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Friday, February 29, 2008

Conservative Ideals, R.I.P.

William F. Buckley (1926-2008)
If a man is not a liberal at 20 he has no heart; if he is not a conservative at 40 he has no brain.

This quote, or some variation of it, has been misattributed to Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, among others. Most people have heard it and too many have repeated it. The popularity of this quote far exceeds its cleverness. It implies that a conservative viewpoint is one based on the wisdom that comes with age and that liberal ideals are held only by those who are either young, stupid, or perhaps both. I certainly am not in agreement with any of this, not even when I first heard it at age 19 or so. I was a liberal then and have remained so over the course of my entire life. I have no plans to change my political views and have felt that the things I believed in when I was twenty still hold true today. I also think that I wouldn’t trust someone who has completely switched sides in the whole conservative/liberal argument. Either you were wrong before or you are wrong now. Perhaps you have always been wrong. I think this is the case for the American conservative movement over the past 50 years, a movement often spearheaded by William F. Buckley.

Buckley wrote more books than many people read in their lives. I read my fair share of his works and I was especially fond of his sailing memoirs. I remember reading an interview in which he talked about how fast he was able to write. Back when I was in college I found this to be the most amazing human feat imaginable. I also was fond of the story he told about how a waiter approached him one day and said that he enjoyed his writing but that Buckley should stop using so many big words. The waiter constantly had to look things up in the dictionary (sesquipedalian seems to have been coined to describe Buckley). A couple years later the waiter approached Buckley again and thanked him for taking his earlier advice. I’m sure my vocabulary was greatly improved by reading his books in my youth. He actually died while sitting at his desk writing something or other.

As much as I may have disagreed with nearly every political idea put forth by Mr. Buckley, I always admired his writing style, his energy, and his intellect. In these times of churlish political debate, it is hard not to look back almost fondly on the mostly civil discourse he conducted with his ideological rivals. It is ironic that the conservatives became more truculent and less accommodating when the far right Christians were adopted into the Republican Party. I somehow think that Buckley saw these oafs as the new brown shirts of the conservatives. I doubt that he was proud to have them on board. It’s kind of like the joke about the man whose son thinks that he is a chicken. Someone asks him why he doesn’t take his son to see a doctor and the man replies, “I would but I need the eggs.” Buckley was probably embarrassed to share his political party with the Jesus freaks but he needed their votes.

I also happen to think that Buckley was completely wrong. I think that core conservative values are mistaken, if not completely counterfeit. One of the tenets of the American conservative movement is that private industry is more efficient than government and therefore most of the services of a society should be left to the private sector. Health care is a shining example of the fallacy of this position. We are quickly realizing that our private health care system is a huge failure, at least for the vast majority of Americans who either have no health insurance or have inadequate insurance coverage. Every other industrialized nation has a state-run health care system. By most indicators their systems work better than ours. If we are to change our system now we are in the unenviable position of having to remove the shackles of the powerful insurance companies, companies who don’t provide a bit of health care. Canada was able to make their transition years ago before the big insurance companies completely dominated the industry. Buckley demonized “socialized medicine” as a communist invention and one America should avoid like…well, like communism. Most Americans now agree that we should have a government-controlled single payer system like they have in most European countries.

Buckley greatly admired the economist Milton Freidman (1912-2006). They both advocated minimizing the role of government so that the free market could work to solve societal problems. Their “rising tide raises all ships” model of social welfare was called the “trickle down theory” by Ronald Reagan. I believe their policies have proven to be almost complete failures for everyone but America’s richest citizens. Freidman actually used to hold up the charity donated by Britain’s rich during the early years of the industrial revolution as an example of how the private sector would care for the poor in his brave new world of markets completely unhindered by government interference. Unfortunately for Buckley, Freidman, Reagan, and the rest of America’s conservative movement, the facts have had an annoying way of destroying their arguments. You only need to look at those societies in the west that have chosen to pursue more liberal policies to see the failure of America’s experiment in conservative politics.

When you compare the living standards in America to most of the social democracies in Western Europe it is difficult to see why anyone would copy our example in the United States. The societies created there are not economic or political theories; they are functioning nations which have done a much better job than America of distributing wealth and providing necessary services for all citizens. Tax rates are much higher in Europe than in America but people expect their governments there to do a lot more for them than we do in America.

I write this while living in Spain where I have been able to see first-hand the benefits of socialism, the dirtiest of dirty words in America. Even the Spanish conservative parties would be considered very liberal in America. It’s not as if Spain is without problems but they seem intent on bringing everyone along to a better future, not just the wealthiest few. There seems to be a spirit of cooperation in Europe that is lacking in America and its winner-take-all brand of free-market capitalism.

At least this is the way I see it in the year 2008. Things could change and history could prove me to be dead wrong. I doubt this will come about and it certainly won’t be any time soon. I have held the political and economic views I have now since I was a teenager. As I have gained a bit of wisdom over the years it has only served to reinforce my politics. If the quote I mocked is valid then I have had both a heart and a brain, or neither, my entire life.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Tour of the Valencia Community

El Palmar, Spain

We are in the middle of the Vuelta Ciclista de la Comunidad Valencia, Valencia’s answer to the Tour de France. Ours is a modest little affair that only lasts from February 26 until March 1st. The race is five stages that show off the beauty of this area. There is daily television coverage with some of the best aerial photography that you’ll see of Valencia. I have pedaled over many of the same roads as the riders in the “Vuelta” and I have coasted past all of the beautiful landmarks televised by the race’s helicopter. I wish that all of you could see what a great place this is to ride a bike. Along with the physical beauty of the mountains and the Mediterranean, you are also treated to Roman ruins, ancient villages, and fortresses that go back to the dawn of civilization in these parts.

