Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Forgive me, readers, for I have slacked. It has been almost six months since my last post. I'm not Catholic but I heard those lines in a movie or something.

This blog has lain fallow for awhile. I've had no internet since I moved from Cozy Cottage to Rancho de le Dorma  back around the 4th of July, but today I achieved connectivity with the interwebs again so, good God, let me blog! For the world has been deprived of my bloviations, and how has it survived, anyway?

There's been a lot of spilt milk under the bridge in the half-a-year of my bloglessness, lots of events worthy of insightful commentary. Like the Arab Spring, for example, and also Occupy stuff movement.. and...did you hear we got Bin Laden? Some old dude predicted the rapture twice. Sarah Palin passed the Torch of Inarticulateness to Rick Perry. And my beloved Cardinals won the World Series. And so here we are.

Throughout this blog famine of mine, twos and threes of people have asked "When are you going to write something new?" I chuckled quietly into my cocoa at hearing this question, lifted my chin and replied "Who are you again, actually? Do I know you?" And I meant that.

Truth be told, the world seems to be ever more spinning out of control and exactly the same, ever more of a casserole of chaos and logic, ever more of the sound and fury and still signifying nothing. Someone once said "Things are more the way they are now than they've ever been," and I find that hard to argue with.

And so this blog is out of cold storage, putting on a fresh pair of cleats, and ready to mix metaphors like the plague. Ready to probe the shallow meanings of deep experiences. Ready to make light of heavy subjects and give weight to fluff.  Put me in, coach, I'm ready to play.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My city of ruins

A third of my hometown was blasted to splinters.

In real life, tornadoes don't give you a bump on the head and send you off to Oz. They drive you to hide and cower and scream, and you hear the sounds of things flying that aren't meant to fly, and your ears pop and your skin crawls and sky is the deepest bruised black and the house blows out from around you. If you're lucky the tornado passes near you but not through you. It runs through farmland and not through the town. If you're unlucky the tornado sucks down to the ground and chews its way through your house, your neighborhood, or, in the case of Joplin, a third of the city. A day later they had counted more than a hundred dead.

Tornadoes are to May in Missouri as wildfires are to California in October. In May in Missouri, any evening the thunderheads may build up and the air begins to change and you glance at the sky and wonder. Thirty years removed, I still feel the thunder and the unexpected hanging in the air. When tornadoes come to the ground chances are they will tear up some barns and plow  through the fields. But when they intersect with a town, and when the tornado is strong, people die.

It was Sunday evening in Joplin. Some people were taking part in their second church service of the day. Others were putting dinner on the table. A "tornado watch" was in effect, but when you live in that part of the world it's a common thing. Even when the "watch" becomes a "warning" you may not pay attention. It happens all the time, and you don't know where the funnel is, and it wouldn't matter if you did because there's nowhere to run. The sirens sound. If you have a basement you go there. If you don't have a basement you hide in the bathroom or a closet or just sit and wait.

Then you hear something that sounds like a train. Everyone always says it sounded like a train. And for a few seconds you are overwhelmed. Roaring, crushing, shuddering. Screams people make on rollercoasters. A dog barks. A woman shouts out Jesus! Heavenly Father! Thank you, Jesus! over and over. Powerlessness. Panic. Surrender.

If you live through it, you're in a shock that won't allow you comprehend what you see. Trees you've climbed stripped of their bark or torn up by the roots like onions. A brick embedded in the side of a car. Houses of your neighbors disfigured, indecipherable trash piles. What was once familiar has become an alien landscape. Houses, schools, a hospital, nursing homes, churches, some 8,000 structures, now churned and tangled waste.

What's to become of Joplin, that rough old town with the outlaw past? Can they put it back together? In the week since I began to write this, I've come around to saying yes. It's a place that's been remade before, and it will be remade again. Some, the rootless, will have  lost too much and will walk away. The rest - more likely to keep praising God than to complain - will bury the dead and clear away the mess and quietly rebuild their town. The work will continue long after the television news crews have moved on to the next disaster. The work will continue long after everyone knows it will never be the same.

Congratulations to the Times' writers who did this piece. They captured a true sense of Joplin and its people.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How The People's Temple made me a better person

The evangelist on TV was working up a lather, all about the book of Revelation. Smoothly building with interpretations, suspending the climactic resolution. I watched his gestures and his face, and listened to his rhythm.

