Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How To

A list of links found while websurfing at work. Didn't have the nerve to click on any of them. I'm hoping that the removal method is not the same for every one.

How to Get Rid of Wasps

How To Get Rid of Genital Warts

How To Get Rid of Diarrhea

How To Get Rid of Spiders

How to Get Rid of Skunks

How to Get Rid of Back Fat

How to Get Rid of Hemorrhoids

How to Get Rid of Moles (Skin Moles)

How To Get Rid of Cellulite

How to Get Rid of Warts

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Being Boring, Part 2

Slate's article "Overrated" sent me back for what I think is the inspiration for many online articles: The Book of Lists, published in 1977 and edited by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, Amy Wallace ("and their dog Wally" according to the National Lampoon). It's just a book of lists, each well researched and with a light tone that's minus the superior attitude that infects much current writing. Online, the structure of the list has become ubiquitous to the point where it seems there's no other. There's little overall context and none of the protracted thought an essay requires, but they're easy to produce and read and that's what the Information Superhighway is about: Info and speed.

But in 1977 it was an innovative way to structure information. The Book Of Lists was so full of details and ideas that I even read, numerous times, about subjects I didn't care about (sports). It was also a great way to learn about sex.*

I remember as a kid seeing the below list and thinking "Ugh. I hope I never have to read one of those for school." Of course now there are several on the list I look forward to eventually tackling, boredom be damned.

The 15 Most Boring Classics
Based on a 1950 survey of readers taken by the Columbia University Press bulletin, The Pleasures of Publishing.

1. Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
3. Paradise Lost by John Milton
4. Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer
5. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
6. Pamela by Samuel Richardson
7. Silas Mariner by George Eliot
8. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (sounds more like Dickens to me)**
9. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
10. Faust by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
11. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
12. Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
13. Das Kapital by Karl Marx
14. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
15. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Some thoughts: a number of these books were mention at Slate, either in the main article or the reader comments. Given the fact that this survey was conducted 61 years ago, my thesis that contemporary readers want entertainment and equate books with television or the internet doesn't really hold water. Another theory: maybe these books are really boring, or rather frustrate reader expectations to the point of diminishing returns. You have to be really interested in 19th century whaling practices to finish Moby Dick, for example.

Four of the books are translated works, which makes me wonder if the fault is the translator's rather than the author's. It seems like the standard for translations in the first half of last century was to make the work "literary" which often meant wordy and obtuse. The works by Cervantes, Proust and Tolstoy have since been published in new, lauded editions. I wonder if they would still make the list. Possibly, as they are all very long works.

Does anyone still read Eliot, Richardson, Thackeray or Scott? Even in school or university? Those are novels that have fallen completely out of fashion, possibly because the conventional wisdom is that they are dreadfully boring. There's been too much of interest in literature in the last 60 years for people to still be slogging through Ivanhoe.

* Thank you David, Irving and Amy.
** You bastard!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Being Boring

This past Thursday, Slate.com posted "Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on "great books" that aren't all that great." My initial reaction was "Oh Jesus. Again?" I have not been keeping track, but it seems like I have read countless "Classic Books That Suck" articles online. I know an article like this is perfect solution for the slow days of mid-August. Email some writers, ask them to send a paragraph about a classic they hate, copy, paste, post, voila! Something to fill time and space while what's left of the publishing industry is on vacation.

I could point out the duplicity of one media criticizing the supposed achievments of another, especially one which it desperately seeks to usurp, but most likely it's just a matter of websites earning money from page hits, so the more page hits they can generate with either "controversial" articles or by encouraging readers to submit their comments and bicker with each other, the better. The better for them, that is. Ultimately the whole exercise becomes dispiriting.

There was a time when it was exciting to find contrary opinions online, provided some reasons why, rather than just knee jerk antipathy, were included. Anyone who is well read can think of an author or a classic novel they dislike. For example: I can't stand Jane Austen's work. I've had numerous people explain why she's a "great writer" and while I can intellectually appreciate their arguments, I still find her voice smug and her characters annoying.

