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28 January 2009 @ 11:07 am
The few hardy souls that have stuck around through vast writing droughts to read my rare blog entries here may recall a previous car saga involving a Monte Carlo in this space. This new car story is considerably shorter and probably a bit less compelling than that one, but worth sharing all the same. The star this time around is a BMW, rather than a Monte Carlo, but, as you will see, it was not your average beemer.

Fresh out of college, my girlfriend S. and I rented a small house together in a town a ways removed from our friends, in an effort to live halfway between our respective workplaces, which were about 50 or so miles apart. We were somewhat isolated from our friends there, in a working class neighborhood, in a very tiny house and in a relationship that was a bit bumpy at the time. Therefore, we were looking for distractions. Ultimately, we found one in the form of a car.

At the time, S. owned a very practical Honda to get back and forth to work. I had an equally practical Toyota and our commuting needs were well covered. However, the cars were a bit too practical. Thus, they were basically boring and totally unsexy. S. and I shared a love of driving too fast and somewhat recklessly. Our practical cars were just no fun for that sort of activity. But we didn't have lots of money to throw around and our jobs weren't particularly high paying. So practical it was.

However, one day on her way to work in the wretched little city, S. was driving on a Connecticut back farm road and she passed a car parked in a front yard with a For Sale sign in the windshield. It was a BMW and for some reason, it struck her fancy. She stopped and peered in the windows and when she got home from work that night, she told me about it. "But you don't need a car." I responded, though as soon as the words left my mouth I knew that was completely beside the point. I agreed to go with her to see the car myself.

We arrived and I saw a blue 300 series style BMW sedan parked at a jaunty angle on the lawn of an old farmhouse. It was a sexy car, for sure. It sported two fat back racing tires and a sunroof. It was buffed to a high shine and looked ready to race. Though taken with it, I was still skeptical. "You really don't need a car" I reminded S. one more time. As we peered in the windows and walked around it in a circle, a tall white haired gentleman exited the farm house and walked towards us. The owner, we correctly surmised.

In a thick German accent, he asked if we liked the car. We nodded somewhat stupidly and a little too enthusiastically. Would you like to take it for a ride? He asked. More stupid nodding. Soon we were off with S. behind the wheel and me riding shotgun. Herr Owner rode in the back seat and spoke at length about the car's history while we drove. The car had been made and purchased originally in Germany. He worked for some big multi-national in Germany that transferred him to the U.S. He insisted he be allowed to take his car with him. In order to do so, he was forced to modify the car's engine to meet U.S. emissions standards. Since that was required anyway, he had decided simply to put a whole new engine in the car. While the original engine was a four cylinder affair, he had replaced it with a six cylinder turbo model. He added the fat tires and the necessary catalytic converter. Thus it was a 'grey market' car - not manufactured for sale in the U.S., then modified in various ways, and then shipped over on a big boat across the Atlantic. Though the car had the body of a 300 series sedan, it had no model number on the back and had been modified sufficiently that it was ultimately its own unique car. Needless to say, this intrigued us all the more.

As Herr Owner expounded on the car's history, S. drove rather sedately on the smooth unlined blacktop of the surrounding rural farm roads of Suffield and Granby, Connecticut. I fiddled with what turned out to be a fabulous Blaupunkt stereo system. We were on narrow roads, just barely wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions. As she toodled along at 35 mph, Herr Owner looked increasingly exasperated. Though S. normally would not drive so conservatively, she obviously felt that she needed to be careful driving someone else's car on unfamiliar, windy and narrow roads. While one might think Herr Owner would appreciate such care, it rapidly became clear he did not. Finally he said quite abruptly, 'Why don't you let me drive and I'll show you what she can do.' Uh - sure, fine with us. Seats were swapped though I remained in the front.

Herr Owner tucked his lanky frame behind the wheel and barely gave S. time to buckle her seatbelt before he had thrown it in gear and roared off down the road. As we twisted and turned on the narrow blacktop, he reached 80 mph in well less than 30 seconds. We were on a roller coaster thrill ride, with the most thrilling part being how the car hugged the road like a magnet. We whipped around sharp corners and accelerated so fast we were thrown back against our seats and pinned there like bugs. The car floated and dipped, dived and turned on a dime, its engine roaring like a powerful, angry beast. We passed other drivers on the narrow roads like they were standing still. Herr Driver seemed almost possessed, his shoulders hunched around his head, eyes pinned to the road, lean hands constantly working the gear shift and a tiny smirk on his face.

While it is likely that many women our age would have been terrified by this experience, somehow this guy had pegged us as kindred spirits. OK, so we were terrified, but more than that we were thrilled. Our adrenaline hit the roof and our inner speed demons were dancing jigs of joy in our chests. After 10 minutes on the wild and wooly roller coaster, he screeched abruptly back into his own driveway, leaving us breathless. After a moment to gather our wits, we stepped out of the car, feeling a bit shaky. Herr Owner gave us the look of a hunter who knew he had his prey in his sites. "I'll just go in and let you think about it for a few minutes" he pronounced, and strode purposely back into the farmhouse, leaving S. and I standing there, looking at each other over the roof of the sedan.

"S." I finally managed to croak out, "Buy. This. Car."

She smirked at me. "But I don't need a car." she replied, fliply.

I wasn't playing along.

"You have to buy this car. You have to buy it NOW!"

I was in love with the car. I needed the car and I couldn't buy it myself. Due to a modest inheritance, S. could buy it. Therefore, she had to buy it. I knew she was in love with it also. I really didn't have to do much persuading.

"OK." she said quite simply, "I'm buying the car."

She walked up to the farmhouse door, knocked and was quickly let in. I stayed behind to admire the gleaming beast, which seemed to gloat at me in the sun.

Five minutes later she emerged. She had put down a deposit and would pay the balance on Monday when the banks opened. Then the car would be hers.

We picked up the car early the following week. Immediately upon returning home, we took it out for what would be the first of many joyrides. There were many backroads near us perfect for driving the beemer and I never tired of its ability to accelerate with a power I had never personally experienced in a car before. We could pull up behind a car going 50, swerve into the left lane and pass it so fast they other driver barely had time to see us. The damn thing was fun as hell. We loved it. S. planned to sell her Honda and that would be that.

We instantly became popular with the neighborhood teenage boys. They would wander over and gather around the car. When we let them pop the hood, they would oo and ahh and admire it for ridiculously long periods of time. I know they longed to take it for a spin, but they never were allowed to. But you know you have a sexy car when teenage boys flock to it like flies to honey. They were impressed, and so were we.

However, in a relatively short amount of time, S. realized that as fun as the car was, it was definitely not practical. It used a lot of gas. The engine would get so hot that while you were sitting in the car, you could feel waves of heat streaming over you from the dash, winter or summer. In any kind of bad weather, the car was terrible - sliding all over the road, spinning wheels, downright dangerous. And it attracted a lot of attention. I was convinced it would eventually be stolen and found stripped somewhere.

After months of fence sitting, S. decided she would not sell the Honda. She decided to keep both cars, and only drive the BMW on weekends and for fun. The fact that her mother so did not at all approve of the BMW car purchase may have played a small part in her decision. However, I think the bigger reason was just that we were in love with the car and didn't want to give it up, practical or not.

Time passed, and S. and I broke up for a time. She moved south, I moved north and she took the car with her. It sat barely used in her driveway for years but every now and then she would still take it out. After a couple of years she moved north again and we decided to give things another whirl. She brought the beemer with her and parked it in the driveway of my apartment house, which was right next to her apartment house. There it sat through one very long winter, totally unused. It was becoming obvious that after hanging onto the car for years but barely using it, that something eventually would have to be done about it. But we still clung to it, rather senselessly. It started to feel like an albatross of sorts, hanging around our necks. And S.'s mother reminded us regularly that it had been a foolish purchase. We knew she was right, and that didn't help.