The weather has been as spectacular as the scenery the past few days and I have been racking up a lot of cycling miles of my own. Yesterday I went to a little village in the middle of the Albufera nature preserve called El Palmar. El Palmar is almost like an island in the middle of the vast, shallow wetland of the Albufera. There is a single narrow side road to El Palmar that branches off from the coast road. There are a few very narrow bridges along the road that stop traffic in one direction if there happens to be opposing traffic—something a bit rare during the week when Al Palmar seems practically deserted. The road is great place to bird-watch. The wetlands here attract herons, storks, cormorants, ducks, and gulls—and those are just the birds I can identify. There is lots of agriculture here, mostly rice paddies and orange trees, but the main industry of El Palmar seems to be restaurants.

During the week this place is quiet but on weekends—especially when there is good weather—it is a sort of Mecca for Valencianos looking for restaurants that serve paella. I have never had paella here. It’s an hour by bike to El Palmar. An hour return after eating paella would be a bit of a chore. I usually just ride around town, take a few pictures, drink some water, and head back. Not exactly the gourmet’s tour of the city but it is a bike connoisseur’s ride from Valencia. Because this area is so flat I think that this ride is within the capabilities of anyone who can ride a bike. The bike path takes you most of the way to El Palmar. The trail stops at El Saler beach but from there you can ride along some abandoned dirt roads that take you right up to the turn-off for El Palmar. The beach road can be very busy on weekends and holidays and should be avoided at all costs. I try to limit my exposure to automobiles as much as possible here; it’s what separates me from the animals—at least the road kill type of animals.

The big bike race will be coming through this little corner of the Valencia Community on Saturday and then finish in downtown Valencia. The race is broadcast live so I’ll have to choose whether to watch it on TV at home or stake out a section of road along the course. I get a kick out of seeing the great aerial shots of where I ride. The views of the fortresses of Sagunto and Xátiva were spectacular—almost as good as seeing them for myself.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Product Placement

Product placement is all the rage in marketing these days. Product placement is when filmmakers have their characters using actual brand names in their pictures to hawk the items. I don’t know how I feel about this further incursion of industry into what little artistic freedom exists in film today, but it looks like something that is here to stay for a while, so get used to it. I am also sure that it must be an effective way to sell shit or else businesses wouldn’t be pouring money into movies to have their products shoe-horned into a film.

I wonder if the handgun industry has been paying off Hollywood to have their products used in the tens of thousands of on-screen murders we see in movies? If the gun industry has been paying off filmmakers it has been money very well spent. There are approximately 250 millions guns in circulation in America. That’s probably something like one gun for everyone over 7 years of age—not to say that there aren’t more than a few grade schoolers out there packing heat. So this product placement is really a fantastic idea. Not only does it sell the intended product, it also seems to encourage people to use those products. We have something like 10,000 gun deaths a year in America. People are shooting up classrooms and shopping malls on an almost weekly basis. If I had something to sell I would definitely invest in this product placement thing.

I can think of no products besides the air that we breathe that have had more placement in movies than guns. Guns and the destruction they cause have filled TV and movie screens since film was invented. Movies do a fantastic job of glamorizing guns and the violence and mayhem they bring to almost any party. Product placement is all about selling a lifestyle associated with the featured good. The message of many movies is that guns are cool, guns are empowering. Just look at the diseased assholes responsible for the wave of mass killings we have experienced recently in America. A bigger bunch of losers would be hard to find anywhere and I’m quite sure that none of those guys had the balls to so much as look another dude in the eye when they were slinking down the street on their bellies. Give these creeps easy access to deadly firearms and suddenly they are able to act out all of their tough-guy fantasies. Where did they get these fantasies and the vision of the gun as the ultimate vehicle for empowerment? Movies!

The message of Hollywood practically screams out, “Hey you, yeah you, you loser asshole, you limp-dick coward. Get a gun and people will respect you.” I’d go out and buy a gun right now and blow away a few inconsiderate drivers but guns are kind of hard to buy in Spain. I guess that I’ll just have to keep giving them the finger. I can’t imagine Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood being satisfied with anything less than blowing the brains out of a driver who cut them off in traffic. There is no way that anyone as well-armed as Clint or Charles is ever going to actually allow another driver to merge in front of them. Hollywood honor dictates that you need to make line-cutters suffer. Criminals need to die for their crimes. What are you, some sort of sissy who believes in due process and the American justice system?

Even if you did believe in the American justice system or turning the other cheek, how can these effeminate ideals have powerful and well-financed lobbies behind them like the gun industry? How can you use product placement in a movie with concepts like non-violence and understanding? Even the finest minds in advertising would be scratching their heads trying to figure that out. What’s easier to sell on the big screen, a shoot out or trying to talk through your minor misunderstandings? How does anyone make money in forgiveness?

Completely unrelated quote of the day:

Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit.
- W. Somerset Maugham

Friday, February 22, 2008

Enlightenment vs Ignorance

Flag of my grandfather

France’s Unpaid Debt

Americans have a right to protest going to war with Iraq. The French do not. They owe us the independence they flaunt in our face at the U.N.

The French have not earned their right to oppose President Bush's plans to attack Iraq.

On the other hand, I have.

Andy Rooney, CBS News, Feb. 16, 2003

I didn’t really need another reason to despise the hopelessly stupid Andy Rooney, but he offered up a good one in this piece he wrote back on the eve of the war in Iraq. I always hated his annoying observations and never found him to be even remotely humorous—kind of a drawback seeing how he is supposed to be a humorist. It was one of his forays into punditry that really turned me against him. I always tried to avoid him on TV and in print so it was quite by accident that I saw his piece where he mocked Curt Cobain’s suicide. I learned that not only was Rooney incredibly unfunny, he was also a huge asshole. He certainly renewed this fact for me with this idiotic opinion he posted for the idiotic news station that employs him.

Rooney worked as a reporter during WWII but from what he writes you would get the idea that he single-handedly beat the Germans. This attitude that “we” saved France is shared by millions of Americans who have never been near a military recruiting station. But this essay isn’t really about Mr. Rooney, nor is it a history lesson. I quote his asinine article because it is emblematic of the anti-French views held by too many stupid Americans. From the way Rooney and other misguided Americans seem to resent the fact that France and the French have any opinion that differs from theirs, you would have thought that the Fascists were the victors in WWII. After all, isn’t the right to have opposing views one of the things we fought for in Europe?

