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Monday, December 29, 2003

Battle of the Titans

I’m generally not a comment whore but I feel that this issue is too important for any of us to remain idle. I mean come on, we’re at threat level Orange! I get confused, does threat level Orange mean we are supposed to run around screaming at the top of our lungs, begging for mercy or is it when we are supposed to pile a bunch of heavy furniture against the door and sit in the dark with an iron skillet in one hand? Just remember to keep shopping.

A question that has bothered me, make that haunted me, over the course of my entire life still remains unanswered and may very well be unanswerable. Far greater minds than mine have grappled with this philosophical quandary and have come up with double doughnuts, doodly squat, nada (would this sentence of negligible humoristic value get better or worse if I added several dozen more words that mean zero? I think I’ll error on the side of caution and end this.).

I realize that the philosophical quagmire that my intellectual Hummer has been sunk in up to the doors is probably not a suitable mental exercise for a fairly normal heterosexual male. Sure, I could leave it for others to ponder but I’ve never been one to take the easy way out of a problem. I could let others decide who would make a better boyfriend, Patrick Swayze from Dirty Dancing or Kevin Bacon from Footloose but I feel this is too important an issue for one group or another to decide on their own. I think that the only way to settle this is to put the matter to a national, nay an international plebiscite.

Please leave all votes in my comments box. The results will be officially tallied by an international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands and posted on January 1, 2004. May the best man win!

If you really want my honest opinion I have to honestly say that for me it’s a coin toss. I know that sounds like a total cop-out but that’s what I’m going to do right this second to finally end my many years of anguish. Here goes…oh, but wait. It’s one of those funky Euro coins without a dead white guy’s head on one side so I’ll skip my vote and just go with whatever the mob decides (Hasn’t the European Economic Union gone off the gold standard and on to the dead white guy standard like the USA?).

It has been my experience that most women prefer to have Patrick Swayze as their boyfriend while most heterosexual males prefer Kevin Bacon. Why?

P.S. I just came up with the idea of a single sequel for both of these two fine films entitled Dirty Feet or Loose Dancing or something even more clever. Lord knows Hollywood comes up with brilliantly clever names for sequels that leave us mere mortals scratching our heads in wonder, asking our collective selves, “How do they come up with this shit?” I could only imagine that such a sequel would make The Lord of the Rings, in comparison, look about as profitable as a public service announcement for dandruff. Look over into the left hand margin where it says “a place where ideas are born.” You're damn right ideas are born here and you heard this idea here first.

P.P.S On a sort of different but related tack I have wondered why both of those movies had so much violence. I thought that dancing lead to sex, not fist fights?

Too good for the crappy little comments box:

Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, hands down. And I'm not just saying that because "all women go for the older, unattainable bad boys" or however the saying goes. It's all about the way he handled Penny's abortion.

I don't mean to come across as being callous but you shouldn't consider Kevin Bacon any less dreamy than Patrick Swayze just because he didn't have some knocked-up tramp to rescue. I have continued my poll to include all my ultra-hip Seattle acquaintances and every hetero guy chose Kevin. The gals--except a couple of tom boys--all went with Patrick. I think we boys just find Patrick’s hair too much of a stumbling block to actually date him. Hetero guys don't want to have a boyfriend with prettier hair than they have.

The Management

Part I:

Come on now...Kevin's sweaty dance scene through the old factory, clad only in tight jeans and a stained wife-beater T-shirt...why, even a perfectly straight macho he-man got a little wood from that one. OK, OK, it was a stunt double, and Mr. Gap-toothed Mullet-boy did all his own dance scenes in Dirty Dancing (all the more reason to hate, hate, hate him), but Kevin (or Ren, his character in Footloose) had all that groovy, Sting-like, early-80's Punk edginess about him, which was cool.

Meanwhile Swayze was a 80's-esque, mullet-haired, Miami Vice dude playing a character in a film set in the early 60's! Where's the fucking authenticity there? So what he wore a Fonzi black leather jacket to give him that greaser edge! He still looked like the same cat he played in Red Dawn, Roadhouse, and that stupid hockey flick with Rob Lowe. Like, come on, Mr. Sex Symbol of the 80's, at least cut your fucking mullet and LOOK like a hip greaser from the early 60's. Didn't you at least look at old photos of Dion, Fabian, or Frankie Avalon to see how 1962 hipsters wore their hair in cheesy ducktails?

I don't know any self-respecting, straight male who liked Dirty Dancing in 1987. Sure, we took our dates to see it (my German girlfriend in 1987, Tanya, forced me to see it three god-awful times--thank the stars for cheap Lebanese hashish in 1987 Germany!), but we hated every minute of it. That flick was every loser fat chick's fantasy, but in reality no whiny, rich, butt-ugly JAP broad ever scored with a hunky stud like Johnny Castle. What a fucking fairly tale.


Part II:

Footloose, on the other hand, stunk to high holy hell, but we all related to Bacon's character, who just wanted to dance and party and get some ass from that tall, skinny, awesomely beautiful preacher's daughter. Ren was the shit. He fought those Jesus freaks and won! And who knew every kid in Bible-thumping, Oklahoma was an expert break dancer, as we learned in the epilogue dance scene. And how about that star turn by Chris Penn as the two-left-feet, doofus farmboy who, with Ren's help, turns into a veritable Ben Vereen by the end of the film! Now that's finger-snapping fun, kids.

So fuck yeah, it's Kevin Bacon all the way. Ren was a cool dude who was out the change the world and boff that poor man's Daryl Hannah chick who played the preacher's slut daughter. Ren was a stud! He rocked! He was a man's man.

Patrick Swayze played a sensitive, hot-dancing greaser (G-A-Y all the way!) who uses that whiny, butt-ugly JAP as his beard so he can keep his job at that Catskill resort. You know the epilogue: Her wealthy father buys them a cool apartment in the Village, she attends Columbia while he dances on Broadway, and within in a year he runs off to San Francisco with a tattooed truck driver named Big Joe, then eventually settles down with a wealthy old Hollywood queen who keeps him as his buttboy. Meanwhile she gets hooked on painkillers and marries a dentist named Hyman and lives a miserable and depressed Republican lifestyle in Scarsdale the rest of her life.


Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Outsouce This!

It is hard to turn on the radio or open a newspaper without coming across some snake oil salesman trying to convince Americans that it is in our best interests to abandon every manufacturing job in this country because it is cheaper to have someone do it in China. The latest flap is over information technology jobs being shipped out to India. These geniuses all chant the same mantra, “We need to let the market set the price of labor in order to stay competitive in a global economy.” They say that outsourcing all of this labor will free us up so we can all work in the glorious service sector of the economy. When these guys and gals say service industry I think Wal-Mart, I think, “Do you want fries with that,” I think that they can stick their service industry in their asses.

The truth is that for many years heavy manufacturing provided high paying jobs to a very large sector of the U.S. labor force. General Motors has more employees (709,000) than Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, Apple, and Sun Microsystems combined (94,800). It would be great if all of us could sit at our desks, fiddle with our computers, print up stuff, and drive home in our luxury cars. It doesn’t look like that is going to happen any time soon and in the meantime we needs desks, computers, printers, and luxury cars for the lucky few that have these jobs. We should make some of that here and pay people well to do it.

I am not suggesting that America take a stance against trade but I think that history has shown that abandoning every sector of U.S. manufacturing because people work for less elsewhere has lead to a rising percentage of our population working at low paying jobs with zero benefits. Between 1977 (about the time outsourcing or whatever the hell you want to call it began) and 1994 the lowest fifth of the U.S. population saw their after-tax income decrease by 16% while the top fifth saw an increase of 72%. I dare anyone to try to put a positive spin on this.

Now that U.S. plutocrats have ravaged the lower classes they are going after middle income people like IT workers.

