort of world do we live in when people pay lots and lots of money for their cars? Are cars really that important? These are the same people who wouldn't consider buying something of beauty like an original piece of art. Most people can't really afford the cars they drive. Even if they can make the payments without going without food they are sacrificing the annual trip to Europe or private lessons in Spanish for the sake of their massed-produced bucket of bolts. They are victims of marketing. Bravo to all of the talented people in marketing who have done such a splendid job in perverting our collective values that we actually believe we are what we drive.

I would say 'don't get me started on SUV's' but I already have. People buy them because of the advertising. Period. That's the only reason. I spend quite a bit of time in the Cascades doing the sort of thing that the advertisers lead you to believe comes along with buying an SUV at no extra charge. The phoney image of ruggedness is what sells these gas hogs. I can tell you this: look where the people who climb, hike, and mountain bike park their vehicles while they are doing these activities. What you will see are a bunch of busted-up toyota corollas and very old subaru wagons that look like the only body work they have undergone was with the jaws of life.. I have never had to four-wheel to get to any of the places where I hike or climb or bike.

They should make the names of these vehicles more revealing of their occupants. Better yet we need to change the acronym to something like I-BOUGHT-IT-TO-KEEP-MY-KIDS-SAFE,-GODDAMNIT or EVERYONE-ELSE-HAS-ONE-SO I-WANT-ONE. That would be in a perfect world, my world. They are getting bigger and bigger--comedically big. I read about the Ford Expedition, a V-10 leviathan, that makes SUV's of the past look like minis. At something around 10mpg it is like the Exxon Valdes with four wheel drive. I certainly believe that people have the right to drive whatever they want but there has got to be a limit. If some soccer mom is eating a rice cake while talking on a cell phone and rams me with her HUMVEE my destruction is absolutely certain. That's why people buy them. They want to make sure that they kill all of the low-life tooling around in panzy-assed economy cars.

These huge vehicles go right along with the currnet trend in suburban city (an oxymoron if ever there was such a thing) landscape planning that I call the Road Warrior subdivision. The gated communities where people stay locked up and away from the post-nuclear holocaust trash like me. When they leave Wilde Wood or whatever pseudo British-sounding ghetto they inhabit it is in one of these monster trucks with the windows rolled up and Kenny G blaring on the 20 cd changer. I have a few things to point out. Living in the suburbs isn't living. Kenny G isn't jazz. If you can't walk to at least a few places from where you live you should move and try living in a place where that is a possibility. Next buy your kid a bike and tell her to cart her own ass to soccer practice. With the time you save by not chauffering the kid around you can take up soccer yourself.

Hi, I'm Troy McClure...

...perhaps you remember me from such e-mails as Increase the size of Your Penis, and Get Out of Debt, You Big Fucking Deadbeat You. Now that Phil Hartman is no longer around to make me laugh out loud has Simpsons' character Troy McClure also gone to cartoon heaven? Troy McClure has given me the best line to lay on vegetarians: don't kid yourself, if a a cow ever got half a chance he'd eat you and everyone you care about. If I'm not mistaken he also did the voice of the unctuous lawyer guy. I am volunteering to impersonate Phil's voice so that Troy and Phil can live on forever or until that show is cancelled.

Back to my original point. All of you people sending junk e-mails listen up: I have no debt, I have no mortgage, I am satisfied with the God-given size of my penis, so for Pete's sake send your shit somewhere else. From the looks of my junkmail e-mail box, America must be a nation of broke, no-dick dudes who can't afford their houses, and want to see Britney do porno. Guilty as charged on the last offense, your honor. Actually, just about anything to keep her from singing would be OK with me..

Here is a bit of evidence to my state of complete mindlessness this morning. I accidentally spilled a few drops of coffee on the legal pad I was scribbling on, I waited for it to dry, I traced the edge of the stain with my pen, and then I wrote "Coffeestainistan' inside the borders of my new country. Its shape reminds me of Cuba but the name sounds vaguely central Asian.

I had five people over last night. It was really this morning if you want to get technical. We closed down Le Pichet which seems to be everyone's new favorite place these days. I like it because the kitchen always seems to be closed so you don't have to hide behind an expensive meal when all you really want to do is booze it up a bit. It is a startlingly exact replica of a Parisian bistro, except that the toilettes are down the hall and not down a spiral staircase in the basement. I dropped a note in their suggestion box saying that to give it a further Parisian feel they should think about hiring some toothless old woman as a washroom attendant.