On a small scale, it can be cathartic to pronounce your individual taste when it contradicts conventional wisdom. But on a large scale, it seems less about individuals with unique opinions and more about "let's piss on literature!" "Everything they told you was good is garbage!" After reading the article and attendant comments, I decided to print it as a pdf in order to easily scan the material, perhaps including one or two of the more imbecilic remarks on Vox Plops. I was trying to avoid Slate.com's annoying format quirk that forces you to click on a "more comments" button after every 10 or so entries. In pdf form, however, I was facing 70 pages of people essentially saying "Okay, but you know what book I hate?" I re-read about 15 pages before deciding I had had enough. More than enough, to be accurate.

There were some bright spots and flashes of insight. My interest in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain has been renewed. One person pointed out that even though he doesn't know it, Holden Caulfield is grieving for his older brother and not just suffering from teenage ennui. Catcher In The Rye, along with Ulysses, seems to be a particular target; they're two novels that really piss people off, probably due to not only with their reputations, but how much their admirers love those books. They don't just inspire fans. They create obsessives. People who take the arts seriously define themselves by what they like and what they don't. People who hate Salinger or Joyce's novels (different from hating, say, Crime and Punishment) are reacting not only to the books' status in society, but in individual reader's lives.

Unless I'm projecting, hidden within the various criticisms is the complaint "I was not entertained by this novel. I expect to be entertained. I could have been spent the time doing something else, but instead I read this book which did not entertain me. Therefore, this book sucks." I'm not arguing that people shouldn't think of reading as pleasure or entertainment and I'm certainly not arguing that people should be bored by their leisure activities, which, once you're out of school, is most likely what reading is. But the idea that "not being entertained = boredom = bad" saddens me. I know I'm being reductive but I couldn't help but see most of the comments as customer complaints, the ire of consumers who didn't get what they want. I don't recall any work of literature making such a promise to the reader.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Not Only, But Also

In addition to posting sporadically upon this very blog, I also grace this site and this one with my wit and wisdom, provided I can either segment it in seven pieces or react to other's comments online.

For those too lazy to click, understand that I know where their sloth or entropy comes from:

7 Promises I've Yet to Follow Through On
By The King of Empty Promises

1. To burn the five episodes of the BBC's The Story of Ireland I download to dvd for my mother.
Promise made this past spring.

2. To burn the vhs of XTC videos lovingly collected by my friend Ben to a dvd for my friend Dave.
Promise made in January, 2011.

3. To loan my friend Bob the audiobook of David Cross' I Drink For A Reason that I had borrowed from the library.
Promise unfulfilled: I had to return the audiobook to the library.

4. To copy my dvd of Los Angeles Plays Itself for my friend Steve.
Promise made May 2011.

5. To burn some Betty Hutton movies to dvd for my friend Stacey.
Promise made November 1, 2010. Burned three movies to disc, have yet to give them to Stacey.

6. To loan my friend Kenny my copy of The Saragossa Manuscript.
Promise made in 2010, along with open-ended promise to get together for "movie night."

7. To post a list of 7 of 7Now! on a regular basis.
Promise made to my friend Karl in 2007. 2007? Good Lord!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

New York The Magical Town

The city slowly transforming into a children's video game.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Have You Tried Your Foot? I Understand It Is A Delicacy

The below is excerpted from a series of emails among my friends. Names deleted out of basic decency.

>>Might I point out my friend G. and her relationship with K....totally in his destructive grip.

>Hasn't he died yet!!!???

>>Yes, he did die. He fell down the stairs while he was visiting his family in Sweden. He might have been drinking ;)

>Ooooo... um, so I was totally kidding about him dying. I'm an ass!

>>Lol it's ok, it happened over a year ago. She moved to Sweden shortly after.

Things that make me laugh about the above exchange:

1) "Hasn't he died yet?" sounds exactly like the sort of contemptuous thing I would say about someone I strongly disliked. It's reassuring to see I'm not the only one who commits faux pas like this.

2) The cheeky "He might have been drinking" is both jaunty and cruel. To top it off, his death is reported with a winking smiley face emoticon.

3) The mortification upon reading the news comes through. The person who wrote it is a genuinely good person and I'm sure she blanched and crumbled a bit as she wrote those words.