One day in the spring, we were at my apartment and we ordered a pizza for delivery. When the pizza arrived, the deliveryman asked us "Whose BMW is that in the driveway?" While a bit worse for the wear after years of benign neglect, the car could still turn heads, especially of those in the know about cars. "It's mine" S. answered, "Why?" "Well," replied the pizza deliveryman, "I collect BMWs. Would you consider selling that one?"

S. and I looked at each other. A pizza deliveryman who collects BMWs. Allrighty then. Whatever reluctance we might still have been clinging to about giving up the car flew away. "Sure" said S., "I've actually been thinking of selling it for awhile." "Great!" the deliveryman enthused. "Can I take it for a test drive sometime?" "Sure" said S., "It hasn't been on the road for awhile so give me a couple of days to get it ready and then maybe you can come by early next week?" "OK, great!" the deliveryman seemed downright giddy. He passed us his phone number with the pizza. We were bemused by this turn of events, but somehow it seemed like fate and we were upbeat about the prospect of finally resolving the lingering situation.

The next morning we decided to start up the car for the first time in many months, and take it to gas station around the corner to gas it up and have its fluids checked. To our relief, the battery still had a charge and we managed to start it up with little trouble. We drove down the block, with S. driving and me riding shotgun as usual. I was feeling all nostalgic about the car and deciding we would have to take it for at least one more joyride before selling it. I went to fiddle with the stereo but realized it had been removed to prevent theft and was now under the backseat for safe keeping. Oh well, that would add to the value of the car.

We turned left at the end of our street and suddenly white wispy smoke started coming out of the air vents into the car. It was faint at first, and S. insisted it was condensation from the air conditioning system. But the smoke didn't stay faint for long. As we continued down the road, it got whiter and thicker. Soon I was waving my hand in front of my face and saying "That's not condensation, that's smoke!" S. still looked a little on the fence about the matter and was not slowing down to investigate further. Just then I looked down and saw a small flame burst up through the floorboard near my sneakered foot.

"Holy shit!" I exclaimed, "Fire!" I tried stomping out the little flame with my sneaker, an effort that succeeded only in scorching the rubber sole. "The car's on fire! Pull over!" S. saw the floorboard flames and abruptly pulled over. We leaped out of the car and instinctively ran away, to the far side of the street. We then turned around, stood and looked back at it, and I saw a small piece of burning material fall down from the bottom of the car onto the blacktop below and burn itself out. Just as I was thinking maybe that was it - just a bunch of burning wires or something that had quickly burned itself out, we saw an ominous orange glow behind the windshield. I just had enough time to say "Uh oh", when the car suddenly burst into flames. The entire interior of the car became a raging inferno fireball, with flames leaping 20 feet high through the open sunroof. We stood watching in stunned disbelief.

For some reason, after the initial shock sank in, we looked at each other and began to laugh uproariously. As people began to poke their heads out of their house windows in amazement and call 911, we stood on the side of the road laughing like crazed maniacs. It was somehow just such a fitting fate for the car that it would burn up on the side of the road like that.

By the time the fire truck arrived, the fire was starting to burn itself out. Fortunately, the gas tank never exploded and the engine itself never caught fire, but the interior was completely gutted. The fire truck sealed the deal by pouring several thousand gallons of water on it and in the end it was just a smoking, steaming hulk. The inside looked like something out of the movie Terminator 2. As I looked in after the fire was out, it dawned at me that the Blaupunkt under the back seat had gone down with the car as well. Of course, had we taken the time to retrieve it, we might have ended up extra crispy as well.

They towed the car to the junkyard, where S. eventually just gave it to them in exchange for waiving the storage fees (a good scam for them - the car still had an engine and salvageable parts untouched by the fire). The next day I called the pizza deliveryman and broke the news to him. He seemed crushed and did not want to believe it. He wanted to see the car to see if he could salvage it. I explained to him that unfortunately, it was a total goner and he had best just move on. He was beside himself with disappointment. I guess he knew something special when he saw it.

We never did get to take it for a final joyride. But I'm sure wherever old beemers go when they die, that one is still leaving all the others in the dust.
Current Mood: cheerfulcheerful
11 December 2008 @ 12:16 am
This morning on the way to work, I listened to our local yokel radio interview show where the illustrious local host was interviewing the mayor of the next town over, which is the cultural focal point of our little hickville world. The next town over, which shall not remain nameless, is Northampton, MA - a 'burg of 30,000 souls, an inordinate number of whom are lesbians. But lesbians in abundance is only one of Northampton's many quirks. It is a very lefty groovy progressive college town, but also with a touch of working class aging mill town thrown in. It's a rare combination of things and people, and this mix often leads to raging tempests in teapots. I love these little brouhahas, and even though I moved to a smaller, calmer adjacent town about six years ago and am happy to be out of the thick of the fray, I still can't helped but be sucked back occasionally like a moth to a flame.

Current controversies in Northampton are abundant, which is normal, and full of hyperbole and drama, which is also normal. Topics du jour include fury over a proposed 'panhandling' ordinance which would legislate how and where people can hit up others for money on the street, a proposed landfill expansion that might or might not threaten an aquifer, whether or not a 'hookah' bar should be allowed when smoking is banned in public establishments and how exactly to continue an ongoing municipal project to redevelop a former big mental hospital into a business and residential center. A number of issues like these lead to protests with people marching down the street in costumes and signs, interminably long city council and committee meetings where people come to "speak out" in a way that sometimes involves yelling and hand waving, heated editorials and even more heated online comments to those editorials, and just a lot of general fun all the way around.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that in general Northampton residents just love to march down the street en masse on the slightest of excuses. I vividly recall a number of years back when someone organized a "Dada parade" downtown. Why would someone do this, you ask? Does a town need a reason to have a surrealist parade? Northampton certainly does not. The one group I most clearly recall from that parade were the lawn chair drill team, which left my friend and I doubled over with laughter and amazement at what a bunch of people with nothing better to do can learn to do with lawn chairs. In sync.

Anyway, I digress. So the mayor of all this fun is an 'open' lesbian. And though she was considered the big liberal alternative groovy candidate when she was first elected oh - I dunno - a good 8 years or so ago now, there are now lots of "newcomers" in town (read: people who have moved there in the last 6 years), that don't remember or know any of that history, and thus she is often viewed now as the evil establishment. I've heard her referred to as an intractable bully, which is a bit puzzling since her persona is about as low key as you can get. Still, she is a woman of opinions and she has a tendency to form them and hold onto them. What probably infuriates people most of all is that she is not a warm, fuzzy person eager to please in that uniquely lesbian and co-dependent fashion. In fact, though she is capable of and often does listen to what others have to say, if she doesn't agree, she feels little need to broker a compromise, act conciliatory, or change course. She simply keeps on keepin' on and that really makes people apoplectic at times.

So, back to the interview. The interviewer asked her about a comment she had made awhile back in response to a random person who had accused her of being non-responsive to a concern, and her comeback was that people who didn't like her could always vote her out of office. Of course, such an honest and blunt response only served to stir the pot more, and soon accusations of her being uncaring about her constituents began to fly fast and furious. So in this interview she tried to clarify what she had meant, essentially by just repeating herself. But I totally get it, and in this case at least, I am on her side.

This is what I like to call the Barney Frank philosophy of representative democracy, and I am all for it. The vast majority of people in this country do not seem to understand what a representative democracy is. They think a representative is supposed to represent the "will of the people". So basically on any given issue, the rep should have some idea or sense of how the majority of his/her constituents feel about that issue, and is subsequently charged to vote the way the majority of their constituents would.

To me, this is just wrong, wrong, wrong. The whole original point of having representatives at all was to cultivate people who were dedicated to learning about issues in depth and then voting their consciences on those issues. The founders were concerned that Joe Citizen was too busy working to learn about issues in any kind of in-depth fashion, and thus might not vote in an educated way but based more on fear or misinformation. Of course, they also just downright didn't trust the dirty, rotten masses. But even if we try and put aside the inherent classism, we still end up with a darn good point, which is that representatives will be more dedicated to learning more about whatever it is they are voting on and thus might NOT vote the way the majority of his/her constituents would vote if they were in office. And this is OK - in fact, this is GOOD. It ought to help prevent things like "mob rule" and "tyranny of the majority" - not that it always does, but it's at least possible.

