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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Forgotten Accomplishments

I wish that I had a nickel for everything that I have diligently studied over the course of my life only to let it atrophy later through lack of use and abandonment. I wouldn’t care to calculate how much money and time I spent learning those things. After all of the years I spent practically getting killed learning jiu-jitsu I only hope that I have retained enough skill to at least be able to defend myself if I am ever in need. I don’t think that any would-be attacker will be impressed by the fact that I used to be some sort of a badass. At least I didn’t have to spend money learning jiu-jitsu but that is the subject for another essay. All the years I spent trying to learn piano are mostly just a faded memory at this point. I don’t think that you can chalk up as one of your accomplishments in life something that you learn and then promptly forget. It’s like getting old and fat but telling people that you used to be in fine physical shape.

I have been working to restore what I once knew of the Arabic language. After years and years of total neglect I have been dedicating at least two hours a day recently to cut back the overgrowth that has covered my knowledge of this Semitic language, a language that I worked so hard to learn over 25 years ago. It is coming back quickly after only about ten days of study and I plan to be back in a matter of a couple months to the place where I left my studies in Arabic all those years ago. What I bring now to the table is a better grasp of just how to go about learning another language. One of my new tools is technology: my MP3 player is a powerful learning aid. I listen to Arabic language lessons while on my daily bike rides.

The problem is that my new gains in Arabic seem to be coming at the expense of my Spanish. Lately I have felt clumsy speaking Spanish and I certainly miss listening to audio books in Spanish during my bike rides. The good thing is that I need Spanish to survive so it won’t get too far out of the corral. I also think that my French has improved simply because my Spanish is so much better; my French gets better by default for its vast similarity to Spanish. I was never very fluent in Greek but I could get by pretty well. I haven’t uttered more than a few words of that language since leaving Greece over 20 years ago. Oh well, if I ever go there again I’m sure that I will bone up on it.

I have been struggling with how exactly to explain what I am about to write so excuse me if the is a bit cloudy. What I spent time learning and then forgetting is like losing inventory in your warehouse. That is a regretful occurrence but what is even more alarming is losing the list of what you have in storage. It’s not only that I have forgotten so much of what I once knew, I have lost track of the inventory sheet—if that makes any sense. I am coming upon Arabic grammar patterns that I never remember having ever learned, although I’m sure that I must have known them at one time. Most of the vocabulary at least seems familiar in a very distant way. Had I let another few years go by I may have completely lost track that I ever knew any Arabic to begin with.

I suppose that is why they built the pyramids. Constructing a huge monolith out of heavy blocks of limestone is certainly an easier way to mark your achievements in life than trying to keep up with your piano lessons.

Monday, June 29, 2009

USA 2, Brazil 3

I’m the only American in my circle of football hooligan friends so they all came out to support the USA against Brazil. This picture is of my Belgian friend Ludo who got the t-shirt from another Belgian friend who bought it off a homeless guy while traveling in the US. Cost of super funky t-shirt: priceless. Could you imagine anyone in their right mind wearing a Bush t-shirt? America is back in style, folks!

Just when you thought that the nine month European football season is finally over they throw a sort of not-shit tournament at you, this one was called the Confederation Cup of whatever. The USA was soundly trounced in the group play by Italy and then by Brazil. They made it into the finals by the most bizarre set of eventualities in the history of football tournaments only to be paired up against Spain who are ranked number one in the world. Two unanswered goals later the USA team finds themselves in the final game against Brazil. I arrived a ten minutes late for the game and the USA was up 1-0 already only to score again at 27 minutes by a brilliant breakaway goal by Donovan.

