Thursday, December 29, 2011

Excerpt from 'God Bless Great Uncle Halbert'

It was that evening, over dinner, when finally I was introduced to Great Uncle Halbert. My new-found family had been uncannily reticent in relating him to me: the cousins only giggled and smirked, Rudolph and Emilia demurred to comment, and Aunt Christine unfailingly changed the topic whenever I inquired as to his character. Neither bribes nor threats could extract a useful kernel of information from the servants, further, though their furrowed brows and the occasional eye-roll did not escape my attention.

In any event, I was greeted with a round and jolly man of advanced years. Great Uncle Halbert fairly exploded from his greatcoat, which a servant rushed to snatch before it collapsed to the hall floor. He stamped the snow from his boots before entering the foyer proper, and he appeared to me quite well attired, if a little askew at certain points. A droll little grin shone between plump and florid cheeks, and from behind his cut spectacles his dark eyes glistened and wondered at every moving shape in the room. I was immediately disposed to like him, a lively, good-natured engine with infectious energy: indeed, conversation seemed to brighten and heighten around him as he moved about the room, greeting each relation with genuine warmth.

The table chatter, when we had been seated, roved about many topics. Rudolph was called upon to demonstrate what calculus he'd mastered; Aunt Christine expounded upon a touring musical troupe from Paris, lodging for a week not three houses away from us; Uncle Donald and his children related a particularly ill-fated fishing trip of their recent experience. Great Uncle Halbert took it all in, entreating to be kept abreast of each family member's life for the past year.

"Does it happen that he only visits around Christmas?" I whispered to Emilia.

She nodded, finishing her soup. "It's quite strange that he should spend the main of the calendar in warmer climes, yet insists on making his way up to our estate when it's at its coldest." Emilia shrugged slightly and tucked her mouth in a curious way as her bowl and spoon were spirited away.

It seemed I had attracted Great Uncle Halbert's attention by incommoding his great-niece ever so slightly. "And you," he called from the far end of the table in a jolly voice, then faltered to recall my name. "I'm afraid that, were I to ask your rendition of the hitherto unrevealed dimensions of your previous life, we should lose the rest of the evening to its doubtlessly voluminous oration!" He chuckled quite heartily at his own comment,  the hemisphere of his well-nurtured belly bouncing in mirth, but I wasn't sure I grasped what he intended to express nor what was expected of me here. In place of asking me about my history, he offered to regale me with his current favorite joke:

"What wedding is it that no woman wishes to be late for?"

I was sure I didn't know.

"Her own!"

Hereupon erupted such a blizzard of laughter from his own gullet, I was sure we would witness seams and fissures break out all down his double-chin as he shredded his throat with hilarity. Once again at sea, I looked about the room to absorb or ascertain cues as to how I should react. Emilia was staring intently at the trout, steaming before her, and Rudolph had found some interesting thing in the egg-and-dart molding to scrutinize at length. Uncle Donald made a soundless whistle and reached for his wine glass; Aunt Christine began to grin gently at her boisterous guest but instead averted her eyes and fussed with her serviette in her lap. The cousins goggled at each other for a moment, then clapped their hands to their mouths to stifle their laughter, crouching beneath the table's edge. I noted the brow of one butler, momentarily furrowed, before he excused himself on a sudden errand; the maid at his elbow permitted a slight eye-roll before following him out of the room.

Undeterred and oblivious, Great Uncle Halbert roared until he wheezed, dabbing at his eyes with his serviette, still shuddering in his jocular state. When no one was willing to make eye-contact with me, I nodded politely in my Great Uncle's direction and tucked into the steaming and tender trout just set before me. I should misrepresent myself to express any distaste for this merry and round gentleman of my relation, certainly, but I would be remiss to not intimate that perhaps I was not now quite as charmed with him as prior.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My First Batch of Home Brew Ale: A Memoir

Like so many before me, I'm getting into home brewing. It's not necessarily more economical to make your own beer: it's more like a love-of-the-craft kind of thing. You start out with pre-assembled kits, get used to the process, start following complex recipes, trade recipes with your friends, and... I don't know what comes after that. Probably growing your own hops and making your own malt extract. I'm a very long way from that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Self-Education in Your Free Time

So you find yourself unemployed! You join the ranks of the illustrious, my good fellow, for I too have been struggling to find gainful engagement within our System. Yes, hard as it may seem, many businesses don't seem to feel an inordinate need to hire someone to point out their misuse of quotation marks, suggesting better words to use, correcting their spelling and all sorts of other embarrassing tendencies. I can't help what I'm good at! or that at which I'm skilled.

But being jobless is no excuse to sit idly. After you've struggled with your cover letters and thrown out your résumé to a dozen places that won't condescend to reply, think about self-improvement in other directions. The blessing of the Internet provides us with a plethora, indeed, no dearth of online courses and educational resources. Allow me to review some of the most useful.

