Sunday, March 27, 2005

Felize Pascual!

So, it being Easter and all, I decided to go to church. I know fom my rides down to the beach that there exists one St. Mark Catholic Church and Education Center along Eastwood Avenue, which made it well within biking distance, so that's where I went for the five o'clock evening Mass.

I was handed a songbook on the way in, and figured, correctly, that's how things are done there. Or, that's what I thought until I saw a hymnal already in the pew. It was at this point that I looked around, taking note of how, well, brown most of the other attendees were. I do realize that I live in the South now, and given the overwhelming practicing Catholic bent of the Central and South American immigrant communities, this ethnic makeup is to be expected. Just because the surnames of the local church families in the West Park section of Cleveland were Corrigan and Sweeny and Kilbaine and McCaffery doesn't mean the whole of the Church is of Irish descent. I then noticed that the songbook I was handed on the way in is written in Spanish, and that, as the Mass began, that's what the priest was saying it in, and that I was going to have to follow a Spanish/English program located near the hymnal. It seemed to me a mite curious that no one felt any need to note on the sign (written in English) out front that the evening service was in a language other than English, and wondered further if I was the only one who had made this mistake. I mean, really, since half the people at an Easter srvice are attending the first of two Masses they will attend annually, it might be helpful for a parish to point them toward a service time in which their respective vernacular is employed. Sure, the program was helpful and the Spanish singing was nice, but other than the dozen or so words I figured out (via proximity to French/Latin) by midway through the Mass, the homily was a bit beyond me. I got from a lot of "nuestros" that Heysoos died for our sins, but couldn't work out much beyond that. I felt like all those poor pre-Vatican II kids suffering through the Latin Mass.

If my Reflective Catholic Rhetoric weren't so rusty, I'd no doubt observe that the Lord sent me to that particular church for some as-yet unarticulated reason in His plan, but I'm not really of that habit. I'm glad, in an odd way, that I went, and may even go again and see what Spanish I might pick up from the hymns. But I am sincerely puzzled that a church whose sign out front is in English, whose daytime services are apparently in English, felt no need to make note of the small departure from form for the evening edition. You have to coddle us C&E folk if you want us to come back more often.

Happy Easter to all nonetheless. I hope yours was at least as blessed as mine was interesting.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Final Four: What's the Big Freakin' Deal?

I begin with the following caveat: I have nothing intrinsically against NCAA college athletics. I happily cheered my football Ohio State Buckeyes to their national championship in 2002. I am happy that their basketball program is on the ascent, and feel the college game, in most disciplpines and instances, offers a level of honest competition that pro leagues can only fantasize about--more substance than style.

But, at the end of the day, I am poised to wonder: why in college basketball is getting to the semifinals of the NCAA tournament so bloody noteworthy? I understand that "Final Four" has an alliterative and marketing value, but I defy anyone to find another forum in which coming in fourth is something to paste on the resume. (Since there exists no Bronze Medal game in March Madness, I assume both semifinal losers to be in fourth place.)

Assume we apply this standard to any other sport, team or individual. Are the 2004 Yankees a great team for reaching the ALCS (and tanking away a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox) before being defeated? Will posterity look kindly on the Astros for taking the Cardinals to seven before losing in the NLCS? Are the Cleveland Browns a great team for dropping the AFC Championship game three times in the '80s? Do the Pittsburgh Steelers add to their storied history that they lost to the New England Patriots in last years playoffs? Of course not; these are failures. Spirited and competetive failures, and better than most other teams did, to be sure, but ultimately failures nonetheless.

I have heard it suggested that reaching the semis is extraordinary in the NCAA tourney because of the large field. But do tennis players (who typically come from a field as large), rejoice in not reaching the finals of any Grand Slam event? What other tournament, of whatever size, features hyperbolic praise and rejoicing for teams two wins away from accomplishing anything? The post-season NIT, college basketball's consolation tourney for those not quite good enough for the NCAA's, certainly doesn't make such a distinction: you win the tournament, or you don't. Do you know what they call the semifinals? That's right...the semifinals. Fairly simple.

Being number four works like this: you are out of the money if you are a racehorse; you are out of the medals if you are an olympian; you are out of honorable mention if you are a team in anything other than March Madness. The way our understanding of sport works in the US tends thus: win the show, and you are remembered by athletic history as great; come in second, and you get a "good effort" prize for playing for the whole shebang; lose a semifinal, and you are an also-ran who plans next year's strategy. Only in NCAA basketball do the Dean Smiths and Mike Krzyzewskis of the world get to beg props for failing to reach a championship game, to claim bragging rights and Hall-of-Fame fodder for not winning anything besides four games in a row. It's a ridiculously downgraded standard by which Marty Schottenheimer is a premier football coach and Anna Kournikova is among the legends of tennis. Coming in fourth is not admirable; no golfer or race car driver boasts of it. I am etrnally puzzled as to why the sports media has complicitly abetted a system in which NCAA basketball coaches and teams may.

The Empire Srikes Back. Best. Movie. Ever.

Honestly, could a better movie ever be made? I pen this comment watching it after a good proper night closing the bar (and my 136th or so viewing), but...this movie is a love story that isn't maudlin; a war movie that isn't ridiculous or preachy; a sci-fi movie that isn't annoyingly tekkie; a middle sequel that isn't derivative; in short--a Hollywood movie that disdains the pitfalls that virtually all Hollywood movies succumb to. In addition, it's the only movie of the original three that was improved, rather than worsened (in Return of the Jedi's case greatly worsened) by Lucas's re-edits. Incredibly, after 25 years, the only aspect of this film that had not aged well was the stop-action sequences with the Imperial Walkers, which, frankly, didn't look all that good in in 1980. For once, Lucas shows some restraint in the CG-ization of his revision, confining it generally to background filler in Bespen, where it actually looks good. (Note to George Lucas: computer-generated buildings in the distance look stately and grand; computer generated characters like Jar-Jar Binks, especially when standing alongside actual actors, look about as real as Pete's Dragon. I don't care how expensive they are; they're cartoons. What is additionally annoying is that there is no reason Jar-Jar couldn't have been played by an actor in an inventive alien costume, which would have looked a heck of a lot less absurd.)

