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Friday, March 30, 2007

The Real World, Valencia, Spain

I don’t need to turn on the television where I live to get a glimpse into the private lives of complete strangers; I just have to look out the window. In the narrow canyon of buildings separated by a strip of asphalt barely wide enough for a Mini Cooper to squeeze through, I can practically reach out and shake hands with people living on the other side of the street. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a fish bowl, but everyone else lives in one, too, so it all works out. Before I open the shades in my room in the morning I just have to make sure that I am decent. Opening the shutters is like raising the curtain on a stage. I try diligently to mind my own business but not becoming a peeping Tom is almost a full-time vocation.

Most of the time it is pretty easy to avoid looking into the apartments facing mine; I’ve got a lot of other distractions—we are in the middle of a very heated football season here in Valencia. This becomes a little more of a problem when I am at my kitchen sink because it looks directly towards the neighbors across the street, and what the hell else am I supposed to do when I’m washing the dishes? I can’t think of a stronger term than "captive audience" but that’s what I feel like. Unfortunately, what I see is as boring as the view the neighbors get of Borat here washing his dishes.

I should keep this a secret but the following is a brief inventory of what goes on across the street. A couple of floors below me on the other side I see an old guy with his back to me reading a newspaper. I doesn’t matter when I look over, he’ll be there reading the paper. I can’t make out the date on the paper he is reading but I have a sneaking suspicion that it is April 23, 1979. I have considered calling emergency services to kick in the door and make sure that he isn’t decomposing. I’m sure the neighbors probably say the same thing about me sitting here at my desk on my computer so I make an effort to wave an arm every so often to prove that I’m alive. Give me a sign, old man!

One thing that I have noticed from peeking into other people’s lives is that Spanish people seem to eat a lot, although if anyone is looking into my apartment they must think that I never stop eating. I’ll spend the entire night making one dish at a time, eating it, and then moving on to the next course. Sometimes I'll use up to four pans for a single menu item. I sometimes don’t call it quits until one in the morning. I usually sample so much of a dish as I’m cooking that when I finish I immediately throw it in the refrigerator for leftovers. This was the case last night with the mashed yucca that I made. Besides being the world’s densest starch, I made this dish even heavier by adding about three heart attacks of butter. Remember that in the metric system one heart attack equals ten blocked arteries. Wasn’t that easy?

Seeing so many strangers going about their daily tasks I could say something about people living lives of quiet desperation but “quiet” and “Spain” go together like “President Bush” and “statesman.” When my neighbors aren’t making noise themselves they have probably exiled the dog to the balcony where little barfo will try to imitate the howls of a trapped coyote. No, the Spanish lead lives that are anything but quiet and desperate. I can practically hear their hand gestures as they talk to each other across the street.

It isn’t summer yet so people don’t spend much time on their balconies except to hang clothes out to dry or to smoke a cigarette. Most of my neighbors have balconies that are too small to do much else besides that. Mine, on the other hand, is big enough to live on when the weather changes for the better. I can hang laundry, smoke cigars, drink, eat, host an orgy, broker a huge drug deal, perform a human sacrifice, and play badminton on my balcony, but I don’t play badminton anymore so I’ll keep to the other vices.

On the fourth floor directly across from me live two beautiful young women. I think that they are twins, actually, and they must be models or something because they are always trying on stuff from Victoria’s Secret or whatever they call it here in Spain. From the looks of things, they don’t seem to get along very well together because they are always wrestling around on the bed. I realize that Spain is very liberal and way ahead of the U.S. on social matters, but what these two do to each other can’t possibly be legal between blood relatives.

OK, this last thing isn’t true, it’s reason #435 of why I am an atheist. I’m sure that someone, somewhere in this world lives across the street from twin, incestuous lingerie models who are incredibly immodest, but it isn’t me. I give you this question, Mister Fundamentalist Christian: If you were me would this seem like a world that is “intelligently designed?” Hardly.

Those twins really wore me out. I’ll just have a cigarette, or do whatever it is that people who don't smoke do after sex, and nod off for a few minutes. Sorry neighbors, the show’s over. I’m closing the shutters.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Stream of Barely Conscious

What the fuck do I care? I have no responsibilities here in Spain other than my harsh self-imposed dictum of learning the language in an unrealistically short period of time. Other than that, and trying to become a writer other people would care to read, I have nothing much to do. So who cares if I stay up until all hours of the night talking politics and listening to music? I have to excuse my Spanish roommate who actually has a job. Not me. No job and not much to do tomorrow seeing that the forecast calls for rain which means another day that I can’t ride my bike.

I’m on the longest vacation of my life, what the hell do I care if I stay up until all hours of the morning writing letters and listening to my 80 gigs of music on random play? In Spain I thought that you’re supposed to stay up all night and sleep late? Did I hear wrong? I’m only slightly distracted by the Mozart string concerto movement that is coming through the headphones. It’s moderato and I only mention that because I knew that it wasn’t allegro so I checked. Just for the sake of curiosity (I know that you are dying to know, too) I’ll wait to see what comes up next on shuffle…Mozart usually wrote short, snappy little pieces but this one goes seven minutes and 55 seconds…are you still waiting? I guess that I could just hit the “next’ button, but it’s Yehudi Menuhin. Interrupting a master like him would be rude.

See, that didn’t take very long. Got to get you into my life by The Beatles, not bad as far as segues go. Not one of my favorite songs by those guys but they didn’t write too many bad songs. From there we move on to yet another Beatles tune, Revolution 9 which, if you haven’t listened to it in a while, is not much of a song at all. It’s more just a bunch of sound bites. I guess that during their White Album years they could do no wrong. Only they could have got away with recording a bunch of noise and passing it off as avant-guard brilliance. I wish that I could do that but I’m forced to adhere to fairly strict guidelines as a writer. I need to make a little bit of sense, even though it is three in the morning and I’ve had a bit of brandy.

I didn’t begin this night boozing and listening to music on random play. Spain beat Iceland 1-0 in their group for the upcoming European Cup 2008. They needed to score more goals but now we’re on to another song. Gilberto Gil A Paz (pronounced a-pies) is a lovely acoustic version that I picked up somewhere. I really liked my Brazilian phase that I went through.

If you don’t have Squeeze Singles 45 and under in your collection you have a serious gap. If I didn’t love you is one of their hits that everyone that I once knew, and everyone I didn’t know, knew by heart. It freaks me out to hear that there are people who have never heard of this group.

Even a charlatan like me can tell an early Beethoven piano sonata from a late sonata. This one, Sonata 13 in E flat major, is so pure and beautiful that it practically shatters my headphones. Even this seemingly simple piece is interrupted by moments of tremendous ambition—the voice of Beethoven to come. I love it when his melody comes back into play after minutes of being seemingly lost in improvisation. It’s hard to believe that this piece evolves from such a simple theme.