Say you're already involved in computers and would like to break into Content Management. It's a great job title, and a lot of places need the Web-based equivalent of a Renaissance man/woman. If you can master Google Analytics, you're going to be valuable to both new and established businesses. Show off your PC prowess with a bunch of handy keyboard shortcuts not many people know about. Social media is the hot thing currently, so get acquainted with the ins and outs of Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and Tumblr. If you want to be fancy, learn YouTube's new video editing suite—this could come in handy.

Or if you really want to get down into it, learn how to code or learn web development. Pretty intense! Check out Google Code University as well, for all they have to offer. w3schools.com is an excellent resource for teaching yourself XML, CSS, and many other webdesign languages.

Of course, for general education, there's MIT Open Courseware and UC Berkeley's video and audio lectures. Receive all the benefit of attending their classes, for free and in the comfort of wherever you're logging in from. Attend Khan Academy to learn everything from Art History to Calculus; hone your own critical thinking skills, absolutely essential to reading the news; train on how to protect yourself and your family and assist your community in the face of emergencies and disasters. If you'd like to really show off, familiarize yourself with Wolfram|Alpha and all it's good for.

In general, self-education is an increasingly popular option that's attracting a lot of attention. It takes little effort to find many blog entries or resource lists for autodidacts:
Lastly, if you're actually sick of your old job and want to break into something new, peruse the 100 Best Self-Education Sites for Switching Careers. No matter what, please make sure you act on this information as soon as possible before the government shuts down the Internet to protect DVD sales.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Every year, Trader Joe’s releases a special little candy, their Belgian dark chocolate sea salt caramels. They’re seasonal and only available around the end of the year. My wife and I discovered them several years ago, and each year as we did our holiday shopping we looked forward to picking up two boxes. One would be enjoyed over the following week, meted out one-a-day, and the other would sit in the freezer for a later date.

We missed out on them last year because we were going to school in Indonesia for all of November and touring Thailand for December. Even in the midst of all that wonderful food and stunning scenery, we recalled what we were missing back in the States. We promised each other we would pick up a box at the appropriate time.

This is impossible, of course, because we weren’t the only people who loved them. They gained such a reputation that other people, fucking white trash scumbags, realized that there was a demand for these candies. In year-long intervals momentum built up and these soulless fucking opportunist assholes realized they could make money off of someone else’s labors. That’s the capitalist way, isn’t it, the American way? Profit by exploitation? All of our corporations are built upon the business model of getting other people to do your work for you. There is no corporation where the people who do all the work make as much money as the President/CEO.

My wife and I went to Trader Joe’s today to buy our two boxes—I think two boxes for two people isn’t greedy—and the clerk informed us they were out. Greedy, loveless scalper fucks had already scooped up the entire stock before Thanksgiving, everywhere. No longer can regular, loyal Trader Joe’s customers show up and pick up a box at their leisure: they have to haunt the store in hope of outracing the conscienceless, ravening fucking pillagers who seek to deplete the entire supply and set regular customers to bid against each other for their own illegitimate profit.

Illegitimate: they didn’t produce these candies. They didn’t contribute to their production. They didn’t labor, they didn’t harvest, they didn’t even package them. They don’t work in the store, they don’t work in shipping. They just showed up, bought much more than they wanted, and are selling someone else’s product off for their own profit.

Yes, it’s such a small thing. Yes, you think it’s comical to get so upset over something so small. It’s just candy, isn’t it. To me, it was one nice little thing I could count on each year. The weather will do what it will, Westerners will destroy the climate and resolutely deny doing so, politics will come and economics will go, but I could always count on driving out to Trader Joe’s and picking up a nice little box of these chocolates.

Now, I don’t even have that. I lost my youth, I lost two jobs, I lost all faith in my corporate-controlled government, and now I can’t even buy a favorite box of candy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Endless Quest for a Good Podcast: the Sequel

So hard to find any good podcasts anymore. Get Mommy a Drink is hosted by two unfunny women; Totally Laime lives up to its name; The Advice Annex (I don't know why I subscribed to a teen advice podcast, it must've been misadvertised) is an angry woman griping about teenagers before she even reads any of their questions; and I had high hopes for the Dead Authors Podcast, given that it's hosted by my favorite comedian, Paul F. Tompkins, as H.G. Wells.

Andy Richter as Emily Dickenson was kind of funny, he's got a quick mind for details and improv. But Jen Kirkman as Dorothy Parker... this is one of those scenarios when you have a genuine grief you feel strongly about, but you don't want to say anything because you have great affection for everyone involved. All I'll say is that I just finished reading The Paris Review's interview with Dorothy Parker, and in this podcast she was sorely misrepresented. For that matter, I read the Review's interview with Rebecca West, Wells' ex-wife, and I think it's fair to say that the Dead Authors Podcast is not strictly bound to historical fact, time travel aside.