What Empire ultimately represents is the one time Lucas actually got it right. This is in no small part attributable to the fact that he got out from behind the camera and let the superior Irving Kershner direct (before inexplicably replacing him with relatively unknown Frenchman Richard Marquand for Jedi). The improvement over the original Star Wars also derives from the massive improvement in the acting of Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill in the interim. The dialogue is snappy, the pseudo-Zen rubbish that abounds in the new films is restrained and appropriate, and the dogfighting and light-saber sequences are still as visceral and exciting as anything done since. The sound effects are incredible, and James Earl Jone's voice acting may be the best work of his career. It is by far the most hands-off project for Lucas of any of the five films so far, which is, in all likelyhood, why it is easily the best (can you tell I'm not a big fan of Lucas' directing or screenwriting skills?). Oh yeah, and if you're the guy that roots for the villains out of pity 'cuz they never win except in arthouse flicks, which I most certainly am, you get to watch the rebels get their stuff handed to them for two hours before their daring escape at the end. I love that.

In short, it's the best movie ever, and is helped out considerably by the revision. And that's why I've watched it 136 times.

I Left my Heart in Olde Virginny.

I spent a wonderful evening and afternoon last weekend in Williamsburg, VA, with Natalie of Moose Munch and husband Dan, the most gracious hosts a blogger could ever wander across. One wonders how people so personable and thorougly engaging are not famous worldwide, when reprobates like Scott Petersen are ubiquitously present in the news. But we will leave human society and journalistic priorities as topics for an altogether differrent post.

This all began as a strange adventure with Priceline. Natalie sent me an e-mail inviting me to her party saying she thought Williamsburg was only a four or five hour drive from Wilmington, which, as it turns out, is perfectly correct. There is, however, the small caveat that your distinguished author is the last person in the industrial world, 21st century scheme o' things essaying to get by sans automobile. So I checked out Greyhound, idiot that I am (I have nothing against Greyhound, besides the fact that they are a slow, ill-serviced, overpriced, corrupt monopoly--like Amtrack, without the novelty of being on a train) to find out that a bus trip from Southern North Carolina to Southern Virginia (a whopping one state away, for the geographically challenged) costs $148 and a shade short of infinity in the time department. So no go on that. Then, just for kicks, I check out what a short-notice, one-day, weekend airfare might be: $695 on Priceline, and that only gets me to Richmond, about a 30 mile cab ride from Williamsburg. Natalie and Dan are great people, but $800 dollars is a bit much to shell out in cover charges to go to a party, no matter how good. Before giving up all hope, I check out what rental cars are going for: Hertz clocks in cheapest at $30 a day for a sub-compact. (As an aside, and general travel tip, always ask for a sub-compact when renting a car. They probably won't have one available, and will be obliged to upgrade you to a better class of car at no additional cost. If there does happen to be a Geo Metro available, you can always upgrade yourself out-of-pocket; it's a win-win situation.) I go to the "name your price" option, which is a bidding service by which your credit card is automatically charged if your bid is accepted--a kind of "don't bid unless you really mean it" system. My bid for $20 a day, is, to my great surprise, accepted. We're off to Williamsburg, for the third regional sub-meeting of the famed Atlantic Bloggers Alliance (may the celestial light of the heavens be forever upon it). There exists a certain irony here: since the founding of this storied coalition, I have met with three of the other original members, involving interstate travel on the part of one of us, and not the fourth, who works two doors down from my apartment. It is observed that I'll have to fix that.

I had come to believe, over a number of previous years, that I don't actually like driving long distances. Truth of the matter is, I simply didn't like driving long distances in foul Ohio Winter weather in old, poorly maintained automobiles that are liable to strand me in bleak farm country when it's eleven freakin' degrees at any given time. Driving four-plus hours through the woods of the South in a regularly serviced rental Cavalier (which, true to prediction, is a bigger car than I paid for) on a sunny early Spring afternnon is in fact remarkably pleasant. I take note that I'll have to make a habit of this.

Upon arrival, I am reintroduced to Natalie and Dan, whom I haven't seen since my sister's wedding two years ago, along with their adorable and enthused canine children Bailey and Luna. Luna likes to bark to hear herself, not unlike a lot of people I know, but both are friendly and well-behaved. We talk dogs for a moment or two, which is always good fun; we love dogs here at LiteraryLiberal (and may end up adopting one soon), and these are some awesome ones. I am plied with drink as we catch up, and I am promised the following things from the party: some people from Colonial Williamsburg, where Dan works as a guide, will show up in eighteenth-century period costume; some people will undoubtedly seduce me into an Irish Car Bomb (Guinness with a shot of Irish cream/Irish whiskey, for the unversed) or two; some wine geeks will show up with the remnants of a tasting that they're giving at their shop (Burgundy/Pinot Noir theme). To my great delight, all of these things are true, although the following day effects of beer-wine-liquor drinking are best left undescribed. I bestow upon Natalie and Dan my cheapskate housewarming gift: a pair of jalepeno necklaces procured from my recently expounded-upon trip to New Mexico, which, like champs, they wear for the balance of the evening. My hosts and their friends and neighbors are lively and interesting, the party is a rousing hit, and I go to bed properly drunk.

The following day brings breakfast at The Gazebo, this wonderful, if a bit hurried, Greek family breakfast joint in which presidential candidates apparently feel compelled to eat, based upon the wall photos at the enterance. Then we're off Colonial Williamsburg, or CW as it's known to the locals, inexplicably my first-ever trip there. CW and the College of William and Mary make up one contiguous space, and since W&M wears its eighteenth-century aspect on its sleeve, we have an awful lot of well-preserved history going on. W&M would be the oldest school in the country, if those pesky Indians hadn't raided and burnt the first incarnation of it, forcing everyone to start over from scratch. Ah well. We seem to have taken care of that problem, anyway. (Hey, what's a post without some light-hearted genocide humor?)