Juan Luis Guerra is a maestro of popular dance music from the Dominican Republic. I only recently happened upon his latest release, La Llave de Mi Corazon so this is the first time I’ve heard this song, Te Contaron. It’s almost obscenely festive listening to it alone at 3:30 a.m. I should be leading someone in some slick moves on a dance floor.

A really cool girl that I used to know turned me on to Spoon as well as a lot of other great music. This is the first time that I have listened to this group since I knew her. Thanks, cool girl.

De Que Me Sirve by Julieta Venegas is another song that I’ve never listened to before, but her stuff is all over the airwaves over here in Spain. I poached her concert in the park during Las Fallas. I stood on an adjacent bridge from where she was playing in the central park. She put on a pretty good show from what I heard.

This is followed by some J.S. Bach cantata in German from his Notebook for Ana Magdalena. This was a study book that he wrote for his second wife. As a beginning pianist I learned quite a few pieces from this notebook.

I can’t say that I can understand much Greek these days, nor much from this song from Nikos Kourkoulis. Something,..something…me…your passion. I need to brush up on it as I am thinking of a visit there this summer.

Ironically, Nikos Kourkoulis is a lot like the next artist to come up on the queue, Hank Williams. Baby, We’re really in love probably has the same message as the Greek love song it followed although my Hick is as rusty as my Greek.

It’s really late.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Spanish

Nothing to do with Spain, I know.
I know that there is plenty of great Spanish literature to explore, and I have already discovered some fine contemporary Spanish novels, but I can’t seem to avoid American culture in translation. Last night I suffered through a dubbed movie about Joan of Arc originally titled, The Messenger, I believe. I watch this tripe simply to improve my oral comprehension. I have watched worse stuff on TV here in the name of learning. I serendipitously happened upon Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses translated into Spanish as I was browsing the stacks in the library the other day.

This is one of my favorite novels and I’ve probably read it in English at least three times. The English version has so much un-translated Spanish in it that I think that it would be fairly annoying to read if you didn’t know quite a bit of that language; I also though that it would be interesting to read a Spanish translation. Almost the entire novel is set in Mexico and McCarthy probably would have preferred to write it in Spanish. I spent nearly five hours at a table in the library yesterday finishing the last 120 pages or so of Todos los Hermosos Caballos. It is a book I would highly recommend in any language.

I read a lot slower in Spanish than English but I’m improving every day. My vocabulary is growing. I wish that it would grow faster but no matter how hard I try to cram words into my head, my brain seems to have its own system for retaining the new language. Some words that I come across I seem to absorb immediately, nouns mostly, while adjectives and odd verbs take a lot more effort. I’ve learned two different words to scare away your horse (espantar, ahuyentar) and two words to break a horse (domar, amansar). You never know when those might come in handy. I’ve already forgotten but I may have come across the word for “pigsty” while reading the McCarthy novel. I remember writing it down in my notebook. I almost screamed out loud when the Spanish word, “pocilga,” came up in the Messenger last night and I actually remembered it. It’s the little victories that you must savor because the war of learning another language is long and filled with frustrations.

All of the movies dubbed into Spanish here use a Spanish accent as opposed to Latin American Spanish. I have been working very hard to beat the old accent out of my head and replace it with Castilian Spanish. Instead of pronouncing the sounds for S, Z, and C as an S sound as they do in Latin America, I am switching to the lisping pronunciation for the Z and C (plus vowel) as they do here. It is much less ambiguous and, to my ear, more refined. I also live here now so I see no reason to cling to the way I originally learned Spanish. Latin American who live here stick to their pronunciation, much like I would cling to American English if I lived in Britain, but since I am still learning I may as well as do as the Romans do.

One reason why I like to read contemporary Spanish literature is that it gives me a feel for the way people here speak. I have also noticed that the few books that I have read in translation are geared towards European Spanish. Although McCarthy’s book is set in Mexico, the vernacular is from Spain, or it is explained to Spanish readers, or put in italics if it is a Mexican word.

I read at least one newspaper every day and I can get through most of the articles without a dictionary. If I do have to look up a word it is usually a flowery synonym of a word I do know that is being used in the headline simply to draw attention to the piece. I almost never even bother with a dictionary when I am reading the paper, I’ll just jot down an unfamiliar word and look it up later.

Overall, I would say that I am fairly unhappy with my Spanish. I need more days like yesterday where I spend hours and hours reading, and then more hours listening, followed by a few hours of conversation. Maybe after another year or so filled with days saturated with Spanish I will feel like I am getting somewhere with this language.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Is Personal dignity Overrated?

Pure Profit or Pedaling to the Poorhouse? 
 I have been known to go to fairly extreme lengths in order to save a buck or two. Today I’d estimate that I went about two miles or so to save 1€, at least I will save that much when I make the return trip. Thus far I have only saved .50€. I haven’t really saved anything if you want to get technical; it’s more like I have made a 50 cent inroad into recovering money that I have already spent. I need to make 79 more round trips (plus my return trip today) to the library in order to break even on my investment.

I’m talking about the new clown/folding bike that I bought a couple of weeks ago. I picked it up because I don’t like leaving my nice cycle-cross bike locked up around town for any length of time, like the hours I spend in the library almost every weekday. It costs me about 1€ on the metro for a round trip to the library so 80 trips will pay for the clown bike. After that it’s just pure profit—assuming that I live through 79.5 more of these urban safaris on the world’s most awkward two-wheeler. I've never ridden an ostrich with one leg longer than the other, but after this bike I think that I know what that must be like.

Today I was so exhausted from the effort necessary to keep this unruly little machine in a straight line that I had to stop midway for a coffee break at a nice little café near the Torres de Serrano. The coffee cost 1€ so I think that means that I am down .50€ so far, but I’ll break even again on the way home. I already feel like I am a slave to this pipsqueak of a bike. Maybe someone will do me a favor and steal it although this would mean that I'd have to walk back and forth to the library for however many days are still needed to pay the balance.

I also figured that I could ride this downtown at night when I go out because the metro doesn’t go into the old section of the city. After test riding it I imagine that after a few drinks it would be safer for me to drive a school bus full of screaming kids than try to keep the rubber on the pavement on this little terror. I never realized that saving money could be this perilous.