For the last couple of months, I had spent time watching those evangelists on TV, seeking others out on YouTube. A good actor works at his craft, and I am about to play Jim Jones, one of the most charismatic evangelists known. I'm doing my homework.

Suddenly he says something that makes me want to listen more than examine. "Adam and Eve," he says, "were failures. So we are the descendants of failures." He leaves this tangent and resumes his Revelation sermon.

Failures, I thought. The pulpit vernacular would call for "fall from grace" or "original sin" - not "failure." It's all about the choice of words, I thought. It's always about choices.

A certain friend, if present, would remind me that actors always find some parallel between their role and their life, some line in the script that magically describes both the actor and the portrayed at that moment in time. The truth of that did not detour me from the intersection between this fresh image of mankind as "failures" and the real-life characters my friends and I are portraying in a production of "The People's Temple."

People think they know the story. Jonestown. They saw the magazine covers back then, or the documentaries on milestone dates. Bunch of "crazy cultists piled up in the jungle." The people who "drank the Kool Aid." They know the ending, but they don't know the beginning, why they belonged to Peoples Temple in the first place, the director would say. Let the play tell the whole story.

The whole story, we learn over the weeks of rehearsal, is about love and need and seeking social justice. It's about civil rights and politics and money and manipulation. It's about finding hope and an imperfect peace in a world that had lost its mind. It's about megalomania and self-deception and group think and going along to get along, and in the end, it's about frustration and fear and paranoia and madness. It's about flawed people; or, in other words, all people.

It's instinctive to turn away from something disturbing, to close your eyes and your heart to something you can't understand. To tell this story we had to choose not to turn away but to look deeply into the words and the meaning, into these lives, to see through another's eyes. It was painful, and joyous, and painful again. It was a journey worth taking. I know that all of us see the world a little differently now. Maybe we will have a little more compassion and be less likely to judge. Maybe we won't turn away when someone we care about makes bad decisions, or when we see someone "acting crazy," but instead will choose to open our hearts and understand. It's always about choices.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Things I really don't want to watch

I know there are millions of people suffering somewhere, and I'm sorry about that, but look, I have problems of my own, ok? For example, basic cable. Basic cable is my lack of clean water. Basic cable is my cholera. It oppresses me.

Recent attempts at viewing basic cable led me to this list of


1. Any show with an acronym in the title.
2. Any show with Gary Busey in it, unless it's "The Buddy Holly Story" because that one was ok.
3. Country Music awards shows
4. Any show with an autopsy in it. (See number one above.)
5. Ads for remedies for toenail fungus. Is the need for relief from radical toenail fungus such a widespread problem it requires a comprehensive national ad campaign? Never mind, don't answer that.
6. News stories about airplane fuselages that just pop open all of a sudden.
7.Any show that displays a dead body within the first two minutes. (See numbers 4 and 1 above.)
8. Telenovelas on the Mexican channel. Ok, actually I want to watch them, I just don't want to listen to them because it distracts me from looking at the women.
9. Fake Beatles stage shows featuring fake Beatles. Don't you wonder if it feels weird to Paul McCartney to have people mimicing him all over, like a musical version of a Renaissance Faire?  Like, "I'm still alive over here, you know?"
10 Carrie Fisher doing Jenny Craig ads. She was so hot in the second Star Wars. Why, why?

This feels like only a partial list.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Say "Hello" to Old Mean God

In the beginning, God was mean.

Right from the get go it was all about punishment. Adam and Eve, evicted, with shame as their lovely parting gift. Frogs and boils and rivers of blood were doled out to the Pharoah. And let's not forget that petulant moment when God drowned just about everyone in the world. Man, was he pissed that time. Then there's Job, and Abraham, and others who weren't so much punished as they were "tested" - if "tested" and "tortured" have the same meaning. Early God would have used waterboarding and never engaged in a morality debate. Just plain mean, that Guy. Probably was the first to say "I brought you into this world, I can take you out," and Cosby was just plagiarizing.

But God mellowed with age, his heart softened by bouncing the baby Jesus on his knee, and a new paradigm of love and forgiveness was developed and announced through a series of press releases and sophisticated manipulation of social media. Jesus was not so hot on the smiting and the hordes of locusts and whatnot. He preferred just sitting around with a little wine and bread, telling stories, and knocking out a miracle now and then to keep everyone focused.