There were already too many miracles this week for that score to stand and Sevilla star striker Fabiano scored in the first minute of the second half. Brazil hacked away at the US squad like someone chopping down a tree with a very sharp ax. I said before the match that I really just wanted to see a good game and I didn’t expect the USA to win. I got my wish and then some although seeing that 2-0 lead change into defeat was a bit of a heartbreaker. The bottom line is that Brazil is just a better squad. Spain is a better team than Brazil, in my opinion but the USA just played way over their heads. Hopefully the brilliant play by the USA will work to get them a little better placement in the group play next summer in South Africa for the World Cup.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson (1958-2009)*

I have to admit that my first reaction upon learning of Jackson’s death simply begged the question, “Does his early demise surprise anyone?” What a cold and cynical response on my part, but bad behavior by our most successful citizens seems to be almost the rule in our society. After the child molestation accusations (and please don’t tell me he was innocent—there’s a court of law and then there is the truth which often don’t jibe), the plastic surgery, and all of the other just plain weirdness, it is difficult to harbor any feelings for the man than other than pity…at best. I say this with total respect for the man and his great musical legacy that we should all bow our heads, grab our groins, and let out an ear-splitting, "Eee Yeee Heeew" (sp?).

It truly is sad to think that this artist, instead of exploring the limits of his immense talent well into his 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s allowed himself to wallow in his grotesque excesses. Imagine a Michael Jackson maturing like a fine wine, which is a terrible analogy because he started out fairly perfect and then got better and better. One of my favorite writers, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, just wrote one of his most brilliant novels at the age of 72. How many more times could Michael Jackson have reinvented himself and cranked out another brilliant album? I know that it is a stupid question but it’s one I will ask over and over as I continue to hear his music being played and enjoyed all over the world.

I can’t say that I was ever a huge fan of Michael Jackson, at least not when I was an adult because I loved The Jackson Five as a kid. With that said it is impossible to deny that a lot of his music was just so damn good no matter what your own personal music tastes may be. I was in a dance club not too long ago when right in the middle of dancing with my date and another couple I stopped and remarked that the song we were dancing to at the moment, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, was absolutely brilliant and probably MJ’s best. We all stopped dancing and just listened to the song. Everyone agreed with me. How could anyone disagree?

I have probably listened to more of his music in the last couple of days than I ever have before. I don’t ever remember actually listening to his music at home or even buying any of his records. I didn’t need to because he provided the sound track for huge swaths of my life. It’s impossible to spend a night in a dance club without hearing at least one of his songs. After hearing Billy Jean a few hundred times I still have to admit that it kicks ass as a dance beat.

*Never have a pair of parentheses seemed more like bookend tombstones to me, as if your whole life will somehow be relegated to two dates and everything in between is somehow forgotten, as if a hyphen is all that represents a person’s life. If history is written by the victors it is remembered only by the survivors. I think the sobering thing for me when I typed in those barest essentials of Michael Jackson’s vital statistics is that one of those dates will be the same when the time comes for my life to be reduced to two numbers separated by a hyphen. I am still working furiously on everything that comes in between. I freely apologize for never having recorded a song like Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough but I suppose that the world really does need ditch diggers like me.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Estados Unidos 2, España 0

EEUU Baja a España de la Nube -Levanter (USA brings Spain down from the cloud)
EEUU Acaba con el Sueño de España – El País (US ends Spain’s dream)
La Roja Recibe una Cura de Humildad ante EEUU – Super Deporte (The Red gets a dose of humility from the US)
Los Defensos Unidos de América - Levante (The united defenses of America)

Only that last headline really tells it like it happened. I have never seen Spain so stymied by a defense as they were last night in South Africa against the US national team. One of the guys I was watching the game with said it right when he said that every time Spain takes a shot there is a damn American right in his way. The US scored on two defensive errors, one in each half. Spain had no answer although they pounded the American defense and controlled possession for a big part of the match. Capdevila let Jozy Altidore (teammates at Villarreal up the road from me at Castelló de la Plana) get in front of him with only Casillas between the ball and the goal. Later Sergio Ramos thought he was controlling the ball in front of his goal when Clint Dempsey (Fulham) stole it and scored.