No one else seems to notice me because folding bikes are very common here, but I still feel like a dork riding this thing. My self-esteem would probably improve if I were to get rid of this joke in order to ride a Big Wheel to the library in the morning. Can you put a price tag on personal dignity, and if so, do you think that I could have held out for more than the 80€ this bike put me back? Maybe I’ll just go with it and buy a red nose and an orange wig. I can make balloon animals as I try to keep from getting run over by buses and mopeds. Available for birthdays and Bar Mitzvahs.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Beginner's Guide to Las Fallas 2007

A Beginner's Guide to Las Fallas 2007


Before you attend Les Falles de València (that isn’t a typo, it’s in Valenciano this time instead of Spanish) you need to ask yourself a few questions. Are you agoraphobic? Afraid of crowds? Bothered by loud explosions? Reluctant to stay out until dawn wandering the streets from one huge block party (called Verbenas) to the next? These are all legitimate excuses for avoiding Valencia during Las Fallas (pronounced fa-yas), the city’s most important festival of the year and the biggest celebration I have ever witnessed first-hand.

I have never been one to make lists about places you should see or things to do; as if life can be reduced to a check-list and when you cross off that last item you can throw yourself on a sword or something. I have never really been a big fan of events of almost any sort, preferring to avoid the crowds and the exaggerated claims of the organizers and friends who insist that I simply must see this or that. I didn’t have much choice in this matter seeing how—in a fairly literal manner—I lived right in the middle of Las Fallas. I can safely say that Las Fallas is something that you simply have to see to believe, although I will stop short of saying that you must see it. However, if you have a friend who is still living in Valencia next year and you don’t get over here for Las Fallas you are a truly world-class fool.

Las Fallas is a huge event taking weeks and weeks to set up, and the official program marks the beginning with a very inauspicious crowning ceremony for the hostess of the festival, but for me it began on March 3, 2007 with the beginning of the daily, 2 p.m. percussion firework displays in the Plaza de Ayuntamiento called Mascletà in the local dialect. Each and every day until the finale on Monday march 19th, the Plaza fills up with people like a bottle to overflowing. People who live on the square can charge visitors up to 150€ per person to watch the event from their balconies. On some days the there are so many people that all of the arterial streets are also full. Promptly at 2 o’clock the huge crowd is treated to about ten minutes of loud explosions finishing with a tremendous flourish. The audience applauds like at a rock concert and everyone dashes to find a table in a downtown restaurant for lunch.

Las Fallas
The festival revolves around the construction of large, cartoon-like satirical structures called fallas. The themes of the fallas are supposed to be critical in nature and often address issues like government corruption, waiting lists for hospital stays, local politicians, and a favorite this year, the money being spent to host the America’s Cup sailboat race. Each neighborhood builds its own falla which vary in size from modest little ones the size of a mini-van, to enormous structures ten stories high. The fallas are the center of each neighborhood’s celebration and the parties surrounding them also vary in size and intensity. The size of the falla does not dictate the size of the block party hosted by the neighborhood. My block had a modest falla depicting the female mayor of Valencia but the four nights of block parties were completely outrageous, but this street has a reputation for heavy nightlife.

The fallas really need to be seen as photographs do them no justice. It is impossible to get a sense of the scale of some of these creations from pictures because they are jammed into narrow streets or tiny plazas. Although they are all different, they all adhere to pastel colors and use the same materials; they are variations on a theme. On Wednesday evening in this last week of Las Fallas all of the structures must be finished and ready for judging. From this point on, hordes of people wander the streets admiring the works and taking pictures. I suggest you do this on a bicycle in order to cover more ground.

Things really start to heat up on Thursday. There is a fireworks display set off from the center of the Turia Gardens, which is the main park which runs from one end of the city to the other. After the final flourish, the huge crowds (on one evening there was an estimates 800,000 onlookers) descend upon their respective street parties which last (at least officially) until 4 a.m. On the first night of the parties I divided my time between the live band at the Aragón block party and the DJ on my street called Polo y Peyrolón. We very unwisely finished by closing down a local hangout along with the employees who were more intoxicated than anyone they were serving.

Hangover
Getting in past four in the morning shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll just shut the blinds in my bedroom making it pitch black and get seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. Another tradition in Las Fallas is that no one is supposed to sleep…ever! At 7 a.m. Friday they do something called the despertà, or wake-up call in English, or assholes with fireworks is also an acceptable translation. People walk through the streets lighting off incredibly loud firecrackers. In fact, firecrackers are one of the overriding themes of the festival and you will be assaulted, day and night, by explosions both small and deafening during the entire festival.

Because of the noise, sleeping is all but impossible so you may as well just get up and go outside and enjoy the fine weather. The city looks as if it was destroyed the night before. The little courtyard park outside my door was the setting for a party for hundreds of people the night before and is now filled with empty bottles, plastic cups, and every other item needed for an all-night bash. There is a wall around the Aragon Metro station that is about chest high, just the right height for a bar. The morning after the first party the wall was completely covered with the detritus from thousands of people who came to see a rock group called Pato Daniel perform at the Aragon block party. The city looks as hung-over as you feel. You go out and get a cup of coffee or two while the cleaning crew army arrives to scour the neighborhood from top to bottom. By the time you are ready to start all over again so is Valencia.

Everywhere at Once
Because Las Fallas is broken down very democratically into dozens and dozens of local celebrations, it is impossible to see everything that is worth seeing. Everywhere you go there are parades and processions, music and dancing, food and beverages, and crowds. I was standing in line at the Mercado de Algirós, minding my own business when a procession of men and women in traditional garb marched by accompanied by a brass band. Something you don’t see every day—except during Las Fallas.

You can make it to most of the main events if you hurry. The daily fireworks in the main plaza is something you should witness at least once, if for nothing else than to see the spectacular crowds that show up for the ten minute bombardment. The nightly fireworks in the Turia Garden are a great way to start off the evening block parties. You should probably make it to the flower procession in the Plaza de la Virgen in which women in traditional Valencian dress bring in wreaths of flowers that are used to create a five story depiction of the Madonna and child.

Don’t you people have homes?
Valencia’s population more than doubles in size during Las Fallas with the majority of the tourists coming from Japan, followed closely by Britain and Italy. The hotels are booked far in advance but from all of the people on the streets at all hours of the day you wonder if anyone actually spends any time in their hotel room. The headline in one of the local newspapers asked, “¿Nadie tiene casa?” This loosely translates as, “Don’t you people have homes?” For the last four days of the festival all automobile traffic is banned in the center historic district of town. Even without cars I had to walk my bicycle through the huge crowds flowing through the streets like a swift current.

The trains that service the surrounding areas of Valencia, called cercanías, are full to the point of bursting, causing breakdowns and delays. The same is true for the subway and bus systems. I had to take the metro at 6 a.m. one morning and I’ve never been on a train with more people before, and never with so many people drunk or hung-over—but they all seemed happy.

Eat, drink, and then drink some more.
The traditional thing to do in Valencia, and especially during Fallas, is to drink a glass of horchata, a smooth milkshake made from tiger nuts (I’ve never heard of them either). There are horchata stands everywhere and usually right next to a stand selling buñuelos and churros which are fried pastries covered with sugar. These stands all pop up like mushrooms during the festival and then promptly disappear, probably off to find another celebration in another city.

