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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New Crib for the Turtle

New Crib for the Turtle

When I first came to Valencia I made the usual sweeping generalizations about gypsies as do most people here. I figured that anyone occupying the the lower levels of society here were gypsies, or gitanos. What I have come to understand is that there are few real gypsies in Valencia (50,000 in the whole community), that even the term gitano is often used derogatorily, that the whole issue of gypsies is rather complex, and that most of the people that who I thought were Spanish gypsies are Romanian. Whether the Romanians I see in the street are ethnic gypsies is another matter. I have read very little about gypsies since I have arrived in Spain. I read an investigation into the gitano culture of the southern Andalusian city of Málaga last year in El País. Come to think of it, that's the only thing I have read about Spanish gypsies as far as in depth investigations into their lifestyle.

A common sight in the streets of Valencia is someone pushing a shopping cart laden with items pilfered from the refuse receptacles. I labeled these shopping carts as “gypsy pick-up trucks” back before I was aware of the ethnic origin of the folks driving the carts. I wasn't trying to be derogatory, in fact I feel a certain kinship with other people who rummage around through items that other people have cast off. They don't have thrift stores in Spain, at least none that I have seen. Wandering thrift stores was a very important part of my life back in Seattle. I have filled the thrift store void in my life by keeping an eye out for what Spanish people put out to the curb for the trash men to take away.

It has always amazed me the kind of stuff that other people simply throw away. It was my contention that there is a fortune to be made by reselling the stuff that average Americans toss in the trash. After I got to Spain I realized that there wouldn't be a huge market here for used items. From what I have seen it seems people here don't really get too excited about buying second hand merchandise. The last time that I moved here in Spain I asked my old roommate if he was going to try to sell some of the stuff that he wasn't taking to his new apartment. He basically told me that Spanish people don't really do that; they just throw it away. Their loss is sometimes my gain, especially lately.

I cover a lot more of Valencia on my bicycle every day than my Romanian and gypsy counterparts do in the dog-eat-dog world of...for lack of a more delicate phrase, garbage picking. But we aren't really competing if you want to know the truth. The professionals with their gypsy pick-up trucks are mostly after scrap iron, although they will grab anything they find that they can sell or use themselves. I don't route through the bins, I just pounce on targets of opportunity which are sitting out on the sidewalk. I have nicked a couple of really nice wooden folding chairs, a bookcase, and a little shelf for my desk. I have often come across furniture items that were definitely worthy of adoption but either I wasn't in the mood to schlep them back home, or I was just too far away from home base, or the items were too large to haul, or both.

The prize possession in my street booty is the huge new aquarium and table that has become the new home for my pet turtle. I found the tank one day when I was out on a bike ride. It was really far from my apartment and it was a huge pain in the ass getting it back home. I had to hoist it up on the seat of my bike and balance the other end on the handle bars. It's a miracle that I got it home in one piece. I put a coat of silicon around the edges just in case it had any leaks. Cost: 2.50€ and a lot of hard work.

Ever since I found the tank I have been on the lookout for something to put it on. I was walking home from the train station at Plaza de España last weekend when I happened upon the table. I was just recovering from a long weekend I spent out in the country at the home of some friends and I really didn't feel like hauling this monster the two or so kilometers back to my flat. But after I thoroughly checked it out, I decided that it was the perfect size. If I didn't grab the table I would regret it later. I shouldered the thing and Sherpa'd it back home. Later I cleaned it up, sanded it a bit, and threw on a coat of varnish. Cost: 7€ for the varnish and a hell of a lot of work.

Before I filled the tank I had to get some gravel for the bottom. Yesterday I rode to the beach on my bike and filled my pack with pea-sized gravel. My pack must have weighed 20 kilos. I also picked up a few handfuls of sea shells just to make my turtle's new home a little more pleasant—not that he will give a shit about aesthetics. The rocks and shells were free but I had to buy a filter for the tank which cost 18€.

I have the tank right next to the television so you can either watch TV or watch the turtle. The turtle is more entertaining than about 90% of Spanish TV. I need to find something to put in the space below the tank where there was a drawer. I am keeping my eye on the trash containers.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Making a Run on a Bank, Spanish Style

Making a Run on a Bank, Spanish Style
Defining Despejarse

I just heard that my U.S. bank, Washington Mutual, has gone belly up. I have heard the rumors for a while now and I did nothing. For someone as obsessed with economics and politics such as I am, I can't seem to get too involved in the actual dealings with anything to do with money. The good news, for me, is that I also don't really like spending it. If I started working for one euro a day, I'd probably save half of it. My cavalier attitude about my personal finances is being challenged by the current financial crisis in America. I may have to start giving a shit about money. But not right now.

I had a rather frustrating call with my two stateside brothers on the crisis—mine and the nation's—yesterday via Skype. I was feeling a bit panicky. I was ready to withdraw every cent I had in WaMu but that isn't really even an option for me at the moment. Not to bore you any further with the details of my private life of money (or lack of it, if that is to be the case) I'll tell you about what I did instead of making a run—1929 style—on my bank.

