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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A “War” We Can Easily Win

The war in Iraq has been framed to fit the political expediency of the Bush Administration at every step in its mismanagement. Our reasons for invading underwent a host of updates as one justification after another was proved false. The war was called a war of cultures by President Bush, which was countered by Harper’s editor, Lewis Lapham, as a war of superstitions. Bush also said that it is a war of wills and that only with our resolve will come victory. The kind of resolve it takes to blow yourself up amidst a crowd of innocent women and children is more than I hope any civilized person possesses. This does not mean that the United States and the West are doomed to failure; it means that we need to be fighting another sort of guerrilla warfare that we are sure to win.

We are not fighting a war on terror. That is impossible in the first place because terror is simply one tactic used in modern warfare. I don’t believe that we are fundamentally fighting a war to preserve American security. Our security has not ever been seriously threatened and to say that is has overstates the power of a ragtag group of religious fanatics. It is accurate to say that we are fighting al Qaeda although why we are doing this in Iraq is a question Bush has failed miserably to answer. If we are fighting a war of cultures—and I think this may be correct—then this war cannot be fought with arms.

First we must begin with a simple question: Is Western society better for the average individual than fundamentalist Islamic society? I think that most people in the world, including many held hostage in Islamic societies, would say that Western-style freedoms and democracy are preferable to Sharia law and theocracy. Islam’s strict proscriptions on sex and alcohol—among other things—are contrary to human nature.

Only in the last fifty years has the West been able to throw off the shackles of Christianity and begin to create a society that is egalitarian—a concept unimportant in Christianity. For the first time in human history women are beginning to enjoy a status equal to men. Homosexuals are finally being treated like human beings. Not only do we enjoy religious freedom but we are finally free to renounce religion for the destructive fantasy that it is. Some of the countries in Europe with the highest levels of atheism are also the best societies in which to live.

We certainly are not in a war of Christianity against Islam. If fundamentalist Christians had their way our society wouldn’t be much different than life in Saudi Arabia or Iran. We are in a war between progressive culture and medievalists, a war we have been waging since the Enlightenment. Rarely have battles in this war been won with violence, it has been the triumph of progressive ideas over religious dogma and superstition.

The gains made against the tyranny of the Church have not been through direct conflict, but by framing the progressive argument in such a way that its merit is unquestionably the better path for civilization. It wasn’t Christianity that fought for democracy or women’s rights or a more open and free society. The Church has always been willing to sacrifice these ideals in order to maintain its power and privilege. Islam is equally as unconcerned with individual right and freedoms.

Consequently, I don’t think that a more moral society has ever existed on this planet than in the social democracies of Western Europe today and most scientific studies on the subject bear me out on this. I will point to just one recent study that ranks child welfare in Western industrialized countries. The more liberal the democracy, the better place it is to raise children it would seem.

CHILD WELL-BEING TABLE

1. Netherlands
2. Sweden
3. Denmark
4. Finland
5. Spain
6. Switzerland
7. Norway
8. Italy
9. Republic of Ireland
10. Belgium
11. Germany
12. Canada
13. Greece
14. Poland
15. Czech Republic
16. France
17. Portugal
18. Austria
19. Hungary
20. United States
21. United Kingdom

Source: Unicef

As you can see, the United States hardly seems like a beacon to the world or an example to be followed by all. We’ve got a lot of work to do here at home where since 1980 we’ve had Republican presidents who have spouted on about conservative family values.

If you want to talk about “family values,” I can’t think of a better environment for families than here in Spain where homosexual marriage is legal, as well as abortion, personal freedom is respected, women are constantly gaining ground in the gender gap, and income is distributed much more equitably. These are all issues about which I am completely resolute. These are values I believe need to be exported, not just the ability to cast a vote. However, like any product, the best way to find buyers for these values is not through belligerency but by demonstrating to the world that these are the best models for human society.

Iran recently said that it will more rigorously enforce Islamic dress code for women in that country. 200 extra police are to patrol the streets of Tehran confronting impure women who reveal ankles, sport thin headscarves, or wear short or tight jackets. Violators can be fined or subjected to other harsh treatment reminiscent of old communist bloc techniques.

Cuba has endured in spite of America’s belligerency or because of it. Had Cuba been accepted by the U.S., Castro wouldn’t have lasted through one American presidency. Just as most communist regimes fell through their own internal decay, so will fundamentalist Islam. All we need to do is to help it along.

We have only made it much easier for Islamic clerics to demonize the West. Iraq has become The Battle of Britain for the Islamic world. Just as the relentless Nazi bombing of Britain only worked to strengthen the resolve of citizens there, so has our belligerency in Iraq served to galvanize opinion in the Islamic world against us. Iran is only more emboldened against the West because of our failed military ventures in Iraq. Not only has Iran become more defiant towards the West but also towards moderates in Iran itself which explains the new measures to enforce strict Islamic dress codes there.

How attractive an idea could fundamentalist Islam possibly be when allowed to stand on its own merit, without the role of savior of the people that we have conveniently provided with our invasion of a Muslim nation? When left to stand alone against the resounding success of Western democracies, the wall of fundamentalist Islam will crumble under its own repressive decay.

If it weren’t for their tremendous oil revenues no fundamentalist society would be around today. The war in Iraq has created such enormous wealth for Saudi Arabia and Iran that they are both completely impervious to the normal demands of their citizens. They can also finance Islamic fundamentalism in other countries not similarly blessed with oil revenues. As long as both countries are able to generate this incredible wealth they will b insulated from the need for any religious moderation. It is impossible for a country to move into the modern world without enlisting women in the workplace. These countries are able to exclude women from society because of oil revenues.