4) The final line, while reassuring, reads like a non sequitur. Like Italian widows wearing black, one year is the expected period of time that should lapse before you start taking pleasure in another person's death or reporting it with smiley faces.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Forty Days of Lent: Day 40

So today was the first full day in New York after being in Hawaii. I slept late, transferred photos to the computer, cleaned the apartment. I went for a walk over the Williamsburg Bridge and into Manhattan but all I could focus on was the color of the city, the steel grey and dark blues, the drab look created when everything looks desaturated, the color muted and softened. I missed the bright blue sky, the aqua blue of the Pacific, and green. God I missed the color green.

I went to my favored haunts, looking for the comfort or routine inherent in a beloved restaurant bookstore or dive bar. Had one of the bartenders told me a personal bit of gossip about another one of the bartenders, not the sort of thing he would probably want people knowing, or had I simply misheard him?

I woke a little after 4:00, headed to the bathroom and saw something I can't quite explain: soft white light in a circular form, hazy and indistinct, was shining against the glass shower doors. It didn't look like the light was on the doors but was instead floating over the bathtub. I've gotten up in the wee small hours to use the bathroom but had never seen anything like this. I wasn't able to get back to sleep.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Forty Days of Lent: Day 32

Kauai, Hawaii

I'm at the airport waiting at the gate and while I strive to be charitable, I can't help but see the human race as an endless freak show. I see a girl with with a horrible dark scar across her face and instinctively look away. Upon sneaking a second glance I realize she just has her hair in her face. Perhaps I'm tired. I don't fly well.

I lose the bottle of water to airport security. I suspect the "no more than 3 ounces of a liquid may be taken on the plane" rule is more of a sop to airports and shops from which they get revenue. The first thing I see after getting through security is a store where you can re-buy anything taken away from you. In addition to replenishing my water, I buy what I think of as my "I hate to fly" kit, including ear plugs for the descent, hoping to God that maybe this time my eardrums will stay where they belong. Tylenol PM was recommended as a sleep aid by a coworker, but I can't find any.

"Can I help you?" the girl behind the counter asks.

No point in lying. "I need something to knock me out. I was looking for Tylenol PM, but you don't seem to have it."

"How about the Unisom Sleepgels? They're supposed to make you sleep."

They work, but only for a couple of hours and then I feel groggy and restless, which I wouldn't have thought possible.

But we land and are immediately focused on the logistics of getting the rental cars and deciding if we want to open a Costco membership and shop there even though it is about 45 minutes from where we will be staying. It's not until we stop at a beachside restaurant that I realize, as contentment overcomes me, that I am in Hawaii and it is beautiful and that there are chickens wandering around our table.

I've been reading Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, her history of how Hawaii became part of the United States. She focuses on the contrast between New England missionaries and while comparing creation myths writes:

...the fruit of knowledge poisons [people] with fancy ideas and so they are cast out of a garden bearing a striking resemblance to the island of Kauai. (Though having been to the pleasantly sleepy Kauai, I can see how after a few days of lollygagging amidst the foliage, a woman would bite into just about anything to scare up something to read.)

Whereas a few days of lollygagging amidst the foliage is exactly what I want. That and a margarita or two.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Forty Days of Lent: Day 31

I had forgotten how much Americans (real Americans, not your New York smarty-pants types but real Americans) love sports. Even the women. I remembered this at the airport hotel bar where I overheard a number of people bonding over The Game. Apparently, real Americans have trouble figuring out how to use hotel elevators, too. There were a series of episodes of The Sopranos in which Tony's stasis between life and after-life was represented by showing him stuck in a hotel. I think I know how he felt.

I am heading to Kaua'i, Hawaii, which, if it is the after-life, it's obviously paradise. The trip sort of fell into my lap: my friend Suzie invited me unexpectedly, though I'm hoping from now on, habitually. The invite, however, came three days after I had bought my tickets to London, forcing me to reenact three times, once per boss, the rehearsed and humbled speech: "I have the opportunity to stay for free for a week in Hawaii. Unfortunately, it is just a mon after I return from London and Paris. I have the vacation time, but even I recognize this is pushing it..." Happily, they all agreed, one of them stopping me short after the word "Hawaii" by saying "Oh, you gotta go."