I remember something Ronald Reagan said that seems to get to the heart of this matter. He was partly responsible for this shift in our thinking that U.S. jobs should not be protected because we can get stuff cheaper if we let other people make it. He said that he still believed that America was a place where a guy could become a millionaire. A few of you can become millionaires; the rest of us will be greeting you at Wal-Mart.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

What's in My Bookbag

You can almost always see me carrying my Gap shoulder bag. These are like back packs but they sling over one shoulder. They are yet another fashion statement that has crept into the mainstream via the bicycle messenger cult. The other bike messenger innovation is the return of single-speed track bikes for city riders. I like the idea of the simplicity inherent in these bikes but I'm not crazy enough to fly around town without a brake or two. I do have a bike bag though.

I consider myself to be in school 365 days a year. I get no spring break, no summer vacation, and no Christmas interlude without study. I always have something to read in my bag. Right now I am on the way to my gym and I am carrying my book bag.

Besides my laptop I have brought along the excellent French Reference Grammar: A Complete Handbook of the French Language by Daniel J. Calvez. This book is about all you need for the study of French. This assumes that you have already had a few years of French study behind you. This book is suited for both the casual student and for someone looking to take their study of French beyond travel French.

There are very few occasions when I leave my house that I leave my book bag behind. I am always terrified at the prospect of having to sit somewhere without having something to read to pass the minutes or hours. As this is Seattle and it is raining, I am on the way to my gym to ride the exercise bike--I don't ride in the rain. While I ride I can study French for an hour.

Later today I'll probably do some X-mass shopping and meet someone for a movie. I'll carry my book bag. I am finishing Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club which I picked up yesterday at a used book store. I'm almost done so I'll bring along something else to start. It's kind of a big bag so it holds a lot of books.

What's in your book bag?

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Train to Vancouver, BC

IT'S A LITTLE SLOW BUT IT SURE BEATS DRIVING (and anything beats flying)

Amtrak from Seattle: Edmonds-Everett- Mt Vernon-Bellingham-Vancouver, B.C.

Any chance I get you'll hear me talking up rail travel. Trains are a vastly superior way to travel compared to short flights and most car travel. The sad thing about rail service in most of the U.S. is that it is either nonexistent or inadequate. On the Seattle to Vancouver run that I describe below the top speed is only 79mph even thought the trains are capable of going 120mph on better track ( In Europe there are trains that go over twice that speed).

The ticket was $62 per person round trip to Vancouver. After waiting to get a seat assignment the train left promptly at 07:45. The cars are roomy and comfortable. There are power outlets for each row of seats. If only airplanes were this user friendly for computers. There are TV monitors in the cars that show movies and also display trip information and plot the train's progress along its route on a map.

The anticipated four hour ride was longer than my flight to Chicago last weekend but I wasn't filled with the usual claustrophobic dread that accompanies plane travel. For one thing, there is something to see out the window wspecially on this spectacular track along the coast of the Puget Sound. I brought along my Nikon binoculars and my National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America just in case I wanted to do a bit of birding along the way. On a plane you'd better hope that the book you brought can keep you busy for the entire flight.

As soon as the train departed they gave the call for the first seating for breakfast in the dining car. This train has both a dining car, for more formal sit-down seating, and a club car for snacks and drinks. On my flight to Chicago the only thing I could do was stand up to go to the restroom in the back. Lunch was a really small bag of really lousy pretzels.

If you are going to Canada from Seattle be sure to get a seat on the left side, the water side. The view from the window is enough to keep you entertained for the entire trip. The train hugs the coast, riding only a few feet from the water along most of the route. You could literally spit and hit the water but the windows don't open so if you spit it will just hit the glass. Live and learn.

I was going to have breakfast in the dining car but the menu didn't look too inviting. I settled for a sandwich and a bloody Mary next door in the club car. The club car, or bistro car, or whatever the hell they call it, only has a couple of small tables and about six barstools but compared to the cramped quarters on an airplane it is positively luxurious. I almost never talk to the person sitting next to me on a flight. Once you open up you run the risk of having them never shut up for the rest of the trip--in the club car people actually converse.

The attendant in the club car told us a story as we waited for a bridge over one of the sloughs to close. He said as a boy he would go to the circus and one of the attractions was a dancing chicken. He later found out that what made the chicken dance was that it was standing on a hot plate. If the bird didn't feel like performing they would simply turn up the heat on the plate until the chicken complied. Whenever the attendant was in an uncomfortable situation he said he felt like that chicken and the heat was being turned up. I know, the story is probably complete horse shit but it passed the time and I didn't have the heart to call him on it. A couple of well-directed questions and I'm sure he would have recanted the whole story.

There was even a movie I felt like seeing on the trip (Seabiscuit). Usually the movies on planes are completely unfit for intelligent adult consumption. I usually get stuck on a flight with a load like Sister Act II or some equally obnoxious offering, something that is completely offensive even to look at with no headphones. I didn�t watch Seabiscuit because I am finishing up my rereading of the brilliant Catch 22, the view out the window was superb, and I had my laptop to fart around on. I'll save that movie and maybe they'll show it on my next boring-as-hell flight somewhere although I can't ever remember watching a movie on a plane.

We were delayed more than an hour on this particular run. I don't know what Amtrak's on-time percentage is but none of the passengers on this trip seemed too concerned with the delay (The return trip was right on schedule). A bloody Mary goes for $4.50 so the club car stayed busy through it all on this morning passage. And as I said before, the view out of the port side windows is remarkable. Trumpeter swans, cormorants, the ubiquitous western gulls, mallards, and perhaps about a dozen bald eagles were just a few of the more noteworthy species I noticed along the shore. I certainly wasn't in any hurry.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Master and Commander

I am often highly critical of the society in which I live. I feel that criticism is essential for anyone who is conscious of their surroundings. I also find it essential to my well-being to write about things that give me unbridled joy. This is one of those times.

I have been a fan of the novels of Patrick O'Brian since he was “discovered” by a reviewer in the New York Times Review of Books some years ago. I got on the bandwagon, read a few of the books chronicling life aboard a British naval frigate during the Napoleonic Wars, and waited patiently for somebody to make the obvious decision of transferring this incredible world to film. The wait was worth it and I think I can safely say without any trace of hyperbole that Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is the best movie in the history of the world. At least it is if you are a total geek about naval history and you read the books of Samuel Eliot Morrison like cheap romance novels.

I have fantasized about life in the age of sail (minus the scurvy) as far back as I can remember. I took up residence on a racing sloop for a couple of summers on the Chesapeake Bay. I’m not much of a sailor but I am a reader and the accounts of Columbus, Magellan, Cabot, Cook, and all of the other intrepid* sailing explorers have always fascinated me. I think modern man has suffered over the past one hundred years because the world has been so thoroughly “discovered.” Our imaginations have been hobbled and--like Alexander--we weep because there are no more worlds to conquer.

Of Master and Commander I will say what Jorge Luis Borges said of the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: If you don’t like it there must be something wrong with you.

*The only time I use the word intrepid is when describing these sailing heroes of mine.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003



"R u going 2 the Mall?" I was looking over the shoulder of my thirteen year old nephew as he read what one of his digital friends had typed into the instant messenger thingy on the computer. My mind was flooded with thoughts: I wondered how many millions of times that language-challenged question was typed into computers each day in this country. I wondered if this is what Jobs and Wozniak had in mind for technology when they were farting around in their parents' garage with the idea of home computers. I wondered how often American children were interfacing with a computer instead of interfacing with other American children. And finally I wondered if there was anyone going to the mall.

I spent part of the past weekend in Chicago visiting with my brother and his family. He has a wife, two great looking kids, and a beautiful German Shepard that I can never train to attack my nephew. Their house is two time zones and about 3 � flight hours away from where I live and that is about as close as I get to having a family myself. Usually that is close enough but you miss out on things without kids. I don�t think our thoroughly epic Scrabble game would have been nearly as entertaining without a kid helping me out (We won by a single solitary point!).