I think that the anti-French attitude of some Americans is an inferiority complex directed at people whom they believe to be more sophisticated than they are, an inferiority complex based in fact if you are a stupid hick. Hicks also harbor a lot of animosity towards New Yorkers for the same reason. In fact, in the south I believe that “New Yorker” is used as a euphemism for liberal, well-educated Jew. In this same linguistic shorthand hicks use “French” as a euphemism for intellectual—their most hated enemy. But this essay isn’t about the moronic anti-French views held by morons. No matter how stupid their opinions may be, I, unlike Mr. Rooney, feel they have the right to hold those opinions (although I can’t understand why CBS would allow Rooney to air his fucking retarded views).

There are a lot of Americans who hold some pretty awful opinions about Latin Americans. Often these opinions are simply evidence of very thinly-veiled racism. They are the same sort of opinions held by the anti-French mob. They are opinions which are mostly born out of ignorance and intolerance for anything different. In his book about his travels in America, The Lost “Continental, Bill Bryson mocks the Mexican music he comes across on his car radio. In one clumsy attempt at humor he waves off an entire culture that shares a few thousand miles of border with America. I have heard many Americans become angry when they so much as hear someone speaking Spanish. I think that this fear of any foreign language is what pollutes the minds of the Andy Rooneys of America.

Instead of making a stupid joke about Mexican ranchera muisic, wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Bryson had bothered to understand it just a little? Instead of gnashing your teeth and complaining about spics, wouldn’t it be easier and more fulfilling to take a little time to learn a bit of Spanish. Instead of passing along apocryphal accounts of the rudeness of French people, travel there yourself and at least form your own opinion. I have been there many times myself and have yet to find any sort of rudeness. In fact, I have found just the opposite. I find people there to be quite friendly, especially if you bother to learn some of their language. I would never travel anywhere without learning at least a bit of the local language. I think it is rude not to be able to say things like “please” and “thank you.” The more of the language you know, the better will be your experience. I have always found that enlightenment beats out ignorance every time.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Celtic-Barcelona 2-3

Of the three teams representing Spain in the Champions League final 16, only Barcelona won their first match in this head-to-head elimination round. Real Madrid lost at Roma 2-1, and Fenerbahce beat Sevilla 3-2 at their home stadium in Turkey. Barcelona came from behind twice at Celtic Park stadium to beat Celtic 2-3. It was one of those athletic events in which the final score tells very little. It was one of the most dazzling displays of football brilliance I have ever watched. Barcelona dominated the match from start to finish. At times it looked like the Harlem Globetrotters playing the beleaguered Generals as Barça controlled the ball for up to 75% of the game in the second half and produced dozens of scoring opportunities.

Just about every player on the Barcelona squad is a superstar that any other team on the planet would scoop up in a second. It’s miraculous that Barça only scored three goals as they put on a clinic of passing and creative play. Ronaldinho played about as well as he can play and was actually given an ovation by the Celtic fans when he left late in the game to be replaced by Eto’o. Unfortunately for Celtic, Leo Messi played the entire match and scored twice with another goal by Thierry Henry. The win all but assures that Barcelona will advance to the next round.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kitchen Iconoclast

I get a kick out of how conservative Valencianos can be when it comes to the recipes of their emblematic dishes. Change a single ingredient of traditional paella Valenciana and you are going to get an earful of abuse and complaints. I suppose I see their point. These dishes have been around for centuries and have come to define the people in this corner of the Mediterranean. It took their ancestors a long time to develop the dishes Valencianos call their own so why would you want to tinker with them? If these recipes were good enough for grandma and grandpa, they should be good enough you—especially if you are a foreigner, and worse, a guiri from Ronald McDonald Land. For Valencianos, changing a single ingredient in their dishes is almost as serious an affront to their faith (cooking and eating) as drawing a cartoon of Mohammed is for Muslims.

However, as an American I have been influenced by a dozen different national cuisines so I tend to pick and choose and experiment using all of them. I have created a few signature dishes through trial and error, innovation, and often by pure accident. Sometimes I will see a dish and just be impressed with the way it looks. I will then set out to make a dish that looks similar to the one that I admired but without consulting the original recipe; I’ll just wing it. I will detour from a recipe of a familiar dish and use ingredients that I think would go well with the cooking technique involved. This was the case with my latest blasphemy against Valenciano cooking.

I started with the basis concept of the Valencian staple arroz al horno (baked rice), or arross al forn in Valenciano. I had just tasted a risotto someone made at a dinner party in which they used spinach. I thought spinach would go well with baked rice. I also though that since I was going to veer from the traditional recipe I may as well go all the way and really switch things around. Instead of using garbanzo beans I opted for garrafón which are large butter beans (lima beans?) common in Mediterranean cooking.

Spinach Baked Rice

2 cups rice
5 cups stock (chicken, meat, or vegetable)
2 cups cooked beans
1 cup peas
Spinach (either fresh or frozen)
1 onion
2 cloves of garlic
2 tomatoes
3 potatoes
For seasoning I used saffron, cumin, and salt.
Some sort of meat is optional

Peel the potatoes and boil until they are cooked most of the way. Bring the stock to a boil. Sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil and when translucent, add the chopped spinach. Cook only a minute or so until the spinach wilts. Add the cup of peas and remove from fire when peas have heated up. Place this in your baking dish. Sauté the rice in a bit of olive oil for just a minute or two as with risotto. Add the rice to the baking dish and mix with the vegetables. I usually heat the pre-cooked beans in with the stock. Usually the beans that come in a can are a bit under-cooked so they need a few minutes to be more al dente. I added a saffron packet and ground cumin to the boiling stock before I pour it into the baking dish. If you are going to use any sort of meat in this dish it also needs to be cooked almost thoroughly before going into the oven. I used two different types of sausage common here (morcillaand blanquets that don’t need to be pre-cooked. Add the slices tomatoes to the dish along with the cooked meat. Cut the potatoes in ¼ inch slices and place them on the top of the entire dish. I like to salt the top of the potatoes. The potatoes sort of protect the rest of the dish from the heat. Bake at about °200 Celsius. After about 30 minutes in the oven you may want to place a sheet of aluminum foil over the dish to keep the potatoes from burning. It takes about an hour to cook but you can tell when it’s done because the stock has all been absorbed.