Our task in the West is fairly obvious: we must better project the advantages of democracy and liberalism, and work to reduce our independence on Middle East oil which finances Islamic extremism.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Things I Love About Spain (Part III)

Things I Love About Spain (Part III)

-The weather. It is now sunny, warm, and dry. I haven’t needed any excuse to spend hours every day riding my bike down to the beach towns south of “Valencia but now the great weather makes this even more of a pleasant task. I have been desperately trying to get my ass into great shape in what I call “Operation Speedo.” I won’t wear a Speedo, and if you see me in one you have my permission to club me to death like a baby seal, but “Operation Speedo” is a little snappier-sounding than “Operation Tasteful Swimwear That Doesn’t Make You Look Completely Fruity and Ridiculous.”

- Paz Vega. I just saw this Spanish actress for the first time in a nice little movie called 10 Items or Less in which she plays the impervious/imperious cashier in the quick check-out lane at a crappy little convenience store. She can be my Dulcinea any day.

- Bike Lanes. Valencia has the best network of bike lanes (Carii Bici) this side of Amsterdam. After riding more than two hours yesterday I pedaled to the end of the recently-renovated park at the end of the Turia Gardens. There is a little hill you can ride up that gives a rather commanding view of this whole part of the city. They are also just putting the finishing touches on another new beach park just south of Pinedo beach. If you live in Valencia and you aren’t spending a lot of time on a bike you are letting one of the best things about this place pass you by.

- Café y Cafés. A daily ritual for me, for most of my adult life, has always meant a trip to a café, and here in Spain is no different. I require at least one cup of professionally-made coffee every day. Lately I have been leaning towards café Americano which is just an espresso that they leave under the spout and add more water. I love to sit out in the sun and read the papers cover-to-cover. The other day I went to lunch with friends to a little place on the beach and I had the best coffee that I’ve had so far (and that’s saying a lot). The place was in Perello which is about an hour and fifteen minutes south as the bike flies. I may take a ride down there today.

- El Rastro de Mestalla, or the flea market in the stadium parking lot. My main reason for going is to buy cheap books. I can usually find something worth reading for 1€. I also like to see how many different languages I can identify as I walk around looking at junk. Gypsies, Russians, Nigerians, Rumanians, and at least one American can be found there on any given Sunday. There are always a lot of cops there and I usually see them bust someone—probably for selling stolen merchandise. The place is like a mix between Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and the United Nations. I only found one book last week which I am currently devouring, Chacal, a translation of The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. This book is as much fun to read in Spanish as it was in English which lo leí de un tirón (which I read in one swoop—I just learned how to say that so I thought I’d write it down so I don’t forget). Plot-driven stories are a lot easier for me to read in Spanish than psychological novels. I needed a break from the book I was reading that is kicking my linguistic ass.

- Fernando. If my butcher were ten years younger and a woman I’d marry him. Neither of us can afford the expensive operation so the next best thing would be for me to get accidentally locked inside his shop for a weekend. I’d have everything I need in there except Paz Vega. He has wines, oils, olives, sardines, and meat, meat, meat. I like how I can tell him what I want to cook and he gives me what I need with the meat cut up precisely for that dish.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Nacho Libre-fication* of American Society

Caustic Movie Review
Or
The Nacho Libre-fication* of American Society


*To my indescribable horror, I was once forced to share an airplane with the movie Nacho Libre. Airlines seem to have a special talent for culling the absolute worst movies to show on flights. I have used these films as a sort of watermark to show how low films can go. The last low water mark for me was the movie Sweet Home Alabama, a movie that was insulting even without wearing headphones. Sorry Sweet Home Alabama, you just got Nacho Libre’d out of your worst movie spot. By the way, Nacho was favorably reviewed in The New Yorker by Anthony Lane, no kidding.


There are times when I am confronted with aspects of our popular culture that are so relentlessly stupid and awful that I fear that we are all doomed to be turned into brain-dead zombies. It seems that the pabulum mass-produced by Hollywood is not only mind numbing, but actually criminal in its intent to lower the common denominator to a depth not compatible with vertebrate life forms. After watching 88 Minutes, a serial killer thriller starring Al Pacino, and The Guardian, with Kevin Costner, I realize that I could be accused of being hopelessly optimistic.

I often wonder if the writers of blockbusters have ever read anything longer than a two sentence email ending with an emoticon. If you are going to steal ideas—and everyone steals ideas—at least steal from books and not from the movies that everyone else has seen. Steal from some unknown author that no one reads anymore. You are probably safe taking plot ideas from Shakespeare or Homer. Even the movies they make of classic texts are imitations of other movies made from classic texts.

To say that movies these days are derivative is an insult to everyone who has ever read cliff notes instead of the required text, cheated on an exam, or turned in a research paper in college which they bought online. The Costner movie is such an amalgam of clichés that it is like a tick that is so bloated and sclerotic that it doesn’t even realize that it has sunk its fangs into its own fat ass.

These two films serve as a good example of the output of Hollywood over the past…let’s just say, a long time. I should probably include an example from another genre of movie but I just don’t have the stomach for it tonight. I think that two really bad movies is enough for anyone to digest in an essay about movies and even Guantanamo Bay inmates aren’t forced to watch more than two Hollywood blockbusters in a single weekend.

In the case of both of these horrible movies you have to wonder if anyone involved in any way with the production actually read the scripts before hand. I would believe it if you told me that neither film had a script and they just ad-libbed the whole thing, scene by scene, like some sort of actor’s guild workshop gone horribly wrong. I could excuse that because it shows that there was no premeditation, but if they worked from a plan, well, that’s just mean.

I have never liked a single serial killer movie, ever. I hate the genre and I find it silly, sick, and perverse all at the same time and to be all three of those at once probably takes a sort of talent I can’t yet appreciate. One of the reasons I decided to watch 88 Minutes in the first place was because it is set in Seattle. Unfortunately, little of the film was actually filmed in that city. All but a few establishing shots were filmed in Vancouver, Canada. I didn’t know this before I saw the movie and I was perplexed because I didn’t recognize any of the exterior locations. I was really suspicious when they showed a scene on a college campus and all of the students where carrying umbrellas. Everyone knows that Seattle people don’t use umbrellas—too much wind.