I wouldn't care to see my brother's media bill each month: A cell phone for everyone (except the dog), a couple of home phones, and internet access. From hearing all of the phones go off at his place you'd think you were at the control center for the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon or a Domino's Pizza on Super bowl Sunday. It made me think about how much I interface with my family via the telephone. That would be too much if I had to say.

The only person who still writes letters around here is my mother. The rest of us have let our communication skills deteriorate into phone calls and e-mails. E-mail is to mail what "R u going 2 the mall?" is to English. I do hereby promise to write an actual letter today which I will actually put in an actual envelope and send via the U.S.P.S. Is it OK if I write it on my computer, spell-check it, and then print it out? My handwriting is much too unsophisticated to write out longhand. I blame the early trauma of Catholic school education. Isn't there some sort of computer handwriting program?

Saturday, November 29, 2003

America Steps Back into the Pre-Industrial Era

I happen to be rereading Kevin Phillips’ essential text book on the decline of our nation as a bastion of equality and prosperity, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, at the same time I have tried to bring myself up to speed on the California grocery workers’ strike. The United Food and Commercial Workers union has said that the grocery retailers are attempting to knock their workers out of the middle class. The supermarkets have hired scab labor in their effort to bring the union to its knees. This sort of labor trouble made me look at a calendar to make sure it was 2003 and not 1903.

The California workers aren’t asking for more money, they are only demanding that they be allowed to keep the benefits they have already fought for and earned. One of the biggest issues of contention is the supermarkets’ insistence that the workers pay a greater share of their health insurance costs. The “liberal media” coverage of the strike has been all but nonexistent and the paltry reporting has generally leaned in favor of the corporate leviathans. Fox News ran a corporate-biased AP wire story on their website posted on October 12, 2003 that lead with this gem, “Three major supermarket chains said Sunday they plan to hire temporary workers (i.e. scabs, this parenthetical aside is mine, of course) to keep hundreds of stores open as more than 70,000 grocery clerks in southern California began a strike.” AP is obviously more interested in the stores remaining open than the plight of the workers. On the same screen Fox had an advertisement for a grocery store chain.

Ever since I can remember, grocery stores clerks have had a fairly strong union that allowed them decent pay and benefits. I have no doubt that you could hire people to do their jobs for less pay, I suppose there are some people who wouldn’t mind reverting back to the days of slavery. I don’t see much of a difference between slavery and paying people next to nothing and denying them essentials like health care. That isn’t the kind of society I want to live in and I’m willing to make sacrifices so every working American earns a decent wage and has access to life’s essentials like education, national security, a clean environment, and health care.

Wealth and Democracy documents how over the past 25 years the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Every table, every graph, every historical comparison in this book should fill every decent American with outrage. For corporate America to tell workers that they can’t pay them a decent wage is an outrage. Corporate taxes have dwindled from 26.5% of total receipts in 1950 to 10.2 in 2000 while the share paid by payroll taxes has risen from 6.9% to 31.1% over the same period.

What kind of a country will this be when we have split ourselves into two factions: minimum wage peons and a few hyper-rich plutocrats? I think I have spent enough time in Latin America to realize that we are moving to their levels of inequality.

I don’t know about you but I don’t need to save 15 cents on a package of bologna if it means the person stocking the shelves can’t afford to go to a doctor or pay the rent.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

A Broken Record

I have to start out with a parenthetical clarification. A broken record is a quaint little phrase that carries no meaning for a lot of young people who have never had a record to break. When they think of a broken record it is of the Guinness Book type. I wonder how long ‘a broken record’ will remain in our lexicon as meaning something happening over and over again? When a CD breaks it just makes that super-annoying digital glitchy sound.

Like most people, I find great comfort and refuge in music. I agree with Glenn Gould that music is a completely solitary experience, a one on one thing. I enjoy seeing live performances but I would much rather listen to music alone. This probably has a lot to do with the way that I listen to music.

My own taste in listening would drive anyone else completely insane. Anyone looking at my music collection would think that I am someone who is very adventurous; someone who appreciates all types of music; someone whose musical tastes spans the entire spectrum from country to bebop jazz. The truth is that my music collection is camouflage for the fact that I have only one recording.

Musically speaking I feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining in which he was a writer and had written a single sentence, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over on hundreds of pages. He was full blown crazy in the movie. My condition makes Jack’s compulsive creepiness in The Shining look like a charming little tic.

First let me say that for someone who owns a shit load of music I probably listen to music at home less than anyone I know. I don’t know why but since I started playing piano six years ago I don’t have the same need to listen to music that I once had. Generally, I only listen to music in my home when I a take a shower and get dressed. What I do listen to is the same piece of music over and over and over and over again and then I hit repeat.

They say that the first step in the cure is admitting that you have a problem. I have a problem. My monogamous relationship with this bit of music is like that of male and female Canadian geese that mate for life. This song is always fresh to me. My heart always quickens on the contrapuntal rising bridge that occurs twice in this 3 minute masterpiece. I have marked this very spot on my computer and I will click on to this group of three or four measures.

I have the sheet music for this piece but it is sadly beyond my abilities. I think that I will never possess the necessary skill to add this beautiful song to my repertoire but I thought that about other masterpieces that I now take great pleasure in butchering on my piano. Perhaps only by learning to play this bit of music will I be free of it; free to get compulsive about another song.

I have been trying to spend enough time sitting down at the piano to recapture my repertoire that has escaped from the corral of my abilities. I think that I have lassoed Domenico Scarlatti’s sonata in A Major L. 483, a wonderful little piece that I have heard transcribed for guitar. After all of the strays have been herded up I need to start learning some new pieces. Half of the problem I have with learning piano is finding pieces that I can so thoroughly obsess upon that I don’t mind hearing them over a thousand times. Any suggestions?

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Why I Live Where I Live

My apartment is really too small. My once-wonderful view of the Puget Sound has been blocked by a new apartment building (That’s progress!). Laundry day means Sherpa’ing my basket deep into the bowels of my building. The kitchen is really too small. I have a lot of reasons to get a new place. Four things keep me from moving: Laziness (Wanna help move a piano? That’s what I thought.) and location, location, location.

Location is the single biggest luxury I afford myself; it is my most cherished possession. There are a few downtown areas in Seattle that might be an improvement over where I live now. They would only be a few blocks away so I spare myself the hassle of moving. My next move will be to another city—Paris or Madrid where I can be just another eccentric kook and be completely ignored.

On a day like today when it is raining buckets I am deeply grateful that I don’t have far to go to do the things that I do in the course of a day. I only have to cross three or four flooded streets to reach the awning at my gym. The grocery store is two blocks from the gym—not even enough of a walk to get really wet by Seattle standards.

Coffee, food, theater, drinks, and movies (not necessarily in that order) are all right around the corner. A lot of this has to do with the fact that a forward-thinking Seattle mayor decided a decade ago that people should live in the downtown area and established zoning laws to achieve this goal. I don’t understand this idea that government is bad. We are the government, free to change whatever it is about our society that doesn’t please us. Left to the free market Seattle’s downtown would look like...I don’t know, like a lot of U.S. cities where nobody actually lives downtown.

These days just the thought of getting in my car practically makes me break out in hives. The other night I was going to a play on Capital Hill (a mile or two from where I live). Before the play I was meeting some friends for dinner in another downtown neighborhood. As I was walking out to my car I was stressing out over parking at both locations and whether or not I wanted to have more than the two drink maximum I allow myself when I drive. I nipped that little conniption fit in the bud by hailing a cab. I like having that option available.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

¡Óyela, Gózala!


The above title—in Spanish--comes from an old Celia Cruz song that I haven’t listened to in years. I have a lot of Latin music lying around and I have been rediscovering it after letting this field in my music collection lie fallow for quite some time. Who has time to listen to my dozens and dozens of Latin CD’s when I have to listen to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s second English Suite over and over for the past two years?