Walking Duke of Gloucester (which I think is what the evil Richard III was, as well as Duke of York) Street, or Dog Street colloquially, with a guy that knows the place inside and out is tremendous. We see the weapons magazine, stop in a few shops, pass by the period houses where Dan's co-workers reside, all while I get an entertaining and informative running commentary from Dan. I settle on purchasing a March 17, 1774 reprint of The Virginia Gazette, a tavern license, and a tin whistle, which I grandly imagine myself playing alongside the flautist and drum corps at the head of a puissant Colonial army. Then I give it a try, and hear the most abhorrently shrill, scratchy, broken musical note perhaps ever to eminate from a wind instrument. I revise the fantasy scenario, including that I'd be quickly shot, both for being at the fore and to knock off the infernal racket. Dan wisely observes that 99.7% of all tin whistles purchased at CW can be easily reclaimed and resold from the side of the interstate, where they are hurled by irritated parents halfway through the trip home. I realize I may need to practice a bit.

There are, it seems, two requisite photo ops on Dog street: the pillory, and sitting beside Thomas Jefferson. I happily comply with both, the latter of which appears as follows:

The hung-over and unwashed author chumming with TJ's bronzed corpse. Posted by Hello

It's a lovely Spring day of wandering through history, and stepping around horse droppings. We head back to the ranch, where I thank my friends for their incredible hospitatlity, snap a few pics on the disposable, say goodbye to the dogs, and head back to the great state of North Carolina. There is a threatened rumor about all this happening again in May. Y'all should come along.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Observations from my Present Hangover.

Presently working on a longer post detailing my trip to Williamsburg, VA, to celebrate a belated St. Patrick's Day/housewarming/no-excuse-needed soiree (anybody know how to do that French accent thingee in Windows?) with Natalie of Moose Munch, hubby Dan and canine children Bailey and Luna. I also need to read Paradise Lost, Pride and Prejudice, and a bunch of other stuff while unabashedly sneaking in a ride to the beach, as it is far too gorgeous a day to do otherwise. So we'll all have to live with another grab-bag sort of post or two untill all of the former has been accomplished.

I'm aware and failrly disconcerted that this has been preponderantly an all-about-me blog of late, and would like to mix in a greater quantity of news and issue-oriented stuff on a more regular basis. I am under no delusion that my life is so interesting that it need be assiduously conveyed in intricate detail to my vast and appreciative readership. We'll se what can be done about that.

Ah, well then. Click here to find out the real truth about Michael Jackson, and consider the above personal exhortation to be temporarily fulfilled. Verily I say, my blog has returned to the cutting-edge journalism for which it enjoys international renown.

That post about ALS is just going to sit there and collect dust until we reach at least $100. We're presently at $25, only because I put it there. So, if you're tired of skipping over it to read other things, the question you might well ask is "is it me, am I the one causing this?"

The marketing agent that came up with the name Ocean Spray for a potable product is either insane and hence needing a new line of work like at the transit authority, or is just plain ignorant as to what ocean spray actually tastes like. Blech. Tastes like a dead cow marinated in rock salt and left to decompose. I wonder what brilliant names were skipped over before this one was selected. Old Shoe Sole Cranberry Juice? Disused Tissue Cran-Apple? Dog's Breath Ruby-Red Grapefruit, perhaps? Fetid Air Kiwi-Lime? To be a fly on the wall in that meeting.

While I was busy returning from Virginia, LeBron James was busy putting up the greatest individual game in Cleveland Cavaliers history, nothching 56 points, ten boards and five assists against the Toronto Raptors. Problem for the King was that his center is in an ugly slump and the bench blows chunks, so the Cavs lost anyway, their ninth straight on the road, following which coach Paul Silas was fired. It'll look good come contract negotiations, I suppose.

Cab drivers have some of the most interesting stories in the world, if for no other reason than half of them are refugees and immigrants from some of the most wretched places on earth. More people should talk to them instead of acting in such a confounded hurry and blathering on their cel phones. I've learned more about Palestine since moving to Wilmington than the NY Times ever taught me, all because I needed a ride home from the downtown taverns.

Can anyone tell me why are whales so much more prevalent on the Pacific Coast than the Atlantic? Is it gratitude to all the hippies who campaigned to save them back in the 70's, and residual anger about those whalers in Maine? Really, I'm curious about this--and I wanna see some whales, confound it. Or dolphins, or something. Why does the left coast get all the cool wildlife?

Speaking of ancient and wondrous sea creatures, I had the pleasure and honor of watching Spring Break Shark Attack, sans volume, at the local pub last night. If only TV movies were eligible for Oscars, well, Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey and Denzel Washington had better take notice. The story, the acting, the sharks man, so gripping, so riveting...okay, I'll cut it out now. I swear to mon Dieu if this stuff got any more vapid, CBS would literally have to start broadcasting empty snow interrupted at ten minute intervals by advertisements, listing it as "performance art" in TV Guide. Please CBS, CSI Miami reruns, anything, just don't ever spend money on anything this cheesy again. Then again, it did have lots of girls in bikinis and a decent amount of blood (but no corresponding gore; that's why network TV sucks), and with the sound off and one dollar Miller High Life--never mind this was a fine film. Keep at it, CBS. Oh, but one tiny objection: I don't think there are as many big sharks left in the world as there were in the subtly and tastefully executed grand finale...whoops, we've descended into sarcasm again. But remember, er, forget, at thy peril the critical didactic moral parable represented in such grandiose artistic statements: God punishes fornication by sending sharks after you. That's right, big, mean, hungry sharks. Or demonic killers in hockey masks. Bad stuff, in any case.

I am now two paragraphs past having run out of things to babble about. I'll tell you a little bit about Virginia sometime tomorrow. I'm off to the beach to suffer through Jane Austen. Early novels are painful, but the beach is good, so perhaps I will achieve the proper acid/base karmic ratio. Y'all come back now, hear?