It takes a lot more than falsifying a location to ruin a movie for me but 88 Minutes was doomed from the start. I have a simple rule: A movie should grab you right from the opening credits and this one just about put me to sleep before the credits ended. Long story short, Al’s character is a psychiatrist who testifies in the trials of serial killers. One of the people he helped to convict is on death row and Al receives a death threat telling him he has 88 minutes to live. I only wish the killer would have been in more of a hurry, he could have saved us a lot of grief if the movie were called 30 Seconds.

As if the premise isn’t stupid enough (why not just go hang out at a police station for a couple hours and save yourself the easy way?) we are treated to insult after insult in the form of suspicious characters who blunder into the story posing as students, lovers, and lovers of the students of the esteemed psychiatrist. I could have turned it off but I kept watching—not to see what would happen next, but to see if it could get any dumber. Boy did it ever get dumber.

Al Pacino must either be too stupid to realize what a complete piece of shit he was about to star in, have the world’s biggest ego and just wants to be the leading man, or need money worse than I ever have. Although there is no reason why all three of those options can’t apply to an actor who once played in one of the best movies ever made.

Kevin Costner is almost on a par with Pacino’s superstar status and The Guardian is every bit as bad as 88 Minutes. The story for this boy-meets-younger boy formula probably came right out of a Microsoft Word template for action movies. All you have to do is point and click. They all have the dead best friend, the love/hate relationship between old veteran and jump upstart, completely disposable and recyclable love interest, and frat house aphorisms and humor. They probably don’t bother with writers at all anymore; the finance people just play Liar’s Poker during happy hour and the loser has to cobble together a script.

Top Gun and An Officer and a Gentleman were clichés so what do you call a script that lies upon the rubble of two decades worth of movies that have imitated those two unoriginal “classics?” In this case you call it The Guardian but they will have a different name for the next movie of this genre. Please lord, don’t let it be The Guardian II.

You may be asking yourselves this question: Why is this guy watching these dogs in the first place? Although he doesn’t seem too bright it’s not like he’s functionally retarded or anything. That’s a fair question. I probably read glowing reviews of both movies in The New Yorker, those two guys love anything that has a big budget. I remember when Anthony Lane just about peed his panties over the movie Speed. No kidding, he loved it.

Why does Hollywood make such lousy movies and how can we make them stop? For what these two movies cost to produce Hollywood could have given out probably 100 different grants of $1 million to eager new filmmakers. Out of those 100 films, all of them would be better than the two bombs that ended up in theaters and a few of them may have turned out to be masterpieces, and none of them would have starred Ashton what's-his-name. Of course, there is always the possibility that the 100 new director/writers are from the same mold as the makers of The Guardian and 88Minutes.

I think that originality scares the living crap out of the people who finance the making of entertainment so they stay with what has worked in the past, even if the idea has been bludgeoned and left for dead years ago. It all makes sense when you realize that movie producers don’t care whether or not the movie they make is good or bad, just that it makes money. Their product just needs to contain the right ingredients so that the people in marketing can do their job and sell it to the public. I may be wrong but selling a crappy product to the American public doesn’t seem like a very difficult job—just look at how many people buy all of that Ronco trash.

I think a harder task is to convince people that they should be holding out for quality movies. First of all, I don’t think that anyone walks away from The Guardian or 88 Minutes thinking they have seen a great film. I don’t think they think about it at all once the lights go up. It’s just a way to waste a couple hours between whatever it is that people do when they are watching crappy movies. Many people don’t insist on quality in any other aspect of their lives so why should they get picking when they go to the movies? The Guardian is just the cinematic equivalent of other products like Applebee’s or Miller Lite. In this day and age they are probably owned by the same company.

Is it possible to actually like Miller Lite, or a meal at Applebee’s, or a movie like Nacho Libre? I think it isn’t and these products just fill the lowest requirements in the human need for booze, food, and entertainment. It just seems that it would be a lot easier and cheaper to provide quality than to convince people that Miller Lite is beer, mozzarella sticks are food, and Nacho Libre is a movie. Am I some sort of cultural elitist because I didn’t like 88 Minutes? If that is your definition of “cultural elitist” then that just means anyone who is capable of resisting the relentless marketing, or Nacho Libre-fication of products.

The extent to which we are willing to allow product recognition to guide our every purchase is the subject for another essay but it really isn’t that difficult to choose quality over brand names. It will take a bit of trial and error which is infinitely wiser and more satisfying than constantly choosing badly. It takes a bit to get used to the taste of good beer from a small brewery but it’s worth it in the end. If the choice even exists for you wherever you live, go to a privately owned restaurant and more than likely the food will be better than TGI Friday’s, I promise. As far as movies go, let’s just hope that Another 88 Minutes is better than the original.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Left and Right and Getting Ahead

Left and Right and Getting Ahead

I follow the news in the U.S. during this self-imposed exile—it’s impossible to ignore. Almost everything that passes for news from American takes the form of angry bickering between our version of the Sunni and Shiite divide: conservatives and liberals. It’s either right, left, or “Tonight on Larry King Live: Ana Nicole’s real bra size.”

It seems as if everything that happens in the U.S. can be traced back to this Hatfield and McCoy’s feud. Some stupid hick of a radio show host utters three indelicate words and the affair devolves into a schoolyard shouting match between left and right. A mentally ill student goes on a rampage and both sides are screaming across the divide that the other is to blame. It’s hard to find any news item that hasn’t been ripped in two by left and right and used either to back up their idea of America or to criticize the other. This doesn’t seem like a very effective means for running a country.