Packing my clothes takes next to no time, especially as "just bring shorts and tshirts. No long pants!" was emphasized. I spent much more time (much more) trying to figure out what books to bring and what music and movies to add to my iPad. Another question subjected to my inner deliberation was whether to take my bag with me to work and leave from there or return home before going to the airport. Each option had its advantages and while it seems like not that big a deal, I really put a lot of thought into each scenario before finally deciding to leave the luggage at home for the day.

It was a good thing I had. When got home, I could hear the irritating high pitched whistle: my alarm had been set off, but was not in full blast annoying alert the police mode. I could also hear that Allan, my downstairs neighbor, was playing NPR much louder than normal, in an attempt to drown out the whistle. My landlord had, once again, set off the alarm when he let the exterminator in the apartment. Had I gone straight to the airport after work, the alarm would have been whistling nonstop all week long. I hope it's not going off now.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Forty Days of Lent: Day 30

Forward Into The Past

Those of you who read this blog (perhaps I should say "both of you") will have no doubt noticed that I've fallen behind, way behind, with this year's Lenten entries. I'm typing this while looking at a calm Pacific Ocean on my last day in Hawaii, but I can't offer this trip as an excuse:. I was slipping even before I began packing my bag. My tardiness isn't due to lack of ideas or things to write about, either. It's just that unlike previous years, I couldn't make writing habitual, the real reason for taking in this task every spring.

Some, or both, of you may have also noticed that postings suddenly appear dated a few days ago, even though you know you checked the blog* (thank you, by the way) on that day and there was nada. Well, one of the better features about Blogger is that you can alter the date and time of any entry, which offers interesting possibilities for making yourself seem more prescient than you really are or altering your past so it harmonizes more with your present. Me, I'll be using this handy feature to fill in my 40 Days of Lent postings as I want rather than in chronological order. For example, I'm more interested in writing about this week's trip to Hawaii than I am in posting about Godspell or Elizabeth Taylor, so I will write about that first and then go back and post something on each of the earlier days that I missed.

* Due to either autocorrect or a typo, this originally read as "blob," which come to think of it, might be the more accurate word.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Twelve

New Murals in the Neighborhood
It may not feel like spring yet but there's new murals in the neighborhood. I made sure I got pictures before they were ruined by people writing all over them.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Eleven

The first thing I saw this morning when getting off the subway was a middle aged man with a dark smear of ash on his forehead. "Wait a minute" I immediately thought "is it Ash Wednesday? It can't be. We just had Ash Wednesday." A long moment ensued in which I was completely thrown off my bearings, as if the past two weeks were just a dream. I tried to reorient myself in time: "today is Friday, I'm going to Hawaii next Saturday, Ash Wednesday was a couple of weeks ago, I got ashes at St. Pat's..."

I looked again at the man. What I had mistaken for ash was in fact a large dark mole. Relieved, I thought "he should have that looked at, cause it may not be healthy and it's confusing the hell out of people around him."

Friday, March 18, 2011

40 Days Of Lent: Day Ten

Possibility of More Karma

I didn't buy gifts for many people while visiting London and Paris. What I did get, I got as impulse buys. "Oh, here's an [object]. [Person] loves [object]s. I'll get it for them. They'll love it!" For what it's worth, I didn't buy myself that much either.

However, I did make a point of bringing back coins in a variety of denominations as a gift for one of my boss's kids. He's become fascinated by currency and money (the words "apple," "far" and "tree" come to mind), particularly money from other countries. His older brother, on the other hand, is the artist of the family and likes making things, including a Lego picture frame that's much nicer than it sounds.

While pouring the pile of coins onto my boss's desk I suddenly saw my future. Inspired by this gift, his kid will grow up to work in finance - perhaps currency exchange - and become wealthy whereas I inevitably will end up lying in a gutter somewhere. Not recognizing me, he will feel compelled to throw me a few coins as he walks past but not know why, and the universe will then be in balance.

It reminds me of another time I saw my future. A friend was complaining about the unseasonably hot weather and asked "why is it so hot all the time all of a sudden?" I gave her a rather incredulous look, to which she responded "You don't think it's that, do you? Ugh, I hope not." The irony of the situation is that her husband works as a lawyer for energy companies. Hearing her denial, I flash forwarded to see myself crawling across a scorched desert that was probably once a major American metropolis and thinking back on our conversation right before I died.