Friday, March 18, 2005

Cingular Wireless...Worst Company Ever.

I just opened an $83.71 bill today from Cingular Wireless for an account that I terminated two weeks after I opened it, based on their deplorably bad service, and by whose contractual terms I owe them nothing. But this is just par for the course for my experience with these tools, who shall henceforth be referred to as the Worst Company Ever, or WCE for short. This final, insulting, straw is merely the continuation of a trend of storied incompetence that has defined my experience with WCE since their regrettable purchase of AT&T Wireless last year.

The very first thing WCE did was apparently fire most of AT&T's pleasant and efficient phone operators to supplant them with the slowest, most irritating, voice software I have ever had the displeasure of engaging. One now needs to navigate through five minutes of this astoundingly frustrating madness in order to find out if an actual operator is available; saying "operator" or pressing zero just makes the software reset back to the beginning. An acid bath might be more enjoyable.

Ah, but then there's the customer support they offered all existing AT&T customers--none of our web or retail services will be able to help you, and yet you'll be redirected toward them at every possible instance. If you ever want to change your service, your only option will be to be bullied into a new two-year service contract with a new phone from us. It's about as gentle and subtle as being pushed from a nest on the wall of the Grand Canyon. So I bit, signing a new deal and getting a free Motorola V220 camera phone, which I discovered to my great surprise sounded absolutely wretched, whereas my previous Motorola, in the exact same apartment, sounded just fine. So I arranged an exchange over the phone, because, in yet another astonishing feat of entrepreneurialism, WCE's retail stores can't handle products purchased online. I ship the phone back to them at my own expense, which they promise to credit and then never do. I am told that, upon receiving my return, my new phone will be immediately shipped from Atlanta, meaning four days of phonelessness, at best. After mailing the phone, during which interum I am paying roaming charges on my old AT&T account for every necessary call, which are many considering that I've just moved and am registering mid-year at a university and setting up in a new city, I am informed in my second call (in which I offer the UPS tracking number for my return), that WCE can't send me a new phone until my original phone is processed back into their inventory. This will take an additional 3-5 business days. I accept the disparity in information as a mistake, and continue in good faith to await my new phone which will put an end to all these difficulties. Accepting WCE's maximum time estimate, I hedge my bet and get a new phone with a new carrier, realizing that I can cancel the contract and return the backup phone if WCE gets their act together. I place a third call after two weeks of WCE phonelessness, once again offering the UPS tracking number of the returned phone. I am politely informed that WCE has no record of my return, and no plans to send me a new phone. I have, reasonably, had quite enough at this juncture and inform them that, as I am well within my opt-out period, I would like to cancel my contract, and explain in detail why. The operator (funny that you can talk to an actual human when you want to cancel service but not when you want to pay your bill) tells me how sorry she is while assuring me that this isn't how WCE normally enacts commerce. I accept her apology and ask that I be e-mailed and snail-mailed a notice of my account cancellation. I am told that that simply isn't possible, and that she has noted dilligently that my account has been closed, and her name aught be enough.

And so today, I get the result of WCE's efficient processing: not only did they fail to cancel my contract before billing me for a month's service and an activation fee, they are now claiming the balance to be overdue based on a previous bill I was never sent. If I had but the time, I would sue them simply for being so unmitigatedly worthless. But I don't. So now I have to waste personal time, dealing with their infernal software operators, to avoid being referred to collections by refusing to pay for a service they never provided.

So if any of you are new to the game, or looking to switch providers avoid these nimrods at all cost. I understand that mergers of this magnitude involve complications; these aren't complications; this is willful arrogance and stupidity. Spend your money elsewhere.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Meditation on the Atlantic Ocean.

When in the presence of that which is greater than ourselves, when we are humbled, reduced, burned down to what is of us and not added to us--it is in these precious moments that we come to know ourselves, truly and without illusion or pretension. It is in relief and juxtaposition from the crafted and flattering image of ourselves that we can comprehend in honesty and clarity our own weakness, and consequently the potential for individual greatness. For what can become great besides that which is small? The enduring human fascination with God, whatever permutation such entity might take, is based upon the principal of removing the self as the object of worship and instead perceiving the same as a vessel of higher direction: it is agreed throughout all spiritual traditions that the one who feels he is God knows neither God nor himself. Like a sick person in denial of sickness, we stagnate until we are ready to be healed.

No knowledge of denomination or doctrine or dogma is essential to this understanding; to merely look into the infinite swell of the ocean or endless expanse of the firmament--to really see and not merely factually know the power and longevity of such in contrast to our feeble and transient stay is the path to subsume the dangerous passion of the ego--to realize we individually can be reclaimed by creation in an instant without the same taking a moment's notice. In any such moment of comprehension and true humility we can come to see the essence of our brief, ephemeral, and transitory presence. There is nothing sad about this prostration; billions have come before us and billions will come after, none with any greater ability to preserve his or her own stay here with significantly greater efficacy than you or I. And I tend to think that in these silent epiphanies , and not in the clamor and noise of the active ego, that we realize our potential--small beings that can be made large not by keeping, but by relinquishing all that which is in essence worth giving: our time, our love, our dispensable wealth and possessions; those things which we hoard at our moments of fear and selfishness, with which we are never diminished by parting.

My idea of God, a God that asks that we exist in the shadow of his halo and not try to outshine it, a God that is present in the magnificent quiet of solitude as much in the frantic engine of activity, has its presence in the mystical traditions of all faiths--the words of the Hebrew Jesus, the Catholic Aquinas, the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita. He, or she, or it, is omnipresent and undying, asking that in our bleakest sorrows and highest ecstasies that we merely be receptive--alert, listening. This God presents a challenge to us: allow yourself to be remade in its presence; be the ship to carry worthy cargo, and not simply the captain of an empty ship. It is this God that I seek, and in the searching hope to be found worthy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Tales of New Mexico.