Issues like abortion and gay rights continue to divide and conquer in America. Spain seems to have decided long ago that both abortion and gays won’t disappear if you make them illegal. You hear almost nothing about these two issues here in Spain, issues that polarize America. Every once in a while some Catholic archbishop will spew out some mealy-mouthed objection but most people here see the church for what it is: an incredibly corrupt and out-of-touch institution. The church here is more of a tradition, like fireworks on the Fourth of July, than a spiritual guide. Spain is a more moral place because they have turned their backs on religion.

Spain doesn’t have anything that comes remotely close to America’s conservative wing and America’s more left-leaning thinkers would be considered middle-of-the-road to conservative here. Here in Valencia there is certainly a difference of opinion in politics but everyone seems focused on getting things done.

Valencia just opened up a new metro line that reaches from the newly-renovated area of the port to the newly-renovated airport in the opposite direction. A fast and inexpensive train to the airport may not seem like such a big deal, unless you happen to live in a large city that doesn’t have this service. For the entire eight years that I lived in Seattle, the city government bickered and quarreled over plans for a train to the airport from the downtown area. In Seattle we also voted over plans for a rapid transit system. I think we voted in favor of it something like four separate times. The plan was later voted down mostly because of the objections of a single, incredibly wealthy real estate developer. Not exactly democracy in action.

Valencia’s bike path system is growing in leaps and bounds. Riding bikes is not exactly a Spanish tradition yet
Valencia is committed to making bicycles a large part of the urban transportation solution. In this area they are way ahead of Madrid where bikes are a fairly uncommon sight.

Other than tilting at the windmills of the War on Terror, it’s hard to think of any area where America is actually working towards her future. I don’t think that we have a single goal that we can all work towards and agree upon and this can be blamed on a complete lack of leadership. Forget about putting another man on the moon, I just want to be able to get to the airport without spending $30 on a cab.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Making the Rounds: Bars and Restaurants

Going out for me serves many purposes. I can meet some of the basic necessities of food and drink while also interacting with people and that means speaking Spanish. It’s nice when you can file going out for a drink under “education.” Going out in Spain offers up a lot of choices because you can’t spit here without hitting a bar or a restaurant. There a five on either end of my street and one in between. Within about four blocks there are literally dozens of places to go for a drink or a bite of food. I haven’t even tried half of them yet.

Perhaps my standards have lowered (Is that even possible?) but I really enjoy the cheap Spanish wine I drink. Beer here is pretty shitty and I think that is true almost everywhere in the world—not really bad, just average. After drinking nothing but the world’s best beers in Seattle I’m back to Heineken and Amstel or one of the Spanish brands. It’s odd to me that as crappy as the beer is, people here prefer it over wine for the most part. In other parts of Spain wine is a lot more popular in bars. I feel a little like the oddball ordering my vino tinto.

Two of my favorite places here in Valencia are a half a block from my front door and both serve pretty decent wine. At both places I know a lot of the staff by name so I feel pretty comfortable. At one of them I get a glass of wine in a nice glass and they have a stack of newspapers to choose from that I can read if it’s too busy for the owner or bartender to talk to me. They have a couple of good televisions and I usually go there to watch a game. I rarely eat there but the food is good. It is always crowded on game nights. They have a nice outside area which will be great when the weather is better.

The place next door is a lot smaller and thus more intimate. I guess that the fact that you stand in such close proximity to people makes it easier to meet people. This place also serves a good glass of wine although the reds are chilled. I’ve noticed this in areas of southern France that don’t make good white wines so it’s not the blasphemy that they teach you about in Wine 101. This bar is one of the few places in Valencia that serves a complimentary tapa when you order a drink. This is pretty much the rule in almost every bar I’ve been to in Madrid, Sevilla, Toledo, and every other city I’ve visited in Spain. This place also has good food. I will sometimes order a half a plate of something because the full plates are enormous.

Almost every day I stop in at a little place run by a Chinese family. They always have a copy of Levante on hand. This is the more liberal of the two Valencia daily newspapers. I read it cover to cover as I sip my coffee. I usually get an americano these days just because I need the extra caffeine. I order my coffee and then sit outside. I like this place because it is casual and the patio gets a lot of sun during the afternoon. I don’t really need my dictionary to read the newspaper these days but I still run across unfamiliar words. My notebook of vocabulary is quickly getting filled. I like Levante because it has thorough local news, a good sports section, and because it has Calvin and Hobbes. Reading it in Spanish is like discovering that old classic all over again. I also like to read the really caustic movie reviews in this paper of the films that will be on local TV that day. This café also gets Magazine which is a good Spanish weekly magazine.

Next there is a bar run by some Indian guys where I hang out sometimes. The sell giro sandwiches called doner kepab here. This joint gets a really varied crowd of people and I have met people from all over the place. It is also the least expensive of all the places I have been in town. A beer is 1€ and a coffee is only .80€. I read the other Valencia daily here called Las Provincias and I usually come across something in it that infuriates me, like an opinion column written by the archbishop of Valencia that was critical of the secular Spanish society today. I was actually yelling at the paper while I was reading it. The Catholic Church sure did a shitty job when they ran things, and now Spain is more prosperous and egalitarian than ever thanks to a secular and socialist government. Sorry Catholic archbishop, you’re full of shit.

For big football matches I will venture out of my little neighborhood and cross over to the other side of the stadium to the Plaza del Valencia CF where there are four bars next to each other that have big screen televisions facing out into the square. When the games are held at Mestalla the roar from the stadium adds a lot of excitement to the game on TV.

There is a little restaurant run by some brothers that is just across the courtyard from my front door. This is a good little spot but they have very quirky hours; it’s almost like they are open by appointment only. I haven’t tried the food there but it looks good. They also have a great patio so I’ll probably go there a lot in the summer.