From Siddhartha to Nietzsche to Hitchens, people have been trying to knock off old mean God and other God variations for awhile now, but he hangs in there. And it only takes something horrible to happen for that old God of Punishment to get trotted out for another scene. A few years ago it was AIDS - a plague sent to punish the wicked, according to some deep thinkers - and your Falwells and Pat Robertsons made careers out of pointing to old mean God and blaming disasters on the "immoral" - or more recently the nincompoopery of epic proportions perpetrated by the followers of Westboro Baptist Church, the holier-than-thou gang that parades around at funerals with signs like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." (As believers in the God of Retribution, I imagine they are emboldened by the fact that they themselves haven't been buried in a blizzard of frogs or something. "No smiting yet, we must be on the right track.") The most timely example of the staying power of old mean God was delivered by Glenn Beck, attributing the devastating Japan earthquake and tsunami as a punishment:

God -- what God does is God's business, I have no idea. But I'll tell you this: whether you call it Gaia or whether you call it Jesus -- there's a message being sent. And that is, 'Hey, you know that stuff we're doing? Not really working out real well. Maybe we should stop doing some of it.' I'm just sayin'.
So eloquently stated, and expansive thinking in now accusing Jesus the son of adopting the bad habits of the father. A reminder that it's always good to get your spiritual guidance from talk show hosts. In fairness (which is a concept Beck doesn't adhere to) it should be said that even the governor of Tokyo played the same card, but at least he had the intelligence to apologize.

It's not hard to imagine primitive mankind trying to apply some cause and effect to their world, trying to find some meaning in earthquakes or volcanoes or floods. They had no science, no written records, no access to larger context, so they envisioned angry gods in the sky and the earth and the oceans, and they tried to make amends and appease. To see modern mankind still using the same kind of logic is a little depressing.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tales of the road: part 10

There was a revolution while I was on vacation.

The protests in Cairo started January 25. I was in London, five days into my ramble and paying not much attention to the news. Won't last long, I thought, when I heard about it. Mubarak won't let it last long. While I went here and there amusing myself, frustrated Egyptians held out for change and 18 days later the strongman was gone. It was February 11 and I was making the return loop. It all looked the same in London, but the world had changed.

Unlike the Irish girl who quizzed me on Obama's re-election chances or the Belgian man who couldn't really believe we don't have a national heath care system, Americans don't give two shits about international news unless it affects their business interests or their family - with the exception of American Jews, who pay close attention to goings on in Israel. But word of people in the streets in middle eastern countries is a different animal. We see ghosts of Tehran 1979 and Saddam rolling into Kuwait and we wonder what this means to us and what's this going to cost us this time? Having had so much grief from Islamic fundamentalists the last thirty years we've got good reason to be wary. And besides, we're talking about Eqypt - a stable and predictable US ally for all those thirty years - not some wide spot in the road like Bahrain, or even obscure Tunisia. Eqypt matters.

While the youth movement was hoisting banners in Cairo, I was picking through postcards in Berlin showing similar, if whiter crowds massed in 1989 as the wall came down. Wandering through that tattered, glorious city I imagined what it could have been like to be held hostage in your own country - forced by wire and dogs and rifles to stay and subsist in a bleak world with no opportunity and little hope. Willing to risk your life to get away. Walking the Unter den Linden I thought about Berlin 1989 and Cairo 2011. They never built walls to keep people in Eqypt but twenty years later the world is completely different and completely the same.

Twenty years ago as a novice radio talk show host I learned how little people care about what's going on in the rest of the world, unless US troops are in the field. How hard it is to park your car in downtown Napa - that's a topic that lights up the phones. Gun control? Abortion? Taxes? People cared. Gorbachev and the European Union and Camp David round two? Crickets.

Why care about Eqypt? At the simplest level, our tendency to ignore the rest of the world doesn't work. We didn't care when young Iranians were pushing back against the Shah in the late 70s and our heads in the sand made us blind to the coming of the Ayatollahs. We've paid that price ever since. Right now it's easy to be amused by the guy from Google who tweeted a revolution and go back to watching TMZ. But listen, and you'll hear him say the US is no friend, the US backed Mubarak. Look, and see the Egyptian army driving American M1A1 Abrams tanks and flying the F16. The same US-funded army that kept Mubarak in power all those years, oddly now trusted to run things for awhile. We Americans like to root for the underdog and we like it when people clamor for democracy. But something tells me we wouldn't be warmly welcomed waving "Don't Tread on Me" in Tahir Square.