This was one of the better things that I have come up with in my cross-cultural cooking fusion. I think the dish would also go well with chicken as the meat or even some sort of fish. I think that you could also sprinkle parmesan cheese on top of it a few minutes before you pull it out of the oven. As I said, I mostly just borrow the cooking technique and the basic idea; from there it’s all fair game.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dumb Americans?

After reading yet another article in the New York Times about yet another author who has penned yet another book about how dumb we are in America, I decided to do the dumb man’s excuse for research: I queried “dumb Americans” on Google. Guess what I found? I found dozens and dozens of web sites devoted to exposing dumb Americans. I found that I have some fellow adult countrymen who don’t posses the sort of knowledge one would expect from a modestly educated ten year old. There are stupid people in America? I was shocked! From the un-ironic manner in which Americans were mocked by people from other countries it seems that we have a monopoly on stupid people.

There used to be an unwritten rule in my neighborhood when we were kids: I could pick on my little brother but if anyone else did they did so at their peril. I sometimes feel the same way about America. I am an extremely vocal critic of all things from the United States of America, but I often get irked by people from other countries pointing out our faults. To all of the people manning web sites which chronicle the stupidity of my fellow citizens, I have to point out the irony that they are doing it on a mostly American-made technology. Wozniak and Jobs and Gates were also American, if my shallow mind and poor memory serve me.

This essay isn’t out to defend America against her critics; it is meant to ask the question, “Am we stupid?” “Why is we stupid?” “Stupid bad?” “Stupid cool?” In short, the answers are “yes,” “long story,” “yes,” and, “no.” It seems like the rest of the world is obsessed with America’s collective IQ so I will try to shed some light on this topic from my uniquely America-in-exile perspective.

Let me start by saying that, for the most part, Americans are herd animals, like just about everyone else in the world. The difference is that we think that we are all lone wolves, people who buck the system, fiercely independent free-thinkers, and rugged individualists. Few of us will admit to being conformists. We got these ideas about ourselves where we get a lot about how we feel about the world: from movies and television. Cowboys represent a very small slice of the American demographic pie yet we have been told that this is the archetypical American male. Many of us see the cowboy as the embodiment of all the best qualities a man should posses. If you look at this breed closely you may wonder why we see him so fondly. Cowboys were, after all, uneducated itinerant farm workers, often prone to violence and alcoholism, rarely in the company of women, and, for the most part, filthy.

They don’t make too many westerns these days, thank fucking god. Hollywood has replaced the cowboy with a new American model: the unapologetic dumb fuck. Whenever I am in a discussion about film* I ask people if they can name a single movie protagonist who is an intellectual and portrayed in a favorable light. Take your time. I can wait. Get back to me tomorrow or the next day on that one.

Now name a movie protagonist who is “cool” and almost completely stupid. The entire Adam Sandler filmography comes to mind. You could say the same of the movies of almost every other alumni of Saturday Night Live. The stoner character Sean Penn played in Fast Times at Ridgemont High was stupid because he smoked way too much weed. Filmmakers copied that archetype but made their creations stupid without the excuse of marijuana. As far as I know, Keanu Reaves almost always plays a dumbshit who is drug-free. He was just naturally and willfully stupid.

The new cowboy in American pop culture is the hip-to-be-stupid male. Instead of a Stetson he sports a spiked haircut, falling-down-around-the-waist jeans, and a been-there-done-that attitude without having gone anywhere and without having done anything. Too cool for school, too lazy to read, our new hero gets the girl and the money without ever trying very hard. Trying hard usually means having passion for something and that isn’t cool—unless it has to do with sports. In the classic battle of the slobs against the snobs, it’s the slob with whom most of us seem to identify. Hollywood doesn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable for being dumb. They make movies that reinforce the idea that we are all ignorant, video-game-obsessed infants who can’t be bothered to read a book or actually know anything outside of the ephemeral tripe known as pop culture.

If smart people are favorably viewed by Hollywood they are usually freakishly intelligent people who had no control over their intellectual development, or they are comic-book smart. Movies like Goodwill Hunting, Rain Man, James Bond, and A Beautiful Mind are examples. Intellectuals and smart people are often viewed as effeminate or wicked. It is interesting to note that villains are often portrayed as bookish and artsy. They often listen to classical music or actually appreciate fine art.

Smart to us often means something other than intelligence, at least in the new way of rationalizing our stupidity. People are fond of saying things like, “He’s book-smart but not really smart.” Our definition of smart seems to be at odds with the rest of the world. Americans even view the smart car as being anything but smart (this at a time when gas prices are skyrocketing). We see the Humvee as smart because you can crash it into a tank and walk away unharmed.

It is rare to find films where ordinary people, through personal diligence, have challenged the limits of human intelligence. Physical perfection is constantly thrown in our faces in America. You can’t pick up a magazine without some chick’s ass air-brushed to within an inch of her malnourished life staring you in the face. Intellectual perfection is about as unknown as northern Alaska to the average person. We don’t seem to have a map to get us to intellectual perfection. Here’s a secret: books are the map. Health clubs and gyms sprout like mushrooms in every American city; libraries are either downsizing or closing and are being replaced by mega-bookstores. Mega-bookstores guarantee that there will always be a big pile of copies of The Da Vinci Code and The Nanny Diaries for your reading enjoyment. If you go to the library you’ll probably find that some other retard has checked out those two books forcing you to make a wiser reading choice.