On the other hand, I was prejudiced against Earwolf Studios because I listened to a Scott Aukerman podcast of him interviewing another comedian, and it was 40 minutes of poop, pee, and fag jokes. I didn't get what the big deal was, why Nerdist and Tompkins were frothing and giddy about Comedy Bang Bang (a.k.a. Comedy Death Ray), or as I love to call it, Death of Comedy. And yet some awesome titles have come out of it: I'm a tremendous fan of The Apple Sisters and Mike Detective.

And I like Thrilling Adventure Hour, though it can be hit or miss. Sometimes there's an awesome skit that totally bears out, and then sometimes it seems the thrust of the joke is the stupid theme song, done stupidly. I get especially upset because I know these guys are capable of better, they're just screwing around, audience be damned. ASSSSCAT! Podcast could have been really good, but it's one of those home-jobs where no one knows how microphones work, so they plant all the mics in the audience and keep the narrator/comedian pretty far from them, the end result being a minute of quiet murmuring and then explosive laughter once you crank up the volume. Not fun.

And I know Tig Notaro is very popular. Everybody loves Tig: Mark Maron can't get enough of her, Tompkins adores her all to hell. And yet I've listened to shows where she's a guest, and I've listened to her own show, Professor Blastoff (another Earwolf production), and as far as I can tell she's notable among comedians as being the only one who refuses to tell a joke. I'm not saying she's cracking jokes and she's not funny--I'm saying I have never heard her try to crack a joke. I don't get it... and maybe that's the problem. Maybe this is like that rash of soi dissant "non jokes" that Nat'l Lampoon tried to popularize in the late '80s. The concept of a comedian who never tells a joke is pretty funny, but in practice... well, everyone else seems to love her. I have no problem accepting I'm just on the outside of this sample population, like that Jewish expression: "When three of your friends tell you you're drunk and you know you're not drunk, take off your shoes and go to bed."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hail, My First Cold of the Season

Seems it's not officially winter until I've had my first cold of autumn. What triggers it is two things of the following three:
  1. walking around in cold weather without a hat
  2. staying up too late (even one night)
  3. consumption of alcohol
Any two of those will compromise my immune system and either make me receptive to the least virus floating around on the breeze or awaken whatever dormant infection has been waiting its chance to spread its wings and fly. It happens quickly, too: one day after I stayed up too late and drank alcohol, I had a twinge in my left sinus all morning and I knew that this would be my seasonal cold.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Trembling to Death

The revolution will be brought to you
by Time-Warner.
I feel myself torn in a dozen directions. On the one hand, I believe in what the Occupy protests are doing, but the one in my town is being taken over by jackoffs. I believe in saving the ecosystem and building community, but the people I ride home with on the public transit bus make me want to shoot them all in the stomach and laugh at their agony. I believe in education and taking a hand in the political process, but it's so blatantly clear our government is entirely for sale and money-mongers are power-mongers, and the common man would rather watch Toddlers & Tiaras or football than have to think any longer than is absolutely necessary. And when I think I can indulge in a nice whisky and relax, I go back to my Asian trip through lands ravaged by war and capitalism.

I honestly don't know what to do with myself. I don't see any point to my hobbies, I don't hang out with friends, and I don't see a long-term future for my nation so what's the point of anything anyway. There's no point to books, podcasts, nice meals, new clothes, etc. I have no idea what I think I'm waiting for, and yet I can't end it, either. The race is lost but I still have to roll down the track to the finish line, as long as it takes, no matter the audience left a long time ago and the lights are out.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Political Rallies and Personal Achievements

I tell you, I get a lot more done when I make up lists.

I've made two to-do lists in the past week, and I'm knocking stuff out on them. I write them twice as long as is practical, and I usually accomplish half of their itemage before I go to bed. That's the point! Make them too long, work really hard to do as many as possible, and then when it's time for sleep, I've done way, way more than I would've of my own volition (i.e., without a list).

Last night I wrote up about ten new entries in my direly neglected Small Laws blog and today I uploaded four new pictures and entries to 365XN. I know that latter hasn't been a strictly daily process, but I am playing catch-up lately, and I still take photos in anticipation of getting caught up to myself.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Bad Soldier

I'm going through my old journals again. Now that I see what crap writing it is--in my early 20s I worked hard to show off my purplest prose--I have nothing against throwing these things away. I was in a long-distance relationship back then and I went on and on about how it was perfect, it was the one thing I'd been waiting for, etc. I was completely mistaken, but I clung to it so desperately I tried to convince myself of it in my own journals.

Later journals show me that this was not a one-time thing. I was in a pretty bad relationship some years ago, and my journal entries each started with a devotional about why that girl was so good for me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Corruption of Facebook and Google

Now I don't know what to do. Facebook and Google are donating money to conservative lobbyists and hiring conservative consultants. I don't wish to support these actions with my continued presence on their services.