When the wall came down and the communists caved in some pundits said it was "the end of history" and we would now enjoy a "peace dividend." Instead we got Bosnia and the rampaging Russian mob. The populist wildfire in the middle east now has stirred the pot. It remains to be seen what meal will be served.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tales of the road: part 9

Last night a tight modern jazz quartet played on a houseboat on the Vltava river; sax, Gibson guitar, six-string bass and a drummer whose fast hands made his sticks look like the wings of a hummingbird. Between songs the front man chatted in Czech but now and then a phrase in English dropped in - "you know what women do to men" or "we've all been on that road before" - but the music was sexy and urgent, then sly and comic, and language was unnecessary for all of us listening.

Later at U Mahello Glena, a duo was starting up just as I walked down into the basement bar. One silent Czech, one talkative Brit, two guitars, in a room for about 20 people. The Brit was the lead, about 50, and had a raspy voice shades of Joe Cocker. Between songs he went on excitedly about a reunion show with old bandmates coming up this weekend in Putney. The local crowd didn't care much about his memories - the music was the story they wanted to hear.
Music cuts across all boundaries of ethnicity and language and space and time, from the American pop in the bars of London, to the hermit-like Dutchman spinning vinyl in Amsterdam, to the sad gypsy violinist playing for coins in Prague, the classical baritone singing on the underground in Berlin - the melodies and the harmonies and the rhythms and the dissonance align and realign in my mind and in my heart.

Not every music encounter has been joyous though. A few nights ago in Berlin, Henry and I went in search of a couple of possible hot spots, and end up talking with a bartender who draws us a very precise napkin map. As we're finishing our drinks, a man with a guitar comes into this full house. He looks like the love child of a coupling between David Bowie and Bob Dylan, if they both were crack addicts. A thinning mullet, even thinner denim jeans, the obligatory harmonica holder around the neck. He begins to play an old pop song and it sounds only vaguely familiar and he mangles the words in his thick accent. It takes awhile to figure out what he's trying to play. Henry and I suddenly become aware of a creeping stench in the bar. A moment of perplexity, then the realization it is the deep, intense type of body odor that suggests a portal to Hell has opened and the smell of eternal torment is leaking out. We exchange a look of Do you smell that? There is no one new near the bar. Henry says It's him, nodding toward the musician. Six people at the table next to us ask for their check with urgency. He launches into a misguided version of "Folsom Prison Blues" and now eternal damnation is audible as well as olfactory. Another table is up and walking out. then another. We ask for our check and hold our breath as we pass to the door.

On the street Henry tells me that in Berlin, street-type musicians come into bars and cafes, uninvited, and set up shop in the way you'd expect in the subways. They may be good or they may stink - literally - but the bar managers just let them be. even if they clear the room. I understand why Berliners like to avoid conflict, but they have some things to learn about capitalism.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tales of the road: part 8

Thursday February 3, 2011
In Berlin

That date up there - took me a little time to figure out what day of the week it was. Thirteen densely packed days on the road, a few thousand miles traveled, and I have lost track of time. I consider that a vacation success but at the same time I now see the end of the trip and the return to "reality."

Berlin is unlike any city I have visited. An architectural mish-mash of the old that survived and post-war modern, in parts as gritty as Times Square in the 1970s, as sleek in parts as Fifth Avenue or the Champs Elysses today. The uber-subculture of Tacheles feels like a cross between Mendocino County, a rave at robot wars and a spook house when the horrors are real, all under the blanket of an orderly city when pedestrians always, always wait for the green The streets fill with sober faces in a land that reveres beer.

After seven hours on the train from Amsterdam I went straight to an office building to meet my friend who teaches English in Berlin. I sat in on the class as he instructed five women, secretaries. Two of the women, each around 40, giggled like teens throughout. Both had grown up in the former East Berlin and would have been 20 or so when the wall came down. One of them repeatedly leaned over to her friend, looking at me, and speaking to her in German. Now and then she blushed as she giggled. My friend the teacher said, I'm going to have to separate you two.

Dozens of square miles of Berlin look wrecked, abandoned. Miles of graffiti and squatters taking over grand, ignored buildings, sometimes for art, sometimes for impromptu parties. The trash and chain link and broken things cast off remind me of bad sections of Chicago or Detroit. The city sprawls as I walk, festering in its past, fallow, but in all a promise of a flowering to come.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tales of the road, part 7

February 2, 2011
En route to Berlin

A thick mist makes Amsterdam even more gray as I join quiet crowds in the early morning.

