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Friday, February 28, 2003

The Politics of Nails

I drove down to Mount Rainier National Park last weekend to go snow shoeing with some friends. I love how in Washington you have to go vertical to find winter. The snow starts at around 4,000 feet and by the time we reached the highest point you can reach on the mountain by car (around 5,400) there was snow up to the rooftops. Rainier is truly an awe inspiring mountain and the surrounding wilderness can practically take your breath away but what I want to talk about here is the drive down from Seattle.

We passed through Spanaway, Washington en route. I hesitate to call Spanaway a city because it seems to be nothing more than a series of god-awful strip malls and used car dealerships. I had driven this way many times before but this time I was a passenger and was able to pay closer attention to this atrocity of a community. I counted no less than three Walgreen franchises, countless fast food dumps, nothing even remotely charming, and no evidence in the area’s urban planning of a nod to pedestrians. I saw no evidence of urban planning at all. Spanaway is simply a commercial cancer attached to a highway host organism.

What really got my attention was the alarming number of nail salons we counted along the way. There was a nail salon in almost every strip mall. Spanaway must certainly be the nail salon capital of the world. As much as I may think that Spanaway is the ugliest city in the country with the most nail salons per capita I also can’t help thinking that there are probably many cities across the United States equally as ugly and equally as committed to the trash culture of nails.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist but I can’t help but think that there must be a link between nail salons and heinous urban planning. Even in my relatively charming neighborhood in Seattle there is a nail salon in the area’s ugliest building. What is going on here?

I figure that it must have something to do with the toxic chemicals they use in nail salons. The poisonous vapors in nail parlors must destroy the aesthetic sensibilities of their clients. At first the disease simply creates a psychotic delusion in the minds of the individuals that having big fake nails actually counts for something in this world. From there the disease progresses until all visual taste is destroyed in the victim and they see nothing wrong with living in a city that is nothing more than parking lots and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets or that watching TV talk shows is a good way to spend the afternoon.

Fake nails are the chadors and burkahs of American society and we must all do our part to end this press-on oppression.

Thursday, February 27, 2003

Paper, Ink, and Hops

I like reading in pubs. Notice that I didn't say bars. There's a big difference between bars and pubs. When I say a pub I don't mean some corporate shit hole that has a bunch of random crap nailed up on the wall in imitation of some pub somewhere that actually has a soul and wasn't created on a boardroom table by committee. When I say pub I mean a neighborhood spot that has good beer on tap, decent food, and enough light to read.

There are plenty of decent bars in my immediate neighborhood but there aren't any pubs. Within a four of five block radius there are a few and on this night I walked across the Seattle Center to a newer place called Jabu's Pub. Someone had loaned me a copy of Steven Ambrose's Band of Brothers but I was on a deadline to get it back. I also wanted to get a beer so I was out to kill two very enjoyable birds with one stone.

I ordered something to drink and before I started reading I thought about how pleasant it is to be with someone who also considers reading in a pub to be fantastic entertainment. I was thoroughly engaged in Easy Company's advance into WWII when I noticed that the TV volume was at a rather annoying level. TV is like a loud, obnoxious child that is constantly screaming for attention. I won't even dignify the show by mentioning the name but let's just say that the premise was a bunch of stupid people doing stupid things.

I have said this before and I'll say it again: I am definitely not anti-TV. I don't have a TV but I do watch programs on my computer from time to time. What I object to is television's pervasiveness and influence in our society. I would prefer it if I weren't constantly bombarded in public places by the generally loathsome messages TV offers.

Maybe I'm wrong about this but I think that people who watch a lot of TV are just bored and lazy. I creeps me out that anyone who considers himself to be educated could be entertained by watching a group of surgically and chemically enhanced half-wits perform mediocre circus stunts. People who actually will admit that they never read really weird me out. What do these folks do, for example, before they go to bed at night or while they are waiting for a bus? I rarely leave the house without something to read just in case I have to wait a few minutes and I need to use that time wisely.

In an effort to bring these compulsive TV watchers into the fold of thinking adults I have thought up an idea of a reality TV show that may shame the non-thinkers into action. The title will be something like SO YOU WANT TO BE A RENAISSANCE MAN and the contestants compete in an intellectual decathlon. Each contestant will show their skills in things like translating Sophocles from the ancient Greek, playing the cello, designing a cathedral, doing advanced calculus problems, doing push-ups and pull-ups, and writing a poem.