While in the process of burning my considerable Latin collection onto my laptop I have become reacquainted with some old favorites and discovered some new treasures. I thought some of you who haven’t been as influenced by Latin culture as I might want to take a peek at a sample of some of the best. Now where do I start? Instead of choosing a bunch of songs that will flow together I thought it best to sample as many different styles as possible. As in my Glenn Gould offer some time ago, I will send you a copy of this for free if you e-mail me your address. Don't worry about the postage, I'm stinking rich.

1) ROMANTICOS AL RESCATE, Luis Enrique A lot of guys who front salsa bands are just pretty boys who can sing but Luis is a talented song writer as well as a great singer. Put on this song and people will start dancing, I don’t care if you’re at a funeral. Luis also put out a pretty kick-ass pop CD (generally a genre I detest for its overproduction) entitled Genesis. Salsa has already sort of run its course of being trendy in this country, now it’s time for it to become popular like the Cuban music of the 1950’s.

2) SE VOCE ME OUVISSE, Beth Carvalho I don’t speak Portuguese so I have no idea what she is singing about and I don’t know what she looks like but Beth Carvalho needs to realize that I am her soul mate. I will buy any compilation of Brazilian music just to hear one song by this goddess--this cut is from a CD called Brazilliance that I’ve had forever and ever. I first heard samba on the radio when I was going to school in Lima, Peru and I loved it immediately. Samba is the opposite of an acquired taste: You are either a living, breathing soul and you love it, or you need to be lowered into your grave.

3) RANCHO DE CANUTILLO, Mazz The members of this TexMex band all sport lovely mullets on the CD cover…priceless. This song is the best Ranchera song I’ve ever come across. Rancheras tell stories and here’s the story to this one: Rosa Maria leaves her ranch to go shopping in town. Along the way she is held up by two scallywags whose intention goes beyond robbery ( acabar con su orgullo is about as vague as you can get to mean to violate) Rosa Maria’s boyfriend, Antonio, happens along and all hell breaks lose. Antonio caps the two would be evil-doers (There, I used GW’s dumb ass expression in a sentence) but Maria has taken a stray bullet and dies in his arms. Antonio is grief-stricken so he shoots himself. These songs often end in a bloodbath and often speak of sadness and loss; a man’s lover dies or God forbid if his horse should die. Rancheras are also noted for the high-pitched yells that you hear in Mexican music which can mean happiness, sadness, or drunkenness.

4) CON LOS ANOS QUE ME QUEDAN, Gloria Estefan Gloria’s husband, Emilio Estefan, is THE best producer of Latin music. Gloria and Emilio co wrote this beautiful song about finally being true and good to someone you have been with. With the years left she wants to show how much she loves her mate. Because Spanish isn’t my native language I think I love Gloria because she annunciates so perfectly.o

5) MEDITERRANEO, Joan Serrat Joan Serrat is Spanish, more specifically he is Catalan and sings in that language as well as Spanish. This song has a rather corny production but the subject matter begs me to include it on this list of my favorite Latin songs. Whenever I play this song I think back to when I lived there, spending countless summer days looking for another secluded cove to explore above and below the surface. A beautiful body of water, from Algiers to Istanbul, from Athens to Tel Aviv.

6) QUE GANAS DE NO VERTE MAS, India This Puerto Rican Amazon beauty sings with a passion and fire that is almost frightening. Then you listen to what she is singing and you ARE frightened. This isn’t a woman you would want to cross if you are her lover. In her song Ese Hombre she calls this dude every name in the book. The chorus goes, “You don’t have a heart.” On the cover she poses with a cigar in her mouth and she looks like she’d take a swing at you if you gave her half an excuse. I wouldn’t.

7) OJALA QUE LLUEVA CAFE, Juan Luis Guerra y 440 Let it rain coffee is probably the most popular song by this popular Dominican merengue band.

8) OVERJOYED, Marco Marco de Carvalho, Brazilian virtuoso guitarist and Seattle resident, plays this lovely solo instrumental version of the Stevie wonder classic--an arrangement that J.S. Bach would have been proud to claim as his own. I first heard this song while I was having lunch in a Seattle restaurant. I immediately stopped eating and started listening. I went to the front desk and asked who it was I had just heard. They didn’t know and they had one of those 100 CD changers that was playing on random so I had to sort through 100 empty cases. By process of elimination I found Marco’s CD called Paisajens (Landscapes). I have since had the pleasure of seeing him perform a couple times. He’s a true artist.

9) AZUCA DE CANA, Eva Ayllon A Peruvian song that celebrates the sugar cane harvest, the sun, and love. Like all Latinos, Peruvians love music and they love making music. I can’t remember how many times I would be in some crappy cantina somewhere in Peru and someone would start playing a guitar or banging on a can and the place would burst out into song like some corny Broadway musical. In Latin America no matter what you are doing or where you are, music is not very far below the surface and aching to come up for air.

10) MI SONCITO, Celia Cruz The mambo queen. I saw her perform at an outdoor festival in Miami that made Miami look more like Havana, Cuba than a city in Florida. If you don’t speak Spanish and you live in Miami you are absolutely kidding yourself—you are as likely to hear Celia Cruz on the musak in a Miami business as Britney Spears. That’s a good thing.

11) ALLEGRIA, The Gypsy Kings These guys were fairly popular a while back so I wasn’t sure if I was just beating a dead horse by raving about their music. This guitar instrumental entitled “Happiness” in whatever language these Spanish gypsies speak lives up to its name (this title isn’t quite Spanish although they do sing in Spanish). The music from this part of Spain owes as much to Arab influences as it does European traditions.

12) GUANTANAMERA, Vieja Trova Santiaguera This Cuban classic is performed as true to its roots as is possible by this group of old guys in their 70’s. If there were any justice in the world they would have been included in the Buena Vista Social Club phenomena. This is about as good as this song gets and that’s pretty good.

13) SONHU MEU, Gal Costa and Maria Bethania Portuguese is simply the best language for the human voice.

14) AMOR DE PLAYA, El Gran Combo El Gran Combo, from Puerto Rico, didn’t invent salsa music but they came pretty close to defining it over the years.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Thinking Out Loud

Several months ago I began collecting used baseball gear. My original intention was to make a trip to Cuba and give it all away to needy baseball fanatics. I have altered my plans slightly. I have decided that I will go somewhere in Mexico to unite baseball gloves, balls, bats and players. As I began looking at travel arrangements to Cuba I became a little overwhelmed with the logistics of getting there. I also realized that I have much more of a connection to Mexico. The whole project is simply about mixing my love for Latin America with my love of the American pastime.

Just where in Mexico is still up in the air. I know quite a lot of people from Vera Cruz, a place I have yet to visit. I may go to Guanajuato, a beautiful city I explored briefly on my last trip south. I have narrowed down the ‘when’ part to some time in February. I am also working on the ‘who’ part and I am encouraging everyone I know to take part in this mission. I am going to need porters as I already have enough stuff to burden three people and I haven’t even asked for outside donations yet. I have a couple of people willing to donate tons of stuff if I get enough bearers of my goodwill.

The ‘what’ part of this story has become something of a mild obsession for me these past few months. I can’t drive past a yard sale or a thrift shop without stopping to see if I can pick up a glove or two or three. At last count I had 73 baseball gloves, 28 aluminum bats, five batting helmets, and three full catcher ensembles. I kept one mitt for myself out of this treasure chest—a beautiful infielder’s mitt I got for $1.99 that probably retailed for over $100. It is so broken in that I never want to take it off my hand.

As my plans for this trip become more concrete I will let you know. I have also been working on my baseball skills as I don’t want to look like the old gringo who talks a good game but ain’t got game. Infield practice anyone?

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The X-Mass Bottom Line

Dear Retailers of America,

I am writing this to let you know that we all think you are doing a swell job of promoting the birthday of baby Jesus—an often overlooked cult figure in our society of cult figures. If it weren’t for your over-eager promotion of the birthday of Jesus and its related orgy of shopping I feel that many among us might come to think of December 25th as merely a Christian religious holiday to be observed with dignity and reverence.