Going back to my apartment always seems like a good idea at 2am and always a terrible idea the next morning but my place it was. I was playing kazaa.com dj while everyone shouted requests. I was pretty conscientious about the volume, I thought, until I heard a knock at my door. I figured it was the gal who lives below me as she has voiced her displeasure at my drunken orgies (drunken at least) in the past. Voiced her displeasure isn't entirely accurate, more like banged a broom handle on her ceiling in displeasure but that doesn't have a good ring to it. What a hag. God, I love that word and I only wish that I had reasons to use it more often.

So, I went to answer the door without adjusting the volume to the stereo, and instead of the chick from downstairs I was greeted by two of Seattle's finest. They told me that someone called them to complain. All I could say to them was, "Really?" I apologized to them for such a silly, not-shit errand they had to run for the gutless neighbor whose beauty sleep I was interrupting. Everyone soon left which, although I didn't get laid (not that I was remotely close before the raid but a guy has to at least have a shred of hope of getting some sort of action to stay up this late in the first place), was probably a good thing. I woke up today to a wisp, a hint, an insult to real hangovers brand of hangover. The kind of hangover that is driven out of your system by a cup of coffee, like rolling down a window and shooing a bug out of your car.

I just can't believe I had a run-in with Johnny Law over my music. I really don't like rock and roll. About the only thing coming from my apartment when I'm home alone is my own piano playing and Glenn Gould playing Bach on the stereo. If it is possible to wear out a cd I would have destroyed The Goldberg Variations a long time ago. I don't think that cd has been off of my five CD player in two years. Talk about a rut, I may as well nail the thing in there.

I get compliments from strangers in the hall quite often, whether they realize it's me or Gould playing I couldn't say. I rarely play my stereo to tell the truth and if I play my piano late at night I play very softly. Not like the punk rock girl who lives above me who blasts her tunes at all hours. Not that I'm complaining, it all goes with living in the city. This was a Friday evening mind you so I think that grown-ups should be allowed to stay up late and basically live their lives in the apartments they rent. I feel like I had more freedom living at home as a kid. If you want complete and utter privacy, if you need complete and utter silence then you should think of moving to a house in the suburbs. That sounds like a fate worse than death to me. If I never see another strip mall I'll be just fine unless someone is flying a plane into one. I apologize for that last statement, it was in very poor taste in light of recent events. Wait a minute, that was like six months ago so get over it.

My point here is that I'll stick to the city and deal with my neighbors. If the gal downstairs is reading this: the next time I'm being an asshole come up and have a drink with us.

Thursday, February 21, 2002

All the Pretty Kawasakis

I love Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. I identified pretty thoroughly with the protagonists in the novel.  At least I did in some ways. I, too, go to Mexico from time to time in search of something that I can't find here in the U.S. I get a sense of freedom in Mexico like when I was a kid and we played at somebody's house when their parents weren't home. What a great travel slogan: Come to Mexico, the parents are out playing bridge with the neighbors.

Life is drastically different the second you cross the border. Some people find that a bit frightening. I have always felt more comfortable as an outsider, a stranger, than I do at home here in the U.S. I like being different and that is hard to do when everyone around you speaks your language and has the same shared cultural experiences. That all changes when you cross the border into Mexico.

I didn't grow up around horses like the boys in his story. I was raised on the modern day equivalent: the motorcycle. I learned to ride on my older brother's Kawasaki 250 Enduro. Horses and motorcycles both stand for the same thing in the American psyche: individual freedom and mobility. Like most of American folklore this is more myth than reality but I suppose that is true of folklore everywhere.

Like the characters in the novel, I once lived in San Angelo, Texas.  San Angelo is an oasis in the middle of the middle of Texas desert. Never mind why I was living there—that’s a story for another day—but I knew it was temporary, that it was just a stepping stone to another place. In truth I really loved it there. Part of the reason I loved it there was because I had a beautiful Kawasaki 750GPZ motorcycle. It was the first and only motorcycle I have ever owned. It was just something I needed to get out of my system as a young man, a phase if you will. That bike is the horse in this story and just like McCarthy's novel this tale involves beautiful señoritas and a squalid Mexican jail so keep reading.

My friend Henry and I had a couple days off so we packed a small bag and took off south from San Angelo towards Mexico. We didn't have much of a plan except to get to Mexico where things were cheaper and wilder. We would make firmer plans once we got to Del Rio and the border.