Back from the long and boozy weekend at the National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show promised in Friday's post. Albuqueque is beautiful (or maybe I've just never been to that part of the country, or both). My hotel room had a direct view of the Sandias (I probably spelled that wrong) mountains, which, as one largely unexposed to mountains, being from Northern Ohio and now living on the East Coast and all, was pretty exciting for me.

The show itself was great, allowing me to ingratiate scores of brave men (and a few women) with, among other tasty and fiery concoctions, Matar los Gringos hot sauce, our company's new product for the year. It was especially rewarding to sample it those really tough dudes who just didn't think that there was anything stout enough for them. Let me explain a bit: the sauce is comprised mostly of capsaicin oil, which is the extract of the habenero, or, in short, the hottest part of the hottest pepper in the world; the color and texture is provided by chocolate habenero solids, which hardly cools it off much. The effect of eating it is peculiar, in that what starts as a mild burn in the back of the throat then builds, slowly, inexorably, horribly, into a fire that engulfs the entire tongue, gripping it in pulsating waves of heat that peak about three minutes in before tapering off over the next twenty or thirty. So the tough people would eat some sauce on a nacho, declaring, with their best poker faces, "that's not so hot," before being overwhelmed 60 seconds later and crying for fluids like little girls. I was crying right along with them--with laughter. Nothing like watching other people's foreheads break out in beads of sweat, tears occasionally running down their faces, sniffling like sick toddlers, begging for paper towels and water, to satisfy the low-rent sadist in all of us. Oddly enough, remarkably few people realize how pointless drinking water is to alleviate hot-food burns. The burn comes from oil: how well does cold water take oil off of a greasy pan? Works about as well on your tongue. Something fatty like milk or ice cream will neutralize it, and beer or liquor will act as a solvent to remove it, which is why there's a time honored association of spicy food with beer and tequila--it works.

On both Friday and Saturday, the show paid for a keg of beer to be given free to card-carrying show exhibitors to consume afterward at a local bar. All went well on Friday at The Liquid Room, but on Saturday, things went, shall we say...askew. The CaJohn's crew, along with myriad and sundry other vendors, arrived at Ned's bar on Central street, drank up the free beer in about 45 minutes and proceeded to spend hoardes of our own cash. Come ten o'clock, the bar decides that it's now a club with a dress code prohibiting ball caps and short-sleeved tees (which happened to be the show uniforms of many NFFBS people present). I'd changed clothes after the show, but the people I was with hadn't. First of all, I've never in my life been to a bar that had two different dress codes for happy hour and late night, let alone a bar that retroactively imposes rules on people who were already spending money there. I was under the impression that this was a fairly universal standard: if you get in before the band starts, you don't pay cover; and, presumably, if you get into some run-of-the-mill dive that acquires pretensions of "club" status (no DJ, band, or anything else, by the way) come ten PM, you stay and drink as long as you have money in your pocket. I guess I was wrong, as a number of us were told to leave. One of the level-headed bouncers, a ridiculous little five-foot-four, 125 lb. Mexican twerp, started exchanging words with some of us as we were on the way out. I wondered if he was naturally that bad at his job or if the cocaine I'd heard him snorting in the bathroom stall minutes earlier was fueling his aggression. Once outside, I calmly explained to him that by losing his temper in the situation he was becoming part of the problem. I've been a door guy and a bartender and know the game fairly well. He replied that he'd fix any problems. I half-laughed, half-sighed and walked away; insecure short men and narcotics just don't go together at all. Naturally, everybody else there who was going to be split from their lesser-dressed companions finished their drinks and left, so Ned's chased out hundreds of dollars in sales to be replaced by the completely imaginary line of sartorially gifted people eagerly waiting outside. Some people just don't deserve to own businesses. The CaJohn's folks, being John, his son Nate, and me went through another hundred dollars ourselves at the hotel bar that we'd have happily given to them. I doubt anyone from the convention will make the same mistake next year.

On Friday, I got in a fun conversation with Tom from England, attending the show as a journalist writing a book about various aspects of Americana, and a squat bulldog of a man named Horrible Haggis (or just Haggis, outside the show) a hot sauce artiste hailing from near Melbourne, Australia. We had a bunch of laughs, Haggis occasionally offering a crack about the royal family for Tom's edification, and all that, which Tom took like the good sport he is. It wasn't untill Sunday, the final day of the show, that John noticed the unusual hyphenated name on Tom's visitor pass, and inquired about it. The name was "Parker-Bowles," and John's question of "any relation to Camilla?" was met with "that's my mum." (Suspicious me, I looked it up upon arriving home. No lie.) We tell the boisterous Haggis who he's been maligning the royal family to, and he is, for the first time since the beginning of the whole show, totally speechless. You can't make this stuff up. In a sense, I'm glad I didn't know about Tom's parentage until it was too late to bother him about it. There are probably few things in this world as de-individualizing as being the plebian relative of someone famous. And, jackass that I am, would have, following a few drinks, have completely lost interest in Tom the journalist from England and instead began speaking to Tom the future stepson of the future King of England. I'm sure this has happened to him so many times that he makes no point whatsoever of bringing the matter up unless specifically asked. No sense becoming an unwilling component in "six degrees of seperation" if it can be avoided, I suppose.

On the whole, I found Albuquerque beutiful and pleasant, although I could never live in a city that completely shuts down on Sunday (no, not true, Circle K is open--and strange things are afoot at the Circle K). I had two flights to catch on Monday, leaving NM with a stop in Cincinatti, Oh. I was at the Albuquerque airport two hours early, and had an almost three-hour stop in Cinci, and I hate flying like hell and all Montagues, and they serve alcohol in airports and on airplanes, so I was one intoxicated little traveller by the time the cab dropped me off at my doorstep in Wilmington. I had neither the promised Spaniard's head nor alien paraphenalia, but a couple of nice pictures which I'll someday scan and post (old world camera) and the story above. I hope you enjoyed reading about it.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

I'm a-Leavin, on a Jet Plane.