The two goals and superb goalkeeping by Tim Howard gave the US their first FIFA tournament final since starting play in 1916. I would like to see just one more miracle. Brazil would be a nice win and a sure way for the US to get a break on their group in the World Cup draw next summer.

After the game I couldn't resist sending a text message to all my friends here: U-S-A, U-S-A. I had to do a text message; I don't have a car to drive around in while I honk the horn.

For the final on Saturday night it will be Brazil and the USA. This comes after a very uninspired win by Brazil against the host South Africa. Dani Alves (formerly from Sevilla and this year with Barça) came in very late in the game and scored a free kick, much to the disappointment of everyone else in the bar except the one American. The Spanish were hoping to at least salvage something from their loss by playing Brazil for third place. They will have to settle for South Africa. Everyone gave their support for the USA in the final. They also told me that at least they weren’t beat by Italy. One of the patrons accused Obama of fixing the tournament in our favor. I told him that I thought that made sense. Beating Spain outright certainly defies logic.

I hear a lot of conservatives in America talk about how the rest of the world is so anti-American. I have never witnessed this first-hand, quite the opposite, in fact. I have noticed a lot of anti-Italian sentiment, all of it stemming from their national football team that plays a boring brand of soccer. The USA doesn’t play the most exciting game I have ever seen but that is simply because they lack the overall talent of teams like Spain and Brazil. If Brazil plays as rudderless on Saturday as they did against South Africa we may see yet another miracle this week.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pasta or Pizza Sauce

I have been making tomato sauce the same way my entire adult life. I think I picked this up from The Cooking of Italy by Waverly Root. This is one of those recipes that I would never change; I call it "unimprovable."  After the dish has cooled it thickens and you may just want to eat the sauce with a spoon. It is easy to make, inexpensive, and perfect.

It only takes a few minutes to prepare (although it needs to simmer for an hour or so). What more do you need to know?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reconciling Liberty and Order

One of the main struggles of any civilization is reconciling liberty and order. Many societies have neither while others weigh in too heavily on the side of order. If a culture has an excess of personal freedoms it often comes at the expense of the rule of law. In a lawless society those freedoms are only for a select few, the powerful and wealthy in most occasions. If a country’s charter places an exaggerated price on order it devalues personal liberty. This denial of personal freedoms almost always means a harsh infringement on an individual’s right to expression, assembly, and the right to criticize authority. The best societies agonize over this struggle; the worst cultures can’t be bothered with liberty.

The Spanish approach to this dilemma is probably quite a bit different depending on the area of the country. There are many aspects of this balance between ideals here in Valencia that I recognize from having lived in Greece many years ago. It may be a pan-Mediterranean approach to the concept. After living in Greece for three years, it was a bit odd to return to the United States and once again have to follow the rules a little more closely. Perhaps a story is in order.

I rented an old house in Greece that I had to fix up quite a bit for it to be habitable in any way. I spent several days cleaning up the place and afterwards I had quite a large pile of trash to haul away. The thing was, I didn’t know where to haul it. Instead, after having a few beers with one of my best friends at the time, we decided to burn it all right there in the back yard. Who would complain about this in Greece? We had seen lots of neighbors doing similar things. As the flames rose on our junk bonfire, we realized that what we failed to consider in this operation was the fact that there was a police station right across the street from the house. Sure enough, a cop walked the twenty steps from the station house to the gate of my yard, gave a greeting by way of a grunt or two, and then retreated back into the station. We thought that he must be going for his citation book but instead he returned a few minutes later carrying a broken chair. He asked if he could add it to our raging fire.

Had we done something like this in an American city I’m sure we would have been Rodney King-ed and sentenced for the rest of our youth (and deservedly so, I would add). We have laws to protect us from hooligans who would build a bonfire in a residential neighborhood across from a police precinct. We also have laws for a lot of little things that will annoy the hell out of you if you have ever lived somewhere not quite as orderly. I mean, what do you mean I can’t drink a beer at the beach? What sort of puritanical bore came up with such a law?