Almost all of the block parties have their own concession stands which sell food and drink but at rather inflated prices. In spite of the high prices there never seem to be enough places selling drinks, especially the hour or so before the nightly fireworks. Everyone gets a cocktail and heads towards the park. One popular drink that I noticed was a big seller all over town was the cubalitro which is a play on words for Cuba libre which is a rum and coke but in the super-size liter variety.

Most of the younger kids just bring their own booze and mixers to the block parties. They set up little mini bars close to the action and avoid the high prices and waiting lines. For all of the alcohol that is consumed you don’t seem to notice many intoxicated people, at least not obnoxiously drunk, but I didn’t look in any mirrors when I was out.

Now that’s what I call an exit!

All good things come to an end, but some good things come to a better end than others. The last official act of Las Fallas is the burning of all of these beautiful creations that have been the object of admiration these past five days or so. It seems almost tragic to commit these masterpieces to the torch. There was a picture in the paper of a group of young girls in their Fallas costumes all crying as their beloved falla went up in a tower of fire. It also seems like an incredibly fitting way to close this wild celebration. What a better way to mark the end of the festival than to reduce the objects of the celebration to ashes?

I was able to watch the demise of my neighborhood’s falla from the comfort of my apartment. It wasn’t until almost 1 a.m. on the final evening when it began with an impressive fireworks display made even more impressive by the fact that my street is a claustrophobic narrow canyon. The falla is doused with lighter fluid and a string of fireworks is then lit which acts as a fuse. Soon the depiction of the mayor of Valencia was engulfed in flames and a huge billow of smoke made the clear night completely black. I was thankful that I was watching from a closed window in my back bedroom.

The next morning the city is eerily quite except for the army of clean-up workers attempting to restore the city to some degree of normalcy. As much fun as it was I think that everyone is glad it is all over and life can return to everyday life. I think that the intensity of the celebration is programmed so that when the ashes of last falla have been extinguished everyone is ready for it to be over; one more block party or one more fireworks display would be too much. I may miss the festive nature of a procession marching through the market when I am shopping, but I can definitely wait another year for five days of staying out all night and sleeping very little.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

You’ll have to speak up, I live in Valencia


Not for sale to children under 12!

You’ll have to speak up, I live in Valencia

The locals go way overboard when it comes to firecrackers during the Fallas festival. There are explosions, big and small, all day and all night. They recently changed the law, under European Union pressure, to limit the sale of firecrackers to kids over 12 years old—not that anyone cares what the law says. You see kids of all ages setting off firecrackers and other explosive devices on every street corner. It’s probably a little like living in Baghdad. I’m thinking about buying an AK47 to shoot off in what I call a Gaza salute. I think that you have to be at least 15 to shoot off an AK47.

Perhaps I will hold out for a rocket propelled grenade launcher as I don’t want to be out-done by any of the little brats, some of whom are packing some pretty serious explosives. My motto has always been, “Fight fire with fire...and then some.” Although I can find no moral reasons against it, there are probably some legal restrictions against actually shooting the little terrorists who set off fireworks all day long in the courtyard under my balcony starting at about 9 a.m. after I’ve been out practically all night. It’s not like I’d be shooting to kill; I just want to shoot the firecrackers out of their little, elfin hands.

It just seems like a recipe for disaster to allow young kids to shoot off explosives with no adult supervision. I wasn’t even allowed to light a match as a kid, let alone play with something perfectly capable of blowing something else up. It just isn’t fair. I suppose that I should be grateful because I was crazy enough as a child that if I had the license to kill like these little punks, I’m sure that I’d be short a few fingers or a major appendage or two. Perhaps this loss of little fingers explains why the Spanish type slower and buy fewer rings than all other Europeans. It’s true.

I half expect to see infants in strollers throwing firecrackers; they do start young here. I have become so gun-shy of little kids that I will cross the street to avoid walking by a group of half-pint hoodlums. It’s not like I’m afraid of a single kid but there are thousands of them out in the streets during Fallas. I wisely keep my mouth shut but I just want to scream out, Yo, Bin Laden junior, go get a pbj or something and give the illegal immigrants a break." Don’t they have video games in Spain? Firecrackers have even usurped soccer for the attention of the rugrats. I have seen kids throwing firecrackers while kicking a ball around but I haven’t seen anyone playing soccer without an explosive accompaniment since Fallas began.

I guess the lack of sleep and the constant bombardment have made me a little grumpy. I tried wearing earplugs which didn’t help. I started listening to loud rock music through my headphones. Self-induced deafness is one way to combat the noise but I will probably just tough this out and deal with being shell-shocked.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Las Fallas

We are in the middle of the Valencia Fallas festival which is perhaps the biggest party in all of Europe. The short version of the history of Fallas is that it goes back to medieval times and was perhaps a celebration of the spring equinox and later became joined with the festival of Saint Joseph. Each neighborhood in Valencia holds its own block party and constructs a satirical caricature called a Falla which are all burned on the last night in what is called the cremà.

My street has a Falla of the female mayor of Valencia. I don’t read Valenciano so I don’t really understand any of the Fallas as everything is written in the local dialect. Some of the Fallas are rather modest while others are up to ten stories high and occupy entire city blocks. How they are able to burn these massive structures without torching the adjacent buildings should be interesting to watch this Monday evening when they will all go up in flames.

You see lots of people walking around in colorful traditional garb. I was in the market yesterday buying a chicken when a procession of people in Valencian dress paraded through the stalls accompanied by a brass band. Something you don’t see every day. Almost everyone else at least wears a scarf around their necks to honor the celebration.

This is, without a doubt, the loudest week of my life. Every afternoon in the central plaza there is an event called the Mascletà which is a daytime fireworks display of loud explosions. On the last four nights of Fallas there is a huge night fireworks display in the Turia Gardens Park. These begin at midnight or 1 a.m. After the fireworks there are huge block parties in every neighborhood complete with loud live music or DJs. These go on until four in the morning or later. I had to go to the airport this morning at six o’clock and I had a hell of a time getting a cab as the streets were still full of people all looking to get home. I took the subway home and it was full of very tired-looking kids who had been at it all night long.

The party in my neighborhood is right beneath my window so trying to go to sleep any earlier than 4 a.m. is futile for this light sleeper. I figure I only have three more nights of this and then I can get some sleep. Sleeping during the day is not any easier because there are little kids everywhere setting off firecrackers. These little terrorists pretty much control the streets during daylight hours. I will walk around the block rather than take a shortcut through and alley if there are little kids in my path. My ears can only take so much punishment.