Off to Albuquerque, NM, for the weekend to peddle and eat some really, really, absurdly hot food with my friend and mentor John Hard of CaJohn's Fiery Foods. This guy, for no other reason than our shared love of the habenero, which he discovered while I was his waiter at Noodles in Columbus, Oh., has agreed to fly me two-thirds of the way across the country with food, drink, shelter, and pay--so I can do three days of work for him of a sort I enjoy doing anyway at a trade show. When I figured his overall cost in the enterprise, I realized that's like lawyer money. Wow, everyone should have friends like this. I will be sure to bring back lots of cheeseball alien trinkets, which are no doubt in heavy circulation, as I will be a mere (by desert standards) 200 miles from Roswell, the principal attraction (besides questionably legal immigrant labor opportunities) in the state.

All blame/credit for my bizzare predilection toward all things chile is owed to my mother (God bless her) who, being a good German girl, never kept anything in the house fiercer than ground black pepper (and that we had to add ourselves). Like most Northern European-derived cuisine, her meals were laden with butter and oil and a bit wanting in the herb and spice scheme o' things. Don't mistake me; I like a good meatloaf (and she makes a damn fine meatloaf) or pot roast as well as the next guy. I just felt somehow I was well, missing something those hearty-meal childhood years. So by adolescence I was, against her fervent protests, dousing everything she cooked with enough black pepper to hide its original form. Matters just grew worse in college, where I got a job in a wing joint and worked my way through the chain-of-command of heat levels on the sauces. But I wasn't done there, oh no.

There is something that non-hot food junkies fail to understand as they watch me and my ilk wince in pain as we scarf down blazing wings and molten bowls of chili, indigestion be damned: hot food, by which I mean really hot food, not your run-of-the-mill Mexican or General Tso's chicken, affects the same stimulus/reward areas of the brain as narcotics and sex (or so I hear; I'm not a researcher). Eating painfully hot things leaves one feeling euphoric and serene, if a bit runny nosed, and inclined toward the lavoratory the following day. It's typically a poor trade for the uninitiated, as the tears streaming down one's face and plaintive gasping for water (which does no good whatsoever) normally are too dear a price for the ensuing rush of endorphins. But that's the special thing about being a chile-head: building a tolerance to the pain allows us a dining experience most people can only imagine. I've never heard of a burger and fries making one feel...elevated.

So, following the wing training, I eventually got to the source: the habenero pepper itself. Just manually handle enough of them (and, stemming multiple cases of them in the early days of freelancing for John, I certainly did), and your hands start to burn, in a way that soap and water can do nothing to alleviate. Further, there are levels: there is the standard green habenero, which is plenty God-awful hot in its own right; its cousin the still-worse chocolate hab (for its brown color, not its taste); and finally the diabolically evil red savina hab. The Incans (or Aztecs, I can never remember) used to eat green habeneros raw before going into battle; it filled them with madness and bloodlust. But the latter two hadn't been cross-bred into being yet, and it's a damn good thing for the invading Spaniards they hadn't. If such had been the case, all an Incan tribal general would have needed to say to his troops is "there's cool water on the other side of the Conquistadors," and the history of the Americas might be very different indeed.

Now, I occasionally hear an astute response to these narratives. It goes something like this: "Ha! I've busted you out! This is actually some sort of tough-guy male-bonding ritual that you pass off as epicureanism!" (or something like that). To which I respond, "Well I'm glad you're here to tell us these things. Chewie!! Take the professor into the back and plug 'im into the hyperdrive!" Oh, wait, that was Han Solo. I say something far less eloquent like "duh." Anyone that denies the macho-juvenile culture of the hot sauce world harbors acute and internalized delusions. But, at the end of the day, our geeky little hobby is much more benign to society than, say, rolling drunks or driving way too fast. Our adrenaline motives are the same, sure, but our collateral damage is zero--like Trekkies, except we can still make fun of Trekkies.

So I'm in training tonight, having baked chicken with a chipotle and chocolate hab sauce with some veggies covered in dried savina dust. One shouldn't go into battle unprepared. A little luck, and I may return from the trip with a Spaniard's head to put next to the Roswell junk.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Salt of the Earth.

Preface: This is neither that good nor especially current, but I thought hauling something out of the "draft" menu might give people something to chat about while I get my ISP issues worked out at home.

My good friend Dublin Saab had some things to say about a lawuit on behalf of a consumer safety group attempting to force the FDA to reclassify salt as a food additive. It is presently listed under the heading "generally known as safe." My problem is this: I feel lawsuits are the worst way possible to proceed regarding issues of individual responsibility; I also am concerned that restaurants are by and large unwilling to self-regulate gratuitous sodium content in their foods. MacDonald's could preemptively shut most of these people up by switching to low sodium dressings and allowing people to salt their own fries instead of doing it for them. But they don't. Now, the best argument in response to this is of course: don't eat at MacDonald's or Chinese places. Fine; I don't. But childeren get no say in the matter--and MacDonald's and Burger King have made billions by spending millions specifically advertising to children. Should they be allowed to? Of course; it's a free country. But compare the number of times you've seen a MacDonald's (or White Castle, or Wendy's, or KFC, you get the point) promoting high-sodium products versus the number of times you've seen public service ads telling you about the danger of sodium consumption. Since kids watch more TV than anybody, they are given a steady education from birth on just why they should eat Fritos, which is of course about the single most unhealthy thing a person could eat this side of straight mercury. As a result, we have children consuming enough sodium to retain a keg of water and enough fat that we now have the most obese generation of children in all of the known history of humanity.

How to fix it? Well, I for one like to pine for the good old days when people actually knew how to cook. Fresh fruits and vegetables have little to no sodium, and most poultry and fish is naturally rather low. Hence, how much salt is in that kind of meal can be determined mostly by the question "how much salt did I add?" Whatever the reasons, though, those days are gone and don't seem to be coming back any time soon. So that's no good. Do you spend more money on public education campaigns? I'm not sure I've ever really known one of those to be effective unless, as is the case with smoking, the government gets all of the airtime and the industry gets none. (And even then, I'm not sure how effective it is.) Plus, unless you wring a settlement out of the restaurant industry, that's taxpayer dime, and people probably want it spent elsewhere.

