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Monday, September 28, 2009

Heavy: My Anti-Thin

Heavy is the opposite of not heavy and not being heavy has been the dream of every American since before Barbies® were invented or before Baby Gap starting making big and tall sizes.  Vast swaths of citizens in this great nation have waged a pitched battle against the evil forces of gravity for most of their lives. Heaviness is relentless and unforgiving. Plump never sleeps. You can run but you can’t hide, and especially not behind the refrigerator which doesn’t have enough cubic feet to keep you even remotely decent. Put on some pants and try hiding behind the minivan.

New tactics to out-fox fat are the purging techniques, which make sense if you think about it.  We take in calories only through the mouth but we can expel them through a host of orifices. So why not use them all? This will leave the intake of food vastly outnumbered by the forces of expulsion.  The plan goes something like this: You eat something and then you eject it out of every hole in your body, sometimes even having new holes surgically implanted.  Who among us couldn’t use another blow hole? With this sort of fire power a Hostess Twinkie doesn’t seem to have a chance.

But gravity never sleeps, it takes no sick days, and it shows up uninvited at all of our major religious holidays.  Fat never excuses itself by saying, “Sorry, did I come at a bad time?” It is a pitiless foe preying on the old and infirm as well as the young and the restless.  In the old days fat mostly spared the poor but not anymore. Poor folks represent a ballooning new market (other acceptable puns for “ballooning” include “burgeoning,” “mushrooming,” “hefty,” and “sizeable,” to name just a few).

Heavy keeps coming at me. Heavy is kind of like the Terminator if the Terminator were an ice cream topping or a brand of tortilla chips. I can’t slow it down by blocking its path with empty liters of soda or discarded popsicle sticks. I wonder why I’m out of breath and then I remember that I have a Philly cheese stuffed in my mouth, but I shouldn’t be winded just from riding the bus. Heavy gets on at the next stop and asks to sit down next to me.  Heavy is reading Chili Fries Digest magazine and eating a box of donuts. He politely offers them to me. Heavy talks the driver into pulling into the drive-thru at the fast food joint on the corner. I order a #3 and move to another seat. I need the room. 

We say that the bad guy in a movie is the “heavy.” Heavy is the bad guy and thin is mostly the good guy. Even a thin drug addict has a better image than a heavy person.  Remember those anti-drug commercials with the eggs and the frying pan? Man, those made me so hungry.

I think that there is one thing upon which we can all agree: Fat is not funny…except for Hardy, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Roseanne Barr, John Candy, the fat one in The Three Stooges, Ralf Caliendo, Sam Kennison, Jackie Gleason, Curly, Lou Costello…OK, so I guess that fat is almost always funny.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mediterranean Autumn

Life on the Mediterranean isn’t bad at all during these days of early autumn, especially if you are a cyclist. The weather is perfect for just about every human activity. It’s almost impossible not to stop at every outdoor café for a coffee or a beer. I have traded in my flip flops for my cleated cycling shoes and I have upped my mileage (kilometerage? Spell-check certainly hates that metric alternative) from lazy beach rides to long exploratory missions into the vast network of villages surrounding Valencia. The environs of Valencia never really interested me much before; they were simply obstacles to pass on my way into the countryside. More and more they have become the destination as I find that they have their own attractions of history and architecture.

As I explore these areas I am quickly become one of the foremost experts on the bike trail network of Valencia. I am constantly amazed by the depth and breadth of the bike trail system here. Name just about any two points in the Valencia Community and you can probably get from one to the other on a bike path. The problem with the bike paths of Valencia is that not enough Valencianos use them. It is really a shame how few people effect their transportation needs via bicycles. Even during this perfect weather you don’t see many people on bikes. The local government needs to do more to sell the whole idea of bike riding to the general public. I think a lot of people’s rejection of the bicycle as a means of transportation is their belief that automobiles are the right and privilege of middle class life. For this same reason many people prefer to drive in heavy traffic rather than use the effortless and staggeringly efficient mass transit network.

I can get around town and even out into the surrounding areas of Valencia much quicker on my bike than is possible in a car. When you factor in parking there isn’t any contest. I can even beat the metro on my bike when you include walking to the stations and waiting for trains. Riding at a fairly leisurely pace I rode from my apartment in the center to Valencia to Rocafort (about 20 kilometers) in less than an hour. I doubt if I could match that by taking metro. I turned around and rode back although I had every intention of just boarding a train at some point along the route. It turned out to be too nice a day for me to get off my bike so I pedaled all the way home again—not bad for a guy who was too sick to get out of bed only a couple of days previous (I had been stricken with the dreaded Swine Flu. Newsflash: it’s not some sort of deadly Andromeda Strain, people. It’s the flu.).