The road south was a beautiful two lane blacktop that wound through canyons and desert. I don't think I ever saw a cop on this highway so I always rode at a pretty fast clip. The biggest danger on this stretch of pavement was in colliding with a turkey buzzard or a turkey. The buzzards would land on the road to eat road kills and couldn't really get out of the way fast enough. You would see them trying desperately to gain draft in their huge wings as you barreled down on them from 1/4 mile away. I'd back off the throttle as I watched the big vulture flap once, twice before it caught a small current to gain a bit of lift. I had a couple of close calls in my time but no direct hits. I hit a small bird once and if I weren't wearing a helmet at the time I would still have it sticking out of my forehead. The jack rabbits on this road were as big as third grade kids but they weren't much of a problem during the day.

Armadillos are everywhere and are the butt of road kill jokes throughout the state. They take the place the opossum rules over most other places, namely that of being the dumbest, slowest critter to ever cross a road. Once you get this far south you begin to notice the huge tarantulas that like to warm themselves up on the highways during the afternoon. On a flat stretch you can see them from 1/2 mile away. Turkeys, coyotes, and deer are also pretty common sights. This wasn't a nature walk; I just point these out as potential road hazards.

The United States ends here with the city of Del Rio on the banks of the river. The Rio Grande, or the Rio Bravo as it is called by Mexicans, isn't really grande or bravo as rivers go. I suppose for winding through a desert it's big. I waded across it once just to say that I did and to feel a bit of solidarity with the millions that do so in search of a better life up north. Hell, just about all of us are wetbacks of one sort or another.

On this day I just rode my bike across the bridge into Ciudad Acuña, a town like pretty much all of the other ones along the border. These towns are all about commerce, more so than most towns. People come here to get stuff they can't get up north. People come here on their last stage when they are leaving Mexico to find a new life in America. Someday I'll get around to interviewing all of my Mexican friends about the day they crossed the border into the U.S. for the first time.

I didn't really want to leave my motorcycle parked in front of the hotel so I drove it up a flight of stairs, down an outside walkway, and parked it in the room. Then I put a mint under its pillow. I bet no cowboy ever brought his horse into his hotel room.

It was a beautiful day and I wanted to really get a feel for old Mexico...what did you say? You want me to shut the fuck up and get to the part where the cops pulled me and my friend out of a whorehouse? Oh, I get it. You're the type that wouldn't read into anything this far unless the subject was going to turn raunchy.

So it's raunchy you want, is it? How about a donkey show? Is that raunchy enough for you. I have bad news for you, folks. Everyone has heard of someone who had a friend who knows somebody who went to a donkey show. I hate to burst your bubble but they are an urban myth. I've spent enough time in these shit-hole towns that I think I would have at least heard of one. OK, granted, I'm, not stumbling around drunk screaming at everyone I pass in the street, "¿Donde está el espectáculo del burro?" (The people at I.U. must be very proud that one of their alums learned enough to translate 'donkey show' into Spanish. Who says a liberal arts education is worthless?).

If there is such a thing as a donkey show I think to enter you should have to pass the same criteria I would apply to boxing matches. If you want to watch two people beat the hell out of each other you should first have to fight someone yourself before entering. If you are such a twisted loser that you would want to watch a donkey show then bend over.

That really is about it for this story. We went to some sort of cathouse/stripper bar and they gave us some drinks with some sort of Mexican magic forget-stuff-and-events powder. I was trying to watch the show when I noticed that there were cops outside trying to stuff my friend Henry into a squad car. If I remember correctly I went out to see if I could be of any assistance and the next thing I know the both of us are in the Ciudad Acuña jail. I really didn't do anything raunchy so if that's what you are looking for you'll have to ask Henry as he was the one who caught the hooker stealing his wallet.

I finally yelled loud enough for them to get the chief of police. I think that they also put something in my drink to make me a belligerent asshole because the chief offered to let us go if I gave him my $13 Casio watch and I told him to fuck off. I don't know why. Had he asked me for it a few hours earlier before he had the power of springing me from jail I would have given him the damn thing. He let us go anyway. We walked out of the jail and I realized I had no fucking idea where I was. I walked back inside and told him to make one of the guards give us a ride back to our hotel (we call guards “screws” in prison). And that was the best day of my life.

Of course it wasn't the best day of my life but from now on I think I'll end all of my stories with that line just because it's so upbeat.