There are lots of other places in my neighborhood. Some I haven’t gotten around to trying. If I go into a place and people aren’t nice to me I usually don’t go back, that’s the cruel nature of having so much to choose from. It’s not like anyone has been less than nice but some places are friendlier than others.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Emails

Emails

I’m working on another writing project now so I’m just going to let you look at a couple of emails I sent and received yesterday.

Me: I mentioned that I have been riding my ass off lately. Today I went out and I didn't feel too strong and I still rode for an hour and a half. I haven't ridden this much ever. I wish I had my fucking racing bike. Yesterday I got passed by a girl, a really, truly amazing girl but still. I rode like a maniac to keep behind her just to stare at her calves. If I had a road bike I could have towed her. I love my bike but it's slow.

A Friend in NY: Have you eaten the whole pig yet?

Me: I eat about one entire pig a week by my calculations.

Later:
Me: I am trying to stay on budget this month which means I'm staying in tonight. I'm cooking arroz al horno and enjoying a shitty bottle of wine. I paid 2 euros for this bottle and I feel like I got robbed. 2 euros is a lot for a bottle of wine for me these days and I'm usually pretty happy with it. I've had worse. It’s drinkable if you’re a drunk like me.

NY: Based on today's exchange rate your bottle of wine cost $98.72, so shut up
and enjoy your buzz you bourgeois pig.

Me: You almost made me spit expensive wine out through my nose.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

I grew up during the worst of the Viet Nam War era. As a kid I never knew why we were fighting. Communism isn’t a concept that a child can embrace as an enemy worthy of the most powerful nation on earth. That’s what we were taught in school; that America was the most powerful nation on earth and undefeated in war. Yet here we were, in a stalemate against this little country, a country smaller than the state in which I lived. I could never understand that as a kid. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t winning or why we were fighting in the first place. I wonder what little kids think today about our current belligerency.

We had high-tailed it out of Viet Nam long before I ever read anything by Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t think much either way about Viet Nam, I didn’t really have to. I wasn’t going to get drafted to fight over there—the war was over. Most young kids today don’t have to think much about the war in Iraq; it doesn’t really have much to do with them. If kids do express an interest in the war it is most likely an opposing view—just ask military recruiters.

I was 17 when I happened upon my first novel of his, Breakfast of Champions. I found it funny and entertaining enough that I sought out more books by the same author. I think Slaughterhouse Five was next, but there could have been another one of his novels in between. Slaughterhouse Five was the first time that I ever stopped to consider the point of view of the vanquished; a literary device rarely used since The Persians by Aeschylus, a work I read later at university. A skeptic was born, at least a skeptical way of looking at what is often presented as reality was somehow facilitated by reading everything Vonnegut had written during my high school senior year.

Slaughterhouse Five had grave questions about WWII, a conflict most people view as the ultimate justification for war. Since then, the wars we have chosen to fight have had very questionable justification and even less purpose. Our present quagmire seems not only to have been instigated without justification, but our initial support—for those who did support it—was based on lies. Tens of thousands o people have died for a lie. “So it goes,” Vonnegut would say. Over four years since the initial invasion and we are up to our eyeballs in a conflict that just about everyone but our president knows we cannot possibly win—at least not without perpetrating genocide upon what’s left of the Iraqi population. How delusional would you have to be in order to think that democracy will somehow take root beneath so much bloodshed?

American kids keep dying at a steady rate in Iraq for a war that most of them are way too young to understand, and certainly too young to be fighting. Although the war was dreamed up by geezers like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, it is being fought by 18 and 19 year olds. As a character in Slaughterhouse Five remarks, “It’s a children’s crusade.” Wars have always been fought by children. WWII was no exception but the nation’s leaders were forced to send their children to fight. In the Iraq War it’s only the other people’s kids who are sent off to battle.

There is no draft in this day and age of the “All Volunteer” military; instead we use a kind of economic conscription to fill the ranks of the military which defers most young men and women with any other choices in life. We send kids over to fight, bring them back, and then send them over again—sometimes three and four times. The military takes soldiers from retirement and sends them to Iraq. Military tours have recently been extended from one year to 15 months. This is yet a further outrage to be heaped upon the injustice of the current make-up of the military stacked upon the untruthfulness of why we are in Iraq in the first place.

My skepticism led me to oppose this war (and the Gulf War) from the beginning. I didn’t believe the reasons we were given to invade Iraq, I didn’t believe the insanely optimistic predictions for a quick and inexpensive war, and I have absolutely no faith that we can in any way succeed in Iraq. You can partially blame Vonnegut for my skepticism, but my opinions are based upon what I know about the Arab and Muslim world—which I ironically learned while serving in the military. My predictions of what would unfold after we invaded turned out to be a lot more accurate than those of Wolfowitz and Cheney. We seem to have lost any sense of a collective memory in this country so no one seems to care what anyone said four years ago. After the invasion the Bush administration seemed to make a game out of coming up with new reason for why we had gone into Iraq as the reason they gave us initially proved to be false. In their way of thinking to bring up their mistakes was only being pessimistic.

In the battle of politics, those who oppose war generally lose out to those who believe in it. Our war in Viet Nam didn’t come to an end because of the protests against it; we just seemed to lose all sight of why we were there in the first place. The war in Iraq will come to a similarly ignominious end, but not until Bush leaves office and can blame the inevitable result on someone else. Bush had four years to prosecute the war the way he saw fit and the result has been a disaster. Now he just needs the rest of his term to transfer the mess to the next unfortunate president.

The Bush administration has taken our national security to an absurd level. It is as if America’s only raison d’être is to protect ourselves from any outside harm, and any and every moral compromise is justified to this end: torture, illegal search and seizures, wiretapping of U.S. citizens, not to mention a war on false pretexts.