Who has ever made a buck off of reverence? Have you ever tried to sell dignity at a shareholders meeting? Ha! I don’t think that the words “business” and “dignity” belong in the same fiscal quarter let alone the same paragraph or—God forbid—the same sentence. If we start getting too carried away with this whole “dignity” thing how are we going to sell all of this tasteless garbage we bought from the Chinese slave labor shops? It is all subjective anyway because isn’t what one person thinks of as “undignified,” another, more business-oriented person sees as tomorrow’s landfill fodder? Don’t people who work at landfills need jobs too? Thanks for looking out for them.

Thanks to the retailers of America, Christmas will be much bigger this year than the release of the Incredible Hulk and quite possibly on a par with those delightful Matrix movies. There is little fear of Noel wallowing in obscurity like some crappy foreign movie. Thank you for promoting X-mass for almost two months before the actual release date of December 25 with a free-for-all of catchy Christmas music, decorations, heaps of cool related merchandise, and Santa action figures for the little ones (In market research surveys Santa figures were 28% more popular than baby Jesus characters—forget about crucified adult Jesus dolls, total bummer for the kids.). I love it when November has barely raised its meek head and I am already scorched by the forest fire of marketing that aims to burn down an entire fiscal quarter and then some.

I know what you may be thinking. You may be thinking that perhaps the public would prefer that the Christmas holiday promotion be postponed until a more appropriate date. Perhaps we could wait until after Thanksgiving to let Americans reflect on that celebration of gluttony before doing the hard-sell on this, our biggest commercial holiday. Sure this might be more “tasteful” or less “vulgar” than your current marketing strategy but these accusations are usually made by people who wouldn’t know a bottom line from a hole in the ground. And speaking of a hole in the ground, I say we take critics of the Yuletide marketing blitzkrieg and throw their lifeless corpses in a big hole—freaking communists.

Never forget: The business of America is business and 40% of that business is X-mass holiday related.

God Bless

Friday, November 07, 2003

In my first ever public performance I played Johann Sebastian Bach's openning aria to the Goldberg Variations at a thrift store yesterday. I was trying out an old upright they had for sale. The piano was cool but they were asking too much. I need to practice.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Civic Duty

In order for me to renew my car registration I had to get another vehicle emissions test. The testing place is on the north end of town along Seattle’s ugliest thoroughfare. Highway #99 north of Green Lake Park is a total blight, lined with franchise businesses, car repair shops, and seedy hotels. It is about as tacky a business district as you are likely to find north of Tijuana, Mexico. Think of a four-way sewer. It is as if the planners of this city ceded this bit of real estate to anyone willing to build anything. I’m only glad that I don’t have to go out that way often.

Along with the usual licensing fees I had to pay my first installment for the new monorail (Something like $80 per $10,000 of your car’s value). Many Seattle residents are finding ways to register their cars outside of the city to avoid the tax. I guess these citizens want Seattle to be more like Highway #99 and less like the beautiful city neighborhoods where I live. Without a concerted effort towards mass transit all of this city will be paralyzed by the sprawl and congestion that afflicts the outer regions of the city. I guess the people who are avoiding the tax need the money to help make the next payment on their Hummer.

I was heading to the grocery store last night when I noticed a lot of empty parking spaces around my building—not a common sight in the early evening. My car was parked right out in front and I thought how nice it would be to actually drive to the store. I quickly dashed that notion from my head because I thought what a lazy fuck I would be if I couldn’t walk 2 blocks to the store and 2 blocks home again. I have been conditioned to walk because of the usual dearth of parking. To consider the car in my transportation model is fairly rare. It’s not like I’m some full-blown eco-hippie. I just hate driving around trying to park. I also know that I wouldn’t want to look at an eyesore like Highway #99 every time I needed to shop.

I don’t think my views are necessarily liberal or conservative. This is just about deciding what is the best way for a community to live. The people of Seattle have decided that public transportation is a better way to go than relying exclusively on private vehicles. We fucking voted on it and now a lot of car owners are deciding that they don’t want to go along with the plebiscite (my guess is that these are rich assholes with another residence outside Seattle where they can register their vehicles—poor people never seem to have the resources to cheat much on their taxes).

I’m sure that these tax cheats can justify their action (or inaction) by criticizing the monorail and saying they didn’t vote for it. They probably don’t vote at all. They have been brainwashed by the right into thinking that all government spending is bad (except military spending of course) and that the money is better off in their hands than funding a silly government project like mass transit.

I wish that we could house all of the people who voted against the monorail and who have avoided paying the tax out in the crappy suburban areas of Seattle. I wish that we could tax them every time they entered the city to enjoy the lovely downtown or to explore one of Seattle’s cool neighborhoods. They don’t deserve to take part in the civic pride most people have for this city. There are costs associated with citizenship and we all have to pay them. There are responsibilities associated with citizenship and we all have to bear them.

Monday, November 03, 2003

The Snot and Grape Juice Diet

A local area seafood restaurant, The Flying Fish, sponsored a gathering in honor of the wide variety of Washington oysters now coming into season. I received my invitation at the last minute on Saturday afternoon. I had been driving around doing various errands and hadn’t had anything to eat. We showed up at the restaurant promptly at 1. I had been up since 8 or so and had been to the gym. I was ready to eat. When they said this was going to be an oyster affair they weren’t kidding--the only food they had was oysters.

I like oysters as much as the next guy. Either that or I dislike oysters as much as the next guy. Does the next guy like oysters or is he just faking it like me? When I lived in the Chesapeake Bay area most nights of drinking began with everyone getting a dozen oysters on the half-shell. I would douse my oysters with a tablespoon of Tabasco sauce. It is hard for me to imagine anything that is too disgusting that I wouldn’t eat chased with a tablespoon of hot sauce. I think that our attraction to oysters was simply a matter of dietary machismo and had little to do with whether or not we liked the taste.

The restaurant had set up several tables with each table offering different oysters from around the Puget Sound along with local wines—Washington excels in both bivalves and wine. Each table had a crew of shuckers and the oysters they were opening for us were truly magnificent. Most of the wines were of the sauvignon blanc varietal and went well with the briny, slimy oysters.

I was so hungry I felt like I could eat the shells. I was sucking down oysters right and left, up and down, back and forth. I was like John Belushi in the Animal House cafeteria but with better clothes. It was a pretty civilized affair and I was trying to fit in. The hosts at each table explained the qualities of their particular fare and its point of origin within the myriad channels of the Sound. After receiving one such lecture I commented to our party about how this oyster, served with a squeeze of lemon, was like a very citrusy cup of snot. I know, not very funny especially when you consider that one gal in our party was fairly new to the whole raw oyster thing and was trying hard not too find the whole ritual as revolting as it really is.

Everyone else there must have been as hungry as I because the moment the hosts put out some fare that wasn’t raw (fried oysters and baked oysters with corn chutney) the crowd rushed the tables like a rugby scrum. The scene could only be described as a feeding frenzy. There were only one or two fatalities and after the carcasses were hauled out the back exit things settled down. The wine played its part to deaden hunger and the afternoon stretched on into what was to become the world’s longest appetizer course.

After our afternoon of celebrating Washington oysters we went to a Mexican joint and ordered everything on the menu except oysters.

Friday, October 31, 2003

The Crystal Ball

On NPR this morning the host asked the always overly unctuous deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz if he would care to predict what will happen in Iraq. I forget Wolfowitz’s exact response but it went something like this, “Yogi Berra, the great Yankee catcher, said that it’s dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future.” What a down-to-earth kind a guy that Wolfowitz, a baseball fan, funny, and a populist. Just the kind of guy you want in your Defense Department when your objective is to bomb the shit out of countries to take people’s minds off how shitty their own country is being run.

I’ll make a prediction for you Mister Wolfowitz: Iraq will be a lawless shithole six months from now no matter how many billions of dollars we will pour out of our social programs to prop up Bush’s not-thought-out-at-all plan to take over a major oil producing state to hand over to his frat brothers in the energy business. I predict that Iraq will be our West Bank but more of a public relations nightmare (if that is possible and I’m sure that it is). Think of Iraq as a Viet Nam with a bigger cultural gap between host and occupier.