As I went about carrying out my fiendish plan I couldn't help but think about how my thinking has been so utterly influenced by my last two years (almost) of living here in Spain. I walked over to the corner tobacco* shop and bought a nice puro or Cuban cigar. I use a big pocket knife to cut my cigars. I just stab the end of the cigar with the tip of the knife, and then do it again making an X in the end. As I smoked I went for a walk around my neighborhood. I like the Spanish word for this activity. They say despejarse, a reflexive verb to mean “clear your mind.” That word has become synonymous for “smoking a cigar,” at least in my little book of Spanish grammar.

My walk took me over to the beautiful boulevard of Antiguo Reino which isn't all that beautiful these days due to the new metro line they are putting under my neighborhood. The have had to extirpate some very old and very gorgeous palms to make way for the new line. Sic transit gloria mundi or however the hell you say that in Spanish. I didn't really have a destination in mind other than ditching my financial concerns. Just beyond where the construction on the new metro line turns away from the boulevard I happened upon one of my favorite bars in Valencia.

Bar Canadá was actually the first place I had a beer in Valencia when I came here one year and ten months ago. My brother and I were walking from where we had rented a holiday apartment and were trying to make our way to the city center. That seems like just yesterday or it seems like long, long ago, depending on my mood. If you are ever depressed or if your mind is reeling from personal problems, I suggest that you try smoking a cigar. Granted, I happen to be of the opinion that drugs—in one form or another—are often good for what ails you but I defy you to be gloomy while under the influence of a good cigar—Cuban or otherwise.

I remember walking into Bar Canadá with my brother and ordering two beers. I barely knew what I was doing back then, at least when it concerned the subject of Spanish bars. Let's just say that I have learned a lot since then. I could write a book on the subject. Hell, I have written a book on the subject if you add up all of the essays I have written on this theme alone. I fluently and effortlessly ordered a glass of Spanish brandy (another subject about which I am on very intimate terms) and took a seat on a stool at the end of the bar. On the television there was a sitcom in Valenciano. I was able to follow the show quite well. At one point in the show a man is approached in the hallway of his apartment building by a Romanian cleaning woman. He immediately switches from Valenciano to Spanish. It's just one of those aspects of daily life that you pick up on while living here.

After one brandy I had completely forgotten about my little problem of perhaps losing my life's savings. I guess I'll just have to go make more.

*I can never spell “tobacco” correctly in English. My spellcheck wasn't much help at first because I tried spelling it “tabaco” as it is spelled in Spanish. Does anyone pronounce it “toe-back-o” in English? And what is with the two Cs? It looks Italian. Another word I can never spell is “criticize” (I just spelled it “critisize” fucking idiot that I am). If it weren't for spellcheck I would get beat up after every essay I post by those little snot-nosed spelling bee kids (They were such bullies!).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Choosing the Wrong Side...Again

Choosing the Wrong Side...Again

“...the ownership of something thanks to the transferral of capital is not enough to make the owner a capitalist. After all, the ownership of inanimate objects, such as land or buildings or gold, existed long before capitalism. Those who increase their capital by trading in such commodities are merely speculating on the value of goods. To make money out of an increase in their value is not a capitalist act.”

The Highjacking of Capitalism from Voltaire's Bastards by John Ralston Saul

What we are seeing in this looming financial crisis is simply more of the same. We saw the same thing with the Savings and Loan bust of the early Reagan years, the stock market collapse in 1987, the tech bubble bust of 2001, and now another, larger version of something that looks a lot like all of those put together. We are being told that we must bailout this mess for our own good. Most Americans didn't see much gain in the years when everything was going through the roofs. It seems pretty obvious that a bailout will simply ensure that we will have yet another crash as soon as the geniuses on Wall Street figure out the next place to create money out of nothing. I'm guessing the next sector of the economy they will prey upon and quickly devastate will be health insurance companies. Imagine the mess our already messy health care system will find itself in when the insurance providers say they are all broke. Can you say “socialized medicine?” Well, you should have said that about 15 years ago when that rather sane option was still available.

Perhaps it's finally time to let these “capitalists” play by the rules of capitalism. True capitalism (besides actually making shit instead of just printing fake money) is practiced under the assumption of risk. I am not the least bit interested in helping some Wall Street banker make a payment on his third home in Davos or Vail and I have a feeling that is where a lot of this $700 billion is going. I say let them all fail and try to help out the losers on the bottom end of the economic spectrum for a change. This should use up about $100 billion and with the rest we can invest in some aspect of our economy that actually makes something, you know, like under real capitalism. Preferably we should be investing in industries that will make America stronger, smarter, and a better place to live for all of our citizens, you know, like under socialism.

I said back in 2002 that it was a shame that America lost so much money in the dot com bust. Investors mostly got swindled by start-up companies that had no idea what to do with the huge amounts of capital they were given. I was living in Seattle during all of this and I got a glimpse of where the money was going. Most of the money was simply pocketed by the clever few who ran the ponzi schemes masquerading as high tech firms. Could you imagine America's technological leap forward if most of this money actually had gone into research and development instead of the bank accounts of a few greedy assholes? At the very heart of the tech boom it was more about greed than innovation. What a wasted opportunity. When these same creeps realized that there wasn't enough money to be made in the stock market, they turned to these crazy banking schemes. I remember the first time I heard about variable rate mortgages and thinking that it was an insane idea.