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Cooking as Travel

I can't travel nearly as much as I would like. I do have to eat every single day so I often use food and cooking as a vicarious means of seeing new places or revisiting old ones. The Mediterranean and the cultures that surround it have had a powerful influence on me throughout my adult life. The middle of the earth is what Mediterranean means in its Latin root. The Arabs call it the middle white sea. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance this small body of water played in the lives of Western man. This recipe takes the best of Mediterranean cuisine and combines it in a single dish. How can you go wrong?


1 eggplant cut into 1/2 cubes
1 large bell pepper
2 pounds of tomatoes
2 cloves garlic (smashed)
10-12 kalamata olives (pitted and roughly chopped)
6-7 basil leaves
Small can of anchovy filets
2 tablespoons of capers
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine

Any thick pasta will work well in this dish: penne, radiatore, etc.
Grated parmesan or pecorino cheese.

Sprinkle eggplant with salt and let stand for about 20 minutes on a paper towel. Seed and peel tomatoes and bell pepper.

Heat oil in a large pot on med-high heat. Sauté garlic until light brown. Remove garlic from oil and discard. Add eggplant to pot until it begins to brown. Add tomatoes and white wine, reduce heat. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Add pepper, basil, and capers and simmer. Finally add the olives and anchovies. Toss slightly undercooked pasta in the sauce and simmer briefly. Top with grated cheese.

To this day the aroma of olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, and white wine simmering in a pan reminds me of every kitchen window I have ever passed on the Mediterranean. This aroma is much more evocative than any photograph I have ever seen. I don't believe that a picture is always worth a thousand words but this aroma is worth ten thousand pictures. It covers an area from Gibraltar to the Bosporus, from Tel Aviv to Portofino. Have a nice trip. Bon Voyage! Buen Viaje.

Teach Your Children Well

As I passed through the Seattle Center I noticed that there was some sort of piano recital hosted by a Chinese cultural society. The first thing that gave me concern was the table of trophies and ribbons near the stage--this wasn't going to be a concert but a contest. The kids who were to compete were all Chinese-American between 8-13 years old, if I had to guess. Before things started they were screwing around as kids will do until a grownup announced over the microphone that the games were to begin.

One by one the kids sat down at the piano on stage and ripped through their short pieces with about as much joy as if they were typing "now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country" on an old typewriter. Some of them were good, some quite good but none of them seemed to be having any fun with the music. One young performer returned to her seat after her recital. "I messed up," she admitted. "You messed up," her mother, obviously the supportive type, reassured her. Ouch! That's going to come up in therapy some day.

Only when pairs of kids sat down to play pieces for four hands did any of them seem to loosen up. It was as if they could be released from the burden of living out their parents' dream for them if their failure was shared. Two little boys laughed joyously even through a few mistakes in their rendition of Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag. They probably caught hell from their parents for that performance but I enjoyed it. The children made me uncomfortable but the parents were ten times more uptight. I don't think that any of them heard a single note that was played. It was more like they heard every note by itself as if they were looking down a long column of figures waiting for a figure to be out of place. They only heard the mistakes. I heard some pretty lovely music.

Most of these kids already play the piano better now than I probably ever will but I have met the older brothers and sisters of kids like these and most of them have abandoned music all together. As soon as their parents stop forcing them to play they give it up completely and without further thought. It just kills me that these parents really feel that it is necessary to hand out trophies to these kids like it is some sort of kennel show. It is the same with sports. Kids today can't just go out and play a pick-up game of baseball. They are dragged to the ballpark by their parents and yelled at by a coach and generally organized half to death.

I lament that I started playing an instrument late in life. I will never be much of a musician. I do love music and at least I can talk about music intelligently which is more than I can say for lots of people who probably started out like these talented kids. They have had the love of music flogged out of them. Some of them probably still have the trophies they were awarded on days like today.

Friday, February 15, 2002

The Day I Figured it all Out

A better title would probably be The Day I Reached The Point Of No Return. It wasn't really something I was conscious of when it happened. It is more a matter of hindsight. I look back now and can point to this particular day during an Aegean summer and hold it to blame for my rejection of most of what American pop culture considers to be worthwhile. Some veterans of military service become battle-scarred or traumatized by their experiences. I feel that I was also traumatized by the three years I spent living in Greece while serving in the Air Force. My trauma has consisted of trying to find a lifestyle in the USA that comes remotely close to the times I spent in Greece. The day I am about to describe being the most perfect example of life in that country, to me a perfect blend of equal parts remote Balkan mountain village and island paradise.