So given those precepts, the mayor's philosophy, which I originally heard articulated by Barney Frank years ago, is basically - I don't really care what my constituents want, I care what I want and vote accordingly. If my constituents don't like how I vote, I'm up for re-election in x years, and they can just vote me out then. - Exactly right! The beauty of this philosophy is how it so totally and completely kills the incredibly wearisome arguments about what the people want, with each side claiming to have a lock on the real will of the people. Well guess what - there is no monolithic will of the people and even if there were, representatives are under no obligation to exercise it, nor should they, really, unless they really agree. Whether the majority of people agree with something or not is IRRELEVANT. Because - news flash - history has proven nothing if not that the majority of people are often dead wrong.

If only more people grasped this concept and had the same philosophy as our big old local lesbo mayor, this country would be a lot better place. I swear it would. And I should know because I am one of the people, and that's my will. So there.
09 December 2008 @ 12:05 am
Forty five years later, Marshall McLuhan is STILL correct about the medium being the message. This precept holds just as true with new media as old. Today I tried to explain to a friend why you would Twitter as opposed to Blog as opposed to Facebook. This is a friend who has read enough blogs to "get" them and been on Facebook just long enough to grasp the general qualities of that medium. But she hasn't spent any time on Twitter yet, and that puts me a whole nanosecond ahead of her on the learning curve.

But in the world of tech, it is a generally accepted tenet that if you know even a tiny bit more than someone else, well then, you are the expert. Lots of people are eager to adopt that moniker if offered, no matter how ill-deserved it may actually be. Though I like to think I'm not one of those people, and in fact, feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to people why I am not an expert, I have been known to expound upon things which I'm pretty new at myself. So it is likely my newbie thoughts on these topics will evolve over time and maybe will warrant a new and different post in the future.

Anyway, she, like many who have looked cursorily at Twitter, thought it must be like Facebook status updates, everyone posting what they are doing all day long. But already I've gleaned that while that (maybe?) was the original idea, there is not a lot of value in reading about all the mundane tasks people are doing all day long. It might be fun or amusing at times, but not much bang for the buck there. What seems to make it worthwhile is when people use it to share information and ideas. So posting links to articles, product pages, etc. relevant to a particular topic of shared interest and maybe even more so, asking and answering questions to generate discussion of a topic - these are the ways in which Twitter seems worthwhile.

I'm still not really sure why people are bent on pumping up their following/followed numbers into the stratosphere, though perhaps it's just that good old competitive spirit. But honestly, I'd rather follow and be followed by a reasonable number of good quality, relevant twitterers than a zillion random people just to pat myself on the back about how high my numbers are. With any information source, signal to static ratio has to be reasonable or usefulness quickly diminishes.

Anyway, there is something very interesting about limiting posts to 140 characters that forces not just brevity, but at least some level of pithiness. Something that needs additional expounding upon has different media options for that purpose. Like this journal, for example.

And I'm still waiting for the next big thing to come along. I can't help but think that if the darn iPhone would just open up to better carriers that could actually serve those of us not on the sketchier edges of the cell signal sphere, that it could really become the device that moves us to the next level. But right now it continues to be hamstrung by AT&T's crappy 3G network and that is a real problem. I won't adopt until I can get as good a signal as I can on Verizon - including in Mexico. I guess we'll see.
Current Mood: chipperchipper
07 December 2008 @ 01:02 am
My new job, so I'm told, will involve new media. Social networking, web 2.0, blogging, twittering, vlogs, forums, podcasts, facebook, RSS feeds, etc. all in the name of recruiting for the University. The literal explosion of web technology boggles my mind at times. Since I was participating in the granddaddy of social networking back in the early 80's - Usenet and it's zillions of 'newsgroups' full of text art and fellow nerds, which no one without a thick pair of glasses had ever heard of - it's a bit amazing to see how far we've come in the past 25 years since then. I consider myself lucky to have been around to witness it, in the thick of it nearly the whole time. There have been quantum shifts in the development of technology and a lot of incremental baby steps between them and everything in my gut tells me we are on the verge of a new quantum step soon.

I remember the first time I ever saw a real web site - at a networking tech conference in Boston in '94. There were some public terminals set up, running Windows 3.1 and Mosaic, connected to the Internet over PPP or maybe even SLIP (such as it was at the time - really Arpanet then) and displaying a page on the Summer Olympics. It had pictures, scores, and most amazing of all, clickable links. I don't think it is possible for anyone who has grown up with the web to really understand what an amazing leap forward this was for computer technology compared to everything that came before.

Sure the 'net in one form or another had been around for decades by then and had reached a certain mass of interconnected hosts and users that at least was accessible to almost all major colleges and universities and scientists. But information was always text based, traveled almost exclusively over slow dial up links, and depended on BBS bulletin boards and Usenet for any kind of exchange of ideas. It was a bit of a wild west back then mostly because most people hadn't noticed it yet, because all that amber and green colored text on the screen looked about as interesting as watching paint dry.

On campus, we built "gopher" based menu systems to house information - at UMass it was called CWIS (Campus Wide Information System). To this day, all umass.edu websites are housed on the webhosts under a root directory named "CWIS". It's not visible to anyone but those who get under the hood with websites, but I kind of love that it is still there to remind those of us who are older where we came from.

So the introduction of a simple set of protocols and standards that allowed for the display of information in a graphical format across the 'net was huge. For me, it was literally an a-ha! moment. And I was not the only one - I loved introducing newbies to the web for those first few years when people were just waking up to it. There was always this moment, after they were shown the screen, given the mouse and hesitantly clicking around when they would just suddenly "get it" and start to grasp the possibilities for this new technology. That was always a really cool moment - like seeing some whole new world of possibility for the first time.

People's eyes would light up, their mouths would drop open and they'd exclaim something - "Wow!" "This is great!" "How many web sites are there where I can go again?" Then they'd want to know if there was a master directory or table of contents - no Google back then. The whole idea of a theoretically limitless network of information and ideas built from the bottom up rather than the top down was completely new.

Since then we've been full speed ahead. And something is happening. It feels to me that we are no longer in control, really - assuming we ever were. But in the past, media was truly centralized and top down. The decision makers were few and options extremely limited. Accountability was not terribly high because there wasn't much competition among media sources. When it comes to mass media, there still isn't and in fact, with corporate consolidation, there's less media sources than ever. And that's why mass media as we've known it, or I've know it my whole life, is dying. And it's dying faster than most of us think it is. I'm talking newspapers, books, broadcast television, and music on discs. Yeah this is hardly a revelation, but I really believe it now and I don't think I truly did before. I'm convinced books will survive but in a more limited fashion than they have been for hundreds of years now. They will no longer be the primary repository of knowledge. Knowledge will be likely to be stored electronically.

I've always been skeptical of futurists who are eager to denounce anything current as defunct and anything new as the better way or the way that will prevail. People who make ridiculous pronouncements about how personal computers will disappear in five years and we'll all have chips in our clothing instead make me hurt my eyes rolling them. And people have been making pronouncements like this as if they are gospel for as long as I can remember. They are almost never correct. However, sometimes they aren't totally wrong at least in terms of long term trends or the direction we might be generally headed in.

But I'm becoming a believer - a believer in a future that will really look very different than the past when it comes to media and technology. And a believer that it is rushing towards us faster and faster and will be here, very soon. Instead of the casual "interactivity" of clicking on links obsessively until our brains are permanently rewired with the attention span of gnats, we are moving into a truly interactive age and a true convergence of media in a always-accessible, on-demand, electronic format. We now create as well as consume.