This new financial meltdown makes the tech bust of 2001 look like pocket change. Once again it will mean that we are investing in the wrong area of our economy. It means we are favoring speculation over production. The artificial wealth created by Wall Street didn't make its way down to main street. Most Americans have seen their real incomes drop, or at least have noticed barely noticeable increases. Meanwhile, you just need to look around to see where all of this wealth is being accumulated. Just look at the excesses of America's richest 1%. They make the pre-revolution French aristocracy look like tenant farmers. The crazy thing is that middle and lower income Americans who vote Republican actually defend this wanton redistribution of wealth from poor to rich. What part of the pie don't you get? The pie is only so big and if 1% have more than 33% of total net worth and 80% of Americans have only something like 16% of net worth, then something isn't working and needs to be adjusted. The way to adjust that isn't to hand over a $700 billion check to Wall Street with no strings attached.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Porn World Shocked by Drug Scandal

Commissioner Jeremy vows a full investigation.

The porn industry was rocked by the news that one of its biggest stars has tested positive for a performance enhancing drug. Randi Huevos, last year's winner of the Golden Spike, porn's biggest award, was rushed to Hollywood's Dianetics hospital after he collapsed during the shooting of an orgy scene in his latest XXX epic, Girls Gone Really, Really, Seriously Wild. Huevos had reportedly been snorting a mixture of Viagra and Tinactin, known as “crank shafting” in drug parlance. The Viagra is for enhanced sexual performance and the athlete's foot anti-fungal remedy is to stave off gangrene in the body's other extremities that suffer acute blood loss during prolonged erections. This is the industry's biggest crisis since 1995 when it was revealed that porn legend Audrey Muff had faked several on-camera orgasms. Doctors report that Huevos must be kept under conditions absolutely free of a any sexual connotation and is therefore in a private room in the Hilary Clinton wing of the hospital where he is forced to watch Sister Act.

The commissioner of pornography, Ron Jeremy, has released a statement in which he assures the public that this is a very isolated incident and that people should not lose faith in their favorite adult movie stars. “Our actors aren't wallowing in sleaze, they aren't like athletes, politicians, or stockbrokers. They are, after all, Americas greatest heroes. Randi Huevos is a fine young man and I consider him a personal friend. A deep bond develops between actors who have 'crossed swords' on a film set. I actually poked Randi in the eye during the filming of Forest Hump and he didn't get mad or anything, even though he had to wear an eye patch for two months afterwards. Still, there is no excuse for what he did. He has brought shame on a very proud profession. People look up to porn stars, they are role models. The public deserves better. I would like to add a little in defense of Randi Huevos. He has been on a grueling work schedule for over a year. He made over 400 scenes last year alone. Plus he has a wife and a mistress on the side. Do the math, people. Any way you slice it, that's a lot of amore.”

Pornographic video rentals have dropped off precipitously since the scandal has unfolded. We interviewed a customer at a store of America's largest porn emporium, The Smut Hut. “It ain't that it has affected me real bad, but my three kids took it kinda hard. They really idolized Randi. Little Earl, my ten year old, has wanted to be a porn star ever since we took him to see Back Door Little Mermaid when he was seven. Now what do I tell him? What if he goes back to wanting to be a figure skater?”

Commissioner Jeremy has suspended Huevos for six months and a complete investigation is pending. “I plan to interrogate each of the eight actresses who were working on the set the day Huevos had his break down. I will interview each of them separately, or maybe two at a time. Hell with it, I'll do them all at once, and I won't need to cheat by using drugs,” Jeremy said from his world headquarters office where he was inexplicably not wearing pants. “This may call for me to do some undercover work where I will be disguised as a Mexican pool boy or a plumber. To the porn-mobile!” The still pants-less and very hirsute Jeremy was followed out of his stately office suite by three coke-head runaways who had been under his desk during the entire interview.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Candidate and The Mayor of Simpleton

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So with Sarah Palin we are getting more of the same thing we had with Bush: a public servant who is anything but public. We elect these people and then they are handled half-to-death by those who are really running things behind the scenes. Bush hasn't made a truly public speaking engagement ever since the wars began. He has only appeared in extremely controlled situations where there hasn't been any sort of opposition to call him out on his policies. The only audience the Bush people have allowed to hear him speak are military groups, civilian defense contractors, or right-wing propaganda mills (otherwise known as “think tanks.” I hate that name for groups who do very little thinking). And forget about Dick Cheney; he hasn't come out from behind the curtain—if only to snarl—in so long we've almost forgotten about him completely. These are elected officials acting like despots.

And now we have Sarah Palin. She seems to be almost completely a figment of the conservative imagination: a loving mother, a maverick elected official unafraid to take on the powers that be (curious since “the powers that be” are the folks in her own party), morally steadfast, a proud defender of America, and—because we are in the TV age—hot. She is being treated by her handlers as if she were some Saudi princess who cannot have contact with anyone outside of her immediate family. In her two interviews with the twin morons of Hannity and Gibson she has yet to offer anything but the most puerile thoughts on the position she may soon fill.

I really appreciate that The Daily Show is absolutely the only news source that takes the piss out of what we are being presented as news, but Fox News is too terrifying in its scope and they don't give a shit about what the little TDS thinks of their maneuvering. Plenty of Americans seem all to willing to accept this completely mediocre woman as our next vice president. Why wouldn't they? They have already accepted far less in the case of the current White House resident.