We truly are hysterical on the subject of alcohol in America. If there is one area where we need to ease up a bit on the yokes of order it is our attitude about booze. How could anyone come up with the stupid notion that an 18 year old can enter into a contract that is binding for life, or enter the military yet cannot drink a glass of wine for another three years? All we have done is create a very unhealthy relationship between booze and adult society. Either an 18 year old is an adult or she isn’t, and guess what happens when you treat people like adults? They act like adults. Enough said on that topic.

On the other hand, there are many areas of Spanish society where I would love to see a little firmer hand played by the authorities, namely with regards to motorized vehicles. The Spanish love of anarchy plays itself out in a very deadly fashion on the roads and highways here. Motor scooters seem to be the least bothered by the rules of the road. This is a problem that is easily remedied with a length of piano wire stretched neck-high across a few strategic intersections. If that seems a bit drastic then how about writing a few traffic tickets?

I got a severe chewing-out by a policeman the other day for riding my bike on the sidewalk as I was approaching the entrance to Turia Park which is one long bike trail. I told the cop he should walk a half a block to an intersection at which I take my life in my hands every time I am forced to cross it. At every change of the light at least three cars speed through the cross walk at great peril to anyone who happens to be crossing. He actually told me that if I didn’t like it I should take the bus. This is in a city that has spent a fortune on bike paths yet only 1.6% of the residents use a bicycle to effect daily transportation. I have been hassled on several occasions—both in Seattle and Valencia—on my bike when I wasn’t being an asshole at all, I swear.

There are other examples of an absence of the rule of law in Spain that Americans might find difficult to tolerate. It is almost impossible to arrest someone for petty crimes here. Nonviolent theft seems rather rampant because if it is less than 400€ it isn’t considered a punishable offense, at least you won’t receive jail time. I have never been robbed but I seem to be among the small minority who are able to claim this status. On the other hand, we criminalize things like loitering in America—a concept Spanish people are not capable of grasping. “Getting arrested for hanging out? What do you mean?” I think a good compromise would be the northern European countries, like Holland, for example. Drugs laws are much more lax which means fewer people in prison. Jailing someone for anything less than a violent crime seems a bit harsh to me. How about we punish drug offenders by taking away their driving privileges? That seems about the correct response. Or how about we garnish their wages? No job? We give them a job and then we garnish their wages. I think someone would think twice about committing a crime if they had to work at a crappy job for reduced pay as punishment.

Once again, I think it is in our best interests to look deeper into other societies to see how they have dealt with some of the problems that plague modern day America. Instead we seem to fall back on the moronic reflex of declaring ours the greatest country on earth and allowing our societal ills to fester. The worst option is what is often proposed by conservatives. They want us to return to failed policies of the past or continue with ideas that have not worked for decades. Of course, liberals are also guilty of taking this tack. I mean, how much longer can we continue in our War on Drugs? I suppose forever. Forever is a long time to do the wrong thing.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Stretching a Euro in Spain

The dollar is sliding downward again, a huge inconvenience if that is your currency of choice. I have seen quite a few fluctuations since I arrived here and I’ll probably see a few more. What holds constant is my search to find the most economical way to live while I am dependent mostly on my bank account for my daily expenses. I have always been able to live economically which explains how I have been able to make this migration to Spain in the first place. Here in Spain I have simply learned how to live even more simply. If and when I ever get back to having the sort of income I used to have I will be more of a saver and even less of a spender. I will give you a run down on my expenses here in Valencia and how I cut corners, stretch a euro, pinch pennies, and live with less to keep on a budget.

First of all, I share an apartment with two Spanish women instead of having my own apartment. This is the first time that I have shared a place in many, many years. At first I thought it would be great for improving my Spanish, and it has. That was my original intention but now it is also more or less an economic necessity. I also have a much nicer apartment than I could probably afford on my own. Living with roommates can be a complete pain in the ass but it has forced me to change the way that I live. I am a much neater person for having shared a flat with two obsessively clean Spanish girls. When I lived alone I was fairly neat but I would often cook and then leave the dishes for later, sometimes much later, if you know what I mean. Now I have evolved into a cook who cleans as he works so that when the meal is served the kitchen is practically cleaner than when I started. I’m still not as neat as my roommates but I don’t think they have anything to complain about.