I see us having two or three pieces of hardware for computing, communications and entertainment at the most. Flat screen in the living room for television and video at home. Laptop for writing, reading, working on a larger palette for design or work or information gathering. And smartphone for on the go forms of all applications. By far the most frequently used device will be the smartphone because of its portability and our burgeoning desire to be always plugged in, all the time. CD's and DVD's are on the way out. Big fat hard drives that can by synced out to mobile devices for on the go access will hold anything we want to keep accessible copies of and it'll be downloaded over the Internet. I already download on demand programming from my satellite provider over my DSL based Internet connection to my DVR over an IP over powerline device. I watch television shows and movies on my flat screen TV by connecting a video out cable from my laptop to its VGA input and get a great picture over the Internet, through my laptop and out to my TV.

At work, a lot of "older" folks (read: above 35) are skeptical of new media, especially social networking media. Sure they know we need to get into it, that it's important because the kids like it, etc. But give them a facebook page and it's like a race to see who can proclaim first that they don't get it or it does nothing for them. My partner, who is no luddite, is convinced if she gets a facebook page, the whole world will instantly know all about her personal business and hard on the heels of that her identity will surely be stolen. So far no amount of explaining and reasoning has worked to convince her to just try it.

Of course, Facebook is the one social network that is growing among the over 35 set and so I suppose we are not totally hopeless. But there is still a desire, I believe, to distance ourselves from this new fangled stuff for the younger folk. It all seems so teenager-y - so talking on the phone with your friends for hours in high school. Surely we are above that sort of immaturity. We'll just read articles about these things and then try to copy some of what other people are doing.

That, in my opinion, just will not work. The more I get immersed in this ocean of flying thoughts coming from so many people and so many sources, the more I see that it is going somewhere that you have to experience to understand. And it is going somewhere, and I predict, somewhere big. What's cool about the process is how organic it is. Like a big beehive, we're all buzzing with something that's growing bigger and bigger. Pretty soon we're going to bust out of the hive and go on a journey. How or when or where, I certainly do not know. But there's a killer idea out there - or a killer app if you prefer. Something is going to tie all this human energy together over the 'net and it's going to move to the next level. And it's going to be cool.

So yeah, count me as a believer.
29 November 2008 @ 10:33 am
I've decided this year to ask for one thing for Christmas from everyone that might conceivably buy me something in the form of a gift. That one thing is 20 - 30 minutes of time out of their lives. During that 20 - 30 minutes of time, they don't have to spend any money or do any shopping. All they have to do is watch the Story of Stuff. Here's a short trailer, but the full version is just over 20 minutes long.

As you can see, the Story of Stuff is a Flash presentation that gets people thinking about the price we pay for a consumer-based economy. It's been around online for awhile now, but I think it bears re-watching this time of year, or of course, if you haven't yet seen it, this is a particularly good time of year to catch it for the first time. The catch is, I want people to watch the entire thing and then click on the link at the end for suggestions on what can be done to change how all this works. So please, family and friends, no scarves, gloves, bins of popcorn, kitchen gadgets (love 'em but I already have plenty), gift cards or new books. I appreciate that all those things have been purchased in the past out of love, but I already know you love me and value that. So thanks but no more. If someone has to spend money to feel fulfilled, I'm asking them to give it to those who really need it - to a food bank or a homeless shelter or some organization that helps undocumented workers in their area.

Ultimately I want them to really devote themselves to thinking about these issues for more than five minutes, before rushing out the door to find the best bargain on Christmas gifts and then patting themselves on the back about how they found something so cheap without any thought at all about how or why it came to be so cheap and why they should find such an action (purchasing an underpriced product) so darn rewarding anyway. I'm sick of it.

I've ranted about this topic before, but I'm so over the forced holiday ritual of buying stuff for each other. Not only do I feel ridiculous buying obligatory stuff for others, I feel incredibly frustrated getting stuff I don't need from other people in return. This is not the spirit of giving or whatever misplaced platitude we are being force fed to think of it as. It is the spirit of greed, corruption and wastefulness - of attempting to feel personally fulfilled through the accumulation of products of dubious value. I don't actually need a damn thing and while I continue to grow fat on too much food and drown in piles of stuff I don't have room for or any real need for, people are leading miserable lives in polluted environments working for pennies a day so I can have the latest iPod. This makes me slightly crazy, in no small part because I've contributed more than my fair share to this destructive treadmill.

I'm not asking everyone to cast off all our material goods and wander the countryside like Gandhi. But I am saying we all need to start thinking seriously about what our lack of awareness is doing to other people, the planet and ultimately ourselves and future generations. And for Americans, I truly believe it is about a cultural change. And unfortunately, because we have exported the culture of consumerism around the world, it may be ultimately about a global shift in thinking. However, I firmly believe that we started it, we exported it, and we are by far the worst culprits of it. So in turn we are the ones who need to starting waking up and leading the way off the road to ruin we are currently hurtling down.

I was raised in a family who loves a bargain. My grandparents lived through the depression and they learned to value the acquisition of cheap goods and food. Of course, back in those days, there were good reasons for developing a set of values rooted in thriftiness and getting every last bit of possible use out of a good or product. My grandfather made a regular habit of picking through the dumpster of a local boys club near his house right up until the time he wasn't physically able to continue. All of us grandchildren received goodies from this dumpster from time to time - basketballs - slightly worn, jump ropes missing a handle, partial sets of baseball cards, whatever could be salvaged. The attitude was always, hey, this thing is perfectly good! All it needs is to be cleaned up, fixed up, improvised, etc. and we got it for free! How great is that?

Somehow this culture of depression-era thriftiness devolved over the decades and was corrupted as it was passed down to younger generations. And by "somehow" I mean, corporations with vested monetary interest successfully managed to sell us a bill of goods that thriftiness meant buying cheap goods, and that if buying cheap goods was good, then buying lots of cheap goods was better. Shopping evolved from something people did out of necessity to something people did for sport. And there is no doubt that shopping became a sport for my parents' generation and perhaps even more so for mine.

The way one wins the shopping sport is by procuring the best quality item for the lowest price. There are a myriad of ways to accomplish this, not the least of which is that mass produced goods tend to be underpriced to begin with (watch the Story of Stuff for more info!). But if you clip coupons, watch for the ubiquitous "sales", wait in line at 9 PM for store doors to open at 7 AM the next morning, go to the outlets, the warehouses, the cut rate discount stores, the big lots, and look for the slightly irregulars, the dented box that fell off the back of the truck, the overstocks and the underselling colors, if you devote yourself with laserlike precision at honing in on the best bargain, you can spend hours of your life telling yourself that you are manipulating the system and saving big bucks to procure new clothing, good and materials. You would sooner throw yourself off a cliff than pay full price for anything and getting a "deal" is the ultimate consumer fulfillment. This is how a man is trampled to death at Wal-Mart. He got in the way of winning the sport of shopping.

Never mind that what you bought you don't really need. Never mind that it is a shoddy good made to fall apart as quickly as possible so you'll throw it away and buy a new one. Never mind that it was assembled in sweatshops overseas by exploited children with no health care being paid pennies a day for back-breaking labor. Never mind that the environment is being destroyed to harvest the resources necessary to manufacture the goods and to process them and insert them in excessive, non-recyclable packaging so that you are more likely to buy it. Never mind all of that, because dammit, you got yourself a bargain. Why not reward yourself with a nice mass produced, highly processed, chemical and saturated fat-laden meal that will completely wipe out the savings you incurred at a nearby mall chain restaurant? Mmmm, buffalo chicken fingers!

What I am trying to do these days is just think about - why am I buying this and do I really need to? If so, where is this coming from? How was it made? Is this thing necessary or useful or is it just contributing to the problem? Believe me, as the owner of a 50 inch flat screen TV, several desktop and laptop computers, a few portable music players, countless kitchen gadgets, and far too many pairs of shoes, I am hardly holier than thou when it comes to this topic. However, I don't want to participate blindly as I have been most of my life. I at least want to be more aware, more thoughtful and choose the better way more often than buying into the bad way. I also refuse to participate in the culture of bargain hunting and congratulating those who imagine they have found themselves a great deal. I'm done with that way, and looking for a better one.