When I woke up that morning I was already packed. I still get anxious about travel, I don't sleep well, and I can hardly wait to get started. I double-checked and then triple-checked all of the vitals: passport, money, and bottles of wine for the boat trip. I locked up my apartment and started looking for a cab on the deserted morning streets. Too early for cabs. My pack wasn't very heavy so I didn't mind the walk. Ivan lived about a mile from me and it was all downhill. I walked up the stairs and knocked on the door to his apartment. It was a hot July morning and I couldn't wait to start the trip. Just a short cab ride to the port of Piraeus and we'd be on our way.

No answer. I knocked again. Again no answer, not a sound coming from the other side of the door. It was unlocked so I stepped in. Ivan was passed out on the easy chair in his living room. I guess you could say that Ivan wasn't the anxious type when it comes to travel. He hadn't packed the night before and although he didn't sleep the night previous it wasn't because of butterflies in his stomach. It was more like a bunch of rum and cokes in his stomach. After all these years I can still remember what he drinks. I guess that's because, like the rest of us, he drank a lot. I think you can call drinking an occupational hazard of military life.

I was pissed off that he wasn't ready to go but he did an admirable job with the fireman's drill of getting showered, dressed, and packed. We were out the door in about 20 minutes and flagged a cab almost immediately. The ship to Paros was called the Panagia Tinou, the Virgin Mary something or other. We had a little less than an hour before departure and spent it drinking coffee with a bunch of fellow travelers in a dockside cafe.

My coffee of choice for those hot Greek mornings was something called a frappé, an iced coffee. The Greeks have borrowed the French word for iced and to order it in Greek I always asked for “ena frappe me ligi zahari, para kalo” an iced coffee with just a little sugar. If you don't specify "just a little sugar" you will get a coffee with about two snow shovels' worth of sugar. I make frappés at home. Use two teaspoons of Nescafe instant coffee, milk, sugar and shake with ice in a cocktail shaker. Drink it through a straw and you'll be pretty close to the national summertime drink of Greece. I live in Valencia, Spain now and I can’t believe that they don’t drink frappés here.

The cafe was filled with the sort of typical euro-trash backpackers that populate every landmark, train station, hostel, cheap watering hole, and inter-island ferry on this continent in the summer. I had certain rules that I developed while living in Europe about human interaction and they generally served me well. I never asked anyone where he or she was from. I thought this was a pretty silly question and you had to only talk to someone for a minute or two when this question answered itself. Asking where someone was from is like asking someone what their major is at a college mixer. I always kidded that if at our dorm mixers in college we gave everyone a name tag which stated their major and home town nobody would ever talk at those things; they’d just go around reading name tags.

I also tried to steer the conversation away from politics if at all possible because once on that subject it was with a sort of mathematical certainty that some pseudo-hippie would start off on some rant about how Americans are a sack of bastards and are destroying the world. Don't get me wrong, I'm about the least jingoistic person I know and in a group of Americans it is usually I who will start off on a rant about how Americans are a sack of bastards and are destroying the world. It is kind of like my little brother when I was growing up: I could beat him up but God help anyone else who tried to do it.

This was during the Reagan years, a president I didn't vote for twice. I was in the Air Force then and I was fairly left in my thinking, enough so that I'm sure I was in danger of violating some sort of military regulation. If anyone at a conversation was criticizing Reagan it was probably me, but I listened with my jaw practically biting my tongue in half as some Austrian gal was bad-mouthing the U.S. president. She finished by contemptuously adding that she couldn't believe the American people had elected a former actor as their president. She looked around the table for agreement. This was just too much for me.

"Yeah, I couldn't imagine anything in a politician's past that could be worse than being an actor. Can anyone here think of anything in a politician's past that could be viler than to have once been an actor?" I suppose I should mention here parenthetically that at this time the leader of Austria was the former Nazi, Kurt Waldheim. Not just a Nazi but SS. He was responsible for deporting Jews from Greece. Also at this time the spin doctors working for the Austrian president worked furiously to explain that his war career was more like that of some sort of low level secretary. Dave Barry had the best joke on this topic. He said at one point in the controversy that Waldheim had missed WWII entirely because of car trouble.