My communication costs are laughably low. I used to just swipe an internet signal from both of the places in which I have lived here in Valencia, so my internet costs used to be nothing, zero. I now have my own service from Telefónica, one of the local providers. I pay 15€ a month for internet and a landline phone which I almost never use. The ironic thing is that I almost always still nick an internet signal. There is one I can grab from my desk that is stronger and faster than the one we pay for. My cellular telephone bill is also a complete joke. I bought a pre-paid phone when I first got here—the drug dealers in The Wire call them “burners.”. I got the cheapest model available which cost about 40€. I use my phone so infrequently that I only need to charge it for 5€ every month or so. This can be done at hundreds and hundreds of different businesses around town. Everyone here, or almost everyone, is pretty Spartan with their cell phones, at least for talking. I have learned that text messaging is a lot less expensive way to communicate, when that is an option. I don’t use a phone for gabbing; it’s just for contacting someone. To talk to family and friends I use Skype® which is free.

I almost never go to restaurants, although many here are very modestly priced. Most of the money I set aside every month for entertainment goes into buying food so that my food and entertainment costs are almost the same thing. I can cook a meal for six people—including wine—for less than I would pay for one meal in a restaurant. My friends probably think that my dinner parties are a gesture of considerable generosity when in fact I am just being economical—it’s cheaper for me to entertain everyone at home than to go out, especially if I have a date. Please keep this a secret.

Going out to bars in Spain is a cheapskate’s wet dream. I sometimes leave the house with a five euro note in my pocket for an evening on the town. No kidding. At some places that translates into four or five beers or five glasses of wine. I can get a buzz and come back with change. I’m not just talking about going to dives, just about all of the bars and restaurants are fairly inexpensive. I doubt that I will ever get used to bar and restaurant prices in America again.

Clothing used to be a rather big expense. I brought over a lot of clothes but I’ve been here long enough now that I have had to replace and expand much of my wardrobe (I have a wardrobe?). Clothing is quite a bit more expensive here than in the U.S. I often used to say that I would have given three pints of my own blood to be able to spend about 20 minutes in The Gap. American brand clothing is about 30% higher here than in the States. I have gracefully side-stepped this expense by shopping in my weekly market here in Ruzafa. There is a guy who has a stall selling great piles of clothes for 1, 2, and 3€ an item. I have found good quality clothing there and I now have more clothes than I probably have ever owned. I have gone a bit overboard on football jerseys and cycling clothing but that’s just become something of a hobby. I don’t actually wear football jerseys for anything other than sports or going to the beach. I also wear them in my cooking videos—it’s my trademark as we call it in television.

This is probably a lot more about me than any of you ever wanted to know but I have also found a good source for underwear. Back in Seattle I had a certain style of underwear I had a loyalty for that bordered on extreme nationalism. They were from J Crew and cost about 18$ a pair if they were on sale. I am no longer in a position to spend 18$ on a pair of underwear. I found a place in the market that sells Pierre Cardin boxer briefs for 2€ a pair and they are actually better than the J Crew brand. This just shows you the incredible mark-up of most retailers.

I don’t have a car which means I don’t pay for gasoline or insurance or for parking or for maintenance or for parking tickets (a major expense for me at one point in my life in Seattle). Now all I need to worry about is upkeep on my bike and buying the occasional metro/bus card. The metro is about 1€ a ride and the bus is .50€. Both of these services here in Valencia are fantastic, in my opinion. Whenever I hear Valencianos bitching about their mass transportation I gently remind them that there are many places in the U.S. where “mass transit” is driving around in a Hummer.