Happy Holidays, peeps.
08 October 2008 @ 03:43 pm
If you, like me, are feeling a bit overly caught up in Wall Street of late, here's an interesting activity for you. Click the link below. Then refresh the page obsessively every 30 seconds. In the last ten minutes I have watched the market plunge like it is going off a cliff. I have vertigo.

Click me: Wall Street Journal Market Data Center

17 September 2008 @ 04:12 pm
I was 5. My family was on an annual summer vacation to Cape Cod, where for years we always rented small, rustic wooden cabins at the very crux of the place where the land runs out, where the lower cape pivots abruptly from its steady eastward march, sliding northward to stretch up, up, pulling thin in the middle like a string of sticky candy, finally curving in, in and landing in a wide splat of sand, seagrass and shimmering light known as Provincetown. But we vacationed in Chatham, out as far east and south as you could go without hopping a boat over to the barrier island of Nauset Beach (long since breached these many years now and totally changing the landscape of my memories), or south to the northern tip of long, skinny, Monomoy Island where the birds swarmed like bees and old shipwrecks sometimes stuck out of the water at low tide. To the west lay the lower Cape, to the north the outer Cape. I learned early on that there was no such thing as the upper or the inner Cape.

My early memories there are all images. Seemingly endless expanses of grainy yellow sand, my brother gingerly turning over giant wriggly horseshoe crabs, big as dinner plates with their primeval flat eyes and colonies of barnacles living on their backs, smooth white stones washed up by the sea and collected in a basket by my bed, the feel of dried salt water in my hair, the taffy at the penny candy store that pulled out loose teeth so efficiently. All vivid still, but the narratives from that year, 1969, have mostly faded from reach. One thing I do recall, however, is how that year we piled into my Dad's chocolate brown Buick Electra convertible with the white top down and drove up, up and out, finally curving back in, in and landed splat in Provincetown for a day trip. I remember being excited to go there, because I had a coloring book with pictures of scenes from Cape Cod and seashells to color in, and there was one page with a drawing of a tall, square tower that seemed to me almost like a castle tower, looming over the sand. For some reason that image intrigued me and I only knew as I sat small in the cavernous vinyl back seat of the Electra, my ponytails whipping in the wind, that we were going to see the big tower. I remember as the car crested a hill just before arriving that my Dad pointed out the tower off in the distance, tall and stark on the horizon. I remember only brief images of the town itself from that day - shops and lunch and people. But I clearly remember going to the tower, which I learned was really called the Monument. And I remember climbing up, up, up, up on my little legs until my Dad finally had to carry me the rest of the way till we got to the top. And I remember looking out there at the sandy strip of Cape Cod unfurling in a spiral with the Monument at its center, running away back towards Chatham and then on towards home, a very different place from there. And I remember light, otherworldly and alive, and strangely beautiful, everywhere I looked.

I was 13. My Dad had long since given up the Electra and now drove small compact cars. But in the meantime, he had also taken up with sailboats. Now we sailed up and down the New England coast, a motley few upwardly mobile wannabees pretending we were blueblood sailors. My Dad loved to sail, and at times, I loved it too. He became consumed with it over time and was constantly working on the boat or sailing it. He would go to boat yards and find the one boat that had been sitting a step from the junk heap for years, faded, filthy and rusting but still theoretically seaworthy. He'd buy it for a song and then work morning, noon and night to bring it back. Since my Dad thought of me and my brother at least partially as free labor, we spent many hours sanding dried seaweed and dead barnacles off old fiberglass hulls, oiling ancient, dried and faded teak back to a beautiful rich brown, learning how to wrestle unruly expanses of sail into submission and crawling around in dank, dark holds with toxically strong cleaning supplies. We were always in marine stores looking for obscure tiny metal parts or buying various forms of motor oil, engine lubricants, or cleaning solvents. My father insisted we call everything on the boat by its proper nautical name, and would pretend not to understand if we referred to the kitchen, bathroom, or the front or the back of the boat rather than using the terms galley, head, bow or stern. Even in a crisis when he barked out urgent instructions as we listed in a busy boat channel trying to tack into the wind with a tour boat bearing down on us, he refused to make things easier by using terms we could all understand. "The sheet!" he would bellow, "Grab the sheet!" as he frantically cranked the winch, yanking the sail violently to starboard, the boom flying inches over our heads as we tried desperately to remember what a sheet was. Finally my brother would yell - "The rope! He means the rope!" When the crisis was averted, we would have huge arguments about why he couldn't have just said the rope. In the end, boating became the catalyst that tore my family apart. But back then it still just seemed like an especially obsessive hobby for my Dad.

It was 1976 and in Boston that meant nothing but endless Bicentennial celebrations, people walking around in colonial costume with tri-cornered hats, tall ship parades in the Boston Harbor with throngs of people lining the waterfront for a glimpse, and for us, sailing. That year the boat was kept in Salem Harbor, the small city of my birth, which has always been much more about the sea than about witches. We took a long weekend trip that year, across the bay to Provincetown and tied up there for a night on a small mooring in the constantly pitching water of the little harbor, just inside the breakwater. That was the first time it dawned on me that there was something different about Provincetown other than the beauty of the dunes, water and light. The people were different. While vaguely aware of the cultural revolution from my safe middle class suburban haven, for me it had consisted mostly of new wacky fashions that my mother would flirt with wearing and buying for me, in her endless attempt to stay fashionably hip (a priority that remains high for her even today in her late 60's). So I had some hip hugging bellbottoms, denim jackets with embroidered flower appliques, some groovy looking headbands. But really, we didn't have any real hippies where I lived, or any real radicals either.

But Provincetown did.

I recall sitting on the low curb of Commercial Street while my parents shopped in a store behind me, and watching fascinated at the parade of people flowing by. Wild, colorful clothing and hairdos abounded. The one person I most clearly remember was a black woman, probably in her twenties. She was short, stocky and had a huge afro like a halo around her strong featured, masculine face. She practically marched down the street, swaggering in a dark blue, faded t-shirt imprinted with a large white woman's symbol with an upraised fist inside it. I had no idea what that symbol meant, but I was sure it must be something important and incredibly cool.

I was 16. My Dad practically lived on his boat by then and my parents marriage was showing signs of serious strain. I buried myself in my friends and social life to escape the tension and was rarely home. I had a boyfriend and a group of tight friends and we spent most of our time getting high, listening to music, going to video arcades at the mall and attending rock concerts. My parents decided that since we didn't do enough as a family together anymore, we would take a weekend sailing trip together. My brother balked outright and at 17, he was more immune to parental pressure than me. Since I actually liked sailing at least some of the time, I was easier to persuade and the deal was sealed when they offered to take my boyfriend along as well. So we left Saturday early morning, on my Dad's 38 foot Tartan sloop, the four of us heading for Provincetown. To this day I'm not sure why we chose that as our destination. But over time I came to realize that my Dad had a little love affair with Provincetown as well as I did. Though my Dad is definitely not gay or in any sense a radical, he is intrigued by the world and loves the romance of interesting, exotic places. And so I think that was the appeal for him - Provincetown was nothing if not interesting and exotic.

The morning we left the skinny slot of Marblehead harbor for the open Massachusetts bay, there was not a breath of wind. It was early summer, July 4th weekend. I had never been out on the ocean in dead calm before. To get from the North Shore of Boston to Provincetown, one generally takes an arc through the bay that goes well over 6 miles offshore and thus for a time you are totally out of sight of any land. Because there was no wind at all, we couldn't sail. We had to motor with the boat's tiny 12 HP outboard at a top speed of around 7 or 8 mph. It was disappointing, since the fun of sailing is riding the wind, all pitched over on your side with sun sparkling off leaping waves and salt spray in your face. But this was like gliding along through an endless mirror, almost surreal with the surface of the sea completely still, smooth glass stretching off in every direction to the horizon. It felt eerie, especially when it was just us with no other boats or land in sight. It felt like riding into the void and I think it freaked us all out a little. But we tried to make the best of it, joking and playing music and eating lunch as we putt-putted along through the featureless landscape. After several hours of that however, with still no wind or anything else to look at, we all started to get bored. My boyfriend and I started playing cards in the cockpit while my dad strapped a bungee cord onto the steering wheel to keep us on course and went to sleep in the deck hammock. My Mom read a book and indulged in one of her favorite pasttimes, working on her tan. I was starting to wonder if we would ever get there when a loud, abrupt noise like a firehose going off nearly made me jump out of my seat.