(Note: A tip for travelers - getting a cheap hotel in the Red Light District may seem like a fun idea, but makes sense only if fun takes priority over sleep. Even on a Tuesday night, when all the red light windows were closed, the party in the street carried on to 3am, punctuated by drunken howls and cascades of stoned laughter.)

After 12 days on the road I am so complacent in my train-catching skills I come close to missing my intercity train to Berlin, standing on the platform watching it pull in and watching people get on and then realizing I should be getting on, too, about a minute before it pulls away. I take it as a sign to remain humble.

The unremitting gray persists across Holland and I think back to the dark paintings from Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters" period that I viewed the day before, paintings set in places where there seems to be no light. Holland becomes Germany with just the faintest roll to the land, an occasional swell in the gray mist.

Across the aisle a man about 65 with a bristly black mustache below his shaved head wears tight black leather pants. I decide he is on his way to a reunion of former "Village People" tribute bands. In Osnabruck a chubby teenaged girl gets on carrying a 6 foot by 2 foot plastic rectangle and I spend miles trying to figure out what in the world it might be for and why she had to travel so far to get it. A stern-faced middle-aged woman walks purposefully on the platform wearing a hiker's backpack. The trackside graffiti is bland and monotonal. The visual verve of Amsterdam is far behind.

I doze and the cell phone conversation of the man behind me melds into my dreams.

Color, uninspired, but an effort, returns in Hannover. Miles of industrial sites and many cars. The graffiti looks more like tagging than art and Gothic cathedral spires have been replaced by TV towers with the VW logo. Two hours from Berlin it looks like a city in the American midwest. Hanover's parting shot: a hundred-foot long trackside tag says "This city licks my stinky cock," a statement that is both coarse and self-loathing.

The voice on the train announcing the stops keeps using the word "anschluss." To me, a word only associated with Hitler's annexation of Austria prior to the war. I realize the word must also mean "connection," which is why it keeps being said. Horrid, but not surprising, that I hear echoes of the Nazis as I approach Berlin.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tales of the road, part 6

Wednesday February 3, 2011

It's 1:11am in Berlin and my friend Henry is snoring like a banshee if banshees snored and I put on my headphones and write. Thirteen days into my travels some familiar music is nice, and putting words on "paper" is solace.

Four days/a lifetime ago, Sunday, In Brugges, I fought my instinct to just keep moving and after a battle with my intrinsic restlessness, I stayed another day. The reward was carillon bells and street scenes of grandparents and grandchildren partaking of simple joys and a huge pot of mussels Belgian style, like eating the ocean undiluted.

In the quiet time I thought back to a conversation with Patricia, the ex-pat American owner of the Jazz Bar who has lived in Belgium 20 years. She told me of her son who had dropped out of art school in Ghent and run way to live with Patricia's family in LA, where he is considered rude and overly opinionated and (God forbid) godless. There, he was asked if he believed in God, and answered Of course I don't, who believes in God? The family in LA being half Mexican Catholics, well, there's the rub.

Atheism in the US seems to be coming out of the closet the last few years despite the lingering posturing of the hard religious right, the remnants of the old Moral Majority. Recent writings by Chistopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and others have been best sellers, and even Ricky Gervais has weighed in on disbelief. Nonetheless, it remains de rigeur in the US to profess belief outwardly, regardless of one's true thoughts.

Not so in Europe, as illustrated by the story of Patricia's son. The irony is that these European cities full of atheists are full of churches - some of the most stunning, resplendent, imposing churches to be found, churches whose spires and bells loom over entire cities.

This day in Brugges I viewed a Groetmuseum display of entirely religious art, Flemish primitive painters, they're called, and the disconnect was front and center - the disconnect between the private beliefs of these Belgian and French and British and German museum patrons and the subject matter. Their forebears had a passion for the Passion, judgment and damnation and all the trappings. Today's viewers gave a lot of studious looks, and held quiet conversations, but there were no discernable moments of ecstasy or conversion taking place.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tales of the road: part 5

Monday February 1, 2011

There used to be a big name in radio, a guy called Paul Harvey, who would relate a story of some bizarre, usually abhorrent behavior in a foreign culture, and tag the story with the line "It's not one world." That was his code for saying white, Protestant, American culture was different and inherently better. Saner, logical, and just simply right.