I always thought that instead of invading Iraq we should have bombarded the world with good will after 9/11. We should have made a quixotic effort to end hunger in Africa, or teach the entire world how to read, or cure malaria, or just done something truly heroic to show to the world that the United States of America stands for decency. If anyone was hell-bent on our destruction after that they'd be some lonely terrorists, even among their own kind. Of course, this kind of plan never wins out over war. I'm just dreaming and the war people are realists...and look where their shitty plan has got us.

I would have to go along with what Vonnegut has to say about mankind (and our nation), “There’s only one rule that I know of: babies —God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Valencia 1 Chelsea 2

The Vacation is Over—Almost

We are just getting back from an extended Easter break that started last Wednesday for most folks. Most everything was closed on Friday. Nothing was open on Sunday which was followed by another holiday on Monday. Today things are pretty much back to normal except Valencia Club de Fútbol, so don’t expect much in the way of buying goods and services today, either. I suggest that you just kick back and wait out these holidays. They have to end eventually…don’t they? Tomorrow is a local holiday so maybe the holidays don’t have to end.

Industrial production has certainly plummeted this past week in Spain but if you are looking for a place to invest I can tell you that kite flying has jumped up 85%, beach combing has risen 90%, and little kids kicking balls around is off the charts. As far as my own stock is concerned, I have invested very heavily in cycling. In the last eight days I have been out on seven of them. The one day I missed was because it was pouring down rain—not that I haven’t been rained on a few times when I did venture out. Each ride was about two and a half hours. That’s a total of 17.5 hours of riding in eight days. If I’m not careful I just may get into decent cycling shape. It’s not like I have any choice in the matter: everything is closed.

I left my heart-rate monitor back in the States but I can feel that I need a rest day today, at least from cycling. I cleaned my apartment pretty thoroughly already this morning. That’s usually a good sign that I’m bored. I read the Spanish newspapers online. That’s usually a good sign that I’m too lazy to go outside and find a real paper to read and a real cup of coffee to drink. I feel like I need about eight hours more sleep after sleeping almost eight hours last night. This is unusual for me, but I’m not used to riding 17.5 hours in eight days—at least not lately.

So today everyone is pretty much back to work like any normal work day. But wait a second…do you hear that…let me just open up the window. That horrible screeching you hear that sound a lot like an 18 wheeler slamming on its brakes at full speed is the Valencian workers coming to an abrupt halt today. You see, we have a little football game this evening, a date with destiny in the form of the squad from Chelsea in the Champions League deciding quarter finals match. No time for silly stuff like bike riding or working.

The game is here at Mestalla Stadium a block from my house. Just for fun I plan on taking pictures of all of the mayhem. We don’t have riots here, or violence, most of the unlawfulness comes in the form of extremely creative illegal parking. The plaza in front of the stadium fills up to the brim with fans trying to watch the game on the TVs facing the café terraces.

Win or lose, tomorrow is another holiday here in Valencia.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Cities, Bikes, & the Future



I live in the heart of a major Spanish city with a population of something like 800,000. If I had to be specific I would say that my apartment is closer to the northeast side of Valencia, yet it takes me less than ten minutes to pedal to the southwest side of the city when I ride to the Albufera nature reserve. There are no suburbs amended to Spanish cities. The change from city to country is rather abrupt. You go from eight story apartment buildings to open fields. The population density of the city means that this many people take up very little room when compared to cities with a lot of single family homes. Many American cities with one tenth the population of Valencia cover a land area ten times larger.

The dense urban climate is more suitable to my tastes; it’s much like where I lived in Seattle. I love the fact that I can get on my bike, follow the bike path down to the Turia Gardens park, take that bike path to the other end of the Ciencias complex, get on yet another bike path, and I’m out of the city limits, as I said, all in about ten minutes.

It is Semana Santa so everyone else in Valencia is trying to get out of town, but most of them in automobiles. I was able to make better time on my bike yesterday than all of those people stuck in traffic on the southern flank of the city. The weather has been a little less than ideal so there wasn’t the usual horde of cyclists along this route. I was going to say that the new bike trail is complete but it is an ongoing project with a lot still in the works. I can say that the new bike bridge is complete, and a whole new section is now open that used to be one of the more perilous parts of my route south to the Albufera.

Bikes are very popular here but not as popular as they are in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Zurich, or even Barcelona, not yet, anyway. It is obvious that Valencia is rapidly making room for bicycles in their future. There is no down side to bicycles. They are clean, efficient, safe, and promote fitness. Not including bikes in your urban transportation model is not just short-sighted, it’s incredibly irresponsible.

Valencia and other metro areas in the province have begun a new program that is popular in other European cities. Bicycles are provided for commuters at kiosks around the city. They are not up-and-running yet here, but from what I have read about them you will be issued an identity card like at the library which will allow you to borrow a bicycle from a station and then return it at another station. So you can get off a bus or train, or park your car in a lot, and then complete your commute on a bike. It is a fairly simple an inexpensive solution to at least a fraction of the transportation problem all cities face.
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The density of urban areas like Valencia make bicycle commuting extremely attractive because the distances to travel are fairly modest—even from one end of the city to the other. I couldn’t imagine traveling by automobile in Valencia. I would lose my mind trying to find a parking spot. Lots of people do rely on cars to get around here, but bikes are starting to get folded into the transportation mix. You can tell that bikes are relatively new because they are used mostly by younger people. In Amsterdam you see people of all ages pedaling around town and they all look good doing it.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

About Last Night

After the first round of matches in the quarter finals of the UEFA Champions League, four of the remaining eight teams are at a distinct advantage going into the second and deciding match. Valencia is in this group but has the least advantage out of those four. Here’s a quick rundown.

Liverpool all but clinched their bracket with a 3-0 victory over PSV Eindhoven. This means that Eindhoven has to win at Anfield with more than a three goal margin.