We all swiveled our heads to port where a large column of water spray was just falling back to the sea about 40 feet off to our left side. Suddenly, an enormous expanse of shiny, jet black, smooth flesh rose in an arc to disturb the perfectly flat surface of the water in a beautiful gliding motion, growing larger and larger until fully 40 feet of enormous beast was visible, along with the glimpse of a huge black eye, glinting intelligence and curiosity at us. I leapt to my feet with happiness. The humpback's knobbly head appeared, and she looked old and wise and wonderful. She blew another huff of seawater out her blowhole and smoothly glided back beneath the surface, leaving it with just a few ripples to show she had been there. Then off starboard "pfffffftttt!" another water column shot up seconds later, this one even closer. So there were at least two. Then another came up just off the bow. For the next hour, as we glided over the humpback feeding grounds of Stellwagen Bank, the whales glided with us, many bigger than our boat. Some playfully peeked at us and then dove under us to pop up on the other side. They came amazingly close and I thought a time or two I might be able to reach out and touch one, run my fingers over their bumpy backs, but they never came in quite close enough. Still, there was little doubt they were accompanying us and as the day grew long and the clouds gained an orangeish tint, the mirrored sea reflected back the color and we floated on to Provincetown through a world of orange glass and white cloud, with enormous shiny black whales as our guides. It was beautiful and I'll never forget that afternoon.

As Stellwagen Bank gave out just a few miles north of the upturned wrist of Race Point in Provincetown, the whales dove one by one and disappeared, leaving us to motor the last bit alone. When we arrived at last, my boyfriend Scott and I scrambled up the dock to the wharf, while my Dad sought out the harbormaster for a mooring. Crowds of people filled Commercial St, tourists and gays and lesbians and freaks of various sorts. My boyfriend was a notorious straight arrow, whom I had made it my mission to corrupt. He was a sweet guy and quite handsome, but not the brightest bulb on the tree on even his best day. I never knew quite what he saw in me, since I was no beauty and mostly only had a boyfriend at all so that I could be socially acceptable, not so much because I was terribly interested in boys. But he was good natured and fun and good company and uncomplicated. What I had not counted on was the effect he would have on gay men in Provincetown. He was a year older than me, so 17 at the time, and since I had convinced him to grow out his hair from the military style haircut he had when I met him, he had the shaggy hair and mustache look of a young Tom Selleck. In 1980, that look was all the rage, and the men began circling my boy like sharks the moment we made landfall. Though he really was a boy scout sort by nature, he was not a bigot or close minded, so he simply shrugged the attention off. I, however, found it highly amusing and started answering some of the cat calls he was receiving myself, much to the amusement of those doing the calling. A few times it devolved into a near catfight, but it was all in fun. The "oh honey" and "oh girlfriend''s flew fast and thick.

That night we watched the July 4th fireworks out on the wharf, explored bars we were too young to get into (and were thrown out of a couple for that reason), ate junk food and sat watching people go by in all their fascinating diversity. I decided that weekend that I really loved Provincetown and would come back whenever I could. I still hadn't figured out that I was gay, really, though I had inklings. But regardless of that little detail, Provincetown just felt like my kind of place.

When Monday rolled around, we were heading out again for Marblehead bright and early. In contrast to our trip down, it was a windy day, with some dark clouds as we headed out of the harbor. But the sun peeked out here and there and we were optimistic that conditions would clear up for our sail back. I munched down a plain donut for breakfast while we were still in the relatively safe confines of Provincetown harbor and couldn't help but notice that even there the seas were around two to three feet, definitely higher than usual. As is often the case when one rounds the tip of Provincetown into the open bay, the seas suddenly got much heavier as we came up past Herring Cove beach. Suddenly the seas were swelling up to seven, eight feet and the boat was constantly rising up waves, pausing for a second and then rushing down the other side, up, pause, down, up, pause, down, a roller coaster without end. It took me five minutes before I was hanging over the back, unceremoniously depositing my previously eaten donut back into the ocean. Next up was Scott, then my mother, with only my Dad remaining impervious to the seasickness that rolled over the rest of us like a green wave. Though the sun came out and the day looked bright and beautiful, the wind only picked up, and soon we were in ten foot seas in a 38 foot boat. I gave up the ghost and stumbled into the hold where I lay on a couch with a bucket, moaning and retching for the next four hours. At one point, the seas were so rough that the dinghy strapped to the back of the boat ripped right off and was surely going to be lost at sea, but my Dad and Scott managed to retrieve it and strong arm it back onto the back of the boat. The wind was directly in our faces and we were making almost no forward progress towards Marblehead. Finally, after five hours of sheer hell, my father's famous stubbornness wore down and he tacked to the West, giving up on ever making it home that day. We made our way quickly to Plymouth harbor and upon landing, I literally stumbled onto the beach and kissed the ground. I swore I would never sail again and it took another four hours for the mainland to stop pitching under my feet. Eventually we got a ride back home from a relative and my Dad retrieved his boat alone on another, much calmer day. I didn't sail again after that experience for years.

I was 28. I had long since realized I was gay, and Provincetown became a yearly excursion for me and my partner and lesbian friends. I always insisted on staying right on the water, and we usually ended up at the Bayshore in the East End. We went annually, a tight group of us, and had great fun. We called it being in the Ptown "zone", where all our stress and worry and angst would just melt away. We would relax, cook dinners together and eat out on the beach, walk our dogs, go out to the bars for fun at night, eat amazing food at the restaurants, hit Herring Cove and the shows, bike ride around the dunes, and just love the hell out of it. I loved everything about Ptown - it's tiny windy streets, Cape rose bushes, beach grass, sandy asphalt, honky tonk t-shirt shops, drag queens (later dubbed 'dragon queens' by one of my friend's small children who came along later), the Monument of course, and the people, all the lovely, lovely people.

One night we were sitting on the porch of a house up the street from our inn, where some friends of ours had rented a place. The landlords lived upstairs and were genial sorts, an older man in his 70's and his wife. As we sat drinking margaritas, the sun began to set and we looked out at the small sailboats bobbing in the harbor. They all had different colored hulls, white, red, green, blue. As the sun set, it began glinting off the hulls of the boats until they looked aglow. The landlord saw the sight and yelled up to his wife,
"Carol!" he cried in a gravely voice that carried across the house "The boats, Carol, the boats!"
"What?" Carol called back, distracted by something.
"The boats! Look! They're doing it again!"
"Oh yeah!!" she responded at last. "They sure are."
I didn't have to ask what "doing it" meant and whenever I have seen that sight since, I announce to any and all that "the boats are doing it again". Later on someone told me that the placement of small sailboats in the bay to look picturesque is not totally an accident, but I didn't really care. They still look great, especially when they're doing it.

I was 33. I had just finished a year of grueling cancer treatment for lymphoma, where a softball sized tumor had been filling up my chest cavity and a golfball sized tumor had popped up with a grim "hello there!" on my collarbone. Six months of heavy chemo and five weeks of daily radiation treatments left me with almost no hair, pasty skin and a feeling like I had been run over by several Mack trucks. But I was alive, and the cancer had been declared gone, at least for now. There was no more treatment in my future, just a long road to recovery of my health and strength. I decided, as a first step on that road, to go to Provincetown. I knew it would make me happy, and I needed to be happy just then. My partner drove and when we reached the same spot on the crest of the hill just before arriving in Provincetown, it was sunset. The Monument stood there just as it had when I was five years old, tall and stark against the horizon. The sun was setting as it only can in Ptown, with spectacular clouds and colors, orange, blue, gold and red, all framing the Monument in the distance. It looked beautiful and I was filled at that moment with so much happiness to be there it was overwhelming. It was one of the very happiest moments of my life.