I tried to watch the entire Fox “interview” on youtube but I guess my stomach isn't as strong as it used to be. I used to be able to drink cheap tequila right from the bottle but I couldn't get past Palin's moronic homilies on the wonders of our all volunteer army or how America cannot retreat from Iraq. Listening to her regurgitate what her handlers have shoved down her throat these past couple of weeks made me realize that I'd be afraid to have her substitute teach a seventh grade English class because of the damage she could do to their young minds. Yet McCain and company are serious about making her the vice president, and a quick glance at the actuarial tables points also to her likelihood of soon thereafter becoming president.

Who can say where this farce will end, a play that begins with Sean Hannity masquerading as a journalist and Sarah Palin pantomiming the role of vice president? Part of the reason that George W. Bush was ushered into office was the way the Right took the sworn testimony of Bill Clinton when the former president played about with the meaning of one word. They took Clinton's disingenuous self-defense and they manipulated it into an object of tremendous outrage. Bill Clinton was a liar and they had the proof. It didn't matter at all to them that what was at the heart of the Clinton perjury was completely fatuous and without the least bit of consequence to the American people. The lies of the Republicans in the Bush White House are well documented. These lies have led us into wars costing thousands of American lives and perhaps well over 100,000 civilian lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the monetary costs. Has it been hundreds or thousands of billions of dollars? Once you get that many zeros behind a number it really is too much for most human minds to fathom.

And now their lies have sprung to life in the form of Sarah Palin, their most creative untruth thus far. She is a woman who lies so comfortably that you wonder why she would bother to ever tell the truth (since the truth for them seems to be so painful). She will fit right in with her new owners. She is already paper trained and eager to learn.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Cooking at Home

Cooking at Home

This was my first paella with my new 46 centimeter paella pan. I don't know what it is about this pan but it makes my penis feel a LOT bigger. I can't believe that I used to cook with a 40 centimeter pan. I mean, what was I? Some sort of twinkie? Notice that I am wearing an Iraqi soccer jersey splattered with paella stock. It's not blood, I swear. I figure, what better way to show my support for the Iraqi people than turn into some sort of Iraqi football hooligan?

I am not any sort of a dessert guy but I couldn't pass up these great peaches I came across in the market yesterday. I'm not even a big fan of peaches but these were absolutely magnificent. I cobbled together a peach cobbler from a couple of different recipes I came across. If this doesn't kill me I think I may be immortal. It has a ton of butter, sugar, brown sugar, flour, 2 eggs, and a bunch of crushed cookies. Someone please come by and help me eat this otherwise the firemen will have to come by with chain saws to cut a path big enough for me to get out of the apartment. It is way too sweet to top with ice cream so I used Greek yogurt. Damn, this was good.

Movie Night

Movie Night

I always say that I am going to watch more films in Spanish but I never seem to follow through on this promise to myself. Watching movies on Spanish TV is a bit difficult for a couple of reasons. I prefer to listen to Spanish movies through headphones as the quality is better and the sound is more direct. My TV doesn't have a headphone jack. I also have a hard time making it over the initial hurdle of commercials that usually begin after the first five minutes or so of a lot of movies on television. They run almost ten minutes of commercials during this block and I often forget what it was that I started watching. There is only so much Spanish to be learned from Don Limpio (aka Mister Clean, whose Spanish version looks like a waiter in a gay night club a) commercials and ads for the latest McDonald's product to hit the Iberian peninsula.

I have finally got over my aversion to dubbed movies. I would never watch a movie dubbed into English, preferring to read subtitles if I can't understand the original language of the film. I understand why Spanish people rely so heavily on dubbed movies as it would be rather tiresome to have to read at least every other movie you come across. The difficult thing for me with movies dubbed into Spanish is that the sound quality suffers during the process and I often have a hard time understanding the dialogue. A dubbed movie is no longer a deal-breaker for me as any exposure to Spanish is helpful.

Going to a movie theater isn't always a wise option. There is rarely anything new that I care to see, and rarer still is a new movie for which I am willing to shell out 7-8€. I can wait for the video. Luckily for me we have a little movie theater in my neighborhood that shows non-current movies for cheap. Cinestudio D'Or (Carrer D'Almirall Caradoso 31) is about five blocks from my apartment. They show a double feature that changes every week. On weekends they charge 4€ for both and on some weekdays it's only 2.50€ (that's $129.99 American). I should go every week even if the movies are lousy just to listen to three hours of Spanish.

I just recently saw two newer Spanish films: Casual Day and Todos Estamos Invitados. Not very good movies but for 2.50€ I wasn't risking much. I really notice that I understand more and more when I watch movies. It is especially rewarding when I pick up on a bit of slang or something that only someone who has lived in Spain would understand. Watching Spanish movies also adds to the sort of cultural intelligence that helps me better understand what is being said here in Spain. Just think about how often American movies are quoted in conversation. When I make a joke about “Log Jammin,'” everyone knows that I am referring to the porn film starring Karl Hungus in the movie The Big Lebowski. As far as culture and language go, everything is interrelated and it almost always starts with The Big Lebowski (or ends there).