No, I don't ever see my future as dying peacefully in bed surrounded by my loved ones. Hopefully I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Nine

Godspell's Probably Inadvertent But Nonetheless Subversive Demonstration Of The Religious Impulse

I've always had a soft spot for Godspell, the musical retelling of the gospel of Matthew done as children's theater. The songs are either undeniably catchy or touching, whether or not you agree with the words. The nonstop mugging of the cast gets on my nerves, but it's balanced by beautiful shots of a depopulated New York City. The Last Supper scene always gets to me, more for its depiction of someone saying goodbye to friends he'll never see again rather than for any New Testament reasons.

However, last time I watched Godspell a little bit of business went by and I thought "Did I just see what I think I saw? They couldn't possibly have meant that the way I'm interpreting it." It is, in just a few seconds, an effective demonstration of the religious impulse, almost a parody of said impulse.

It's about 24 minutes into the movie, during the comedy bits that follow the song "Day By Day." The disciples are cavorting in a junkyard (which is a sentence I can't imagine ever writing again) when we see one of them plant a small twig.

Jesus then comes by and waters the twig.

Unbeknownst to the first disciple, another disciple comes along and replaces the twig with a young tree.

The first disciple, while ignorant of the perfectly normal explanation of what has happened, is amazed at this "miracle."

Rather than look for any logical or natural reason for what occurred, she attributes it to Jesus and His magic...

and becomes His follower.

As mentioned above, I don't think this was intended as anything more than comic business. While this is happening, the other disciples are painting each other's faces and playing with a beat up car. Nothing else in the film is as subversive, but it's hard not to see this little vignette as an example of someone becoming religious because, in their ignorance, they attribute to a god or religious leader something that's actually part of the natural world.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

40 Days Of Lent: Day Eight


When I'm keeping my hair short, I go to a cheap barbershop and tell them to sse the #6 guide on the clippers and that it's just like mowing a lawn. However, whenever I decide to grow my hair a little longer, or to be more accurate, lumpier, I go to the rockabilly themed barbershop that's about a half hour's walk from my apartment. I make an appointment with D. and I'm usually happy with the results.

But there is a twist. With D., the longer you can keep him engaged in conversation, the better the haircut you get, so it's best to come prepared with a couple of topics to discuss. I hadn't realized this until one time D. was either talked out or not in a social mood. Then my haircut consisted of clip-clip-clip okay you're done. That's it? Yeah, that's it.

Beyond the obvious benefit to my coif, I enjoy talking with D. for as long as possible because he's an entertaining conversationalist. He once swore me to secrecy before telling his idea for a novel. Upon hearing the idea I regretted my promise and wished I was the sort of person who stole ideas. It was that good. Another time, his story of the police trying and failing to arrest a local drug dealer slowly evolved from "guess what happened in the neighborhood today" to a great unfilmed Keystone Kop misadventure. "He looks like...Stan Laurel" D. said of the drug dealer, an image that still makes me laugh.

So while getting my hair cut last week, I was able to keep D.'s attention for a good long time with stories about my recent trip to London and Paris. "You took your mom? That's so sweet! I'd love to take my mom and dad on a trip overseas, but one at a time, thank you. Not together."

This seems to be the definition of karma: do something nice like take someone on a trip and the universe rewards you with a better haircut. On the other hand, last time I saw my sister, she asked "Did you get a haircut?" Hearing yes, she looked it over before asking in earnest "Did you do it yourself?"

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Six

Want to check your email but you got your period? No problem!

Seen near the Pompidou Center.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Five

My mother had promised her hairdresser that she would bring him back a pack of French cigarettes. He didn't request any particular brand, just wanted French cigarettes.

While wandering underground through the maze of shops and less important artworks near the Louvre, we spotted a tobacconist that also sold tickets to the museum. Two birds, one stone. While buying my ticket, I asked if I could also have some cigarettes, pointing to a pretty white pack among the many choices on the wall.

"Which one?" the clerk asked.

"Le 'Fumer Tue,' s'il vous plait."


Thinking I was mispronouncing the name, I repeated it and pointed. "Non, non, le Fumer Tue...les blancs...ah, oui. Merci."