The point of SO YOU WANT TO BE A RENAISSANCE MAN would be to show people the possibilities of the human mind and body. We seem to be a culture with incredibly one-dimensional heroes. Michael Jordan has a tough time getting through a single sentence of his native language without miss conjugating a verb. Most of our thinkers can't touch their toes. Shouldn't we all aspire to greater things than drooling over the lives of celebrities?

Saturday, February 22, 2003

Short and Sweet

What if I told you that over 1,500 midgets are seriously injured by house cats every year? If you are anywhere near as warped as I am you would probably find this to be pretty funny. I am here to tell you that it is not funny. Some of my dearest friends are midgets. I like house cats as much as the next guy. I know you think it’s cute when your cat brings you a midget or a dead squirrel (A dead rat is just gross, nothing cute about a dead rat) and drops it on your back porch steps but this midget carnage simply must end.

I, myself, am only 5’9”, which means that I am “legally” a midget--whatever the fuck that means. Do you think I am able to get a job as a freakishly tall midget? Not likely. There is no market for the Shaquille O’Neil of the little people. I am a man without a country as far as the height thing goes: too short for the NBA and too tall to land the good parts like a Christmas elf or a leprechaun. Instead I wander in the netherworld with thoughts of platform shoes or simply slouching to take an inch or two off my vertical stature. So what if I scored 40 points at center in the Lord of the Rings vs. Wizard of Oz extras basketball tournament final? After the game I'm shunned as a freak by all the other players. It's lonely here at the top and it's lonelier still at the bottom of the big leagues.

Monday, February 17, 2003

Peacenik Diary

There may be a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell. You can bear this warning voice to generations yet to come. I look upon war with horror.

-General William Tecumseh Sherman

I had a really good friend visiting from out of town this past weekend. We had been friends since our days serving in the military together. It seemed only fitting that we would attend Seattle’s anti-war rally this past Saturday in support of our nation’s troops.

My friend is not an obnoxious liberal like I am and didn’t seem particularly opposed to any military action against Iraq before we participated in this historic march, a march that was attended by millions of people like us around the world. I say “people like us” because about the only thing we all had in common was that we were all people. That is not entirely true. Because it was raining earlier in the day everyone at the Seattle rally was wearing a North Face parka. I have never seen so many fucking North Face parkas in one place in my life.

I was afraid that the rain would keep people from turning out, but just as things got underway the rain stopped. Native American writer and activist, Sherman Alexie, gave one of the best speeches I’ve had the good fortune to hear. His message was mostly about education and how ignorance is more dangerous that any weapons we hold in our arsenal or hope to uncover in Iraq. He told a story about how after 9/11 some hick in a pick-up truck with an American flag on the back yelled at him out his window. He said that Sherman should go back to his own country. “It wasn’t so much a hate-crime as it was a crime of irony. He drove away before I could yell back, ‘You first.’” His speech was full of humor and at other times he struggled to choke back his emotion.

Another friend, a Seattle native, joined us and, like Alexie’s speech, we alternated between humor (mostly busting on Seattle clichés in the crowd) and emotion. As I looked around I said to my friend that this was the kind of nation I had in mind to defend when I was a young kid serving in the Untied States Air Force. It would be hard not to be proud of this country and our citizenry. It would be hard not to be proud of ourselves for doing our duty as citizens and voicing our opinions through assembly and free speech.

The march went from the Seattle Center, down 5th avenue, and on to the Federal building. Traffic was at a standstill all over downtown for a good two hours. Most drivers sat on their hoods or honked their horns in support. I always worry about entertaining out of town guests but I’d have to say that a peace rally is a pretty good way to spend a Saturday afternoon and it makes you feel like you really did something.

Although Seattle’s 55,000 marchers comes no where near the hordes that poured out onto the streets of Europe in protest, I think that the people of Seattle got a pretty clear message that a lot of folks are not too happy with the policies of our president. In the words of the ancient Greeks, a man who feels that politics are not his business has no business in this society at all.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

En Memoriam

Every year in this country more than 200,000 teenagers are killed in cheerleading accidents, more than any civilized country on earth. Australia has over 250,000 cheerleading deaths a year but most of those are alcohol related so they pretty much have it coming to them. This horrible slaughter of our nation’s best and brightest goes largely unreported in the mainstream media.