I am 44. I am long since recovered from my illness, over 10 years and still going strong . My life has fallen back into place and I've become consumed with the living of it, with work and family and home. I love all that and I'm grateful for it. But I realized this week while reading Father Tony's posts on Ptown, that I have not been there now in five years. I have not been there, and I need to go, I need to go back soon and see the light.

01 August 2007 @ 10:15 pm
We are back in Mexico, this time for two weeks, sans niño - first vacation we've taken without him in almost five years and it feels a bit liberating.  Our last journey here, he redefined the word "pill" and thus has chosen to attend his first overnight summer camp in the woods at home instead.  Fine with us, as pre-adolescence can be a bit wearying for everyone involved.

As punishment for actually saying out loud a time or two that we were happy to be going without him, the powers that be hit us with a big dose of karma on our flight from the Wretched Little City ® to Houston, the first leg of our journey.  For four hours, I was seated next to a 9 year old girl named Kyla, traveling alone for the first time.  Since I am generally a friendly sort, and felt bad for the kid who seemed nice and a bit scared to be traveling alone, I chatted with her and played a few games with her to pass the time.  In short order, she morphed from quiet, somewhat scared kid into hyper out of control bad seed child, pressing the stewardess button no less than five times to go to the bathroom, hitting, poking and climbing on me at regular intervals and generally being a giant A.D.D. pest.  Eventually I feigned sleep as a way to check out and though I still had to endure the regular poking, nudging, and attempts to shove unwanted chips and sticks of gum directly into my mouth, eventually her attention turned to the people behind us and she bothered them for awhile.  We lived through it all eventually and hightailed it off the plane at the end of the flight, convinced we had brought it on ourselves.

After enduring another travel gremlin in the form of a four hour delay on a flight scheduled to leave Houston at 8:50 PM and arrive in Mexico City at 11:10 PM, which actually left Houston at 12:10 AM and arrived in Mexico city at 2:15 AM (thanks to heavy rain in Baltimore - sheesh!), we finally made it to La Ciudad and crashed for a few hours in the airport hotel.  The next day we cabbed it to La Zona Rosa, where we had a penthouse suite reserved for my birthday at the Marco Polo.  The hotel was great and in a terrific location on Amberes, near all the hip and cool places including the local sex toy shop and "BoyBar", not the first time I've regretted not being born a gay man.  We were particular enamored with the bathroom, with a European style large jacuzzi tub, a veritable jungle of tropical plants, and big windows where one could shower while viewing the city vista on two sides. 

This was the first of two bathrooms I would become enamored with on our trip thus far.

After checking in and enjoying the view from the balcony, we decided to try hitting the Frida Kahlo exhibit at La Palacio de las Bellas Artes.  We feel incredibly privileged to even have the opportunity to visit this exhibit, which is the largest ever of Frida's works including many previously unshown works from private collections and only on display here for a short time.  Portions of it will travel to other countries but nowhere else will it be shown in its entirety.  Blog entries from earlier in the week recommended an early start to any attempts to visit due to big crowds and it was already well into the afternoon before we ventured out.  But we figured it couldn't hurt to try.

We hit the Mexico City subway, el Metro, and proceeded to attempt to find our way there.  After one misguided attempt going a few stops the wrong way on one line, we made our way to the correct station.  I found the Mexico City subway quite comparable to the NYC subway both in terms of age and lack of temperature control in the stations.  But generally it was fast and easy.  One interesting thing is that during certain busy hours, the first two cars of all trains are reserved for women and children only.  We gave it a try and rode surrounded by las mujeres de negocios in high heels, tight black clothing and good hair (all people middle class and higher in Mexico City have startling stylish coifs, with the men using even more hair product than the women), viejas straight out of some old silent film about Mexico with long gray hair and impossibly large and heavy loads of goods slung in swaths of fabric over their backs, and many jolly looking nuns.  Other than the annoying vendors constantly roaming the cars hawking various goods and being roundly ignored by all, it was not an unpleasant experience.

Upon arrival at Bellas Artes, we found ourselves first overawed by the building and then a bit chagrined by the line for the exhibit.  But we decided to give it a try anyway.

As cool as the building was outside, inside it was even more astonishing.

And - many people in line waiting to take it all in...

I took a place in line while V. went to buy tickets.  When she returned, she reported that her ticket had been free when the ticket seller discovered she is a professor, and my ticket had cost a whopping $3.50.  The line, though long, moved along at a good clip, and within 25 minutes we were inside the exhibit. 

Our experience there was one of the many I've had that make me love this country.  The overwhelming majority of attendees were clearly Mexicanos, and como siempre, they came in intact familias.  All ages were there, from babies through children through teenagers and college kids through adults and grandparents.  No one was left out, and all carried themselves with the same composure of hushed reverence at being in the presence of Frida's work.  As would never be the case in the US, there was no velvet rope separating viewer from art,  only a line of red tape on the floor so close to the wall that anyone including a child could easily have reached out and touched one of these great pieces.  There were guards who would occasionally admonish those that stepped over the tape, but that was it.  The vast majority of the paintings were unprotected by glass or plexiglass, and I stood in amazement just inches away from original paintings like Los Dos Fridas and Pensando de Diego.  Every brush stroke was visible and palpable and whatever you think of Frida's work (I happen to love it), you had to be humbled by the historical and cultural impact of it, especially on the very people that were in attendance.

From there, we were off to celebrate my birthday with a dinner at El Bajío in Polanco, one of DF's swankier vecinidades.  We were swayed by the recent NY Times article which referred to it as one of the "best and most distinctive Mexican restaurants in the world".  Other than finding it relatively full of gringos, who obviously also read the article, it was delightful experience.  The food was wonderful and we indulged without guilt.  If you love real Mexican food (not the TexMex that passes for Mexican in the US), this place is a must-visit.  To top it all off, the renowned owner is a native of Xalapa, our adopted home away from home, where we headed out on the luxury Uno bus first thing in the AM.

Per usual on this five hour bus trip to Xalapa, though I was suffering from a serious sleep deficit from the previous night, I could not bring myself to catch up on sleep during the bus ride.  The country side between DF and Xalapa is just too interesting to sleep through.  I also skipped the three movies shown on the bus during the ride, even though one was in English with Spanish subtitles.  Instead I attempted to take pictures out the bus window, always an activity fraught with uncertainty.  But I enjoyed it just the same.

Upon arrival in Xalapa, where it was not suprisingly raining in the afternoon, (our Mexico City cab driver, upon hearing we were headed to Veracruz, assumed we were off to the city of Veracruz itself on the coast rather than the state and said "Enjoy the heat!".  When we corrected him that we were actually headed to the state capital of Xalapa he just grinned and changed his parting shot to "Enjoy the rain!"), we made our way to our friend S.'s house where her granddaughter R. gave us the keys to S.'s daughter and our friend Isabel's house, where we are house sitting while they are in LA for two weeks.

We've been to Isabel and her husband Toma's house before and knew it was nice, but it's been awhile.  As we finally swung open the heavy wooden entrance door and rolled our bags into the foyer, we had big silly grins on our faces.  Not only is the house gorgeous, but it has a truly spectacular view off the back patio, of the green hills rising up to one of the local extinct volcanoes, El Cofre de Perote.  It is my personal opinion that the green hills that rise up along the east side of the central Mexican volcanic ridge from El Cofre to the mighty Pico de Orizaba in the south is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  Yes, I'm biased and no, I'm not well traveled enough to have made a truly thorough assessment.  But I stand by my opinion all the same.


Have I mentioned the maid who comes every day, cleans, does our laundry and cooks for us?  Have I mentioned we are staying here for free?

To be continued, with more next entry on our hosts, their artistic endeavors, our travels in the countryside and another bathroom well worth fixating on.