I only go to museums here on Sundays when they are all free. Some of them are always free. I rarely go to the movies because they just don’t make a lot of Spanish movies I care to see. When I do go there is a theater in my neighborhood that shows a double feature for 2.50€. Most of the time, if there is something I want to see I just download it. ¡Viva la piratía!

In short, I have adopted the lifestyle of most Spanish people. To many Americans my way of living may seem austere but I can assure you that I live like a king. I don’t miss going to expensive restaurants on a regular basis and I think this economy has made me a pretty good cook. I would say that my culinary skills have reached the status of “inspired amateur.” Like all Spaniards, I have become incredibly stingy in my energy usage—call it “conservation through necessity.” I spent less on my entire summer wardrobe than I used to for a single dress shirt. I think this is the part where I supposed to say something about how you need to enjoy the simple things in life, or that money doesn’t buy happiness, or some other down-home proverb, but this has always been fairly obvious, at least to me.

I suppose that I am a bit odd in many ways. I have never had a credit card bill that I didn’t pay in full every month. I’ve never lived beyond my means and never wanted to. I can’t think of a single item that I want to buy. There is no material possession that I am living without that I feel I need or even desire. Perhaps a racing bike but my status here is too tenuous to buy another bicycle. I certainly don’t want an automobile. The greatest luxury that I feel I could ever afford would be to never have a car again. In short, I don’t covet my neighbor’s goods and I don’t have much that my neighbors would covet.

Just a few expressions in English I have learned to live without and haven’t bothered translating into Spanish:

You are what you drive.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.
…and Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. is a phrase that is in sharp contrast to my present lifestyle here in Spain.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Local Good News

My neighborhood is undergoing a massive facelift. It is a city project instigating to create jobs during the current economic collapse here in Valencia where we are experiencing incredibly high unemployment—some say as high as 20%. There are a couple of big billboards boasting about the project right next to my apartment building. The billboards were the first thing they began and at first I thought that the billboards represented the entire building project as it took four men a couple of days to put them up. The true project is has been a big mess as they have torn up several streets in Ruzafa. They tear up streets all the time here but on this occasion they are actually making improvements and not just fixing a broken pipe beneath the street.

I have been complaining since I moved to this neighborhood about the narrow sidewalks and the streets littered with cars parked end-to-end often blocking pedestrian crossings. The new project is widening the sidewalks and removing parking from one side of the street on several blocks in Ruzafa. There is also a new bike path being built along one of the neighborhood’s major thoroughfares which was a very hostile street for cyclists. This new initiative is going to make the neighborhood a lot more pedestrian –friendly and should calm the traffic a bit—if that is possible in Valencia. Just where all of those people are going to park now is a bit of a mystery but I don’t drive and I don’t care. Perhaps a few of the drivers will give up and sell their vehicles.

This will make it a lot easier to bike around the neighborhood. With fewer parked vehicles it will be easier to be seen by drivers and to see cars approaching. The new sidewalks will also allow more restaurants to have outdoor seating—always a good thing in my opinion. I applaud any project that takes back what the automobile has robbed from city life and returns to pedestrians.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Audio Books: A Desperate Cry for Help

I have another addiction to add to my already long list of things that I can’t seem to live without. At least this new vice is something that I can file under educational needs, at least I think there is an educational aspect involved. I could also file this under health needs as well as my new pass time has been making my daily bike rides more enjoyable—not that bike riding has ever been anything less than a complete joy for me, even when I’m humping up a huge mountain. For the past few months I have been listening to audio books on my MP3 player during my bike rides and whenever I am walking around town by myself. I never, ever listened to music on my MP3 so I never used it before its new incarnation as a book delivery system.

The problem is that there seem to be precious few audio books available in Spanish, at least in Spain. Recently someone delivered a care package of a stack of audio books recorded from the Seattle Public Library. I plowed through that collection in a matter of a couple of weeks, listening to a several of the books more than one time. If anyone wants to quiz me on The Catcher in the Rye (El Guardián entre el Centeno) I think I know that book in Spanish by heart. It was one of those computer recordings which I have now become quite used to. It is not exactly the best way to listen to a book but at least it is in Spanish.