OK, I made up that part about there being 200,000 cheerleading fatalities but even a single death is unacceptable. Well, that’s not entirely true. If no one dies in a cheerleading accident then you have to wonder if the kids are really trying out there, you know, pushing the edge of the envelope and all. I think that somewhere between 1 and 200,000 deaths is an acceptable amount of casualties to raise team spirit. Less than one death showing a lack of commitment and over 200,000 deaths could cause serious public health problems like a cholera epidemic. Try having team spirit in the middle of a cholera epidemic. It ain’t happening.

I can live with 200,000 dead cheerleaders a year. It’s a risk I’m willing to take for so much pep because pep is short for peppy and peppy is something you can’t put a price tag on or wrap up in a body bag. Peppy is what separates us from the animals. Not all animals because I saw a nature show on TV about otters and they were sliding down a snow bank into the water and that looked pretty peppy to me. I mean animals like cows that are never peppy and just stand around all day and eat grass and crap and that’s why we eat them. You don’t see people eating peppy little otters or cheerleaders. That would be gross. That would make me sad but eating a big rare steak makes me happy.

On a recent visit to our nation’s capital I visited the National Cheerleading Memorial on the Mall. It was a bitter cold winter day. I walked past the memorial teary-eyed and read the names of the fallen: Britney, Brittany, Britni (How many ways can you spell that, for fuck’s sake?), Tammy, Bobbi, and a lot of other names that all end in a vowel. I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and wished that someone like Tom Brokaw would write a smarmy book to recognize their obvious contribution to our modern society. The silence is practically deafening.

Comic Book Guy

I never read comic books as a kid. I used to read the occasional Archie or Ritchie Rich, the so-called humor comics through which the preadolescent jokester passes on his way to the more sophisticated Mad Magazine. I never got into the super heroes genre. I was never very impressed with the powers they held or the way in which they obtained said super powers.

As an adult I am even less impressed with super hero capabilities. Who cares about shit like flying or being really strong? That stuff won’t get you far in today’s world. Maybe I would read comics if the central characters had powers that I truly envy. Below is a list of super hero super powers for the new century.

--Impervious to all known venereal diseases and you're sterile.

--Able to drink lots of booze and get fucking wasted without ever getting a hangover.

--The ability to sense when a parking space is opening up (Super heroes never park in pay lots).

--Hypnotic powers that enable you to talk some flunky operator at VISA into deleting your entire balance EVERY MONTH!

--The ability to eat an entire bucket of Ezelle’s fried chicken at a single sitting WITH ROLLS AND MASHED POTATOS! (OK, I promise not to use exclamatory capital letters unless it is something really, really cool).

--Knowledge of every single baseball statistic no matter how “meaningless” it may appear to non fans. Examples: Number of times Pete Rose grounded into a double play with the bases loaded or number of times Jackie Robinson was left on base. I should have put this entire entry in exclamatory capital letters because that would be the most fucking rad thing ever. Can you imagine how much money you would win on bets? I mean, fuck X-ray vision, this would be huge. Most foul tips in a single at bat. Most bunts in a single game. OK, I have to stop thinking about this or it will drive me crazy. Note to self: dedicate an entire post to super-weird baseball stats. What’s really weird is that there is going to be someone, somewhere who actually keeps track of that sort of shit.

--Vast knowledge of computers but not a geek in any way. Yeah, right. Like that’s at all possible.

--The ability to find a clean public restroom in Mexico. This would be more important for female super heroes but would also come in handy for boys if you have to take a dump. I have been in bathrooms so incredibly squalid in Mexico that I actually interrupt the stream of my urine to ward off any salmon-like organisms that may try to swim upstream, so to speak. Better yet, how about this for a super power: Never having to go to the bathroom. You would lose all of your body's waste through expiration but your breath wouldn't smell bad. And while we're at it you never get B.O. Show me that comic book hero and I'll start reading.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

Tête à Tête

It had to happen sometime. No matter how diligent my vigil, no matter how carefully I try to protect myself from harm I suppose that it was inevitable that I would one day see an episode of The Osbournes. As with so many other TV disasters that I have endured, the vessel of my life struck this particular cultural iceberg while I was working out at my gym.