So the original problem remains. Millions of people, a certain percentage children who don't get to choose, are consuming far too much sodium. Their health is suffering as a result. Neither of these facts, as far as I can tell, is in serious dispute. There are, in a basic way of looking at the matter, two options: something can be done about it, or nothing can be done about it. If the former is chosen, then we go on to who the doer is.

Truth in advertising on behalf of the industry would be a good way to go. But they never do it on their own (who, after all, wants to spend money to tell the consumer their product is bad for them?). And when laws are proposed to force them to comply, they lobby massively against them and refuse to comply whenever possible. Just how prominent are those signs in Micky D's telling you that their food is saturated-fat and salt drenched shit?

I for one favor the a stick/carrot approach from the FDA putting the processed food industry on notice: you can fix this yourselves in a five or ten year time frame, or we can fix it for you. No regulation would eventually be necessary, because you'd be telling corporations to reduce an (admittedly minute, unless we count stolen shakers) cost, while losing no competetive advantage, because everyone else would be lowering sodium content at the same time. Unless there's a lame-duck Democrat as President (and probably not then), that of course won't happen, as Congress (both sides of the aisle) is firmly in the pocket of the food industry.

So here's what we're left with. The food industry is contributing to a public health crisis by putting too much salt in their products. They refuse to stop doing this. The restaurant industry refuses to educate consumers that their products are high in sodium. Congress bends over backwards to accomodate the industry. Public education campaigns have no chance against the advertising might of the food industry.

What option does that leave, pray tell?

At the end of the day "nanny state" is a meaningless bit of political propoganda hauled out virtually whenever government proposes to value the safety of the public over profit rights of industry. The term is itself bewildering, as at the end of the day, what is government if not a nanny? If policing our neighborhoods, housing our criminals, educating our children, paving and plowing our roads, defending our borders, and providing relief in times of disaster are not inherently protective (and hence nanny-like) functions, then what exactly would qualify? At what point has ensuring the safety of its citizens not been within the mission of our government?

But if the term "nanny" must be used pejoratively, let me draw a distinction. Government requiring that Campbell's send less salt into your kitchen and Macdonald's put less on your fries is not nannying; government taking the salt shaker out of your kitchen and off your table is. And if government refuses to address a situation which private industry is concurrently failing to address, then somebody sooner or later has to file a lawsuit compelling it to do so. I believe it should be an option of last resort, when other avenues of recourse have failed. That standard looks suspiciously close to being met here. Labels have been measuring sodium in foods for 22 years. There has been a steady increase in that time. People will continue to be free to add as much salt as they want to offset any reductions caused by regulation. I think this lawsuit might just have some merit; I am interested to see if the judge does.

Monday, March 07, 2005

An Open Letter of Apology to the Frog I Roasted Alive in 1981.

Y'know, I've been thinking a lot in terms of personal and spiritual development, as men past the flower of youth are wont to do. I'm working on making amends to those I may have in some way wronged, etc., etc., and have come to the following, irrevocable conclusion: it's high time I said "sorry" to you, that frog I tossed into the grill in St. Louis in 1981.

Sure, I know what you're thinking, "well, bloody lot of good your remorse does for me now that my charred frog-shade soul wanders the bleak bogs of eternity." That's true, and a good point, but hey, not a whole heaping lot we can do about that now, is there? I mean, were I to presently discover an enchanted lamp with a genie popping out like a cork off cheap bubbly to grant me three wishes, I'd no doubt start with "hey, I need a time machine back to the Reagan administration so I can refrain from catching that slow and malgrown little frog and tossing it on the coals at my Uncle Wayne's house." Really, I would. But, problem is, I just haven't found that lamp, so we're just going to have to live with things (well, me anyway) as they stand. No sense being a crybaby, know what I'm saying?

And sure, being roasted alive on hot coals, no one to hear your plaintive little frog wail, was probably pretty nasty stuff. Hell, I've been burned enough with grease from the deep fryer to have a taste of what you went through. But you know what? I've never been slow and stupid enough to be collared by something 300 times my size, which in turn flung me into the barbecue and cackled with childish glee as I died an agonizing death. Must've sucked to be you, yeah?

But we're getting off track here. Sure, you were a pretty sorry excuse for a frog and all, and I derived enough diabolical amusement from fiendishly murdering you to probably warrant your hideous and grisly end, but let's get back to my apology. Hey, sorry about all those froglets you didn't get to spawn while you were busy cooking to a blackened husk. An additional sorry to you, any possible Mrs. Frog, for making you a widow by callously burning your husband to cinder and ash. I apologize to the greater amphibian community for taking such a fine and upstanding denizen from your ranks, laughing hysterically as his croaks for mercy from the hellish tortures of immolation fell on deaf ears. Let's let bygones be bygones, shall we?

Well, I'm really glad we had this talk, frog. I feel better already. No doubt, as your crispy spirit wanders the barren halls of forlorn frog hereafter, wailing and gnashing your little frog teeth, or whatever, you feel better too. It's time we put this behind us, derive a little closure from my sociopathic execution of you, engulfing you in flame like you were a protesting Tibetan monk. I mean, it's not like I really enjoyed your deliciously painful death more than any other maniacally gleeful eight-year-old boy would've, dig? I mean, I said I'm sorry already, you loathsome little ex-salmonella courier. What the hell else do you want from me? There's no sense in you being a hater here--it's not like I can reassemble your slimy frog molecules that I wickedly transformed into carbon and soot by annihilating you utterly on the white hot coals beneath the hot dogs and hamburgers. Please don't be an ingrate, okay?

Sunday, March 06, 2005

I Hate Crosswinds, and Other Random Notes.

Internet service is out at the apartment, for reasons my feeble computer literacy cannot fully fathom. I can't call the service company until tomorrow, so forgive the brevity and utter lack of polish from this post, as it comes from my graduate lab at the library and will see nothing resembling revision.