2.50€ times two means that the little cinema by my apartment is what you would call a cheap date. You can also bring in whatever you want including beer and wine. I remember the first time I went there—empty-handed—and boy did I feel like an idiot when I saw the couple sitting next to us drinking nice cold beers. Let's just say that I haven't made that mistake twice. It is rather comical the sort of food Spanish people bring to the movies: sandwiches, bags of chips, and Tupperware containers filled with god-knows-what. I half-expect to see someone bring in a whole ham and start carving it up, or perhaps a paella. Enjoy the movie and bon appetit (buen provecho).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fight Terrorism, Ride a Bike!

It's been a bit over two years since I have driven an automobile. I rarely even ride in a car. About 99% of my personal transportation is effected on my bicycle—one of the greatest inventions in human history (although under-utilized in many societies). The personal automobile certainly has a place in modern transportation models but to base our entire scheme on cars seems completely insane. Even if we could make cars that run on air, we would still be strapped with all of the other massive failings of the automobile such as the high cost of building roads, safety issues, and parking, to name only three. Airplanes are another highly flawed means of transportation but they are still the best means to travel great distances. America almost completely gave up on trains many years ago and it may be too late to create the infrastructure necessary for this to be a major player in the country's future. But the cheapest, safest, and easiest solution for many of society’s transportation demands is still the bicycle.

Just about the entire infrastructure necessary to include bicycles in urban transportation models is already in place. Sometimes the only thing required to make a bike line is a line of paint in the street. If a city wishes to be a bit more aggressive in incorporating the use of bikes, they could remove an automobile lane or on-street parking and hand this over to cyclists. If cities are looking to go way overboard on the inclusion of bikes, they can look to Amsterdam as their model. Starting in 1992 Amsterdam has been working to minimize car traffic in its historic center. Over the years the city has drastically reduced parking in the center while continually widening bike lanes and sidewalks. This certainly makes sense when you consider that the historic center of Amsterdam was designed before cars were around.

Valencia has to rate somewhere near the top of the list for bike-friendly cities—at least as far as I am concerned. For its population, Valencia is very small in area, at least compared to an American city of the same size. You can bike from one end of Valencia to the other in about a half an hour—I doubt there are many American cities where you could make that claim driving. The network of bike paths in and around Valencia is a dream come true for cyclists. The fine weather here also helps to encourage cycling. Another advantage for cycling in Valencia is that the city is very flat. In Eduardo Mendoza's hilarious farce, Sin Noticias de Gurb, the space alien visiting the very hilly Barcelona proposes a bike exchange program where citizens of that city can grab a bike at the top of the hill, coast down to the city's center, and then leave the bike. Trucks would then come along and drive the bikes back up the hill. People would have to make their own arrangements for getting back up the hill. As it turns out, Barcelona has a bicycle exchange program called Bicing and they do in fact find an inordinate amount of bikes at the bottom of the city and must transport them back to the top of the hill every day. I thought about the same thing in Seattle which has many heart-shatteringly steep hills. Valencia, as I said, is as flat as a tortilla (Mexican or Spanish versions both work for this simile).

There is almost nothing in the way of urban sprawl in Valencia; the apartment buildings of the city abruptly end where the agricultural fields begin. There are neighboring towns but they all look pretty much like Valencia: apartment buildings that are between four and six floors. I have never heard or seen any traffic reports here. Although Valencia doesn't have the nightmarish gridlock of American cities it has its own share of problems with the automobile. Traffic in the city itself is pretty much a nightmare, at least on weekdays. You won't run into huge delays. More than anything it is just annoying to drive around town. As I write this I look down on the street in front of the Ruzafa Market which, during working hours, is backed up for several blocks.

It amazes me that so many people here still choose to rely heavily on the automobile to get around day-to-day. I could understand this if it were all families choking up the streets in their cars, but most of the traffic is the same sort you see in just about every city in America: single drivers. I don't even take cabs in Valencia because the traffic is maddeningly slow. Once you arrive at your destination, parking is even more horrendous than the drive to get there. I can't see how driving in this environment can be any sort of convenience.

Automobiles in Valencia seem to be more of a status thing than a necessity. People drive because they have cars and can afford the gas. Public transportation is inexpensive and very efficient yet many people opt out of it and drive. I'm sure that many have practical reasons for making this decision but I am equally sure that many other people drive for reasons other than necessity. I would guess that a great majority of the people who now drive cars in Valencia could easily choose to ride the bus or bike to their destinations. I am surprised that the city hasn't made a greater effort to convince these people to make the change. Instead, Valencia keeps building wider roads on the outer ends of the city and erecting public parking garages at different points around town, all with the purpose of encouraging automobile traffic. It seems this money would be better spent on mass transit projects.

It's remarkable the degree to which societies subsidize the automobile while practically ignoring other means of transportation. In the United States people scream bloody murder when public money goes to fund mass transportation projects like Amtrak (America's passenger rail system) but nothing is said when tax dollars pay for airports and the incredible infrastructure necessary for automobiles. Even a city that is purported to be as “bike friendly” as Seattle seems to only grudgingly add bike lanes to the urban transportation model—and in Seattle this usually means merely slapping down a line of paint in the street to designate the bike lane (which works rather well, I might add).