In fact, it is, in so many ways, one world today. We've long lived in a universal Coca Cola and Levis world, but it goes so far beyond that now the sheer universality becomes boggling. For example:
  • Eating nachos in an Irish pub in Brussels
  • Watching "Jaws" on TV with Dutch subtitles
  • Following up nachos in Brussels with an Asian noodle dish served by an Irish girl in Brugges, in a bar with a Hindu theme
  • Meeting Mohammed on the TGV, a young man with Lebanese/Greek Cypriot parents who grew up in Kuwait and completed a degree in finance at Michigan and is now in a graduate program in London, and was on his way to celebrate in Amsterdam
  • Seeing little rural homes in Belgium from the train with their satellite dishes, junk cars and clutter of plastic kid's toys in the yard, and it all could have been Tennessee or Sheboygan or Fresno just the same
  • College girls on the train talking about One Tree Hill and How I Met Your Mother and half a dozen other American TV shows
  • European cats are just as indifferent as American cats
The takeaway for me: Paul Harvey was wrong and we are always more alike than we are different.

That said, there are lots of little things that are different in this part of Europe:
  • The Red Light windows of Amsterdam as neighbors to a pre-school and a renaissance church
  • People in coffeeshops rolling ginormous joints at 10am
  • Everyone speaking three or four languages comfortably
  • Getting a decent glass of wine for $4 everywhere
  • Intelligent grafitti
To that last point, an example or two, noting particularly that some grafitti here has an encouraging, rather than threatening tone, such as:
  • "MFA Angst!"
  • "Life's what you make it!"
  • "Believe life, not God"
  • "You're not Icarus, you'll make it."
This afternoon I met a 64-year old Indonesian-Dutch Army veteran of twenty years. He told me about getting a three-hour interrogation at the Houston airport when they learned he was born in Indonesia. He was on his way to visit his sister who lives on a farm in southern Arkansas. He told me what a good life that is.

So in the end, it's not a matter of better or worse, it's just that it's just one world.

Tales of the road, part 4

Monday January 31, 2011

My last night in Brugges I went back to the Jazz Bar. Patricia, the ex-pat American owner, had told me on my first visit that there would be live music. When I came in the second time she welcomed me and introduced me to her friends, regulars at her place.

Torben was a tall, bright-eyed, rustic, self-deprecating Dane with long hair and a beard and a fondness for mushrooms and make-believe in the forest - perhaps one leading to the other. Natalie with the beaming smile was born in the US but never lived there. When she told me her name she said it in a flat nasal way, mimicing how she thought Americans sound when they say it.

Patricia told them I was a writer and an actor and they began to tell me of their recent parts in a "theater play," as Torben called it, in Ghent. I asked what they play was about and they looked at each other and smiled and rolled their eyes and said they really weren't sure, except for a theme of "men are pigs." Some things are the same in all cultures, I said. They all agreed that Heidi, when she got there, could tell me more about it. She will tell you more about everything, Torben said. If you don't want to listen to her all night, don't talk to her. Everyone laughed.

Heidi arrived soon, and Torben got up from his seat next to me, guaranteeing that she would sit next to me, and then he smiled at me from the end of the bar - a smile that said get ready to have your ear talked off. He bought a round. We drank. I bought a round. We drank more.

Heidi spoke with a faint accent of London and told me she came from a weird ethnic mix that included some Huron Indian. She lifted her unwashed lanky bangs to show me a purple-red glow on her forehead that looked like the kind of bruise you'd get from falling down stairs. This is proof of my Huron blood, she said. Her teeth were proof of her English blood, a fact I determined on my own.

Later we smoked outside and she told me that she and Torben had been lovers. What she didn't say was that she was still in love with him, but from the way she looked at him it was another thing I determined on my own. She talked of her frustrations trying to get published and with her job as a translator. She told me Patricia was false and superficial, and Brugge was boring, and many other things, and eventually she said If you weren't a tourist I would take you home with me. I smiled but kept to myself the thought that even if I weren't a tourist, I wouldn't go.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tales from the road, part 3

January 28, 2011
On the train from London to Dover

Neal called him a Lithuanian git as we wandered drunkenly down the street in Soho. The Lithuanian was a massive man working the door at a bar with a band playing upstairs, and he turned Neal and me away, telling us we'd had too much to drink. The rest of our impromptu party had already run up the stairs as we listened to his scolding. Go down to the KFC and eat some food, the Lithuanian said. I was at about a five on a ten-point scale of boozing but there was no denying I had bounced off the door frame as I tried to walk into the place, and that caught the Lithuanian's attention, and I had been in town too long to blame jet lag. The Lithuanian had a huge head under a fur cap. His eyes were childlike and he had that weary look that bouncers usually have. Above all, he was enormous, and I decided not to argue with him.