I didn’t have much time for tourism on this particular trip but I’ll get around to it soon as this will be a regular destination for me I the months to come as I plan on being out in that area three times a week. I had my camera with me but I didn’t bother to take a single snapshot which says a lot about my lack of commitment in the photography department.

I am always struck by how life in these outlying villages is just about the same as life here in the city: People live mostly in apartments; there are bars and other businesses on every block; people generally walk everywhere; and public transportation is excellent. I could move to one of these small towns and my lifestyle would hardly miss a beat. I would probably have to start speaking Valenciano but just about everything else in my life would be the same.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Secret of My Success*

One of the most revolutionary advances in my attempt to master Spanish cost me exactly 1.25€ at a mini Chinese Wal-Mart. I bought a pair of cheap ear bud headphones with a five meter cord that I can plug into the television in my new apartment. The TV in my old place didn’t have the jack for headphones. The sound quality on TVs without some sort of surround sound system isn’t very good and I had a hard time understanding programs and movies. I go to the neighborhood movie house to watch movies because the sound quality allows me to understand the Spanish a lot better than when I watch stuff at home. It was startling for me when I first plugged in my new headphones; it was like my Spanish had instantly improved by about 35% percent or so. My life will never be the same.

Watching television recently I have been a little disappointed in my ability to understand. I simply avoided a lot of shows simply because I understood so little that I didn’t think that watching them was a good use of my time. I have always been very satisfied with my reading ability in Spanish and also with my conversational level. I don’t have too many problems in either following or contributing to a discussion. Television was always my weak side, my lado flaco. As it turns out, I didn’t have a language problem; I had a hearing problem.

My new apartment also has cable TV which means that I have at least a few more viewing options including two channels in French. With the headphones I can also watch French television without too much straining. I am actually amazed at how well I understand this language that I have left to languish as I have worked so hard to improve my Spanish. I suppose that learning French is just collateral damage from improving greatly in another Romance Language. I’ll take all the help I can get, especially if it means I don’t have to do anything.

I have always known that I hear movies better through headphones. I’ve noticed this when I watch a Spanish movie on my computer—I just never had the ability to use headphones with a television before. I am going to make a statement which few people would admit and even fewer would be proud of: excluding football, I have watched more television in the past few days than I have in the past two years or so. I am watching shows that used to really kick my ass, linguistically speaking. I have always had a hard time following some of the Spanish sit-coms. I used to understand only about 60%, if I had to estimate. Now I am watching Aquí no Hoy Quien Viva and La Familia Mata and even dubbed American series while understanding almost as if they were in English.

For the past few months I have felt like my Spanish has been languishing in a sort of purgatory of my own inability to focus on doing what I know it takes to improve. With my two recent moves in the sweltering heat of August it’s possible that I wasn’t working on my Spanish as diligently as usual, but it seems that I haven’t been spinning my wheels as much as I thought. Now if I can only figure out a way to plug in a set of headphones when I go to a bar to watch football!

*I use “success” very subjectively in this case. What I consider to be a success is probably someone else’s definition of an abject failure.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I'll Take the Stairs

This past month I have thought more about stairs than I have in all of the rest of my life previous to my two recent moves. I moved from a building with an elevator which I used quite often, even though I was only on the second floor. From there I moved to a fourth floor walk-up. After about my third or fourth trip up those stairs—while carrying a heavy load—I started to really think about stairs. After about ten trips I decided to count just how many stairs there were. To reach the doorway of that apartment from the street meant humping up 75 steps, and this was in the hottest weeks of August (do you really think that a building without an elevator is going to have air conditioning?). I didn’t bother with my daily fitness rides as I thought that I was getting more than enough exercise trudging up and down those 75 steps.

I almost immediately started moving into another place a few blocks away. This was another apartment without an elevator on the third floor—64 steps. So now I was hauling a heavy load down 75 steps and then up 64 steps, if anyone cares or is counting. I cared and was counting. The coup de grâce came when a van pulled up in front of my new place and we had to Sherpa up all of the materials for the remodeling of the kitchen and the bathroom. That took about 6-7 trips up and down those 64 stairs. I had just returned from a rather long bike ride so after the moving my legs felt like cement. I began thinking that there would be lots of days now when my legs would be turning to cement.

The other day I was invited to an after-hours party at a friends’ apartment. It was late and I really wanted to go home but I really wanted to see their place. It turns out that it is on the fifth floor, 105 steps and no elevator. We talked about what it means to live at the end of a considerable amount of stairs. You don’t think lightly about dropping down to the street to run an errand. You have to plan almost every exit like some sort or arctic expedition. Still not quite accustomed to life without an elevator, I was going for a bike ride the other day when I realized when I got to the bottom of the stairs (I lock my bike in the downstairs hallway, thank god) that I had forgotten my water bottle. Fuck it, I wasn’t going back upstairs so I had to search out different places to get water along my ride. A friend asked me for my new street address the other day. I had forgotten to take notice of the street number on several occasions so I decided that I would descend solely for the purpose of obtaining my address. I made a point of taking out the garbage and recyclables in the apartment. You need to kill at least three birds with the stone of 64 stairs staring you in the face—if that even makes sense. As I was making my way downstairs I thought how humorous it would be if after all that I forgot once again to take notice of my address. Fortunately for me my lazy gene is stronger than my stupid gene and there is no way that lazy was going to allow stupid to forget to get my address.