What I can't understand about bike transportation is why it isn't more popular. Why aren't as many people riding bikes in Seattle or Valencia as in Amsterdam? How can we get more people out of their cars and on bikes? I have an idea, try asking. I have seen a couple of posters around Valencia on the metro routes encouraging citizens to ride bikes but I think the movement needs a little more of a push. How about a few television commercials of attractive people choosing to ride their bikes instead of dealing with the hassles inherent in automobiles?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Letter to My Brother


This began as a letter to my younger brother. I wanted to compliment him on the incredibly brilliant essays he has been writing. My brother and I have written thousands and thousands of pages of letters to each other over the years yet you will find very little in the way of anything even remotely personal. Our letters are concerned almost exclusively with our intellectual development with regards to books we are reading, politics, sports, popular culture, you name it. What these letters rarely touch on are our private lives which, at least for me, is a rather dull subject. This isn't to say that my own private life is any more boring than that of anyone else, it's just that I think there are a lot of more important topics in the world to address in letters. Instead of just sending this to my brother, I will share it with anyone who cares to get a glimpse of what our correspondence looks like.

* The title of this essay comes from the military manner of writing the date. It is one of the few things the military does right. It is the easiest and least ambiguous way to write the date. It is also how I title most of the letters I have sent to my brother.

First of all, let me again say just how great your writing has been these past several weeks. Yours was absolutely the best response I read regarding the McCain acceptance speech. I just amazes me that the race is so close considering what a wreck the country is in after eight years of Bush. Could you imagine eight years equally as disastrous after a Democratic administration? Christ, the Supreme Court would just appoint a Republican without bothering with an election. The hicks still want to believe in all of the mythology and buzz words they are fed: the liberal press, “tax and spend” democrats, American might and its ability to sway the world, and the power of Jesus Christ our savior. It's all pretty much the same lie when you think about it. The hicks just can't stop thinking about all of those aborted fetuses, never mind that more abortions are probably necessary under their type of ignorant (as far as sex education, among other things) rule. And don't even to mention that botched abortions were the number one cause of death of women of child bearing age before it was legal.

That is what delivered all of the religious hicks to the Republican camp: the sanctity of life. The Republicans took an incredibly complex and agonizing issue and turned it into a campaign slogan. They reduced one of the most difficult moral quandaries of our modern era and turned it into a fucking bumper sticker. Of course, everyone is “against” abortion; anything else is a complete absurdity. I remember being taught about sex education in the 10th grade. The first speaker we had was from the anti-abortion camp. This woman showed us pictures of aborted fetuses. The next day we had a young woman from Planned Parenthood talk to the class. Talk about a hard act to follow. The kids were literally screaming at her about how terrible abortion is. I mean, why not? It is terrible. What you come to realize as a rational adult is that the issue is extremely complicated. The conservatives have made sure that the argument has remained decidedly uncomplicated among their constituents. Abortion is killing babies.

Of course, they never talk about the alternative, even though we know exactly what the alternative looks like—it's called history. History is a taboo subject for the conservatives because history looks a lot like the world they are trying to create. History looked pretty awful, for the most part, and we have been trying to distance ourselves from history for the benefit of nearly everyone. It's called progress, it's called making the world better. History tells us that abortion was always with us and that is was dangerous and even more horrifying before it became legal for every woman. History tells us that relatively safe abortions were always available to any woman of means, but for poor women their choices were unsafe and often lethal. A return to that history will not be a step forward, to think otherwise is insane and irresponsible.

The thing is, these days you don't even need to rely on history to point out the horrible flaws in the argument of the Pro-life movement. Just compare countries in the world in which abortion is legal with those where it is not. I seriously doubt that any modern person—man or woman, but especially women—would choose to live in a country where abortion is illegal. Ireland, one of the only European countries where abortion is completely illegal (unless the mother's life is at risk), probably isn't as bad as the rest on the list, but I would imagine that the Catholic Church's grip will break and laws there will change to mirror the rest of Europe. Spain, where legal abortion is now limited, is in the process of writing a new law on the procedure to put the country in line with the other European social democracies. Even Turkey, with a mostly Muslim populace, has legal abortion until the 10th week. Does America want to be more like Sweden, Holland, Germany, and France, or more like Brazil, Belorussia, Saudi Arabia, or Iran? Take your time. Think about it.

Conservatives never talk about the past when framing their black-and-white argument for making abortion illegal once again. They want you to believe that abortion has always been legal and that by criminalizing it, America will return to an age of innocence (which is an incredible contradiction if you think about it). However, that age of “innocence” is right there to see in history books. It was a pretty bad place, for the most part. Most liberals want America to be a place where abortions are not necessary, not a country where abortion is illegal. That is the huge difference between American conservatives and liberals. Conservatives who oppose abortion almost always are also opposed to contraception and sex education. We have recently seen the results of this type of thinking. Just take a look at the family of the Republican candidate for vice president.* The leaders of the Republican Party don't give a damn about abortion. As America's economic elite, abortion will always be an option for them.

The conservatives are also trying to push our economic world back to a former era. An era before income taxes, a time before labor unions, an age of no government control of industry, back when they were able to operate without any regard for the environment or the health and safety of workers. Once again, the Republicans' vision of getting “the government off our backs” is something we have already lived through as a nation. We just spent the better part of the part of the last century literally fighting in the streets to escape from that bleak past and now conservatives want us to return on our own free will. The economic model conservatives are seeking has already existed in our past and we didn't like it. It also exists in the world today in countries like Brazil and Mexico with grinding poverty living beside people with incredible wealth. We can also choose another economic model, a model that we invented and then let slip away with the advent of the conservative movement under Ronald Reagan. Once again, does America want to be more like modern day Brazil with its horrible disparities of income, or more like the social democracies of Western Europe?