Neal and I shuffled into a cheap Chinese diner and disinterestedly ordered something sweet and sour. I was thinking about the bar with the loud music and how much I'd rather be there than eating bad food with other drunks at midnight. The group I had fallen in with at the Marlborough Arms in Bloomsbury were celebreating the end of their semester at the University of London.

Neal was a chemical engineer and lectured at the University on getting oil out of the ground. He had the florid face of a man who packed away pints without number, and he seemed devoted to making sure I had a good time in London that night.

A man with an untrimmed look and a practiced smile began to speak to us from the next table. Are you doing well tonight? he asked, and I said that I was. Neal gave him a silent sideways glance. Might you have a few coins so I can get some food? the man asked. I'm a bit short, you see, my wife can't work because of her disability. He spoke in a slow, supplicating way. He began to go on but Neal cut him off saying Shut up, you, I'm eating here and I don't want to hear you. The man protested; Neal would have none of it. I still hear you talking, said Neal, and I don't want it, you worthless cunt, so be quiet or get out of my sight. The man's smile never changed. He and Neal exchanged a few more words, the English equivalent of maybe I should kick your ass, and try it, buddy, and then the man stood and silently dragged his wheeled cart out onto the street.

Having swallowed the sweet and sour, we made a return visit to the Lithuanian and this time scored passable sobriety and we climbed the stairs and wedged ourselves into the room. The band played generic bar-quality rock and roll loudly, if not well, and the crowd danced intently, if not well, and we rediscovered our ad hoc drinking buddies. There were a few pints ahead of us and happy to see us again, in that we're-all-getting-sloshed-together-tonight way. The crowd whooped and more began to dance as the band launched into their final song of the set, and the room full of London college students, exams over, sang along in full voice to Sweet Home, Alabama.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tales of the road, Part 2

At The Crown & Anchor, Covent Garden, London

January 25, 2011

My unerring sense of direction, which I always mention just before becoming deeply lost, is failing me on the streets on London.

In a normal world I can parse out north-south-east-west from the position and angle of the sun. A normal world, however, does not have a pewter sky that gives no clue as to the position and angle of the sun, and, in fact, makes one suspect that the sun has, at last, burned out. And so I wander through curving cobbled streets, cheerfully baffled, and stop to puzzle over every streetside map. Thankfully, The Magic Beer will make it all better.

What's that? You don't know of The Magic Beer? Draw nigh, child, and let me fill you up - fill you in, I mean. The Magic Beer is an event that can only occur when one is on vacation - or 'on holiday' as they say here (and as you can see I am quickly learning this foreign tongue.) The Magic Beer always happens around 2:00 pm local time, at that moment when you've walked your legs down to bloody stumps and a wolfed-down lunch is heavy in your gut and your spirits are flagging. The Magic Beer - one pint is the prescribed amount - sets the world to rights again.

A few hours later at the Fitzroy Tavern, Bloomsbury

Day 1 in London: The Major Challenges

  • Not getting run over. There is a serious problem here with people driving on the wrong side of the road. Such a severe problem they have posted signs for pedestrians that say 'Look Left!' I nearly became a hood ornament for a very large truck about two minutes after I got off the Tube.

  • Not getting unalteringly lost. We Yankees are used to grids of streets and the quaint notion of street signs rather than the occasional street name (a what is a 'mews' anyway?) posted on the side of a building. Maps are futile, and the GPS in my phone searched and loaded and then came back with an error message saying 'Fuck it, have another beer, mate.'

  • Not goofing on accents. Very hard not to launch into a bad fake accent and start calling everyone 'love' and 'guv'nuh.' Do NOT want to get punched. Perhaps after one more beer, though.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tales of the road, Part 1

New York: January 21, 2011
He sat down beside me at the oval bar on the balcony at Grand Central. He was a young, handsome Latino in a skin-tight T-shirt. His Manhattan arrived and he turned to me and told me his name was Manolo and I settled in to wait for him to put the moves on me.