Bayern Munich managed a 2-2 draw away at AC Milan. They can advance with a win or a 0-0 or a 1-1 draw.

Roma defeated Manchester United 2-1 in their Stadio Olimpico so they have a clear advantage when the next game is played at Old Trafford.

Valencia and Chelsea battled to a 1-1 draw with an amazing left-footed golazo by David Silva and an almost circus-worthy header by Didier Drogba. When they return to Mestalla next Tuesday they need to win or secure a 0-0 draw to advance. An early goal by Valencia will save a lot of heart attacks among fans here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

By the Time You Read This...

...I may already be dead

No, I’m not planning on committing suicide; at least not in any kind of direct, uncowardly (according to MS Word this isn’t even a word), or manly fashion. I’m just thinking that with the prodigious amount of pork products I have been ingesting since I arrived here in Valencia, combined with the added stress of tonight’s huge-alacious (Yes, Spell-check, I know that isn’t a fucking word) football match against Chelsea in the quarters of the Champions League, I may just keel over right in the Plaza del Valencia CF where I plan on watching the match. I’m going to take another long bike ride in the morning to clear out the old system, but I’m just playing catch-up in the race against arterial plaque. I’m eating so much pig that when I burp it sounds just a little bit like an oink.

Why are we talking about my personal health? I don’t even care about my personal health, especially now during the quarter finals with Valencia in the heat of it. Do you have any idea of just what is at stake here? Do you read the newspapers? Well how about the half a dozen daily football rags that litter the tops of every self-respecting bar in Spain during the temporada? Do you remember when the Titanic sank? That wasn’t shit compared to this, OK? The Titanic was just a bunch of rich jerks and illegal immigrants who couldn’t swim while this is Valencia CF up against Chelsea to see who advances in Europe’s football league. Understand? Great, I’m glad we could put things into perspective for you.

It’s kind of like the Battle of Thermopylae in which a tiny Greek army (Valencia CF) goes up against the countless legions of Persian mercenaries (Chelsea). Valencia is mostly made up of Spanish players—with a few exceptions—while Chelsea is led by the goal-scoring machine, Didier Drogba, from the Ivory Coast and the German midfielder, Michael Ballack. But I don’t like this analogy because the Greeks eventually got stomped in that one. Instead of rewriting the Wikipedia entry so that Valencia CF defeats Xerxes’ horde at Thermopylae I’ll abandon the historical analogies. Besides, everyone knows that the ancient Greek historians were even less accurate than Wikipedia.

I have to get out of the house and do something to take my mind off of the game tonight.

Tortilla de Calabacín

A good way to take your mind off an upcoming football match is in the kitchen. As much as I love tortillas de patatas I thought that I’d expand my horizons with another flavor of this Spanish staple.

6 eggs (beaten)
1 Zucchini
1 Onion
Olive oil
Sal and Pepper

Slice the zucchini as thinly as possible. I had to put a good edge on my cleaver to accomplish this. Dice the onion finely. Sauté the onion in a lot more olive oil than you need because when the onion becomes translucent you will add the zucchini. Mix to coat the zucchini with the oil. Cover the dish and let it cook without browning the vegetables. When they are well cooked, add the beaten egg and stir gently to mix the egg and vegetables. Cover and cook on low heat. Use a spatula to check the consistency of the bottom and when it is fairly solid, cover the pan with a plate and flip it on to the plate and then return the uncooked side of the tortilla to the pan and finish cooking.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Playa Siempreviva

Playa Siempreviva


I saw that it was supposed to be sunny and warm on Tuesday so I thought that I’d go to bed early the night before, get up early, do some work, and then take an extended bike ride to make up for a week of rain. I did go to bed early but got up a half hour later, turned on the light, and read until 3 a.m. I picked up a Spanish translation of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms ( Adiós a las Armas) at the Sunday flea market for 1€. I don’t care if that flea market is a den of thieves as many people claim; I get some good stuff there.

It was very easy for me to read and I must have ripped through 100 pages or so before I passed out. A lot of that is dialogue which is really easy, but still, can’t you just let me be a little proud of myself? The only word that I bothered to look up (acaparar = to horde, corner, monopolize) I came across this morning again in an article in El País and I couldn’t remember what it meant. I really fucking hate that and I think this means I’m some sort or idiot (algún especie de idiota).

So I didn’t get up early and now it’s already 11:30 a.m. They weren’t lying about the weather but with the time change I really don’t need to get out of the house so early for my rides. The warmest part of the day is a lot later and I have light until well past 8 p.m. I’m trying to calculate how long I’ll have to ride to go from “Fat, lazy slob” to “Buff stud.” If you check actuarial tables you will see that it isn’t possible, but I’m going to give it the old college try.

I have less than a week before my five month anniversary here in Spain and I really want to feel good about my Spanish when I reach that milestone (hito, now how did I pull that word out of my culo?). The words just keep piling up and as unsatisfied as I am with my spoken Spanish, I can read the stuff pretty well these days. I hope that my speaking will catch up.

I have decided that I haven’t been working nearly as hard at Spanish as I could (although I think that I work harder than any illegal immigrant at learning the language of the host country). I need to watch more TV. I am currently reading Plenilunio (Full Moon) by the very talented Antonio Muñoz Molina.

The good news is that the bike trail is finished all the way to Pinedo beach, which is about 10 kilometers from my place. The hardest part of my bike ride when I head south is dodging cars and buses, and playing chicken with mopeds on my way out of town. Now I can get on the bike path at Aragon Avenue, which is about a half a block from my front door, and stay on it until the end of Pinedo beach. From there you have to get back on the highway—at least until the next stretch is finished. I really don’t mind the highway down there because it has a wide shoulder and the drivers are used to plenty of cyclists.