I have also listened to another of these computer readings of the epic story of the femme fatale of all femme fatales, Travesuras de la Mala Niña by Mario Vargas Llosa. In fact, I have listened to that 800 page novel more than once now after reading it in print over a year ago. During my second or third time listening to this fairly autobiographical telling of the author’s life in Lima, Paris, London, and Madrid, all I could think about is what a fantastic movie this story would make. I wish I could write the screenplay because I think few people besides Mario Vargas Llosa know the story as well as I. It is a love story that covers the lives of the two principal characters: a Peruvian whose only dream in life was to live in Paris and the woman he loves who turns out to be a horrible little creature who attaches herself to a string of powerful men, stopping briefly in between to infect the life of the humble Peruvian who works as a translator in the French capital. Simply put, it is one of the best novels that I have ever read, a masterpiece of storytelling. I am glad I had the pleasure of listening to it several times, even though R2D2 was reading it to me.

After much frantic searching for new books, anything at all in Spanish, I was able to find a computer reading of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s La Sombra del Viento. This is one of my favorite books that I have read in Spanish these last few years here in Spain. It is an incredible work of imagination that I think was heavily inspired by Jorge Luis Borges. More than anything else I think it is the story of how inside just about any book—even a book that is close to being forgotten forever by mankind—there is a story of vast proportions and scope, not just the story told in the book but the tale of how the book came to be. I used to think a lot about this when I rambled through used book stores and would come upon a book that looked interesting by an unknown writer. As he says in the book, we are alive as long as someone remembers who we are. The young protagonist is taken by his father, a book dealer, to the cemetery of forgotten books where he is allowed to choose a book to take home and read. The book he chooses, a book unpopular in its time and long since forgotten, sets in motion an incredible tale of detective work uncovering a gothic romance and epic tragedy.

At my level of Spanish I think that listening to audio books is an excellent tool to improve vocabulary, recognize grammar patterns, and just get a feel for how people actually speak in Spanish instead of simply translating English to Spanish. As my Spanish improves I recognize a mistake a lot of non-native speakers make in speaking which is translating idioms from English into Spanish. This isn’t always a “mistake” or ungrammatical but more often than not this isn’t how a Spanish person would choose to word that particular phrase. All that I know for sure is that it certainly can’t be hurting my Spanish to listen to about two hours of audio books every day. Whether or not I am driving myself crazy by listening to the same books over and over is another matter. It is a pity because there are literally thousands of titles of audio books in English. If anyone can point me to audio books in Spanish I would really appreciate it.

About the only thing I have found thus far and it really doesn’t have much that I want to read:

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

High Society and Cheap Laughs

We are unable to accept your submission, despite its evident merit. Thank you for allowing us to consider your work.
Best regards,
The Shouts and Murmurs Dept.

It’s not like I’m looking to be on the cover but it has always been one of my dreams to see something that I have written in The New Yorker. Another, less modest dream of mine was to play football for Notre Dame—a dream that came true for me, I’m happy to say. Granted, a video game allowed me to score the winning touchdown for Notre Dame but it is still a memory I will always cherish. In truth, the video game was about professional hockey. Even with my wonderful powers of imagination it would be a stretch to use the same game to virtually publish a piece in a magazine. But let’s be honest here, a video game called Get Published in The New Yorker! would rank well below playing outside for most children and that rates lower than going to school.

I realize that most of the humor essays I write are a little uncultured for The New Yorker. I need to be sure that the article I submit doesn’t contain content that will automatically disqualify it from being considered for publication in that hallowed tome. Just the thought of The New Yorker makes me use words like “hallowed tome” so I’ll make sure that this essay is free of vulgar words and objectionable situations. I must find the high ground in humor that soars above anything distasteful, repulsive, foul, nasty, vile, unpleasant, repugnant, or objectionable. Removing those words from my quiver of humor doesn’t leave me with many arrows. In fact, I am rendered all but defenseless. There is always “irony” but I’ll have to look that up in the dictionary again because I always confuse it with that other not-very-funny word, “satire.”