While ringing them up, the clerk said in English "Do you know what 'Fumer Tue' means?"

"Non, non."

"'Smoking Kills.'"

It wasn't the name of the brand, it was the blunt warning on the pack. So yes, I stood in front of a line of people wanting to buy tobacco and kept repeating "Can I have the Smoking Kills cigarettes? No, not those. The Smoking Kills ones. Yes, thank you."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day Four

I like gargoyles.

From Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur.

Friday, March 11, 2011

40 Days Of Lent: Day Three

Woke up this morning to news of an earthquake in Japan, one of the largest ever to strike the islands, and attendant news and concerns about resultant tsunamis. It's seems unseemly to be writing or even thinking in my customary cheery way, yet that's how I feel. Things are not just going okay, they're actually going well. I don't hate my job, my current living situation is one of comfort, I certainly don't want or need for anything, my outlook has been upbeat. Maybe there's a certain naïveté to my current state, but lurking at the back of my mind is the awareness of how it can all change, the speed with which everything can go wrong. But until that happens, I'm going to appreciate things being good for as long as it lasts.

One of the people I work with is a bit of a Chicken Little. In 2008, when the stock market began to slide because of the overvaluation of e housing market, he ran around the office in a positive panic, just barely stopping short of predicting that soon we'd be eating our young. It was an entertaining experience. I was so enchanted watching his meltdown that I didn't even pause to worry about the fact that our economy might be imploding and we might be heading into a new depression. I find the era and the culture of the Great Depression fascinating, but that doesn't mean I necessarily want to live through one. After news of yesterday's disaster, he went online and found a wealth of information about the possibility of tsunamis striking the east coast on a website called Armageddontome.com. Basically, if a giant wave heads towards the NYC area, we'll have time, but not nearly enough, to get to safety.

Even this news didn't alter my mood. I know I'm going to die someday, but for some reason, I just get upset about that fact.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

40 Days Of Lent: Day Two

Telling my friend Bob the previous story, he commented that Paris has been having a huge problems with gypsies, which could account for the man's overreaction (my opinion) at the ATM machine. Happily our only direct encounter with people I assume were gypsies was not that bad at all.

We were making our way along the Seine when a woman in front of us held a gold ring out, saying she had found it on the ground. Perhaps it was my mother's? Maybe she had dropped it on the ground? My mother said no, not her's and then immediately said she was worried about whomever it was that had lost their ring: what an awful thing to happen while on vacation.

My mother said the woman should keep the ring as we had no idea how to return it to its proper owner. But the woman insistently gave the ring to my mother and rather than argue, we said okay and were on our way.

We had walked about four steps before the lady called to us and rubbing her fingers together in the universal sign for money, indicated she wanted us to give her money for the ring. "Oh...." we said, catching on to the scam. We handed the ring back to the woman with an unspoken attitude of "nice try" and resumed our walk.

Crossing a bridge, we saw the woman again, surrounded by some companions, one of whom bent over, placed a gold ring on the ground and then picked it up. This woman made her way towards us holding out the ring. "Nooooo...we just did this with her!" I said, gesturing to the first woman and laughing at how lackluster their scam seemed. Happily, both women laughed too, in a friendly way,nas if to say "Oops! Silly us!"

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

40 Days of Lent: Day One

Ash Wednesday!

First day of Lent and getting ashes smeared on your forehead is one of my favorite religious rituals. The enthusiasm that John Doe brings to singing about the Fourth of July is almost, but not quite, how I feel about Ash Wednesday.


Last Tuesday, after arriving in Paris and enjoying a good lunch at a bistro across from the Gare Du Nord train station, I found myself doing a quick dash among unfamiliar streets in a desperate search for a bank with an ATM. I had booked a flat from a remarkably laid-back landlord who had waived both the security deposit ("I don't need it") and 1/4th of the rent ("you can pay me in cash when you get here"). I had most of the rent in British pounds but was hoping to exchange it at a place with better rates than the kiosk at the train station. But apart from the more touristy locales, Paris is not over-run with places to exchange currency. Plan B: find an ATM and withdraw the rent in Euros while my mother waited in front of the apartment with the luggage.