I have been riding my bike all over the city checking out all of the crazy Fallas each neighborhood offers. I have tried but they are difficult to photograph because some of them are very big and crammed claustrophobically into narrow little streets. They are so beautiful that it seems like such a shame to burn them. There are also smaller, children’s Fallas called infantiles which have children’s themes but are equally mysterious to the outsider.

Because this is Valencia, a lot of the festival seems to revolve around food and drink. There are stands set up all over town that sell churros and buñuelos which are like donuts. I have also noticed a lot of walk-up booths that sell beer and wine. All of the block parties have concessions for food and booze. Most of the kids just bring their own bottles booze and mixer.

In addition to all of this craziness, Valencia has a home football game this evening. I will head over to watch the game at my favorite sports bar after which I will try to take a nap before the 1 a.m. fireworks and ensuing street parties. As I said, it’s futile to go to sleep before 3 a.m. with so much going on.

Valencia is a city of 800,000 and I have heard that there are as many 2 million visitors during this festival. I have no reason to doubt this as there are hordes of people everywhere you go. I would estimate that at least 80,000 people show up every day for the ear assault in the main square and afterwards every table in every downtown restaurant will be filled. The block parties are all slightly controlled riots. The buses and metro are packed from morning until night. The entire city gets practically destroyed every day, is cleaned and scrubbed in the morning, and the whole process begins all over again. There was a brief period at around 7 a.m. today when I was walking around and it seemed almost peaceful. It didn’t last very long.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

My First Corrida de Toros


My knowledge of bullfighting probably started with Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises which I read when I was about 17 or 18. That was a long time ago and since then I have read countless other descriptions of La Corrida de Toros, literally “the running of the bulls” in Spanish. Most recently I reread travel writer Paul Theroux’s juvenile criticism of the spectacle in his book The Pillars of Hercules in which he cheered for the bull to gore the torero.

I was downtown on my bike last week checking on how to get a bus to the airport when I rode past the ticket windows in front of the Plaza de Toros next to Valencia’s train station. In conjunction with the Fallas celebration going on here the bull fighting season opens earlier here than other parts of Spain. After all these years of reading about it and avoiding the spectacle, I decided that it was time to see for myself what goes on inside the ring.

The girl at the ticket counter seemed to know less about bullfighting than this dumb foreigner so I just picked midlevel seats in the sun. Seats in the sun are cheaper than in the shade but in early March a little sunshine is always welcome. The Plaza de Toros in Valencia is a beautiful neoclassical brick structure that was inaugurated in 1851. Walking around the upper outside gallery really gives you an idea of the history of this structure.

It had been raining all day after more than a solid week of sunshine so I was prepared to sit in the rain for my first Corrida. The rain finally stopped about two hours before it was to start. I had a glass of wine in a bar across the street. It looked like something out of a Hemingway short story and may very well be. There were black and white photographs of matadors on the wall and old carteles, or posters, of bullfights held long ago. When I came outside again there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Bullfights are very popular with tourists in Spain but as I entered the Plaza it seemed like it was almost all locals on this particular afternoon.

For 1€ you can rent a pad to give you a bit of comfort as the seats as just a slab of concrete. The rows are very narrow and we were lucky enough that there was no one sitting in front of us. We were instructed that tradition dictates that you bring your own sandwiches to eat during the breaks. I was also told that a lot of the men smoke puros, or Cuban cigars. Any excuse to smoke a great cigar is fine with me. I have to say, if there is a better place to smoke a cigar than a bullfight in Spain on a sunny day, I haven’t found it yet.

I went to my tobacco shop and picked up a couple of smaller cigars called panatelas. I like these because there aren’t so toxic as the bigger ones that I used to smoke. They generally last about 20 minutes to a half an hour and they don’t leave your mouth feeling as if someone took a dump in it while you weren’t looking. When I walked into the stadium I immediately began to suffer from cigar envy. A bunch of guys sitting next to me were all smoking Cohiba’s that looked almost long enough to double as walking sticks. If I go to another Corrida I will bring a bigger cigar.

I wasn’t sure what I would think about bullfighting. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be violently opposed to it as the ninny Paul Theroux who saw it as incredibly cruel and barbaric. I am smart enough to understand that not every culture on earth is exactly like the one in which I was brought up. Theroux’s criticism of the Corrida just seemed to be coming from someone who knows nothing of Spanish culture and has no desire to do anything to alleviate that ignorance. This is an odd attitude for someone who writes about travel.

I didn’t find it to be cruel or excessively bloody. Only some sort of hardcore PETA vegan animal rights kook could find the Corrida to be cruel. People of that ilk have always seemed like incredible bores to me. They also seem incredibly misguided and inconsistent. I definitely would never go to a bullfight with a PETA-vegan-douche bag—they almost always complain about people smoking. I doubt that I wouldn’t go anywhere with Paul Theroux, either. He never seems to enjoy himself.

Although this was my first Corrida, I have read enough about it that I knew what was going on, step-by-step. I knew what sort of thing represented a good Corrida. I knew that each Corrida is divided into three parts, or tercios: The picadors on horseback, the banderilleros who put the banderillas into the bull’s neck, and the matador who perform a series of maneuvers with his cape and then kills the bull with his sword.

Even I could see that the fourth Corrida on this day was rather exceptional. The bull was strong and fierce and everyone did their job well. When it came to the kill the matador plunge his sword deep and the bull dropped immediately. People waved white handkerchiefs and seat cushions to signal for a trophy for the matador. He was awarded an ear for his efforts, the only prize awarded at this Corrida.

As I mentioned, I have been reading about the bullfights since I was in high school yet this was the first time that I actually went to one. I would certainly go again if for no other reason than to smoke a great cigar. I had heard so much about bullfights being overrun by tourists but on this day it was a quintessentially Spanish ritual (except the cigar from Cuba).

I picked up the newspaper account of what had transpired at my first bullfight. As with anything else, this world has its own vocabulary, most of which I already knew. I will leave you with a few vocabulary words that you may find useful if you ever decide to go.

Bullfighting terms

• Corrida.........A Bullfighting show
• Tauromaquia.....Bullfighting
• Plaza de Toros..Bullring
• Lidiar..........To fight
• Puerta grande...The main door to the arena
• Gradas Highest..Seats at the back of the ring (cheapest seats)
• Barreras........Front seats
• Sol/Sombra......Sun/Shade - the choice as to where you sit
• Muleta..........A small red cloth stretched over a stick (Palo)
• Capote..........The red cape
• Paseillo........The parade of fighters at the beginning
• Corrida.........A Bullfighting show
• Estoque.........Sword
• Espada..........The matador's sword also called the ESTOQUE
• Matador/Diestro.The top bullfighter, the one who kills the bull
• Novilladas......Beginners fights held separately
• Rejoneador......Horse-mounted fighter
• Toril...........Enclosure for the bulls
• Picador.........Fighter to weaken the bull
• Banderillas.....Barbed darts on colored shafts placed into the bull's shoulders
• Puntilla........A dagger that is stabbed into the base of the bull's skull
• Puerta grande...The main door to the arena

Monday, March 12, 2007

Valencià

Valencià

I watched a sketch comedy show on television last night that was in Valenciano, or Valencià as it is called in the language. Although I have yet to formally study it (I have my hands full with Spanish) it seems pretty obvious that it is a dialect and not a completely separate language. I was able to follow most of the skits which were pretty straightforward comedy. This was really the first time that I actually made an effort to watch something in the local dialect.