Another incredibly irony of the mentality of conservatives is their refusal to accept the fact that life on earth has evolved, that it is a process. A political movement that has denied history is also denying the history of species. Once again, our economic elite couldn't give two shits about evolution, one way or another. They do pay lip service to the evangelicals, however. If Republicans didn't court the Jesus freaks, who the else would vote for them? The platform of the Republican Party only represents about the top ten percent of American earners so they fill their ranks by claiming to be the party of morality, or at least a parody of morality that they have created to dupe the religious fanatics.

To me the choices are simple: we either go back or we go forward. You can either deny history (and be forced to repeat it) or work to change things for the better

*The subject of the family of the Republican candidate for vice president is supposed to be off-limits in this political debate. I would agree if only she herself had not spent at least ten minutes introducing her all-American family during her acceptance speech at the convention. This is a woman who opposes sex education in schools yet her own 17-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant. I guess the message here is that it's OK for a teenager to have an illegitimate child if you come from a family of means.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Economic Crisis Forces Reduction in Minute of Silence

The completely empty gesture of sympathy formerly known as the ''Minute of Silence'' has been officially reduced to 30 seconds because of the looming economic crisis in the country. The announcement was made at a press conference in New York City by the head of the Federal Reserve Bank, Ben S. Bernanke. ''We are facing high unemployment, rising prices, and slow economic growth. Do we look like a nation that needs to be wasting a minute of silence every time there is an untimely death of a celebrity in the world? Maybe they all need to be more careful so we can get on with the business of making a living. See those instructions on that bottle of pills? Try reading them. Car being chased by paparazzi? Tough shit, deal with it. If you think annoying photographers make your life miserable, try not being famous for a few days. Believe me, it's not all it's cracked up to be.'' the chairman said. ''If we all stood around for a minute with our fingers up our asses every time someone famous died, our thumbs would fucking hatch.''

The Federal Reserve considered a plan to link the time of silent prayer to the value of the dollar in overseas markets. ''We thought of that plan a couple of years ago when the dollar was relatively stable. Luckily we didn't go through with it, considering that the dollar has since gone into the toilet,'' Bernanke said. ''Maybe we'll use the euro as our guide or the price of a barrel of crude oil. You don't see the Chinese standing idly by praying in this global economy. They are probably trying to buy the copyright on a 'minute of silence' or manufacturing some sort of gizmo that does a silent prayer on your MP3 player.''

The move was roundly criticized by religious leaders who feel that it discounts the importance of prayer in daily life. ''Prayer, are you serious?'' the chairman scoffed, ''We all know that almost no one was praying during that minute and certainly not for the entire 60 seconds. Most people said some lame-ass prayer and then spent the next 55 seconds thinking about how they should probably cut down on their drinking, or staring at some woman's chest, or both. Whenever I get stuck doing a minute of silence I like to say the alphabet backwards for practice, just in case I ever have to do a field sobriety test. Sometimes I get busted actually saying it out loud. Oops, sorry about that but we all got to die sooner or later.''

The announcement was welcomed by American atheists. Tom Logan, president of the Godless Coalition, said that shortening the minute of silence to half a minute was half right but the reduction should be taken another 30 seconds further. ''Zero seconds of silence to honor the dead seems about right,'' Logan said. ''This comes at a good time for me, personally. I was getting really sick of people asking me—an atheist—to bow my head and pray. That would be like force-feeding a vegetarian a Big Mac. While we're at it why don't we all bow our heads and consider astrology. I swear, if someone says I have to do a minute of prayer one more time I am going to climb up on a tower with a deer rifle and I'm not coming down until I'm a household name.''

The president of the Godless Coalition continued his rant, ''A minute of prayer represents 1/1440 of the day, hardly a block of time that would impress a god even if there were such a thing. Just think about it. A whole minute of prayer to honor the genocide in Armenia or Rwanda? Wow people, do you think you can spare that much time away from your video games, reality TV, and Pilates classes?'' Mr. Logan was told ''point taken'' and was asked to please stop talking.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

From the Bookshelf

I often feel like I am not learning Spanish well enough or fast enough. In many ways it is the hardest thing I have ever set out to achieve. There is never going to be a finish line nor is anyone going to unfurl a big banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished!” As self-deprecating as I am about my ability to speak my new language, I have been fairly pleased with my rapidly-improving reading ability. I just finished my most productive week of reading in Spanish. One of the things I really like about reading in Spanish is that it is thoroughly quantifiable as far as seeing how hard I am working and how much I have achieved—I just need to count the pages I've read. This week the pages I have read include those making up Carlos Ruiz Zafón's novel, La Sombra del Viento (569 pages!) and the farce by Eduardo Mendoza, Sin Noticias de Gurb (143 pages).