Books are viewed as an optional accessory in modern-day America. My brother and I used to keep track of how many times we came across an interview with an American celebrity who admitted to never reading. If you look at pictures of the homes of celebrities in magazines like In Style and Architectural Digest you often find that they don’t have a single book, or perhaps a couple of coffee table books just for show. I guess this aversion to books is nothing recent in American culture, William Dean Howells wrote about it in The Rise of Silas Lapham in 1885. The noveau riche family is deciding on how they will adorn their new mansion. The think that books would be a nice touch and are told that they can be bought by the yard for decorative purposes, or even fake books can be substituted.

When I was deciding on a photo for this essay I tried to think of an American who represents an intellectual ideal, an emblem for the educated, an icon of the “cultural elite.” We so undervalue intellectual sophistication in America in this age of stardom that no one came readily to mind. I don’t know about you, but it freaks me the fuck out to go into someone’s home and see that they have absolutely nothing to read.

I hardly would hold myself up as any sort of example of the intellectual ideal, but a few of my personal habits serve as an illustration for this topic. I try to read at least 40 pages in Spanish every day. If I don’t read a lot in Spanish every single day I feel like I am not improving in my language skills. I think the same thing holds true for reading in general. Without a daily dose of reading you are just getting dumber and dumber.

*Talking about movies is a lot more common in most social circles than talking about literature, seeing how so few people read these days. I love it when people claim that they don’t have time to read but will sit through every piece-of-shit blockbuster that passes through the lower intestinal tract of the multiplex.

Friday, February 15, 2008

By Any Means Necessary

I try to hit the learning of Spanish on as many fronts as possible. I have to speak Spanish with my girlfriend—unless I would prefer to use Italian or Valenciano. I was at a dinner party the other night with seven other people…all of them Spanish. I only read books in Spanish. I don’t watch the English CNN on the television and suffer through some pretty lousy programming in Spanish all in the name of education. I watch as many Spanish movies as I possibly can but they just don’t make that many. What you can find a lot of are American films dubbed into Spanish.

Watching American movies dubbed into Spanish usually means seeing stuff that I would never bother with in my native language. I have said many times that I can justify sitting through just about any piece of crap movie or TV show if I feel like it is somehow improving my Spanish. A couple of American movies I watched recently in Spanish I wouldn’t have touched with a ten foot pole in English. The Bucket List and No Reservations (Ahora o Nunca and Sin Reservas in Spanish, respectively) are both typical American multiplex fodder. Both of these films are so heavily-reliant on formulas that they were probably written by a Microsoft screenplay software program.

I have to say that I find these sorts of throw-away movies a lot more enjoyable when I see them in Spanish. I guess I am too busy trying to understand every word spoken to worry too much about their incredible predictability. These kind of movies are actually perfect for advanced students of Spanish because their obvious plot developments and routine dialogue make them easier to follow.

I can think of few movies dubbed into Spanish that would be easier to understand for me than Uno de los Nuestros (Goodfellas), not because it is predictable but because I practically know it by heart in English.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Do I Sound Angry Enough?

“Listen, the stakes in November are high,” Mr. Bush told the boisterous audience in Washington. “This is an important election. Prosperity and peace are in the balance.”

New York Times, 09FEB08

Since this is coming from a president who has brought us nothing but war and economic decline during his seven years in office, I can only assume that he is urging voters to hand things over to the Democrats. It is absolutely pathetic that the Republicans are still trying to portray themselves as the only party that is capable of defending America from the terrorists seeing that they have completely fucked up the war in Iraq while allowing the situation in Afghanistan to return to pre-invasion chaos. The Bush Administration has so lowered the world’s opinion regarding our nation that even Great Britain’s view of America has dropped 33%. The dissolution of once amicable relationships has gone in both directions as a result of the Bush doctrine. France, long one of America’s staunchest allies, has been demonized by Bush for having the audacity to disagree with us on the disastrous Iraq invasion.

Bush has created new enemies for America where once none existed. It would be impossible to gauge the hate felt towards our country in the Middle East after five years of occupation in Iraq. Our President has made almost no effort to reconcile the differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians; instead he has created an even bigger source of anger in the Muslim world. The war in Iraq, since the beginning, has been an inextricable mess that is bankrupting our nation financially as well as morally.

After 9/11 Bush did not castigate a single member of America’s intelligence or law enforcement community even though we had the names of many of the perpetrators of that attack as a result of the U.S.S. Cole bombing investigation. Instead of shaking things up at the disastrously incompetent CIA, Bush chose to invade Iraq on either faulty or false evidence. Almost from the very beginning the war was mismanaged and ineffective in achieving our initial objective of securing and then rebuilding the war-ravaged country. The list of Bush failures is long and serious. I can’t think of anything that he has done right in the war on terrorism. He even botched the capture of Saddam Hussein by allowing him to be publicly lynched.

In spite of his atrocious record in office President Bush has the audacity to say that the Republicans are the only ones qualified to protect America and to bring us prosperity. If anyone still believes this myth they can only be called stupid or delusional…kind of like our President.