I started paying close attention to all of the other older buildings in the neighborhood (and most are older) to see which ones have added an elevator. Installing an elevator in an old building is quite an expensive undertaking and can cost upwards of 15,000€ per tenant. Most people will tell you that this is money well spent as it will raise the resale value of a flat considerably. A lot of folks just wouldn’t even consider moving into a place without an elevator. I was never one of those people but my first three apartments in Valencia had elevators so I started to take them for granted. Not anymore. I wouldn’t say that I would refuse to live in another building without an elevator but I just moved here so give me a little time and a lot of stairs and perhaps I will change my mind. Let me just say that from now on, given the choice between taking the stairs or riding in an elevator, I’ll take the elevator.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sea of Ill-informed Hicks Descends on Washington

The video above was from the ho-hum media where most Americans get their watered-down version of the news. Now here's another reporter at the scene. something tells me that he didn't have to look very hard to find these retards:

Thousands Rally in Capital to Protest Big Government

How could you read an article like this or watch this clip and not come to the conclusion that America is just completely finished as a nation and a rational society. The last person out needs to turn off the light and lock the door. We are radically divided on every single important issue of the day and we are witnessing our government in the throes of impotency. Conservative groups have whipped people into a near violent frenzy, terrifying the hicks with stories of the horrors of socialism. “They are gonna take away my guns!” !They’s gonna kill my unborn babies!” Here is a statement from one of the protesters that pretty much hits the nail on the head:

I want Congress to be afraid,” said Keldon Clapp, 45, an unemployed marketing representative who recently moved to Tennessee from Connecticut after losing his job.

What the hell does big government have to do with the problems of this ignorant slob? I’m sure that he doesn’t have health insurance. I’ll tell him what I tell all the others like him, “Dude, turn off Rush Fucking Limbaugh and buy a newspaper at least once a week.” Stop reading Michelle Malkin and try to find some real news somewhere in your day.

I don’t know, I don’t think there is any way to combat this sort of religious certainty on virtually every issue facing America. If people like Maggie really feel that abortion is murdering babies then wouldn’t they be obliged to kill to stop it? If I thought it was murder I sure would, but I don’t, of course. The same thing goes about calling Obama a Nazi or whatever. I never called Bush a Nazi, although he was sort of a proto-fascist in the strict sense of the word. At this point Obama could say something like, “My fellow Americans,” and he would take a ton of shit for it from these same mouth-breathers. It’s like America is a sinking ship.

Seriously, give me a good reason why America shouldn’t just split into two halves like India and Pakistan. Liberals can have their big cities and the conservatives can have the religious south along with the rest of the red states. If we have reached a point where the President of our country can’t even give an address to school students then we have become way too contentious and we just need to part ways. Where the hell was the kind of debate we are now having about health care when Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq? Wouldn’t that have been a good time for a robust exchange of opinions?

Here is my challenge to conservatives: give me an example of the ultra- conservative society you are seeking to build. I will give you an example of the kind of society I wish to emulate. I’m living in one right now; a country with nowhere near America’s inequality of income; a country that ranks way above us in health care despite the fact that they spend a fraction of what we spend; a country that seems to have a pretty firm eye on their future. What are we doing about our future? Are we building mass transit? Are we bending over backwards to integrate bicycles into our transportation model? Are we doing everything we can to improve our education system? Are we striving to develop alternative energies? And what rights has our government taken away from us? How would government-run health care make us less free? Their arguments have no basis in reality and don’t even make sense.

If we refuse to look to other countries that have much better health care systems than our own then how can we improve the way we provide medical treatment? If we simply start screaming about the horrors of socialism without seeing that we are the only industrialized country that doesn’t have the government involved in health care then we won’t move forward on this issue. Our system is on the verge of collapse. We could continue ignoring it as did the previous administration which is surely what the big pharmaceutical and insurance companies want. But what happens when Etna or Blue Cross decide to go belly-up like Lehman? Good luck being able to afford getting some stitches sewn at your local for-profit hospital.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Going to Godella

This was one of those days on my bike when I should have received a free t-shirt that said I spent 4 hours on my bike and all I have to show for it is this picture of a tower. I didn’t get a t-shirt but at least it wasn’t as hot as it has been lately. I didn’t even bring water along as I left my bottle on a park bench a couple days ago. It's not like you can't find water everywhere along the route. I was exploring the area to the west of Valencia along the metro line that goes to Burjassot and Godella. What I really need here is a handlebar-mounted GPS like the one a friend of mine had on his mountain bike in Seattle (otherwise known as tech geek capital of the world). To my credit I did spend about ten seconds trying to find a map before I left the house. Maps are for wimps with less of a sense of direction than the uncanny knack I have for finding my way around.