I began reading Sombra last year after returning from a trip to Barcelona where the novel is set. I read about 300 pages, understanding it fairly well until I got bogged down and started getting confused. I was only reading at a rate of about 20 a day back then and I simply got lost in the labyrinthine narrative. This time around I set my goal at 40 pages a day, then upped that pace to 50, and ended by reading more than 100 pages the last two days of reading the novel. I really felt like I had made a quantum leap as I was reading this book which has been a phenomenal bestseller, not only here in Spain but all over the world. It's nice when a great book reaches such a massive audience. If you are looking for something to read, I can't recommend this book highly enough (the English title is The Shadow of the Wind).

In this novel you see shades of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, part suspense novel and part fantasy fiction. He uses Barcelona as one of the characters in the book and I was so glad that I got to know that city a lot better before I started reading. I am warning you now, if you start reading this book make sure you don't have anything pressing on your calendar for a day or two because from the first sentence you will be hooked.

Todavía recuerdo aquel amanecer en que mi padre me llevó por primera vez a visitar el Cementerio del los Libros Olvidados.

(I still remember that morning when my father took me for the first time to visit the Cemetary of Forgotten Books)

Continue reading at your peril, or at least the peril of the other shit you may have been planning to do.

As I said, I began reading Sombra with a 40 page a day goal. I was having so much fun reading that I increased that to 50. It would take me three solid hours to bag my 50 page limit. To achieve this modest reading rate I had to sequester myself to the local Ruzafa branch library, away from noise and distractions. Like everything else in my world here, the library is a mere two blocks from the front door of my building. Besides the peace and quiet, my little library also offers a couple of reference items that I have been using to help me improve my reading skills. I have been wearing out their Spanish dictionary for foreigners, which is a terrific resource for students of the language. It gives simple Spanish definitions for words and then uses the word in a sentence. I also use the Spanish thesaurus. I have had to rebind my Spanish/English dictionary with packing tape as I have thoroughly worn it out through heavy usage. And I keep filling notebooks as I write down every word that I look up along with the definition and the context sentence. If anyone has a better strategy for learning Spanish, please let me know.

Sin Noticias de Gurb is one of those books that you could kick yourself for not thinking of the idea first. It is a diary of messages sent by an extraterrestrial who comes to earth, takes on human form, and dryly narrates what he discovers about life here on earth—or at least life in Barcelona. It is laugh-out-loud funny in many parts and even more so if you happen to be something of an outsider yourself but have been in Spain just long enough to recognize some of the more absurd aspects of modern society. It has been a very entertaining week of reading.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Sol y Sombra: The Beginning of the End

August ended just a few hours ago. There are still a few weeks of official summer as far as the calendar is concerned, and here in Valencia we probably have a few months of shirt sleeve weather. It is every bit as bright and sunny this morning as yesterday morning but I can't help but feel that summer has somehow slipped past. Yesterday was the last Sunday of August and probably the last really busy day at the beach this season. I remember growing up in America's Midwest when right about now you were just waiting for that first cold day when the temperature dropped to around freezing—a real sign that summer had ended. The climate here isn't nearly as drastic and summer slowly slides into fall like a hot bath gradually cooling after you turn off the spigot.

If the spigot here wasn't turned off about two weeks ago, someone definitely turned it down to a slow dribble. Just when you thought the heat was unbearable, summer hit its apex and, almost overnight, it was just warm outside instead of sweltering. Instead of leaving for a bike ride to the beach at 5:30 in the afternoon, lathered in 50 spf sunscreen, I find it safe to leave at 3:30 with 30 spf. Instead of diving into the sea that is practically at body temperature, I find that first dive to be a bit refreshing. Hot coffee in the morning has edged out the ice frappés that I preferred during the hottest couple of weeks of August. I don't have to run throughout the day to find shade, fearing the sun like some celestial bully.

Today most people in Valencia will go back to their businesses, take down the signs they had put up bragging about their month-long absence, and get back to work; appetites start returning for food that hasn't come directly out of the refrigerator; turning on an oven doesn't seem like suicide; and you begin to think that, sooner or later, you may have to return to wearing socks. Fall is a great time of year in Valencia, it's like summer in Seattle. As pleasant as autumn may be, I can't help but cling to summer like a shipwreck victim holding on to a bit of driftwood.

I still have to close all of the curtains and blinds in my apartment to keep out the heat, but this battle with the sun has lost the desperation of only a few weeks ago when I had threatened to turn on the air conditioning almost daily. As it turns out, I only bothered with the AC on about three occasions this summer, following instead the example of the Spanish who use resources like electricity a lot more judiciously than we Americans. This was about how many times I was forced to turn on the heat last winter. Last night I actually groped for a top sheet to pull over me.

I can't recall the first day I opted to wear shorts this year but I'll try to keep a record of when I return to long pants. I don't know how my feet will take to being shod again after at least three months of going in flip-flops. I can't believe that soon I'll have to start wearing a shirt around the house. I love summer here in Valencia and I want to wring it out for all it's worth. I am going to celebrate summer today by christening my new 46 centimeter paella pan that covers almost the entire top of my stove. My 40 centimeter pan just left me feeling like half a man. It also really wasn't big enough for a paella that contained half of a rabbit and half of a chicken, so it wasn't all male overcompensation issues that made me buy the new pan.

*I had written about this same sort of phenomena before, back when I was trying to adjust to my northern migration to Seattle from south Florida.