Do I sound angry? I hope the fuck I sound angry because I am furious. Our President has used terror to terrorize our own citizenry into following him into the most misguided foreign policy decisions in our country’s history. After five years of a bloody—not to mention horribly expensive—war in which almost nothing has gone right or according to plan, a war perpetrated on false pretenses, he now tells us that only his people can keep America safe.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Saturday at Home

Saturday at Home

It´s Saturday evening and we´re waiting for some guests to arrive for dinner. Most of the cooking has already been accomplished. I made a roasted chicken that turned out wonderfully. I just oven-roast an entire chicken that I rub with garlic, smear with olive oil, and season with salt, pepper, and oregano. I then stand it up with a half a can of beer in the body cavity so it looks like it is walking, headless in the pan. The skin cooks up really crispy. It is simple yet delicious. We also made patatas bravas, one of my favorites. The problem is that they always have a great game on TV on Saturday evenings starting at ten o´clock, right when we will be sitting down to eat. Tonight´s game is Barcelona and Sevilla—two of the better teams right now. I set the table so that I sit strategically facing the television. What? Is that being kind of a slob? I´m not going to have the sound on...unless someone scores a really cool goal. Hey, it wasn´t my idea to have a dinner tonight when Bacelona and Sevilla are slugging it out.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Learning Spanish: Chochear to be senile

Chochear to be senile

I looked that word up a while back and wrote it down in one of my notebooks. I do that with every word that I look up. I will write the name of the book that I am reading at the top of a page and then write down every word that I look up along with the definition in English. It seemed like a good system. It still seems like the only system for trying to learn a language. If anyone has a better system, please feel free to share it with me.

Some time ago I looked up the word chochear and wrote it down in a notebook. I was looking through my notebooks the other day and I noticed that I had looked up and wrote down the definition for chochear three different times…no kidding, three times. I’m not smart enough to make that up; just ask around. If I find that I wrote down the definition to this word on four separate occasions I think the irony of not remembering the Spanish word for “senile” is going to turn to despair at realizing that approaching senility may be a reason for my troubles with learning the language.

Chochear isn’t one of those truly obscure words that I have no chance of running into twice in the same lifetime in Spain. You never can tell when you’ll need to pull a word like jabalí (wild boar) out of your ass. I was in a bar the other day and there was a wild boar’s head on the wall. Had I not known the word for this animal it could have been awkward. Instead I was able to say to the bartender, “Menudo jabalí, tío!” which I think means “Cool pig, dude!” Nor is chochear one of those words that are difficult to define or have various meanings depending on the context. Take this word as an example:


1 (una cosa, enfermedad) to catch (a disease, illness)
2 (atropellar) to run over
3 (sorprender) to catch (to surprise)
4 (un chiste, una idea) to get (a joke)
5 (robar) to steal

As well as some colloquialisms like me pilla de camino meaning “it’s on my way” and pillar cacho means "to hook up." If I stay in Spain another couple years I may understand all of the nuances of that word. Of course, it probably has different meanings in Latin American Spanish.

After a year living here in Spain I have had any Latin American colloquialisms beat out of me by the locals. People will flat out correct me for saying something that is perfectly grammatical and common in Mexican Spanish. Whenever someone does correct me I point out that 180 million Mexicans might disagree with their views on the language.

I switched my accent to a Spanish version when I first arrived here. I didn’t speak it well enough at first to stick with the Latin American accent so I just thought it would make things easier if I adopted the Castilian Spanish pronunciation where they lisp the Z and Ci sounds instead of pronouncing them like an S as they do in Latin America and Andalucia. They call these places "zonas de seseo." Latin Americans who move to Spain don’t switch their accents, just like I wouldn’t start speaking like a Brit if I moved to London. A Spaniards sure as shit wouldn’t start speaking like a local if he/she moved to Mexico or Argentina. They can barely tolerate hearing a Latin accent let alone try to imitate one.

The most difficult aspect of speaking Spanish imperfectly is that it is a challenge to say anything funny. I was at a dinner party last night and the France/Spain football match was on the television. It was only a friendly game, but all of us were intently watching because it a sporting event and it’s on TV. I was sort of half-way following a conversation with someone I should have probably been paying closer attention when she asked me if I was listening. I said, “Of course I’m listening. He just said that Torres is out with an injury and the score is still tied 0-0.” Not a very sophisticated joke but it got some laughs. I’ll keep looking up words and writing down definitions. I hope the jokes will start coming easier.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Foreign Correspondence

Foreign Correspondence

A few thoughts on this letter I received today from my brother who is currently working in Toronto, Canada.

Canadians are just better people than Americans: nicer, with better civic virtues and a sense of a greater good. It’s like having Europeans in a 51st state where only cool, liberal, gracious, and classy people get to live. Canadians are humble and polite to a fault. I learned this last year in Montreal, and it is the same with the English Canadians as well as the French ones.

Toronto is safer and cleaner than any U.S. East Coast city. Traffic is murder, but their rail and subway system is magnificent. The downtown architecture is pretty impressive, not quite like Chicago or New York, but a close third. It’s so CLEAN. And of course there’s no urban blight like in Philly, D.C., or Baltimore. This is what a liberal society can produce. We should bring right-wingers here for a tour. Canadians on the whole are just better educated and much less vulgar and rude than Americans.

I have seen quite often that when anyone criticizes America or suggests that things are better elsewhere, they are accused of “hating” America. I think the opposite is true. I think that anyone who travels can see for themselves societies that do a lot better for their citizens. If you have seen how some countries do things better than we do some things in America, it is only natural that you would like to see our nation adopt these practices. I think the people who hate America are those who would have us believe that this is as good as it gets in the U.S.A. and to expect anything better is heresy.

The arrogance of many Americans, the whole “We’re #1” crowd, is doing a huge disservice to our nation. This false self-confidence reminds me of an ex-jock from high school who still thinks that he is the star quarterback when most of his classmates have passed him by years ago. This knee-jerk response of declaring that America is the greatest country in the world limits our ability to observe how other countries approach and solve problems that we also face. A lot of the time when people say that America is the best at this or that, it is contrary to the facts or even simple observation. How could anyone who has traveled to Canada or Western Europe continue to insist that the U.S. is better than any of these countries?

I think that biggest reason this notion of America’s superiority is an invention of the conservatives. If they were to concede that perhaps on some issues the Western European way of doing things is the way we should solve these problems in America, this would expose their entire philosophy as a sham to give more money to the wealthiest citizens while denying basic services for almost everyone else. If socialized medicine really works (and it does, of course) then perhaps government isn’t the evil they make it out to be (and it isn’t in a democracy because we are the government). Instead we are fed lies about how all of the countries in Western Europe are socialist hellholes on the verge of collapse. That is rather ironic seeing how the U.S. dollar is getting its ass kicked over here.