I just rode back from the beach, and feel a need to share my displeasure with crosswinds with the world (or all eight of you that read this). Headwinds on the way there (heading east, obviously) are all fine and good, as, while they make the outbound trip a bit arduous when I'm full of energy and prepared to cope, they speed me on my merry way home, when I'm tired and it's getting dark and cold. Tailwinds on the way are fine too, as they hasten my ride there and hence get me more daylight time. Let it not be said that I am a pessimist in such matters. Crosswinds just bite, however. They are a general impediment for both trips, as well as an affront to my general constructions of fairness and justice. Fie on them. If I wanted to travel north, I'd move.

While I was at the beach, I found a cool looking piece of driftwood. It is, of course, probably the defining character of lifelong inlanders that we find driftwood novel, there being no shortage of it or anything like that. I was considering sanding and polishing it and trying to pass it off on some unsuspecting hippie as "art," but I suspect that plays better in places like Columbus, where people can't just get their own certified Atlantic driftwood and then spend 99 cents on sandpaper at Home Depot. Alas--my fledgling career cut cruelly short. I was going to take a picture of the driftwood and the nifty conch I found nearby and then post them, but suddenly remembered that I'm the last person in the Western Hemisphere without a digital camera, so I can't. My birthday is in August, by the way. And you'll just have to take my word on the aesthetic merits of the shell and wood.

Being a novice to this whole coastal experience, I'm encountering ocean birds (terns? herons?) with which I have no familiarity. Among one species, I've concluded that the ones with brown speckles on their heads and the ones without are probably males and females, but have no better idea than a coin toss to determine which is which. I've also noticed that two different species of bird will occupy the same stretch of beach with nary a peep of discontent from either: peceful coexistence, ornithology-style. Warms the heart, I tell you. I'll have to write more about this when I ascertain some clue as to what I'm talking about. I'd take pictures in the hopes that someone more knowledgeable could help me out, but (refer to previous paragraph).

And thus ends my daily musing on things coastal (But not grammatical--have you ever seen news publications use "thusly" instead of "thus?" Fills me with blind, lashing-out, English-scholar rage, I tell you. The former is not a word. "Thus" is already an adverb, hence adding "ly" to it is a redundant illiteracy which should be punished with a terse rap of a ruler across the knuckles, preferably by a stern-faced nun with dark rimmed and thorougly out-of-style glasses. It's the formative equivalent of "extremelyly;" it further violates the natural and sensible trend of the English language to contract and abbreviate words rather than have them expand and sprawl, much like this rambling and, it must be conceded, increasingly unwieldy sentence and parenthetical.) Whew.

Okay, brain is out-o-gas like like a Shell station in 1972 with a line full of Buicks and Oldsmobiles queued up around the block. I'm hopping on the bike and heading home. Another post is waiting on my computer, and will be tranferred to the blog tomorrow if I can sort out my issues with the Thin Air Network in an amicable, nonviolent, and unlitigious manner. Think of this post as "snack food" until then. Don't read it too many times, or you'll spoil your appetite.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Chronicles of Procrastination.

I was facing a certain dilemma today: take Chiang the Chinese bicycle from Wal-Mart down to Wrightsville Beach, or directly engage the encroaching squalor of my apartment, concurrently cooking chicken and lentil soup. Beach versus cooking/cleaning is normally not a difficult decision for a bachelor who lives alone, but as it was four, I wouldn't have had an awful lot of daylight left by the time I got there anyway, so I decided to go with the latter. I like chicken and lentil soup, and a clean apartment allows for my continued residence in the fantasy world where some woman may actually ever set foot in it. It's like paying rent on my delusions of eligibility.

It's funny to me that I face this dilemma at all; back in Cleveland, if one were casually mulling over a trip to Lake Erie in early March, it would typically be done with fishing poles and an ice pick as prerequisites. I tend to suspect this might be why Midwesterners tend to emerge from the Winter a little, er, better fed than before. For five months out of the year, calisthenic excercise requires: A) The lunatic resolve of one training for the Winter Olympics, or; B) An expensive gym membership. The mere fact that I can hop on my bike for a ten mile round-trip ride on a sunny, 58-degree early March day, stopping midway through for a three-mile walk along the ocean is still a bit novel to me, and hence ardently indulged.

So I struck a compromise: I'd go get the mail, which would fulfill the "left the house during daylight hours" provision of my contract, and then do the cook/clean thing, stopping to inspect the bicycle, and hence entertain the idea of exercise. Surely that counts for something, no? But what I was struck by when I did look at Chiang was what's up with all the silly decals they put on new bikes? It's as if they're giant Hot Wheels toys, requiring every conceivable adornment to capture and hold the attention of an eight-year-old. Would anyone actually buy a car with that many stickers on it? In fact, I believe the principle operates in reverse in the automotive world: the more stickers on a vehicle, the less its sale value; hence the '72 Volvo with 119 political slogans cleverly arranged to cover the rust holes being worth about $75.

So I decide that the really silly ones have got to go, and I use the car standard to decide which ones qualify: if it would look ridiculous on a car, off it comes. Item one: "three speed, coaster brakes," on the rear chain guard. I had no sticker on my Honda announcing "five speed-manual, front ABS." Away with it. Item two: decal near front forks announcing "aluminum frame." Nope, never seen a Corvette sporting a "fiberglass hull" bumper sticker. It's gone. After several more of these informative stickers, I begin to wonder if bicycle manufacturers save on printing owner's manuals by substituting decals explaining every function and specification. By the time I'm done with the infograms, I'm left with nothing but these silly looking decorative arrowhead patterns on the crossbar and forks and the serial number info, which is supposed to be engraved into the frame so people don't steal your bike, but is of course here instead an easily removed decal.

The patterns go, the manufacturer's info sticker stays. I now have a pocketful of crinkled plastic, a tuff-looking, minimalist, Euro-style $99 Chinese street bike, and have squandered a half an hour of my time. The house is still a mess and I haven't started on my paper.

God, I need a job and some friends here before I go off my head. Off to tend the chicken and lentil.