Hasta pronto.  And by the way, click on any picture to see it larger.  :-D

® - Registered Trademark, Farmboyz
11 April 2007 @ 11:25 pm
Word just in that Chris O'Brien, discussed in my last post as the local aspiring young folkie I've known pretty much his whole life - has made it as a finalist in Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion's talent contest for twentysomethings.  Since only six acts were chosen out of over 500 entries, we are justifiably proud as punch.  The contest will air on Prairie Home Companion on April 21st, and listeners can vote for the winner!  So listen in and


 (I don't care how good the others may be as well!)

C'mon - look at him.  Listen to him.  How can you resist??

25 March 2007 @ 05:55 pm
Last Sunday evening, my girl and my best peep Denise and I, all journeyed down via car and train to NYC for a much too brief excursion.  The impetus: to see the Colombian band Aterciopelados at S.O.B.'s in Soho. 

Aterciopelados (loose English translation: "Velvety Ones") is essentially two people - Andrea Echeverri and Héctor Buitrago, both from Bogotá.  They have put out 7 CD's as a group over the past 13 years, and 2 solo CD's.   They are touring the US now to promote their latest new CD, "Oye".

I started listening to their music about four years ago, after giving V.'s CD "Gozo Poderoso" a listen, and seeing a few of their videos on MTV Español.  Four years later, I count them among my very favorite musicians ever, and cannot understand why they still seem to languish in relative obscurity in the U.S.  Beyond the obvious language barrier for English only speaking Americans, they are not nearly as popular among U.S. Latinos as I think they deserve to be.  All the same, in a recent interview they pointed out that they sell more CD's here in the U.S. than in any other country.  They have been nominated twice for Grammy awards and are internationally successful, and yet I've found very few people in this country who have heard of them.  Lest someone point out that I am not exactly living in a hotbed of Latino culture, I'll counter that the show at S.O.B's, which was the band's only stop in New York on this tour, was attended by only several hundred people, maybe 500 tops.  I don't believe the club was sold out, but I could be wrong.  It didn't feel uncomfortably crowded.

Those of us who did make the effort to turn out were well rewarded.  They were all I had expected them to be, and substandard sound quality notwithstanding (hello - isn't S.O.B.'s a music club???), the enthusiasm of the crowd was downright buoyant.  Most people there knew almost every word to every song, and there was much singing along con gusto.  The average age of attendees was generally a good ten years or so younger than us (OK - or more), but we saw at least a handful of  older folk as well. 

I would like to articulate fully why I so admire this group - but I'm a terribly inept music critic.  Describing music in words is just an effort doomed to failure, I think, though there are those with a talent for it.  Trying to say they fit a genre or two is equally wrong.  They are not like any traditional Latin group that the U.S. is used to hearing, at the very least.  Some call them progressive Latin rock, but that's not accurate either.  Their style is often more of the hook-laden rock or pop type variety , for sure.  But they mix and meld and borrow from so many Latin and non-Latin styles, using such a wide variety of interesting instruments, rhythms and sounds, that you can learn their entire catalog by heart and still not feel you have a good handle on them.  I just come away feeling that I love their music.  And you don't need to understand the lyrics to appreciate it either - though their lyrics are so clever and intelligent that it is well worth the time to translate them.  They are unabashedly political leftists and tackle numerous controversial topics with wit and depth.  The Boston Globe has done a nice piece on them here.

I don't understand why this band is not HUGE, but I suppose I am underestimating the language barrier.  It's a shame really, that people are so closed minded as to not even listen to music whose lyrics are not in their native language, when such a huge world of music exists in the world beyond that - and music transcends language so thoroughly that in my opinion it should never be constrained by it.  But, hey, does anyone give a hoot what I think?  Ha.  But really, please, listen to them.  You'll be glad you did.

After our very fun late night in NYC clubland,  with the only disappointment being that my beloved ACME apparently only serves brunch on the weekends and we didn't have time to go there to eat my favorite mashed potatoes with white gravy (*sob*), we whirlwinded right out of there again back to hickland without even time to grab a decent bagel.  But we vowed to come back soon, with more time on our hands.  It's really quite ridiculous that we live less than 3 hours from the City and yet visit so rarely.  So a belated New Year's resolution for us...

Three nights later, we found ourselves seated front and center at a small table in front of the stage at the famed Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton (it's really not all that famed outside of New England folkie circles but there it is).  We had come to see our prodigal son play to a hometown crowd.  Our prodigal son is named Chris O'Brien, and OK so he's not really my kid, but I often say Chris is the first person I actually watched grow all the way up. 

I met him when he was 5, my best peep Denise was 17, and I was 19.  Denise had just started seeing Chris' Mom, who was in her early 20's.  They ended up being together for 8 years give or take, and Denise was more often than not the one home taking care of Chris during those years.  I spent countless days over at their house, watching football, smoking cigarettes, playing street hockey, devising ridiculous money making schemes (a favorite: combination day care and worm farm), and generally just being young, silly and stupid.  It was like kids raising a kid, really.  Chris was always along for the ride, or just there playing with toys, laughing at TV shows with us, playing catch in the yard, being hyper and getting into trouble.  We went to his hockey and little league games, made him macaroni and cheese, procured rescued kittens for him (a favorite: a tiny orange tabby that grew into a giant lovable lug, dubbed "Tex" by Chris), and did our best to figure out how to help parent a kid when we were barely adults ourselves. 

I remember sitting in the stands one time watching him pitch a little league game, and the coaches' wife circulated through the stands handing out flyers for some upcoming team barbeque.  When she got to us, four or five dykes lounging in the upper bleachers with tank tops and flip flops, she paused ever so briefly, and then flashed a sunny smile and said "Are you all Chris' Moms?", then she proceeded to give us each a flyer.  We took them, smiled and shrugged.  We sort of were all his Moms, in a way.

Chris was not always the easiest kid, and we were not always fabulous role models.  But we all did the best we could, and in the end when I look back, the most important piece was that we all loved each other and had fun, in between the angst and confusion of course.  Yes, little Chris was raised by lesbians, and so what else was there for him to do but become - a folk singer.

Chris first became interested in folk as a young teen.  His Mom's ex-gf (pre-Denise) is a music promoter, kind of a big fish in a small pond out here in Western Mass.  She often booked women's music shows and since Chris was weaned on a steady diet of so-called women's music and folk, when he got his first guitar, that's what he learned to play.  The ex-gf would bring him backstage and for awhile she was Dar Williams roommate before anyone knew who Dar Williams was.  Dar helped teach Chris to play, and Chris got to know others women folk greats like Shawn Colvin and the Indigo Girls (I remember a good story of him bringing his guitar backstage to their show and playing with Amy).  At the time we all thought it would be a fun hobby, but didn't think it would really turn into his life's work.

Chris is 26 years old now (pause for shake of head in disbelief).  He lives in Boston and is part of a thriving music and folk scene there.  He is a regular at Club Passim, one of the oldest and most renowned folk clubs in the country.  He recently came out with his first CD and swung out this way to promote it.  The Iron Horse was packed with enthusiastic family and friends, and boy, could you feel the love.  The room was full of that sort of impossibly proud energy that adults feel when kids grow up to do something great.  And it's not like he's famous or anything, it's just that he's a contender in a very competitive art form, and he's good.  He's really good.  And we all have this enormous, proud, fragile hope for him that was just palpable in that room.  The fact that Chris has matured into a good-hearted, warm and funny man only makes us all prouder.  All in all, it was a very emotional evening and the music was great.  There's something about sweet, sincere young men singing folk music that gives me hope for the world, really it does.

When I got home, I spent 10 minutes reading all the liner notes of his new CD "Lighthouse".  Near the end, I was immensely pleased to see him thank "Tex".

My musical experiences this past week remind me of a saying that was painted for many years in large script along the wall in the Iron Horse, among many old instruments hanging on the wall.  I'm sure someone will be able to tell me where it originated.

The quote said simply

Music Alone Shall Live