Pick just about any issue and America isn’t doing nearly as well as we should. We lag behind many Western nations in most of the meaningful indicators of a successful society. How did we ever come to accept the level of crime we have in most of our large cities? We lost our collective minds over one terrorist attack yet we acquiesce to a frighteningly high number of murders year after year. We can send an army to Iraq to fight a non-existent foe yet we can’t do anything about Philadelphia’s or Baltimore’s appalling murder rate? Send the army to Philly, or Baltimore, or South Central Los Angles.

To say that we can’t afford to fix these problems is the worst lie ever told to the American people. Of course we can afford to fix problems like crime, education, and health care. I think the war in Iraq illustrates just what kind of cash we can throw at a problem. It’s too bad that everything we are spending on Iraq is a complete waste. Contrary to popular opinion, the military is an awful vehicle to stimulate the economy. Things like welfare and social security are actually very efficient means for getting money to those Americans who most need it. A lot of Americans can’t stand to see poor people get a few dollars from the government but they think government contractors who steal millions from tax payers are the height of the free market system. It amazes me how many people feel those words, free market, have an almost sacred connotation. Try building a modern-day high speed rail network using only the private sector. You’ll end up with a joke of a rail system like Britain, or worse, the U.S.A.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Train Travel

One of the biggest news items here in Spain is the opening this month of the high speed rail link between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s two largest cities with 10 million inhabitants between them. The cities will be served by Spain’s AVE (Alta Velocidad Española, Spanish High Speed with the acronym being a play on words as “ave” means bird in Spanish) train system that will cut the travel time on this 391 mile route to just two hours and 38 minutes, slicing two hours off the previous rail time.

I have taken the Madrid-Sevilla AVE line and I have to say that it is an absolute marvel. The train covers about 538 kilometers (334 miles) in two hours and 20 minutes with one stop in Cordoba; that is a 230-kph average speed. The train is so smooth that there are no ripples in your coffee when you let it sit on the bar.

These fast trains are in direct competition with air service between cities. They are not a lot slower than commuter flights. The difference is passenger comfort and the quality of travel. Airline travel is mostly just a necessary annoyance. The incivility between passengers is barely contained on airline flights and the mere mention of a short delay often brings out the very worst in people. Train travel, to me, is the height of sophistication and civility. I love traveling by train and the journey is almost always enjoyable. I would take a train trip just for the ride. You can also work, read, sleep, and socialize on a train. On an airplane I am afraid to death to even talk to the person crammed in next to me for fear they will turn out to be a huge bore and never shut up. If you are stuck next to a dud on a train you can just walk away.

Back when I was 19 years old I traveled around Europe on a Eurail Pass and I have loved train travel ever since. I have only taken a handful of trains in the U.S. but I have enjoyed those trips as well. I have always said that if every American were forced to take a train trip, they would demand that our country improve its rail network. I’m afraid that it is a little late in the game for America to develop the sort of sophisticated rail system that Spain enjoys. We’ve let our infrastructure deteriorate for too long. We have listened to the conservative dogma that our rail system must pay for itself. Of course, no one says the same for our highways or airports which are heavily subsidized by the government.

The fact is that Spain’s AVE network is set to be profitable by 2010—something to consider the next time the U.S. government bails out a private airline or you hear about a new Interstate bridge that is going to cost a billion dollars. Trains also produce four times less carbon dioxide emission per mile than planes if anyone cares about stuff like that.

In an effort to keep up with what the future will bring, most countries in Western Europe are falling all over themselves to build high-speed rail networks. The new Madrid-Barcelona corridor will eventually lead further north to the French border near Perpignan and on to Paris.

The final 45.5km (28 mile) link to the French border is another challenge because an 8.1km (5 mile) tunnel is needed through the Pyrenees and the cost, up to €900m, will be recouped over 50 years through Spain's first-ever private franchise operation. Almost every country in Europe has state-sponsored railways to one degree or another. They view efficient mass transit as an asset and an aid to economic growth instead of a tax payer’s burden like we do in the United States. Every time Amtrak (America’s passenger rail service) needs a boost from the federal government, the conservatives are ready to pull the plug on the whole thing citing inefficiency and high costs. No one says the same for road building projects. Below are just a couple of the astronomically expensive road construction projects that Seattle faces:

The Alaskan Way Viaduct—$3.5-11.6 billion
The #520 bridge between Seattle and Bellevue—$5.9 billion
I-405 widening—$10.9 billion

All of these projects put together only involve about six miles worth or roadway. If you ask me, there doesn’t seem to be much future in the automobile.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Attention Europeans: I have never killed an Indian

I have never killed an Indian. I know that this is hard to believe with all of the cowboy movies you watch over here. I have never really cared for the genre myself—not even the movies where the white men were sort of nice to the Indians, like Dances with Wolves. I have never understood American filmmakers' fascination with these violent, uneducated, itinerant farm laborers. I never felt that this mostly apocryphal archetype represents the American ideal of individuality; for that matter I don’t really believe Americans are big into individualism, but if you guys here in Europe find them entertaining then keep on watching. Can you turn down the volume a couple notches? I can hear the shoot-outs and banshee cries through the wall in my apartment.

You probably won’t believe me when I tell you that I absolutely hate John Wayne. He never actually killed an Indian in real life either, although in dozens of films he was something like Hitler to the Indians. John Wayne was too much of a physical coward to do harm to anyone, let alone do battle with a Native American warrior. He never even bothered to volunteer in the war against the real Hitler. Hell, the Duke may have never met a real Native American. When you look at those old films you can see that they just used white dudes with lots of make-up to portray Indians—Hollywood’s lighter toned but equally-as-insulting version of black face. Hollywood either used make-up to create Indians or they hired Anthony Quinn. He was Hollywood's idea of ethnic diversity for about 50 years of cinema.