Just about then the whistle blew for our boat (at least for the sake of this memoir). We had paid for deck class seats which meant that we would be with all of the other travelers as almost no one booked an actual seat on these ferries. We climbed up to the deck and threw our stuff down next to some women backpackers who were already topless. A quick comment here on toplessness. Mardi Gras has just ended here in Seattle and if I hear another frat rat scream "show us your tits!" he's going to be dreaming of them while he recovers from his coma in the emergency room. My first experience with European toplessness was at a public pool in Dijon, France when I was 19. I was cool with it from the beginning and I always thought it was pretty natural. I've always been as much of a hormonal volcano as the next guy but what's the big deal? I don't understand frat rats and the whole Girls Gone Wild phenomena. Someone explain this to me please.

Greek inter-island ferries are something between the Love Boat and a slave ship. The trip between Athens and Paros was only five hours. Five hours is nothing in the timetable of slum travel. I’ve waited longer than that in freezing rain in the Andes for a broken down bus to get fixed. If the sun is shining and you have a piece of deck to sit on then life is pretty good on the Greek ferries. I always brought along a couple bottles of decent American wine that I bought at the Base Exchange in an effort to educate a small segment of the European population about American viniculture. We were sharing our wine with a circle of people and I waited until after everyone had commented favorably about the wine to tell them that it was from California.

A Frenchman in the group tried to take back his compliment but I told him it was too late, and that I was going to report him to the French wine society for being a treasonous dog. I think it’s a hanging offense in France to be anything other than insulting when commenting about a foreign nation's wine—especially when talking about American grape juice. I just feel that it's about time the rest of the world realizes that the US isn't just cheeseburgers and fries. Not that I have anything against cheeseburgers and fries in fact...wait a second. I just drooled all over my keyboard.

The Aegean in the summer is as beautiful as anywhere I have ever traveled. The water is crystal clear. A lot of this is due to the fact that there isn't much in the way of plankton, so although there isn't as much sea life, the water is very clear. On this day the water was flat, barely a ripple creased the surface. As the boat passed the tip of the Attica peninsula I pointed out to everyone the temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion. This is quite a sight and has inspired awe since its construction on this point in 440 b.c. back when Pericles was doing a complete overhaul on Athens and the environs. Lord Byron was so impressed with the temple that he spent a few hours there chiseling his name on one of the columns. I guess the security back in 1818 wasn't what it is today.

I spoke with a Navy commander back when I was taking Greek classes. He drove boats in this part of the Mediterranean and said that there were lots of nasty storms that came out of nowhere in these waters. A tempest in a teacup can be pretty dangerous. I had been island-hopping during a few of these storms and they put a big lid on the fun. Imagine a ship with about 90% of the passengers severely seasick. You don't want to be below decks on one of these runs no matter how hard it may be blowing on deck.

On this day you could water ski between the islands. The ship passed several small, rocky outcrops populated by a few goats and perhaps a very small white church trimmed in blue with a small brush stroke of clouds overhead. You are always in sight of land on this run into the Kyklades archipelago. If the ship went under you could dog paddle to the nearest nude beach. The last hour before landing is always a good time to find an empty bench below decks and take a nap. The day is only beginning.

The ship docked in the village of Paros and we found a room there after doing a bit of comparison-shopping. I guess I'm taking too long to get to the point because the part of this particular day that changed me was still to come. It all began with a sentence I've probably repeated at least three times a day for my entire life. "I am starving my ass off!" To say I was starving was being a bit hyperbolic but I certainly could have gone for a bite. I had three or four iced coffees and a couple of glasses of wine so far and it was now almost 1p.m.

I loved eating out in Greece because every time that I did I felt like I was somewhere exotic on vacation. That's a nice feeling to have for three solid years. On this sunny July day we took a table at a taverna overlooking the public beach in Paros. The cafe's tables were split by the main street with half of them in the restaurant itself and on the sidewalk and the other half where we sat across the street on a tree shaded patio. Like every taverna in every small village in Greece the place had small tables with the tablecloths clothes-pinned down so they would blow away on the days the sirocco blew in from Africa. The salt and pepper shakers were clogged up because of the wet salty air and the chairs were made of wood with straw webbing on the seats. It was also inevitable that you would have to wedge a matchbook under one of the table legs to keep it level.

We were hungry but we didn't know what we wanted so we began with what we always began with: a couple of cold bottles of Amstel and a bowl of olives. Olives are the perfect appetizer or pre-appetizer. They stimulate the appetite without filling you up in the least. As much as I came to love olives while living in Greece I never wanted to eat more than a few at a time. They went well with the beer and provided enough substance to let me think clearly about the next course.