I think that if we are going to occupy Iraq indefinitely then we should do away with this “all volunteer army” myth that we have had since the end of conflict in Viet Nam. Let’s see how much support Bush has for his war plans when all of us are forced to send our family members over there to play catch with fanatics tossing RPG’s. This time around let’s do the draft the right way: No more deferments for college, men and women both go, we’re all in this together. If this were the case Bush’s approval rating would be made up of his childless cabinet members.

If you think I’m happy about the fact that GI’s are dying over there because it makes Bush look bad you are full of it. I was a member of the military fraternity back in my adventuresome youth. I was against the war back when it was just a nasty rumor and I’m against it now for the same reasons: I don’t see any good coming from invading a Muslim nation. Not only do I not think such action will make us safer but I feel that the exact opposite is true. Under Bush’s leadership the U.S. has usurped Israel on the Muslim’s shit list. Does that make you feel safe?

I realize that this essay, written in a manner of minutes, isn’t serious but then again I don’t see too many of the principals in the Bush administration being too serious about this either. When asked about the recent bombings in Bagdad Bush says that they are a sign that we are making great headway, that the bombings show the frustration of the counterinsurgents. This sort of reasoning is so flawed that you don’t even know how to approach it. To carry this reasoning to the logical (illogical?) end it would mean that when everything is perfect in Iraq everything will be blown up.

I don’t see Iraq as a military problem; I always saw it as a diplomacy issue that would have succeeded on a diplomacy level had we not abandoned that avenue in favor of military action. Lord knows we’ve had our share of diplomacy failures but none have been as disastrous as our military failures.

If you really want a prediction look back to the fall of Saigon, think of Iraqi loyalists hanging on to the skids of our helicopters as they leave that country for good. I hope that I’m wrong.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

A Map of the World

I’ve been trying to plan a trip this fall. Ten days to two weeks is all the time I can really spare but other than that I don’t have any other limiting factors. I don’t think I want to go anywhere in Latin America because I am planning my baseball trip to Cuba sometime early next year. In this, my time of indecision, I have been fervently studying maps.

I have a whole box of maps. Lots of road maps from every state, world maps, a road map of all of Europe, and lots of these great Michelin maps of individual European countries that I have driven around at one time or another. The Michelin maps are insanely well made and contain every road and goat path. They fold out into 4X4 feet squares—too big to open inside of your car. I have city maps, topographical maps of the mountains near my home; I even have a few sea charts. I like to know where I am at all times. I always can point to the general area of true north—not exactly a marketable skill these days but I am what I am.

I have a bound American road atlas that looks to be as old as the interstate highway system. It is terrifically dog-eared and has several cross-country trips behind it. Now it is folded open to my current state of residence, Washington. I am inspired by maps, inspired to travel new routes or to rediscover places I’ve been before. In fact, I would say that I am more interested in rediscovery than in trying new things. I don’t think that this means that I lack a sense of adventure; I think it means that I’m not promiscuous—I prefer to get to know a place than to have a casual affair and move on.

For me, I am better served with gaining an intimacy of a locale rather than having a brief encounter that I’ll soon forget and which will leave no mark upon me. I haven’t been to as many places as a lot of people but I would like to think that I know the places well that I have seen. I think that my psyche has been shaped by my fascination with the age of discovery. One of my greatest interests in reading are the great discoverers: Magellan, Columbus, Cook, Sir Richard Burton, and all of the others.

Like everyone born in the last century and since, I have been faced with the fact that there is nothing new to be discovered on this planet. I hate all of the attempts at denying this like the mountain climbers who want to be the first to scale such and such a peak. What a lame attempt at immortality! Face facts. If it hasn’t already been done you won’t get famous doing it now. All of the maps of the world have already been printed; you are just going where someone else has already been.

Where should I go? Maybe I should close my eyes and throw a dart at a map of the world.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

La Vitta Is Not Too Bella

For several years now the publishing world has been awash with books chronicling the lives of middle-aged yuppies moving to small villages in France and Italy. A recent movie, Under the Tuscan Sun attempts to transfer this genre to the big screen. This fantasy of becoming a European peasant with a swell house seems to be pretty pervasive if you believe the best seller lists and box office numbers. Do Europeans fantasize about moving here to set up house in some rural setting?

After spending some time on Google I came up with no findings for searches like “Under the Nebraska Sun” or “A Year in Wheeling, West Virginia,” not even when I translated these into the applicable European languages. I would presume that this is either a market that is ripe for the picking or Europeans aren’t interested in finding out what it is like to live in the suburbs and go shopping at Wal-Mart (this is National Pick On Wal-Mart Month). I wonder why this is?

Perhaps it’s because Europe has decided not to shred every evidence of their past like so many incriminating Enron documents, that it is worth it to maintain older architectural structures (in France it is some sort of federal offense to tear down an outhouse). But the appeal of living in Europe goes beyond the “This Old House” syndrome; perhaps people realize after a certain level of material prosperity that a good way of life isn’t about how much stuff you surround yourself with in your cocoon (or crypt).

You could explain away this phenomenon as Americans’ curiosity with foreign cultures except that most of these memoirs contain a strong theme of escape and by escape I don’t mean a flight of fancy. I mean escape like a desperate prison break, like getting away from something as fast and as far as possible, like running for your life.

Don’t expect me to define la vitta bella for you in this crappy little essay; just don’t think you can buy it like in those tiresome ads for Master Card where all of life’s pleasures are rung up on a cash register and charged on your credit card with the result being “priceless” bliss. Your bliss isn’t priceless, it is costing you 19% interest and the statement will be at your house at the end of the month. Have you been planning your escape?

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Rethinking Econ 101

Like it or not, we're in a class war and there ain't no Switzerland.

On NPR this morning an economist who writes for Slate magazine was defending Wal-Mart’s policies of paying its employees low wages. He said that the overall benefit to society was worth it because consumers get cheaper prices at Wal-Mart than at stores which pay workers more. This makes those other retail outlets “less competitive.” The conservatives point to NPR as evidence of the liberal media. This guy from Slade was slightly to the right of Agosto Pinochet. NPR didn’t offer a counter argument. I am giving it here.

Slavery was also a good thing for a lot of people. It wasn't a very good thing for those on the business end of a bull whip. This fetish with keeping down costs is an economic idea with so many holes that it is hard for me to believe that it makes sense to anyone.

I have been having this argument with friends over the past couple of weeks. I have listened to them bad-mouth unions and speak out against mandatory vacations for full-time workers. They all present the basic argument that the fucking tool for Slade put forth: We must let the market decide wages and if you aren’t happy about your vacation policy you can get another job—this is a free country after all. This laissez-faire economics is taught at every university in this nation. It was what I was taught as an economics major at Indiana University. I used to buy into this philosophy back before I had looked at the world and didn’t know any better. The only contrary opinion was socialism and of course we knew that was really bad.

The problem is that there is absolutely no successful model of this type of economy we are in such a hurry to implement. The more the U.S.A. moves to dismantle the government programs that since the depression have ensured a more egalitarian society, the worse things are becoming for the lower income classes. On the other hand, if you travel to Western Europe it is extremely apparent that these social democracies do a better job of taking care of all of their citizens than we do here.

Forget about the damage Wal-Mart is doing to this country, what disturbs me more than anything else is people’s attitudes about money and class. On issue after issue Americans are showing that they really don’t care about those less fortunate than themselves. We aren’t willing to pay taxes because we feel that we are supporting a lazy underclass. Never mind that this simply isn’t true, that we are paying a bigger proportion of our taxes to fund a defense industry that is entirely out of control and is completely devoid of an overriding philosophy as to how we should be defended.