So stop looking at me funny when I come into the bar where you are watching some hoary old horse opera. Now I know what Germans must feel like when they are traveling and they interrupt someone watching Hogan’s Heroes or Saving Private Ryan. All of the atrocities committed in those cowboy movies and television shows happened before I was even born. My forefathers came to America well after the west was won, or whatever euphemism for genocide you care to use for that unfortunate episode in American history. If I happen to laugh at what is on the television in the bar it’s not because I have no empathy for the plight of Native Americans; it’s just that I think that it is funny to see Gunsmoke dubbed into Greek, or Gary Cooper speaking Catalan.

Twenty years from now, if I live that long…cough…must…eat…cough...less…pork, twenty years from now I’ll be telling people sitting in a bar somewhere in Europe watching an American war movie about Iraq that I wasn’t down with that caper. I never liked George Bush when he was president (It feels good to say that in the past tense, even if it is, at this time, hypothetical). I didn’t vote for him twice. Because we vote in secret I can’t prove that I didn’t vote for Bush so perhaps I should take the canceled checks I sent to his two opponents (Gore and Kerry) and wear them around my neck. You’ll just have to take my word on the part about not killing any Native Americans. Can we change the channel?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Thanks for Nothing

The legacy of George Bush

Source: Think Progress

As if any thinking person needed further evidence that President Bush has been a complete failure these past seven years, we now have it in an easy-to-read graph form. These past years have not just been a failure of the President but of the entire neo-con message. They have had an almost unprecedented freedom to carry out most of their major decisions and everything they have touched has been a disaster. If you are still a Republican supporter at this stage in the nightmare, there is no helping you. You are like the band on the Titanic except you don’t give aid and comfort to the victims; you try to blame others for your bad policies.

I’ll be the first to admit that statistics can be made to support or attack anything but I think this chart simply spells out what all of us have been feeling lately. I have had the displeasure of witnessing the dollar’s more than 11% decline against the euro in just the past eight months or so. Any American with an automobile has seen gasoline prices skyrocket since the Iraq invasion. Anyone who can read will tell you that the war in Iraq has been a tragedy seemingly without end. We don’t need graphs or statistics to tell us as much.

During most of the Bush administration there has been little in the way of criticism from other conservatives concerning the Bush policies. I never read a single prediction by a right-wing pundit before the war that bore any resemblance to what actually happened once we invaded a sovereign Middle East nation. Only the most foolhardy conservative zealots actually believe that America is safer now than before the invasion; only an idiot could think that we can actually “win” or "finish what we started" in Iraq.

The entire conservative platform is based on theories and falsehoods. They claim to be for smaller government yet have inherited a budget surplus and turned it into a $731 billion deficit. What they mean by smaller government is fewer public services and more pork for leeches like Halliburton and Blackwater. Conservatives still insist that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. This is after the past few years of seeing the biggest bankruptcies in U.S. history. Dick Cheney made $32 million in 2000 as CEO of Halliburton, a private government defense contractor. It’s hard for me to imagine how a government agency could be considered efficient while paying one of its employees $32 million a year, but I’m no accountant.

Conservatives have convinced many Americans that cutting taxes will answer all of life’s problems. Most of their tax cuts have gone to the wealthiest Americans who care little about mundane things like public transportation or health care, things you’ll never be able to purchase with your measly tax break. Conservatives would have you believe that the social democracies of Western Europe that have national health care and great public transportation are socialist hellholes unfit for humans or that they are all on the brink of collapse (kind of ironic since the dollar has tumbled nearly 50% against the euro under Bush). Imagine living in a city with public transportation so efficient that you wouldn’t need to drive a car every day. Think of the money you would save by not owning a car as a tax break. Think of the billions of dollars that Americans spend every year on health insurance and how much better our health system would be if we spent that money on actually treating patients.

The Rolling Stones, in their partying heyday, never trashed a hotel room as badly as Bush has destroyed the American economy and our national reputation—and he still has a year to go. All of these dire economic indicators and we are plunging into a recession!

Bush has spent the years since 9/11 trying to scare the shit out of us with stories of boogey men Muslim extremists squatting in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. The trouble is that Bush didn’t think it was necessary to find out the exact location of that cave so those actually responsible for 9/11 got a get-out-of-jail card. Of course, the only threat they pose now is merely theoretical. If we had an intelligence operation in America that was even remotely functioning we could have prevented the attack in the first place but that is beside the point this far into the game.

Bush has completely ignored the threat posed by global warming even though a consensus of the world’s scientists agree that this is a serious issue and one that must be addressed sooner rather than later. This real threat is ignored and anyone who talks about global warming is a Chicken Little, scientific studies be damned.

The theme for the Bush years seems to be "Stay the course." He has delivered on that promise. In matters of foreign policy, economics, environmental issues, and just about every other presidential responsibility Bush has struck icebergs and kept going full steam ahead. He and his cronies all have lifeboats, don't you worry about them. It's the rest of us passengers who should be concerned.

Fútbol News

Fútbol News

It’s been a season of disappointments and failures for Valencia Club de Fútbol. At this point in the season I suppose there is a chance the team could be relegated to the second division next year (The three bottom teams in the first division sink into the second division while the three top teams in the second division move up). “Caída Libre,” or “Free Fall” was the headline after a recent Valencia loss. Ironically, after the team's most recent loss they were able to advance in Spain’s Copa del Rey when they split a pair of games with Atlético Madrid. Valencia advanced by scoring more away goals than Atlético. Talk about the skin of our teeth. It looks like next year will be about rebuilding as Valencia did not qualify for the coming Champions League. I'm going to go way out on a limb and say that winning is more fun than losing.

The good news is that the round of 16 of the Champions League begins on February 19 with three Spanish clubs (Real Madrid, FC Sevilla, and Barcelona) still in the competition. As far as the Champions League is concerned, I'd say that Barcelona has more potential but Madrid is playing much better right now. I suppose this means that Sevilla will outperform both of those clubs.