I jogged along, thinking that eventually I had to run across a bank. I later found out that at the end of the first street, had I turned right instead of left, I would have found several banks a block or so away. But I am by nature gauche so it took me a little longer to find a bank and when I did, I was greeted with a sight like something out of a Michael Haenke film.

A pretty woman (there are no other types in Paris) was standing at the ATM while her male companion was roughly shoving two small children, running interference and keeping the children at arm's length from the woman. From what I could see, the children were not aggressively begging; they were just sort of standing there, looking unwashed and sad like ghosts from a Henry James short story.

How was I going to react to the situation when it was my turn at the ATM? It became a moot point, as the kids had silently disappeared by the time I began punching in my code. Didn't see them at all during my quick jog back to the apartment.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Letter Of The Law, Rather Than The Spirit

While I was in Paris, I saw some girls wearing a ḥijāb, the traditional Muslim head covering. But one girl in particular stood out, because in addition to the head covering, she was wearing the tightest blue jeans and the spikiest heels I had seen in days. She almost looked like the result of one of those children's books in which the pages are cut and you can mix and match tops and bottoms. I wonder if the look was the result of a compromise with her parents. It was the best illustration of East and West, traditional and modern, and the religious and secular worlds I had seen.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


As with most trips I've taken, getting out of town is the worst part. I'm not referring to rushing through the airports, the inevitable patting down or fumbling attempts to get all your carry on electronics back in your bag with one hand while slipping on your shoes with the other. I'm referring trying to maneuver through New York City's subway system with a piece of luggage. Those who complain about the inconvenience of heightened security at airports have no idea what it's like trying to squeeze onto an elevator at a subway station with a large bag, only to be confronted by people who will not move to accommodate you because they hope that you'll get off instead. Oy. See ya, New York assholes. Won't miss you at all.

I should compare this to the fact that my mother, with whom I am traveling, was offered a seat on every subway today, save one. I was even offered seats next to her when people saw that we were together.

This Yakov Smirnovesque "in my country this, but in this country that" is an inevitable effect of traveling and being an Anglophile, it's easy to guess which side of the scales are loaded with gold and which have lead. Another effect is feeling like I'm in a dream: everything is familiar yet slightly different. Houses and buildings look different, so many made with incredible red bricks, and you imagine that cars move differently. It's been 15 years sine I've been here, but this morning, on the tube of all places, it all came back to me, not as distinct memories, but as sense memories, as emotional impressions of what it was like to be here and I felt so happy my eyes watered.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Wave

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean
Susan Casey

What's the matter, John? Blue Meanies?

Newer and bluer Meanies have been sighted within the vicinity of this theater. There's only one way to go out.

How's that?


It’s a great ending to Yellow Submarine, and if you think of the “Blue Meanies” as the giant unpredictable waves becoming more and more prevalent in the oceans due to global warming, you can substitute “surfing!” for “singing!” and you’ll have an idea of half of Susan Casey’s book. As waves became bigger, surfers like Laird Hamilton have adapted, creating a new kind of surfing in order to ride 60 and 70 foot waves, which are too powerful and far from the shore to paddle to. Now a surfer is towed by a jet ski and positioned on the water to catch previously unobtainable waves. The risk is much greater that far from shore. Experienced surfers have drowned. The book contains a description of a particularly gruesome accident with a life-saving rescue by Hamilton, who hotwires a stalled jet ski with pair of iPod earphones and uses his wetsuit as a tourniquet.

In contrast to surfers with their spiritual quest to experience great waves, there are the other stars of Casey’s book, the scientists who try to understand the water and predict its behavior.

“Well, it’s not oceanographers looking at them anymore. It’s physicists! Because they’re discovered that these waves are behaving in a manner that is similar to light waves. They can suck the energy from both sides and concentrate it in one spot. And light waves are partially particles and partially wavelike. It’s moving [the study of waves] into a whole different dimension.”

The nature of light has been one of the conundrums of physics, because sometimes light acts like a wave and sometimes it acts like a particle. The idea that the water in the ocean may be the same way underscores a point made throughout the book: we really don’t know very much about the ocean. With global warming, the little we knew may no longer be true. For years sailors told stories of enormous monster waves in otherwise calm seas. Such tales were dismissed as physically impossible. Now it seems that they were happening and may become more of the norm.