There are almost as many TV channels here in Valencià, and its linguistic cousin Catalan, as there are in Spanish so it may be easier to pick up at least a bit of these dialects than I thought. I once again stress that I don’t think that the word “easy” is in any way appropriate when describing language learning. I just meant it in a relative sense like if I were to say that hopping on one foot from one side of Spain to the other is “easier” than crawling that same distance.

I still haven’t picked up a grammar book, the first step in really learning a language. Without a grammar trying to learn Valencià is like trying to find some place without a map. I have mentioned before that I rarely hear people speaking to each other in Valencià in the street or in stores. I have a feeling that the dialect is more persistent in Barcelona than here. I notice that in the countryside here people also speak the dialect more often. When I pass someone on my bike out in the country I greet them with “Bon dia.” I know a lot more but I never use it.

After the comedy sketches the station segued into Spanish. I thought it was a commercial because usually I’m used to a advertising break in between programs. It showed a bunch of yuppie women at a wedding shower giving out risqué gifts and then a police showed up who turned out to be a stripper. I still thought it was a commercial but it turned out to be some god awful courtroom murder mystery show dubbed into Spanish. It looked like a fairly recent show and probably one that never saw the light of television day in America.

They get a lot of that over here, American TV rejects. I suffered through this one just for the practice. It was entertaining for me because I am now able to mock this low-brow crap in Spanish and I was able to get a laugh out of some Spanish people watching with me. Telling a joke in Spanish for me is the most satisfying aspect of learning the language. I would love to write some sketch comedy for the show in Valencià. I have already outlined about 30 humor skits revolving around Spanish life as I have observed it so far and a lot of them don’t even involve dialogue.

It is too bad that Spanish television must rely so heavily on American imports as the locally produced comedy show in Valencià was quite good. Television is an insatiable beast that never sleeps and must be continuously fed. Television is a way of promoting a language and the huge quantity of programming produced in America has insured English hegemony around the world. I read recently that the Catalan government is going to spend money to finance pornography in Catalan to promote their language. I guess that every little squeal and moan helps when you are battling to keep your language alive.

It is difficult for an outsider like me to judge the health of the local language but I would assume that Valencià is struggling to stay alive. Not only must it compete with English, Spanish is also a fierce rival. As my Spanish improves my Valencià does also and I will be in a better position to observe and understand it.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Dork Bike

Dork Bike


I have been looking for a used bike to supplement my cycle-cross bike. I wanted something for getting around town, something that wouldn’t kill me if it became a theft statistic. I have heard thousands of warnings about how bad bike theft is here. I doubt that it is worse than any other place I have lived. I got a bike stolen in Florida when I lived there. I had one stolen in Seattle (although I got that one back and I didn’t even have to kick the dude’s ass). I still don’t want to leave my cycle-cross bike anywhere locked up. Today I picked up a used folding bike.

I live on the fifth floor with a tiny elevator so I figured a folding bike would be a good choice for a second bike. I paid little enough for it so if it gets stolen I won't slit my wrists. It is a little unmanageable to ride because it has both front and rear suspension which makes it really bouncy and unresponsive. The brakes are kind of shitty so I’ll have to work on those.

I feel like I am riding a clown bike or something. Everyone rides folding bikes here so I’m not too worried about the Simpsons “Ha hA” factor when I pass by the neighborhood bully. I’ll say this for it: It sure beats the hell out of walking. If nothing else, it will be nice to have two bikes when people come to visit. I couldn’t take another week of walking everywhere like when I first got here.

I rode down to the Albufera nature park this morning and got my ass kicked by a group of four hotshots on racing bikes. I don’t have any plans to by a racing bike but I don’t know how much more of this humiliation I can take. To be honest, these guys today looked like they could have destroyed me if I was riding a motorcycle so a lighter, faster bike wouldn’t have done me much good. Overall, I am very happy with my decision to go with a cycle-cross bike and there have been many instances when it was just the right bike for the job. Try going down a gravel road on a racing bike, or try riding on the highway with a mountain bike. Sometimes you have to compromise.

So I am already the owner of two bikes after less than four months here in Spain. That’s about par for the course for me. I had three bikes in Seattle but I can’t talk about them or I will cry. I hope all of you who have them now are making good use of those sweet rides.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Addicted to Beer?

Are you in an awkward position of having a friend with a serious problem and you don’t know whether or not to confront this person? I have a very close friend who I believe is addicted to beer. It’s not like he can drink a beer and then go for several weeks or months without beer. He will drink a beer and sometimes he will drink another beer the very next day. He will buy six, twelve, and sometimes even 24 beers at a time. Think about that for a minute. 24 beers at a time? That’s just crazy. It appears painfully obvious to me that my friend is addicted and we may soon find him face-down in his own filth if he doesn’t seek counseling.

I know a lot of you out there think that being addicted to beer is “no big deal,” or that drinking beer every day is “cool.” You probably think that beer is not the least bit dangerous but I am here to tell you that there are serious health risks associated with beer. Did you know that beer is the main cause of death in people who try to ride a wheelie down a steep flight of steps on their motorcycles? Beer was also involved last year in the deaths of over 38 men who were struck down in the prime of life when they thought that the swimming pool at their hotel was deep enough for them to jump from their fourth floor balconies. Actually the pools were deep enough, just not on that end.

Studies have shown there is a direct correlation between beer and someone getting the living shit kicked out of them in a bar after they scream out, “I can kick all a yer asses, buncha wussies.” Perhaps you have seen this happen to a friend of yours. Perhaps this has happened to you. Beer doesn’t seem so harmless now, does it?

I could go on and on about the dangers inherent in drinking beer. I won’t point any fingers at the people who need help but we all know who we are. Some of you may even be drinking a beer as you read this. Don’t try to hide it between your legs and “shot gunning” the rest of your 20 oz. Miller Genuine Draft just seems like a desperate cry for help.

It’s sad, more than anything, to see how your life seems to be ruled by beer. I’ll bet you couldn’t even make it through nine innings of a baseball game without a beer. “I can quit whenever I want, I just don’t want to.” Who do you think you are kidding with that load of garbage? You can kid yourself, mister, but you can’t kid the lord. That’s right; it’s about time that Jesus got involved in your little crisis.