I don’t think we as a nation are over-taxed and I don’t think we need to save 20 cents on a pair of underwear at Wal-Mart if it means their workers make less than a living wage. I think every American has the right to health care. I don’t feel that these views are liberal; they are simply the views of a citizen. I refuse to believe you if you say that we can’t afford to give every worker a living wage with benefits.

to be continued…

Monday, October 20, 2003

What Kind of Friend Am I?

I had a friend come visit for the weekend who I haven’t seen in several months. His flight got in Thursday evening. I wasn’t at the airport to meet him like any decent human being would expect. I was sitting in a bar with a group of friends watching the final game of the American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Sox. I vectored him from the airport by cab to our corner of the bar. As thoughtless an act as not picking him up at the airport may have been, I can only say that had I missed that great game because I was fetching him, our friendship would now be in jeopardy.

I also failed to take him to the airport when he left on Sunday morning (hangover) so if friendship is measured by trips to the airport I’m batting .000 so far. Cab drivers need to make a living, don’t they? Have you ever even considered that before in your close-minded definition of friendship?

I think that instead of the “I need a ride to the airport” kind of friend, I’m more of the “Hey man, I need some help getting rid of this body” kind of friend, or the “Can you help me sneak out of the country and live the rest of my life on the lam?” kind of friend. A taxi can get you to your flight on time but just try and have a cabbie help you get a forged passport or help you find an apartment in Rio or some other place without an extradition treaty. That’s right. If you need real help, like surreptitiously crossing a border, you’ll come looking for me, won’t you, little miss judgmental?

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Your $87 Billion Contribution Is Not Tax Deductible

Let’s get this straightened out right now. The $87 billion that Bush has requested to rebuild Iraq is an $87 billion Bush reelection campaign package to be paid for by the American people. Without this gift, the spiraling chaos in the war-ravaged Iraq will surely shanghai any chance he has of being reelected (I hesitate to use the term ‘reelected’ since he wasn’t elected the first time). The terribly bad idea of invading Iraq and its consequences are our collective responsibility and not that of his administration. With $87 billion to spread around I could bomb every orphanage on the planet and make it look like a good idea. That wouldn't make it a good idea.

Forget about the sweetheart deals Bush is passing out to all of his fraternity brothers, the true motivating factor for propping up Iraq is his short-term desire to win the next election. After next November Bush won’t give two shits about Iraq or Afghanistan. His pro business-at-any-cost agenda has been steamrolling through an intimidated congress since he took office. He needs a few more years to see it through to completion. There are still social programs he has yet to dismantle, child welfare safety nets he needs to dissolve.

For the first time since 9-11 Americans have finally put aside their fear and have started to question his foreign policy. A couple of G.I.s die each day, car bombs go off, no weapons have been uncovered, and Saddam is still on the loose. Bush tells us that all he needs to make Iraq look like it is on the road to stability (until his next election) is a paltry $87 billion. This was a guy who was elected by his promise of getting government off of our backs so we can all spend our family’s inherited wealth in peace like he does.

Not too long ago Amtrak asked for $500 million to continue operations on the eastern corridors and was highly criticized by the conservatives. The Right couldn’t understand how our national infrastructure couldn’t be made to make a profit. Now we are being asked for 174 times that amount to pay for infrastructure in a country 5,000 miles away sitting on some of the largest oil deposits on earth. I won’t even go into the irony of the ease with which we will abandon our energy-efficient mass transit options like trains to mire ourselves in a part of the world simply because of the fossil fuels found under their desert sands.

Does anyone really believe that even with an infusion of $87 billion Iraq will blossom into a flower of democracy in the Middle East? The Middle East has been blessed with unimaginable oil wealth for the last 40 years or so and I don’t see democracy even attempting to rear its timid head in the region. I do believe that with $87 billion to spend, America could be a flower of democracy and much more of an egalitarian nation than the present survival-of-the-fittest conservative model we are currently test driving.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Adventures in Reading

In case you didn’t read today’s papers there were a few things you shouldn’t have missed. There were two front-page articles exploring the lower depths of the Bush administration’s contempt for the environment. Other than that you could have skipped everything else in the papers and gone out and enjoyed your day. That is unless you’re a baseball fan. Baseball fans need to take a half hour out of their day to read every word printed about the four teams still vying for the championship.

In an article that seemed like some horrible Onion parody of the news, the Bush administration is trying to ease laws prohibiting the sale, trade, and hunting of endangered animals. American endangered species will be unaffected by the legislation but foreign animals need to take cover. The Bush people said that the revenue poor nations will receive from hunting permits for their nearly-extinct wildlife will help them protect said wildlife. Evidently some rich assholes (friends of the administration I’m sure) want to hunt down and kill—for sport--some sort of endangered goat in Afghanistan. The new legislation will also allow circuses to capture and imprison foreign endangered animals to use in their American productions.

I am not making this up. I could not make this up. This is too fucked-up to make up. You can look it up. Someone please tell me that it was all a big hoax and the joke is on me. Hello?

In an unrelated but equally repugnant article the Bush people also want to undo a lot of conservation laws that will make it easier for strip mining companies to desecrate public land in their search for precious metals. Yes, we really need to get the government off of our backs so we can kill off all of the wild animals that threaten us and so we can strip away that pesky crust of the planet earth to find shiny metal for our jewelry.

Thank God I could escape this insanity in the sport pages. I read every word about the baseball series going on now. The Seattle Times has an excellent baseball writer in Larry Stone. My passion for baseball borders on the absurd this time in October, especially with play off games as exciting as we’ve had so far. We also have the Cubs and the Red Sox in contention who haven’t won a series in forever--one since 1912 and the other since 1918. A Cub fan at the game had a sign that read “If we win this one we can relax until 2098.” With our own team staying home for the play offs everyone in Seattle has become rabid Sox and Cub fans. People clap at the TV’s when either team scores.

With our executive branch selling permits to kill endangered animals you need something like great baseball to keep you from losing it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Tabula Rasa: Silence and an Empty Page

I wake up, I get a cup of coffee, I hit the space bar a few times to revive my laptop, and I stare at a blank screen. I take another sip of coffee. I begin to wake up, my eyes are able to focus better on the small characters on the screen, and I stare at a blank page. I may write a few hundred words which I reread and quickly abandon. I return to a blank document and start over. I don’t know how many entries I have made on this webpage but every one has started out similarly.

For every essay posted on this page I have probably left an equal number unfinished; either abandoned to the bowels of my hard drive or simply deleted. I used to scribble on legal pads. I would write down an idea for a gag and work through a few sentences before attempting to compose a more thorough version on the computer. I have stacks of legal pads filled up with gibberish. All this makes me wonder how many hundreds of thousands of words I have either deleted from my computer or tossed in the garbage.

My brother and I used to correspond with each other prolifically. We had each written hundreds of single-spaced pages that we kept in a single, on-going document. We both lost these documents that chronicled our thoughts and intellectual development over the period of about five years.

I lost mine when I chucked my old Texas Instruments laptop. When I went from WordPerfect to MS Word I couldn’t get the documents to convert. I had the old computer lying around so I figured that one day I would figure it out. I forgot how to print from WordPerfect so I didn’t make a hard copy of this document. I finally pitched the old computer. I also lost several hundred letters to friends that I had written during the time I had that machine. I don’t mention this because I feel it is any loss to the world of literature.

All of the notebooks rotting in landfills and all of the zeros and ones deleted into thin air are like all of the notes I have played on my piano. It’s a good thing that those poorly-played musical phrases are gone forever. The tossed notebooks and deleted entries are also where they belong. All of that was simply practice. This is practice.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Juggling Life

The hardest thing about life is making the time to do all of the things you should be doing. As much as I try to juggle everything, a few things are going to fall to the ground. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be picked up and tossed around at some point in the future.

All of this becomes an even bigger problem during the playoffs for a baseball fan. Priorities change. Just about everything in life was put on hold last night as Boston met Oakland in the first game of the American league division series. Just let me say that it was one of the best darn baseball games I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch—a bases loaded walk-off bunt with two outs in the 12th inning won it for the A's. Oakland’s manager Ken Macha said it best, “Shame on anybody who missed it.”