I made it on the bike trail as far as the station at Empalme and then I couldn’t find another bike path. I started to go along the tram tracks until I thought better of it. Just as I was climbing over a railing with my bike a tram came by at about 60 kph that would have made riding along the rail line interesting, to put it mildly. There should be warning signs along the tracks saying something like, “Don’t ride along the tracks unless you want to die.” It just seems logical that they should have built a bike lane right alongside the tram lines. I’m guessing that there is a bike trail that goes further west from Empalme; I just wasn’t able to sniff it out.

I finally made it as far as Paterna where I came across this wonderful tower measuring 19 meters tall. It is a typical defensive tower built by the Arabs of which there are dozens of examples around the Community of Valencia. The exact date of its construction is unknown but probably from the 13th century (but rebuilt in 1967). While I was taking pictures of the tower I asked a passerby how I would go about getting to Godella. If I could just find the metro stop at Godella I would know my way around from there, more or less. He tried as best as he could to explain but it was obvious that it would e difficult to get there from Paterna on a bike. After humping up and down a couple of sizable hills I aborted the mission to Godella and started looking for a way back to Valencia.

I will probably try again next Sunday but this time I’ll bring my hydro-pack and a map.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Moving Out

I received one month’s notice that I had to be out of my apartment. I moved three blocks away but it was a very long three blocks, especially the last twenty-five meters or so that consisted of five flights of tight stairs. If the stairs aren’t enough to kill you then try doing it during the last two weeks of August. I think this was the hottest it has been in my three summers in Valencia. Lucky me. Thank god the nightmare of moving is over…at least until I move again this month to another apartment that is up four flights of stairs. At least it should start to cool off a bit before I start humping stuff over to my new, new place.

I was thinking about renting a burro to help with the move. I figure that a burro would be perfect for negotiating flights or narrow stairs while hauling all of the junk I have accumulated since I came to Spain two years and ten months ago. I looked in the yellow pages for burro rentals but all I found out was that burros are somewhat of a rare species in the land of Sancho Panza. Could burros become extinct? Is there a burro wildlife refuge somewhere in the world? If there is a world burro wildlife refuge I would go there for a visit because I think that burros are cute. Ever since I was a kid I have wanted my own burro…and a chimp…a chimp with a huge sombrero.

So I have been in moving hell and it is only half over. I moved into one place and then got a much better deal on another place that is really nice. Where I am right now has what you call “old world charm” which means it is as old as dirt and without any sort of nod towards modernity. The bathroom is about the size of an airplane toilet. The kitchen is really small and kind of on the side of crappo. One thing that is a true marvel here are the set of knives. I have never had such amazing kitchen knives in my life. I need to work on that. Just to break in the new kitchen I made some tomato sauce and pasta for dinner.

Another cool thing about this place that I took in the short interim is the great stereo. I am listening to some great CD called La Guitarra Clásica Española which is a collection of classics played by Narciso Yepes.* The other CD I am listening to is the Afro Cuban Allstars which is always a lot of fun to listen to. My new building seems to be filled with South Americans so I will fit right in blasting this music at all hours of the night.

This apartment is only three blocks from my old place but almost literally worlds apart. The old place was super modern as were most of the other buildings in the vicinity. The people living there were mostly younger to middle aged Spaniards. In my new hood it is mostly immigrants—South Americans, Moroccans, Sub-Saharan Africans, and Chinese—either immigrants or old Spaniards who have probably lived here all of their lives. No wonder Spanish people supposedly live so long: you would live a lot longer too if you have to deal with walking up a few hundred steps every single day of your life. If you get down to the street and realize that you forgot something you can also purposefully forget you stairmaster class at the gym.

The place I will be moving into is from about the same era as the building I am in now—built sometime in the 1930s or early 1940s—but it is a lot more modern and hip looking. It still doesn’t have an elevator but there is a storage room on the ground floor where I can keep my bike locked up. The new place will also be a block or two out of the heart of Ruzafa where I have lived these past two years. A big plus in the new building is that all of the construction for the new metro line has been completed on the street so I won’t have to listen to jack hammer pounding from eight in the morning until seven at night. The new sidewalk project in Ruzafa has been wearing me the fuck out with all of the noise, detours, and dust. I am all for these new changes of widening the sidewalks, eliminating a lot of street parking, and making some streets for pedestrians only, it’s just that I have already paid my dues at the old flat.

*I just met someone named Narciso, a name I had never heard of before but since I have seen it many times.