A statistic is repeated several times in this book: on average, two large ships are lost at sea every week. The fact that this statistic is little known, let alone a source of widespread outrage, says a lot about how much we take for granted in a global marketplace. One of the effects of living in a technologically developed country is that you assume things are stable; in fact you come to depend on it. The chaos is kept far away; others have to deal with it. The people Casey interviews are all dealing with the chaos in various ways. Some try to understand it and others try to ride it, if for only a few moments.

On a slow day at work, slow because of a snowstorm the previous night (speaking of chaotic nature), I lent The Wave to our receptionist. At the end of the day, she returned it to me, saying that it was scaring the hell out of her but she couldn’t stop reading it and she was going to have to get her own copy. A perfectly succinct review.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What Was In The Package


The package was from my friend Elizabeth and contained a Christmas card and Nunzilla!, another "thank you" for letting her stay in my apartment during a recent visit to New York.

In the name of fairness, I should point out that the post office manager quoted in the previous entry was not trying to be difficult. He was trying to be helpful, short of the one thing I needed him to do, which was give me the package.

The postal system is in trouble for the same reasons as record companies and dvd stores are. They have a huge infrastructure set up to deliver less and less media to fewer customers. The infrastructure was put in place to deal with a much higher volume than is currently shipped. I can remember just a few years ago we used to get two large plastic bins full of mail every day at work. It took one of the assistants the better part of an afternoon to sort it all. The fact that the he liked to take his sweet time and peruse whatever magazines and catalogs came in is only partially relevant. Now our daily mail fills about half of one bin and the items being sent don't ever seem particularly important.

I have mixed feelings about the post office. I only go when work compels me, mostly to drop off certified mail. The post office we use inevitably has a long line, yes, but otherwise seems well run and the people who work there are pleasant. It's the opposite of the post office we used to frequent which seemed to be deliberately living up to the stereotype of unhelpful arrogant bureaucracy. Rules changed arbitrarily, without warning and never to the customer's advantage. It was staffed by people who were, in a word, assholes. The postal workers at the counter talked and joked with each other but didn't hid the fact that you were interrupting their chatting time. I did get to have a heaping dose of tasty schadenfreude when, in the wake of anthrax being discovered in the mail shortly after September 11th, I went to the post office and saw the formerly obnoxious staff wearing breathing masks, goggles and plastic gloves. They seemed fairly tense and very unhappy, which is good.

My grandfather Hanlon worked for the post office. (In a nice bit of contrast, my other grandfather worked for the phone company). The stories that have been passed down, of employees who could tell just by feeling an envelope if it contained cash, have given me a certain mistrust of the service, which is odd because I think the service is probably as good now as it has ever been. Various frustrations aside, getting something unexpected in the mail is one of those little pleasures I will miss if it's ever gone.

Look how well Nunzilla! gets along with the others in my black and white collection.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

P Off

Included with my mail yesterday was a crumpled card, dated the day before, informing me that I had something at the post office that the mailman was unable to deliver and that I needed to pick up. Looking at the card I saw my local post office was open till 7:00pm. I had time, why not go?

But when I get to the post office, a sign in the window says they are only open until 5:30. The doors were locked but a guy on a bicycle by the front door explained that one of the managers would occasionally unlock the door and help people, "but I don't know if he'll help you."

When the manager came to the door, I showed him the card and asked if I could pick up my package.

"No, we're closed. You'll have to come back."

"You can't just get my package for me?"

"Well, I can tell you if it's here, but I can't give it to you. We're closed."

Showing him the card: "It says you're open until 7:00."

"Those are old cards. We close at 5:30 now."

"Um, are you going to get new cards?"

"We have them, but we're not allowed to use them until we use up all the old cards."

"Okay, can I have the package rerouted to another address?"

"No, you can't do that. But you can have the package redelivered to your apartment."

"But I'm not at my apartment when the mail comes. That's why I'm here now."

"Can you come before 5:00?"

"I'm not taking time off work to come pick up a package."

"Saturday? We're open Saturday. Can you come then?"

I don't know what the package is, but whatever it is, it better be pretty spectacular.