His accent was thick and I picked up every third word as Manolo emptied his mind of every current thought, in the unrestrained way of someone who is drunk. His family owns three restaurants in New York, he says. They make the best margarita in the city. I should come there to 59th and 9th and he will give me a free one. He lived in Miami but he hated it. Too much non-stop partying. He likes to box, He is 30 and he is in love and his lady is only 20 and she is over there on the other side of the bar with another man.

He stood on the rail and propped his elbows on the bar and learned around the bartender and said Yes, she still there. His lady is beautiful, he says, and she is bi-polar. She ran off to the middle east and fucked six guys but he still loves her. She can't help herself. She is bi-polar. I don't know why she do it, he says. I love her and I keep myself looking good, you know? I like to box, he says.

His face flashes from pending whisky stupor to the look of a tormented man in love. His story pours out and repeats and he periodically lunges sideways to peek around and say Yes, she still there. She loves me, he says, she just don't know it always. I treat her right. Sometimes I get mad but only because I love her so much. She is talking to that other guy over there but Manolo says it's alright, it don't matter, and he peeks again and says Yes, she still there.

You live here in New York? he asks and I say no, just traveling, waiting for a train. How long you here? he asks and I say just a few days and he tells me again I should come to his restaurant for the best margarita and he asks for my phone number and then he jerks back to to look again and see if she still there, and this time she is not there, and he stands on the bar rail and scans the room and looking past me says Here she is.

I hear her say What's going on here? and I see a pleading look in Manolo's eyes as he faces her and says Nothing's going on, this is my new friend. I turn to her and her eyes are wide and wild, and she is obese and doughey-faced and her hair is a thick brown shapeless mass. She looks at me and then at Manolo and says I do not understand what is happening right now.

Manolo fumbles with his phone and says Nothing, baby, we just having a drink right here while you were over there. The time seems right for me to say I've got a train to catch and, nice to meet you and, 59th and 9th, right? He says That's right and I know if I walked in for my free best margarita in New York he would not remember that night at the Grand Central bar, that night he told a stranger the intimacies of his life story in five minutes. And I know Manolo and his lady have a lot of the night left for pledges of love and pleas and accusations and lies and apologies and threats and the pulling of hair and slaps to the face, and I know there will be many nights like this for Manolo and his lady.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My annual report

To paraphrase some comedian I once heard: "There comes an age when a person should stop making a big deal about their birthday, and that age is 12." It came as some surprise, then, to have a couple of Facebook friends suggest I should blog about my birthday, because out of all the topics I might think to write about, my birthday would rank about 1,327. I had a birthday. Whoop-dee-frickin-doo. Slap me silly and call me morose, but it's just a reminder that I'm a year closer to being dead than I was a year ago. "I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker" and it's not pretty.

Simultaneously, since I'm really good at holding completely contradictory thoughts in my head side-by-side and seeing them both as honest and true because, after all, they are MY thoughts and all my thoughts are honest and true and even admirable (ahem) I still secretly wish for someone to surprise me, make a big deal of my birthday, and make me feel loved. (This happened once in my so-called adult life, and it was an unforgettably good feeling.) And so like a child with a taste of candy, you want more, and like The Dude, the child inside abides.

But I ask you, friend, is it the birthday that matters? Does it matter when someone important to you almost completely forgets you? Or is it taking stock of the year you have just lived, and peering into the year to come, that is of value? Rhetorical questions. Don't bother answering, because this is my blog and my opinion, so the answers are no, yes, and yes, respectively.

And so I sat myself down in the principal's office and reviewed my personal report card for 2010.
  • Language: A-
    Barry speaks well and comprehends at grade level; writing improving; too much cussing
  • Math: C
    Functional skills, but no progress since 8th grade; lacks enthusiasm
  • Science: B
    Watched PBS several times
  • Conduct: B-
    Less talking out of turn; has trouble keeping his hands to himself; no jail time this year
  • Penmanship: B-
    Needs works on cursive capitals
  • Social skills: B+
    Made a fool of himself at only one party this year, as far as he can remember
  • Art: A
    Made efforts at creativity; successfully pretended to understand and appreciate things he didn't
  • Honesty: B
    Pretended to understand and appreciate things he didn't
  • Enlightenment: C
    Made genuine efforts at universal love, living in the moment, and not wanting; needs improvement
  • Self-loathing: A
    No comments
  • Bestiality and Necrophilia (Avoidance of): A
    Shows improvement
All in all, a decent year. 2011 is starting well, with many opportunities. Candles and party hats next year, perhaps.