To get published in the The New Yorker I have to start thinking like a New Yorker writer. A writer for that magazine wouldn’t think that vulgar words are funny, words too childish to even mention here but that rhyme with “botch” and “cart.” Readers of this magazine wouldn’t think that death and permanent injury are topics suitable for humor. There is definitely no room for a gag about a flock of soon-to-be-defrocked priests trying to run down an altar boy who is hobbled by his pants pushed down around his ankles in some sort of twisted, Vatican rodeo. It’s time for me to start writing thoroughly cultured and sophisticated humor. This isn’t going to be easy.

I need to look at the exact opposite of the things that crack up the lower classes which are videos of kids spiking their fathers in the privates with a football. Smart people don’t like sports—at least not the ones I used to beat up in high school—which is why The New Yorker doesn’t have a sports section. So what do their children throw at their fathers’ nether regions? Cellos? I don’t get it. That would be completely lacking in subtlety and sophistication. I’m just going to start writing and improvise.

During the intermission of the Verdi opera Il Porco Capitalista two wealthy industrialists were at the bar enjoying horribly expensive glasses of champagne. If you have to ask how much the champagne costs you probably aren’t even sophisticated enough to enjoy this essay so perhaps you should go pick up a copy of Guns & Pipe Bombs and stop bothering us with your annoying questions. Over their glasses of champagne (Which represent more than a week of your wages—are you still here?) the industrialists were playing an amusing game of one-upmanship over who had out-sourced more jobs to China and India. They called it a draw because although one industrialist had out-sourced more jobs the other had slashed all benefits for his remaining U.S. workers. The opera was about to resume so they both poured the remainder of their sinfully expensive champagne over the head of their hapless immigrant waiter and returned to their box seats.

Did I mention that all proceeds from the opera go to a local charity? This isn’t part of the essay but have you ever noticed that rich people always have to stage incredibly self-congratulatory events whenever they part with a few bucks for charity? They wouldn’t dream of just throwing some coins in a Salvation Army pot. They always have to put on a black tie affair or a golf tournament to cough up for a “good cause.” Whatever it is there has to be an “open bar.” After the event, when we read about it in the society pages, the rest of us are expected to practically faint from gratitude.

This isn’t going very well, is it? I started out by trying to write a classy essay and now I’m about one paragraph away from exhorting the hapless immigrant waiter to rise up with his coworkers against the elite opera patrons. I’ll be the first to admit that trying to make an armed proletarian revolution funny is a pretty tall order, so I’ll back off of that one. Besides, I’ll also admit that without spell check I could never pull off a word like “guillotine” or “bourgeoisie.”

Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture. Maybe one of the wealthy industrialists patted the immigrant waiter on his champagne-drenched head and pressed a crisp dollar bill into his palm. “Thank you, Urdiboo. Perhaps this will help you with your family back in Urdiboostan.” In Urdiboo’s other palm the industrialists extinguished their lit cigarettes and returned to their seats. Urdiboo shoved his blistered palm into his pocket. He would savor the unfinished cigarettes when he quit working at 4 a.m. Out of gratitude, Urdiboo vowed to use part of the dollar to erect a cathedral in Urdiboostan in honor of his benefactors—a cathedral or a temple or a mosque, whatever they use in Urdiboostan for praying or whatever they call it.

That was almost completely not funny, unless one of the capitalists fell out of their box seat and caused a serious injury to one of the other rich bores sitting 50 feet below them. Ideally he should land on a dowager who watched him fall through her gold-plated opera glasses. Or how about he falls on an old Prussian? A guy falling down and hitting someone—butt first—so forcefully that he coughs up the ex-Kaiser’s monocle isn’t being lowbrow. That’s just old school humor, it’s show business. Even The New Yorker has to understand that.