I will spare you the lecture about how you are using beer as a pathetic substitute for religion. Because I go to church every Sunday (plus all sacred holidays and to pray after I buy a lottery ticket) I don’t need beer, or I can drink just a little bit every once in a while. I may not even finish that one beer, while you almost got into a fistfight with a bartender because he tried to take your bottle of beer with half a swig of luke-warm backwash still in it.

What did you ask? Do I want to go have a beer? Do you mean “a single beer” because the indefinite article “a” is only used with a noun in the singular? Be honest with yourself, when have you ever gone out and had only one beer? I think that we both know that the answer to that is “never.” I can’t even imagine what sort of biblical holocaust would need to transpire to prevent you from moving on from “a” beer to two beers, or even three.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Valencia CF - Inter Milan 0-0

Valencia CF - Inter Milan 0-0


I was let in on the secret of how this elimination round of the UEFA Champions League works. Two clubs play each other away and at home and the winner is decided either by wins or goal differentials. Valencia tied Inter Milan in Milan two weeks ago with a score of 2-2. This means that for last night’s game Milan had to either win or score at least two goals in another draw. If the game had ended in a 2-2 draw, then it would go into an over-time. If the over-time did not decide a winner then there would be a penalty shoot-out.

Barcelona needed to score at least two goals and beat Liverpool to advance to the quarter finals. They won 1-0 and were forced out of the tournament. Real Madrid plays Bayern Munich tonight in Germany.

Luckily I knew this before the game began last night or my stress level would have been even higher. It was pretty crazy around the stadium last night as you would imagine. There was an army of police on hand complete with a horse brigade. Last week the Coach for the Sevilla club was hit by a bottle someone had thrown from the stands so it isn’t like Spanish football is immune from the violence that has erupted elsewhere. I also learned that the reason for the small crowd in Milan two weeks ago for the first match between these teams was because Milan was only permitted to let in 35,000 fans. This was a precautionary measure because of fan violence in Italy.

The crowd hanging out in the Plaza del Valencia CF was well-behaved. There were perhaps 400 people all singing and screaming at the televisions. At times it seemed that this mob was making more noise than the crowd inside the stadium. It was a very harmless group for the most part. I was, however, keeping an eye on the dozen skinheads standing directly in front of me. A television reporter from Channel 9 was interrupted during his filming when the skinheads started chanting “periodista, terrorista” but that was about as rowdy as they got. Even skinheads respect Spanish football.

At the very end of the game a tussle broke out on the field between the players. It was getting a bit ugly and all I said to myself, “This is how a huge riot probably starts,” but the only aggression was on the field. I watched the game recap in a bar down the block and everyone got a big laugh watching one of the Valencia trainers running away from a Milan player. He’ll have to live with the shame for a long time. Remember, if you are going to do something incredibly cowardly, don’t do it in front of 53,000 and TV cameras.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hype Quake

Hype Quake

Cue the song Also Spake Zarathustra from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

After that you can pipe in Flight of the Valkeries through the deafening sound system of your attack helicopters.

Run clip from early 1960’s Japanese monster movie of terrified villagers fleeing for their lives.

This is big, people, as big as it gets (at least in early March).

There can only be one. There will be no prisoners. No quarter will be requested and none given.

Perhaps you just crawled out from under a rock in some god forsaken cesspool section of the globe, where soccer daily newspapers don’t litter the tops of every bar in the city. Maybe where you live the television airwaves haven’t been bombarding you relentlessly for weeks on end about this bit of news. If you are to believe the hyperbole, this could be the greatest challenge to Valencian society in all of history—or at least this season. Tonight at 20:45 local, in Mestalla Stadium here in Valencia, Spain Valencia Club de Fútbol plays Football Club Internazionale Milano known as Inter. I don’t know about you but I know where I’ll be tonight.

I’ll be standing in the Plaza Valencia Club de Fútbol along with all of the other lose-oids who didn’t score a ticket for this deciding match in the UEFA (The Union of European Football Associations) Champions League playoffs. This is round 16 and the last time these two teams met in Milan it was a draw so one of the teams needs to win tonight. Don’t quote me on this because I haven’t verified it yet but I think that this means a penalty kick shootout at the end if the score is still tied after an overtime period is played. The winner advances to the quarter finals and the loser stays home, so to speak.

I have read about four newspaper accounts of the match so far today and they all have the same quotes from the same people. There don’t seem to be any articles geared towards dumb Americans who, although they have been here for over three months, still don’t understand the Byzantine world of European club soccer. I’m sure that I will know a lot more about this match tomorrow when it has all been decided. I just like watching the matches in the packed bars in my neighborhood.

I thoroughly buy into all of the hype surrounding this match because that is a lot more fun than just seeing it as two teams kicking a stupid ball back and forth. Two teams kicking around a ball isn’t much fun at all unless you believe that somehow the fate of Western Civilization lies in the balance. I went out and bought duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal up my apartment just like after 9/11 just in case the shit hits the fan after the game. Or maybe the shit will hit the fan DURING the game! I bet you didn’t consider that option mister “I’ve considered every option.” I have some stuff left over so why don’t I just seal you up in duct tape and plastic. I won’t put any tape over your eyes so you can still watch the game. OK, I’ll leave a little hole so you can breath…and drink beer.

Maybe tonight’s game isn’t going to signal the apocalypse but it seems the closest thing to it since I’ve been in Spain. What’s that you say? Barcelona is playing Liverpool tonight in another Champion’s League elimination match? Listen, if you are going to the store can you pick up some more beer? And get more duct tape and plastic sheeting. Make sure you wear clean underwear just I case something happens.

Monday, March 05, 2007

March is Better than February

March is Better than February


Life has become appreciably, even measurably better this past week. The warm weather has turned my apartment from a cold meat locker into an open and airy space that takes full advantage of the sunshine. My blood seems to have thinned out enough so that I can get back to my regular workout routine. It is difficult not to become overly-enthused about the weather when it is so unbelievably pleasant. About the only thing that I have to complain about, and it’s not such a big thing, is that Valencia seems to have turned into a free-fire zone like Baghdad or Beirut.

The annual Fallas festival has begun in Valencia which is one of the biggest in all of Europe. What this means is that all of the parents in Valencia seemed to have been locked up in prison somewhere leaving their children to run wild through the streets lighting off fireworks. Yesterday was a constant series of explosions throughout the day. The bombing terrified all of the poor little dogs here so in addition to the fireworks going off you had little dogs going off in barking fits all day long. Add a slight hangover to this mix and you come up with a pounding headache and an almost overriding urge to pour boiling off from your balcony on to the heads of the little shits blowing off strings of firecrackers. Unbelievably, no one else is annoyed by all of the racket. Everyone else just goes on about their day ignoring the deafening blasts. I just grin and bear it.