We had made vague plans to meet another friend of ours while on Paros. Very vague plans as we now mentioned to each other. We simply said that we would be on the island on a certain date and so would our friend Joe. That was it, nothing about a rendezvous. Sure enough as we took the first few sips from our beers Joe walked right past us. Ivan whispered and Joe turned around and without showing the least bit of surprise joined us at the table. The waiter noticed that someone had joined us and walked over from across the street.

We ordered a bottle of Mantzavino rosé, a Greek wine that wasn't half bad and was fairly consistent. Greek wine making was extremely unsophisticated back then and has have improved immensely since. I drank some pretty bad wine while living there but I always preferred bad wine to going without. We also ordered Greek salads all around. The wine came as well as a basket of bread. We toasted to something or other and enjoyed the view of the beach from our table in the shade.

This is probably as good a time as any to set the record straight on the Greek salad. They are called a horiatiki salad in Greece, a peasant or country salad. I had a Greek salad the very first time I ate in a restaurant there and it immediately became my favorite dish. I never cared for salads before because I don't care for lettuce. In all of the time I lived in Greece I never saw a Greek salad that contained lettuce and that was fine with me. I suppose there is a little room for improvisation when it comes to this dish but not much. There's never room for lettuce. Here is my recipe:
Greek Salad (horiatiki salata)

1 cucumber
1 onion
1 green bell pepper
2 tomatoes
Greek olives
Feta cheese
Pepperoncini peppers (optional)
Anchovies (optional)
Olive Oil and Vinegar.

Chop up the tomatoes, onions and bell peppers into rough pieces. I like to take a fork and cut the skin of the cucumber all around and then slice it up. Portion out the vegetables on each plate along with a couple olives, pepperoncinis, and anchovies. Top the salad with a piece of feta and drizzle with oil and vinegar. That's it. Leave the lettuce for something else. I would use it to line the bottom of my bird cage but I don't have a bird so I never buy lettuce.

Olive oil, Greek olive oil, is the subject of a future five page homage. "Ode to a Grecian olive oil urn" is what the poem should have been called. As you finish up a horiatiki salad there is a nice pool of rich olive oil on the plate that is the Mediterranean culture's answer to butter. Often the simplest of dishes are the most flavorful. Try this one.

Aegean Oil

1 cup of good Greek olive oil
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar (balsamic if you must, you snob)
a couple cloves of minced garlic
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese (not Greek but what the hell)
a pinch of red pepper flakes
a pinch of chopped parsley
a pinch of oregano

Mix these ingredients together and let steep. Serve with bread for dipping. You will be amazed at how great this is and it will impress your guests. I just made up that name but it sounds hoity.

At about this point in the meal we began to realize that we were experiencing something special. It is important that you are aware of such moments as they are happening. This was becoming the quintessential Greek lunch. The three of us had spent dozens of afternoons having lunch in tavernas at dozens of places in Greece but this was like a pitcher during the late innings of a perfect game. Everything was exactly as it should be: the food was excellent, it was a perfect summer day, we were just beginning a week of travels among these islands, and we literally didn't have another care in the world beyond this small table.

The most difficult thing to explain about this afternoon is that we were exactly where we wanted to be. Our enjoyment of the moment wasn't clouded by anxiety about the future or regret of the past. Nothing could have made this time better for me. I used to read the French magazine Paris Match back then to practice my language skills. I remember sitting in a Greek cafe looking at pictures of French celebrities summering somewhere on the Riviera. I remember thinking that those people had nothing on my life. I was spending my summers at the most beautiful place in Europe.

It was on this afternoon that I think I became European myself. After about one and a half years in Greece I think that I had reached a point where going back and living like an American was going to be a problem. I had become used to sitting around like this in restaurants and cafes for hours and hours simply talking. We would bring someone into our group who hadn't reached this level of saturation, a newcomer. They still hadn't accepted the pace of Greek life. These people would complain when a waiter didn't approach the table quickly enough. They would want to plow through a meal with drive-thru window speed. Invariably this person would say something like, "Let's go do something." What these people didn't realize, and perhaps never would if they didn't stay in Greece long enough, was that we were doing something. It's a difficult thing to explain to someone who spends their days in the over-stimulated world that is American pop life that just sitting in a cafe is doing something, something highly enjoyable to the people in many cultures.