Between great baseball games I like to think that I work pretty hard at the various things that I do that help me to become the kind of person I would like to be when I grow up.

I studied jiu-jitsu for a few years and got pretty good at it. I literally beat my brains out to learn it but since moving to Seattle I haven’t given it much thought. I got together last week with a friend who is about at my level to work through some techniques. It felt great to put on my gi and roll around on the mat. My basic fighting skills are still pretty high, but I have forgotten a lot of the Japanese terminology (Tai Otoshi? What the hell is that?) as well as a lot of the more esoteric nuances of judo and jiu-jitsu. I don’t really care to get back into martial arts to any serious degree, but I also don’t want to forget everything I spent so many years learning.

For the past three weeks or so my piano has served as a laundry hamper. I haven’t played a single note. I came home last night and leaned over the laundry basket on the piano bench and played a section of a Goldberg Variation. I was listening to some piano music on the stereo at the time. This made me realize that my piano is out of tune—yet another excuse not to practice. I thought about sitting down and playing but I decided to read instead.

I suppose that I am writing this to shame myself into getting back into the groove of playing piano again. I never used to have this problem when I first started about six years ago. My enthusiasm was absolutely boundless even though I was really bad at it. I think my overly-competitive nature got the better of me with the piano; I just felt like I wasn’t getting any better—or at least not better fast enough. I don’t know why this bothered me. I’m not really that good at anything else.

Playing the piano, even at my level, is certainly better than ignoring this huge instrument that dominates my small apartment. This is also true of the foreign languages that I have learned to varying degrees of imperfection--Spanish being the only one I use regularly. Perhaps my eclecticism (dilettantism?) is a defense mechanism. I can rationalize not being very good at one thing because I spend too much time doing so many other things.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

To Each His Ownership

I’ve never owned a new car. I’m sure that I never will. The joy some people experience from “new car smell” is alien to me. I’m too afraid of becoming asphyxiated by the noxious stench of “car payment” to enjoy the smell of new plastic. I’m guessing that the smell of a never-previously-owned automobile lasts for maybe two payments, three tops. That leaves you with some where around 46 months of payments on a car that smells no better than the one I paid cash for. Buy some geraniums; they smell a lot better than a new car.

Athletic shoes are my answer to new car smell. I love buying a new pair of athletic shoes. I love buying athletic gear in general. I have three bicycles and have thought seriously about adding another to my collection (one of those cool no-speed bike messenger minimalist jobs). My compulsions in buying athletic gear are fairly manageable and not too expensive. I don’t have any problem spending money on anything that will motivate me to go to the gym or exercise; on anything that will make me go faster or make me stronger. I figure can I either spend money now for athletic gear or pay ten times that amount in a few years to some heart surgeon to clean out my arteries.

If everyone thought as I did about cars the automotive industry would be in pretty sad shape. Convincing people that the only way to go is to buy a new car is essential to auto manufacturers. Whether or not people can afford a new car doesn’t factor into the equation as far as car makers are concerned. You never see an advertisement that says, “Buy our car, if you can afford it.” The principle tenet that drives marketing is to make people feel inadequate with what they may already have, even if that is perfectly adequate for their needs.

You are what you drive if you let this kind of thinking drive you. The New York Times Magazine this week ran a whole section on the automobile and its place in our lives. As close as the magazine came to questioning the merits of the automobile--over, let’s say, public transportation--was a piece on some Oregon hippie who makes his own fuel out of bacon grease (I wasn't aware soy bacon yielded grease). This eco-friendly article followed another piece praising the glory of gas-guzzling pick-up trucks. Of course, any criticism of the automobile in general may jeopardize the magazine’s ad revenue from car manufacturers.

I won’t go so far as to say the automobile is evil, but I will say that many Americans are in way over their heads financially from the car choices they make. They have been manipulated by a culture that is constantly telling them that in their cars lies their identity. I’d rather be a nobody.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The Flip Side of Pop Culture

I would say that most of what passes for pop culture in our society is driven by marketing. Pop culture is something that is bought and sold. If there is a spontaneous eruption of a pop culture event it is soon co-opted by the marketing people. The particular item is snatched away from whoever created it, cleverly packaged, and sold in the marketplace. The marketing people prefer a world of predictability and that is what is brought to you courtesy of television, movies, and music. Most of these creative endeavors today seem more like Catholic religious rituals than art. The lack of surprises in religion is supposed to be comforting. Religion doesn’t ask questions, it gives reassuring answers.

The aspect of pop culture most caught up in presenting rituals would have to be the Hollywood movie industry. I went to the Cineplex yesterday and had to endure about ten minutes of trailers of coming attractions. There were no surprises. The bland fare served up by Hollywood is not meant to inspire thought, it is only meant to be reassuring. The same actors play the same roles: Jack Nicholson as a smiling jackass, Sean Penn as an angry malcontent, and so on.

Whether or not this is what the public wants is beside the point. Leave it to the people in marketing to get the asses in the seats; just don’t rock the boat by actually requiring people to think about their entertainment. A thinking public is a pretty scary concept to the marketing people who prefer to tell people what to think. I don’t remember Catholic priests asking me what I thought during my religious training. They had the answers and I was supposed to listen and take notes.

The forces dictating pop culture are all so incestuous these days that it’s impossible to tell where CNN ends and Time-Warner begins. The New Yorker prints a cheery review of a moronic movie that most of its readers wouldn’t even consider seeing. CNN reports on the Ben Affleck-J Lo romance as if covering a G7 summit. Not only are most of the media outlets hawking all of the industry-sponsored pop icons but there is almost nothing in the way of criticism. Isn’t the absence of criticism passivity? To the priests of my youth any criticism was considered blasphemy.

Friday, September 26, 2003

The Lives of the Saints, American Style

After magazines have been thrown in the trash and have gone through the lower intestinal track of the sanitation industry they seem to end up on the shelf at my gym. Months-old copies of People, Us, Oprah, In Style, and, no kidding, Cheerleader are all I have to choose from when I am riding the stationary bike. Under a stack of celebrity rags I saw just the title for a magazine I had never seen before.

As soon as I pulled it out and saw the picture of Kevin Spacey on the cover I knew that Biography wasn’t some weightier periodical dedicated to chronicling the lives of important people, but yet another hagiography of movie stars--just what our print media really needs. I will look through any magazine at least once--anything to keep my mind off of how much riding an exercise bike sucks. I checked out Cheerleader magazine before and it is every bit as frightening as you would probably imagine.

Biography’s motto on the cover states, “Every life has a story” but looking at the content it seems that the only lives with stories worth telling are those of movie stars. In my admittedly very unscientific survey of the magazine I found that 99% of the pictures were those of your favorite TV and movie actors—the Mount Olympus Gods of our culture. I can just imagine the scene in the boardroom at the inception of Biography. Some young entrepreneurial go-getter stands up and shouts, “I’m sick of the way movie stars are ignored in our culture and I think we should start a new magazine to let everyone know how great they are and what a tremendous contribution they make to our lives.” Fighting backs their tears, the other board members heartily agree.

My favorite entry in this previously-unknown-to-me contribution to American letters was the section “Where Are They Now?” The lead story was about the actor George Lindsey who played the mildly-retarded mechanic, Goober, on The Andy Griffith Show. Where is he now? Does anyone want to know where he is now? What I would like to hear is that the entire show was just some sort of surreal nightmare that I had one evening in my childhood and that I didn’t actually spend untold hours watching that crap. I want someone to tell me that instead of watching horrifically bad TV I spent the evening hours of my youth mastering Mozart sonatas on the piano or discussing Tuscan cooking techniques with my siblings.

I didn’t spend my youth playing Mozart or learning the fine points of international cuisine. I spent it like everyone else I know: watching obscenely bad TV. I have tried desperately in adulthood to make up for my wasted years in front of the boob tube, but nothing I do can ever give me back all of the ill-spent time I passed getting to know Goober.