Today I promised someone that I would go with them to the Plaza de Ayuntamiento for the daily Mascletá. From what I have been told, this is also a bunch of explosions. How do you say “earplugs” in Spanish?

I came into the possession of a new double bed. I had to find a frame for it which I made out of an extremely sturdy pallet and a bit of hardware I bought at the Chinese Wal-Mart. I am very happy with how it turned out and it is as solid as an oak tree. I also picked up a few items to help organize things in my bedroom. It’s amazing how much I appreciate little stuff like this after what seems like living out of a suitcase since I left my apartment in Seattle back in September.

What I appreciate more than the new organization of my living space is the being comfortably warm after shivering for the past couple of months. I actually had to get out of bed last night to open my patio door to let some air in my room. I appreciate the fact that today is a school day and all of the little Valencian terrorists have their hands too full with books to set off ear-damaging explosions. I can’t even hear any dogs barking this morning. The explosive celebration in Valencia’s main square isn’t until two this afternoon so I have a few hours of peace.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Pics


Spanish country estate. I wish that I lived here.


You can almost see Africa.


If I hadn't been cycling today I would have gone to the beach.

Generations of Mediocrity or No-Name Brilliance

Generations of Mediocrity or No-Name Brilliance

Merit seldom plays a part in who our society decides to worship in the arena of popular culture. The only aspect of pop culture where merit is absolutely essential is sports. Ability is the only thing that matters on the playing field. If only this were true of our other forms of entertainment.

The people we worship the most, America’s answer to medieval royalty, are the handful of actors that inhabit or pollute the majority of the major films in America. They are the least vulnerable to the harsh reality of merit. They are also the most self-congratulatory group of folks you are ever likely to see walk along the red carpet. Only Hollywood is capable of taking a thoroughly mediocre film like The Departed, call it the best picture of the year, and have the rest of the world nod their heads in agreement.

Goodfellas was a movie worthy of such an accolade, maybe even Casino, but The Departed was just not a very good film. The best picture Oscar is rarely ever given for a good film so Hollywood was just being consistent. Rating one work of art over another is a stupid exercise to begin with but Hollywood is not famous for its intelligence. I realize that I am being preposterously generous by defining as art the product that ends up in the landfill of your local Cineplex, but I suppose even Adam Sandler movies somehow fit under the umbrella of art.

I can’t ever remember willfully watching an Academy Awards presentation, I have always thought that it is the height of anti-intellectualism to quantify art, and I have rarely agreed with the choices they make for "best" whatever. I just tune out this spectacle like I do anything else that I find annoying. Something that is a little more difficult to live with for anyone who enjoys movies is the whole Hollywood star system of actors.

There are probably tens of thousands of people in America who are capable of performing in a movie yet we are stuck watching fewer than about 20 people star in at least 90% of the major studio movies. If an actor stars in one successful film we seem to be stuck with that person for an entire generation. Whether or not that film was successful because of the merit of that actor is beside the point. A star is born. Any future success that this actor enjoys can be written off as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a studio wants a film to succeed it can make that happen via marketing.

The last time that I went to a movie theater and sat through the previews, all that I could think was, “Are these the only actors we have?” One actor was staring in two of the upcoming movies. The choices Hollywood makes have nothing to do with merit, it’s all about marketing. There is very little incentive for studios to make good movies, all they want to do is make money. I have said that Hollywood could take a security camera tape from a suburban 7-11, doctor it up with a snappy musical score, market the living shit out of it, and it would be a blockbuster. If a movie has a $40 million marketing juggernaut behind it and opens in 3,000 theaters nationwide, it’s going to have a certain amount of success.

It’s depressing to me to think that I’m going to have to dodge Tom Cruise movies for the rest of my life. Jack Nicholson may live for another 30 years, and as long as they can prop him up in front of a camera, he will be staring in movies—most of them bad.

If only the movie industry could adopt some sort of “Three strikes and you’re out” policy. Actors should only be able to star in three films and then they must retire. They can go off and do local theater. They should at least have to lay fallow for a few years until they are able to develop a new persona. Since I have already mentioned thee two, Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson have been living off the same personas for their entire professional careers.

I couldn’t name three good movies that I’ve seen in the last two years, but it is hard for me to reap enough praise upon all of the fantastic HBO series. HBO, for whatever reasons, has not relied upon the usual stable of stars to make all of their great serialized programs. I have watched six seasons of The Sopranos and the only actor I know by his real name is the guy who plays Tony. The rest of the cast may as well be real life New Jersey gangsters for all that I know. I know all of the character names on The Wire, even the minor ones, but I don’t know any of their real names. The same goes for Entourage, Rome, and Deadwood.

I would include the FX series, The Shield, in this same lofty category of television innovation, although that show had an entire season tarnished by the over-the-top acting of Forest Whitaker in his guest role. All of the other actors on the show are no-names. I love no-names. I don’t want to know an actor’s name except that of the character he is playing.

Probably my favorite character on The Sopranos is a shifty-eyed little creep called Silvio Dante. He is the person he plays on the show as far as I am concerned and I wouldn’t want to see him in any other role. To me, Silvio epitomizes the strength of these programs because the actors bring an anonymity to their roles and then the serial nature of the shows allows a character development that just isn’t possible in a two hour movie.

There isn’t a lot of room on these programs for a huge ego like Dustin Hoffman or any other major Hollywood jackass. I am almost never impressed by the work of super-celebrity actors which is why I have a soft spot for foreign films where I recognize no one. I would much rather sit through a Bollywood musical than see another movie with Leonardo diCaprio or Matt Damon. There are a lot of actors out there who deserve a chance. It’s time we start letting a little bit of merit play into this industry instead of the old methods of nepotism, cronyism, and using the same tired stars in every film.

This same system dominates the writing profession. In the January 29, 2007 edition of The New Yorker there is a not-very-funny essay by David Sedaris. I am among the people who thought that Davis Sedaris was a very funny writer back when he first became a household name. Since then he has been pretty hit and miss with week’s essay falling under the later category. Actor Steve Martin has an unfunny essay in their Shouts and Murmurs page. On merit alone neither of these two articles would have been published, but the name recognition goes a long way even in the hallowed pages of The New Yorker.

You can criticize professional sports all you want but it is an industry based entirely upon merit. You can be the greatest ball player that ever lived but if you have a few bad weeks—in some sports a bad game or two—and some new kid is going to be taking your spot. And as far as nepotism, the team you play for may take a look at your athlete kid, but if he can’t play he doesn’t get in the game.

It’s sad to think how much we are missing. Instead of watching Keanu Reeves in another lousy performance we could he heralding in a wonderful new actor. Instead of reading second-rate efforts by Steve Martin and David Sedaris, we could be ushering in a striking new talent.