As the winter seems less and less like it will go on forever I have been overcome with a sort of existential dread at the thought of biking up the mountain passes of Washington. I have been attacking my exercise bike rides with a not-getting-any-younger panic because I know that the more work I do now the less time I’ll spend in the emergency room with a tube down my throat this spring.

I always bring something to read on these stationary rides which allow me to kill two birds with one hour-long block of time. Today I brought along Jean Paul Sartre’s Les Jeux sont Faits, a novel that was heavily plagiarized by the film The Sixth Sense. Arch rat bastard André was just poisoning his wife in the book when someone decided to poison everyone in the exercise room by turning on The Osbournes. Instead of being my usual crotchety self and getting annoyed I decided that this would be a good challenge for my attention: France’s leading existentialist prophet versus a British-born low-rent American cultural icon. May the best man win.

Like all “reality TV” protagonists, Ozzie’s family members are a stupid and fatuous lot. I didn’t really give the show much of a chance. His kid, an overweight adolescent Elvis Costello impersonator, was hanging out at the beach with Ben Affleck. I wasn’t paying attention as to why these two were together. They showed Ozzie doing a rock show and then stumbling into his dressing room looking as if he had just taken 40 lashes. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why anyone would see this as entertaining.

Sartre’s novel is a fairly simple tale of people righting wrongs here on earth after their untimely deaths. Part science fiction, part other-worldly romance novel Les Jeux Sont Faits is also fairly easy reading for students of French. I like to read out loud to strengthen my pronunciation skills and I was far enough away from the other patrons so as not to freak anyone out. The book is cut up into a lot of very short scenes, almost in screenplay format which made me wonder if it had ever been adapted into a film.

Saturday, February 08, 2003

The Ugly American

Although I’ll only be spending a few days in Amsterdam I have started to learn a bit of Dutch before I go to Europe next month. I’ve been to Amsterdam before and I felt like such a retard for not knowing one bit of the language. Sure, everyone and her brother speaks English in the Netherlands, they pretty much have to as it is a small country with lots of out-of-towners. I just want to speak enough to get the point across that I do realize that English is not native to them and that they have a language of their own and could I please get a large cone of French fries with lots of mayonnaise, please.

I’ll be spending the bulk of this visit in France whose language I speak and understand fairly fluently. On my last trip there I taught my two brothers a smattering of French that served them very well. A bonjour here and there will really make your stay a lot more pleasant. I don’t think that the French are quite so keen on English as the Dutch so I would say the more French you know the better off you are.

I don’t speak English to French people and I have found that even those with near native fluency in English will work with me through whatever rough spots I might have with their language. I guess that you could say that I am a student of languages and I’ve been in school most of my life. Learning a foreign language as an adult is an incredibly complex task. It takes lots of hard work and perseverance and lots of long plane rides to cool places.

I have had arguments concerning language with all sorts of people. To the Europeans who think we Americans are stupid because we only speak English and to the Americans who think that immigrants should speak English I say the same thing: Language isn’t an ideology, it is simply a means of communicating. No one is able to pick their native language and the hegemony of English worldwide doesn’t reflect on our intelligence one way or another.

I am really bugged by Europeans who speak their tongue (Dutch, for instance) and then feel proud because they also speak English. Big deal, if they only spoke Dutch they wouldn’t be able to communicate with the rest of the world. It isn’t my fault that English is now the universal language. To the Americans who complain that French people are rude (This has never been my experience) I would ask them how friendly Americans are to visitors who don’t speak one word of English. Probably not too friendly would be my guess.

To all of the anti-immigrant people who feel that foreign workers in the U.S. should all learn English I would ask them how they propose that these people go about learning our language. To these people I would suggest that they shut the fuck up and go volunteer to teach English to their dish washers and gardeners.

My new French tutor also teaches piano. It seems appropriate that my two hobbies can now be tutored by the same person. I find that the skills of musicianship and mastering a foreign language have a lot of similarities and both require a lot of work. I derive the same sort of pleasure from both pursuits. They are both about tearing down walls that hinder understanding.