There is a wild flower that is all over the dunes on this section of the coast. I remember them from living in Greece, although I have long since forgotten the Greek name. They have a sweet aroma like pancake syrup. I took a picture of the plant so that I could look it up when I got home. My roommate not only knew the vulgar name for it, but also the Latin. I’ll stick with the vulgar, as I’ve already forgotten the Latin. It’s called “siempreviva,” or “always alive.” I call the beach in this photo “Playa Siempreviva.”

Monday, April 02, 2007

Pollo en Pepitoria

Another Spanish Specialty

Almost every meal I make happens spontaneously, kind of like a car accident but usually a lot harder to clean up after. I rarely say to myself, “I think I’ll make chicken cacciatore tonight,” and then go out and make it happen. I usually start out by thinking to myself, “I can probably get enough nutrients from the beer I drink and the free peanuts that come with it and skip cooking,” before I devolve into whatever meal planning I eventually stumble into at some point in the evening. This could mean some dried figs and a glass of milk or a full-blown cooking orgy—depending on a host of variable factors that even I don’t fully understand.

This meal began with a cup of coffee. I went to my usual hangout for a cup of café Americano. I like to sit outside and read their copies of the fine Spanish magazine called Magazine. I read this week’s edition from cover to cover, finished my coffee, and headed home. I stopped short after a few steps after remembering that my favorite butcher shop, located right next door to the café, is open on Saturday evenings. I needed something for Sunday’s meal. I did an about-face and walked into the shop.

My butcher was taking care of a woman customer who was buying a truly prodigious amount of meat—my kind of gal. My butcher loves to talk and he was going a-mile-a-minute when I walked in and closed the door behind me. The woman was from Ecuador and he told her that his wife was from Colombia. They went back and forth over her meat order as he talked about his visit to Colombia and what shitty drivers they are there and how the cocaine dealers run the country and how the food is really good but they don’t have very good pork there like in Spain.. I don’t think that he even came up for air as he kept up an admirable stream-of-consciousness monologue about meat and poultry, the political situation in Colombia, all the while pumping her full of questions about her native land.

She ordered a half of a gallina and I told him that I’d like the other half in an effort to spare him the trouble of putting away the other half, but he was too involved in the story he was telling to pay me any mind. The woman looked at me sympathetically because it was obvious that he wasn’t listening. He was telling her about the time he was in her country. He said that he was in some city named after a saint but he couldn’t remember which saint. He began to rattle off a list of names in an effort to jog his memory of the patron of the Ecuadorian city he had visited, “Antonio? Juan? Jose? Jaime? Cristobal? No, era Cristobal.” She looked at me and I at her. I think we both realized that this guy was slightly nuts. I gave her a frightened face and she almost cracked up laughing.

I always welcome the wait when I am in his shop and I will often let someone go ahead of me so that I have more time to decide. I also learn from the way other people order. The Ecuadorian woman finished her order and I was ready. I got some dried sausages and the other half of the monster chicken that she had ordered in front of me. I’d worry about what I would make with it later.

That’s usually the way it works here. You buy whatever looks good that day in the market and figure out how to cook it when you get home. Today I had a gallina, or hen, or chicken on steroids. I wasn’t really sure what it was but it looked good and my butcher assured me that it was great in stews and soups. I trusted him as I always do.

When I got home I came across a recipe for Pollo en Pepitoria at www.notesfrompain.com. I couldn’t very well copy their recipe verbatim without feeling like a plagiarist so I looked up about ten variations of this traditional Catalan dish and morphed them all into the one I eventually used.

To accompany this dish I made lentils which are a staple of my diet. I pre-soaked the lentils earlier in the day in cold water. I diced an onion, some garlic, green pepper, and some long red pepper thing in olive oil. After cooking them for a few minutes I added the lentils along with some chicken stock. I seasoned the dish with salt, pepper, cumin, and a bit of oregano. They were ready in a few minutes and turned out very well. I can cook beans in my sleep as I’ve done it for so long.

I also wanted rice to go with this dish and I bought some sort of brown variety at the local market. I have pretty much lived on rice for most of my life but I have never, not once, cooked it myself. I have made risotto and other types of dishes that require rice, but I have never just cooked a pot of plain rice. I have relied on a rice cooker as does every self-respecting Asian. I have had nothing but perfect rice ever since my family bought its first rice cooker when we lived in Hawaii when I was 15. Now I was forced to cook rice without a rice cooker. I’d rather walk a tightrope without a net.

I actually had to Google how to cook rice. I was fairly overwhelmed by all of the variations and after reading through about ten recipes I became extremely intimidated. “It’s fucking rice,” I thought to myself, “How hard can it be?” I’m so used to dumping rice into a rice cooker, adding double the amount of water, pressing a button, and having perfect rice a few minutes later. Note to self: find a fucking rice cooker here in Spain.

The rice turned out OK. I’ve definitely had better—like every other time that I have made rice using a rice cooker. It wasn’t anything a lot of butter couldn’t fix. Now all that I had to do was to make the main dish.

Pollo en Pepitoria

Chicken cut into pieces
1 onion finely chopped
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
Flour
Olive oil
12 toasted almonds (ground)
2 hard boiled eggs
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock (or water)
3 Bay leaves
Salt + Pepper
Saffron pinch

Wash the chicken pieces, allow to dry, season with salt and pepper, and then cover with flour. Heat about ¼ cup of olive oil in a deep skillet and when it begins to smoke, brown the chicken pieces a few at a time. Remove the chicken when browned. Pour off some of the oil and sauté the onion, and garlic in the same pan. Add white wine, stock, bay leaves, and saffron. When the pan comes to a boil, add the chicken pieces. Allow this to simmer at low temperature until the chicken is tender. Crumple the hard-boiled egg yokes into the pan along with the ground almonds and saffron. Just before serving add the chopped hard-boiled egg whites to the pan.