But they are the Big Two, there is no one else besides them. If I stop using Facebook, well, they've already embedded software in every user's computer to track their movements online, ostensibly to make logging onto Facebook swifter and easier. And they never let you delete your account. You think it's deleted, you wait past the one month deletion period, and it seems it's still intact as though you hadn't taken any action to remove it.

If I stop using Google products, I lose years of blogging in Blogger and years of communication with Gmail. I lose simple photo editing in Picasa, and I lose the superior web search capacity of Google itself. They've got their fingers in more and more pies, but with their nose up the Republican pie-hole, I'm disgusted at my association with them.

Now what? How do I leave so people can still find me, and how do I research the political leaning of any place I might go? Yahoo and Microsoft are at least as corrupt; where do Tumblr and Wordpress stand? Do I really have to resort to Bravenet and Mail.com? I'm pretty spoiled: I've got free e-mail, web hosting, calendar, microblogging, blogging, image storage, and social networking. It'll be hard to find all that in one package again--more like three or four parcels that I have to rope together.

And when I go, I go alone: there is no way I can convince a substantial chunk of my friends and family to come with and strike out on this tough row to hoe. I've only led them from inferior services to superiors ones, and I've asked them several times to make these transitions. I've cashed in all my chips, there is no way anyone will expend the effort to live a guilt-free life of inconveniences when they've already got their roots dug in very deeply in Facebook (and, slowly, G+, whose greatest advantage is that it's invisible to parents). People will ridicule me for being reactionary and paranoid, but conservatives have repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be soulless, money-worshipping, war-mongering xenophobes, homophobes, sexists, and racists. The news is full of their hypocrisy, waving the Bible as a weapon against education while repeatedly getting caught in homosexual trysts and defying the word of Jesus to oppress the poor, aged, ill, and otherwise defenseless. The news is full of them shooting themselves in the foot, compromising their own goals, just to prevent any measurable success of the first black president.

That is who Facebook and Google are giving thousands and millions of dollars to, more and more each year. I cannot in good conscience be associated with either of them, no matter what it costs me to sever these ties. If I register protests to them, my words are guaranteed surer than anything else in this world to fall on deaf ears. The only response is to vote with my boots, but I don't know where to go after this.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Afternoon Reflections

It's been a pretty good day so far. I start work in two days, so Monday and Tuesday are valuable as my final two wide-open vacation days. When you're unemployed, days and hours tend to bleed into each other and it's easy to lose them in weeks and months. But when you have a job, nothing's more prized than a day off. People are so funny, where "funny" is a euphemism for more unflattering and accurate descriptors.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ten Current Lists

What's listing? Oh, I'll tell you what's listing. My wife commented that she's sick of lists being overused in journalism. I pointed out that the list is a mainstay of social commentary and reporting, which she conceded but suggested that it's a bit overused as a technique. So I thought I'd look around and see what lists are currently receiving airplay.
  1. 10 Handy iPhone Apps for Home Improvement
  2. Top 20 Richest Americans
  3. Top 50 Restaurants Most Fit for Foodies
  4. Toys R Us 2011 Holiday 15 Hottest Toys
  5. Ten States with Highest Domestic Violence Fatalities
  6. Top 10 New Foods at 2011 State Fairs
  7. Ten Colleges with Most Expensive Room & Board
  8. 10 Most Anticipated Light Heavyweight UFC Matches
  9. Top 10 Warren Buffet Dividend Stocks
  10. Top10.com - not a list, but a top-ten list generator
Please excuse lists for being a convenient way to simplify complicated information for attention-deficit consumers, okay? They're just trying to help. It's not like everyone gets nuance, you know.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Second Night of Cleansing

The boredom has been replaced by physical pain. So much fruit... my body can't handle all this sugar. Rebecca baked some kale chips to snack on, and they're pleasantly crunchy but unpalatable without... okay, I cheated. I took a shot of Tabasco Steak Sauce to wash down a mouthful of these things. I was just really hungry, I was about 500 calories short of my minimum daily required intake, I had to eat something. I couldn't shove another banana down my gullet.

Today I'm headachy and dizzy. After three cups of green tea I've gotten the headache down to a manageable level. I cannot take any more grapes, though. I'm seriously going to bite into the side of a gourd and grimace and choke it down just to feel something in my stomach. Neither of us have pooped since starting this cleansing, either. What the hell? Do all these mystical and unnameable "toxins" just crystalize and flake out of our skin? Turn into vapor? With all this vegetable fiber and tea, why have we stopped pooping?

The boredom is crushing. I can't even pick up a pen to write another segment of letter. I thought I'd get a lot of writing done today but it's not happening. I did read the entire first half of Hilary Winthrop's My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me, and I used my allotted online time to research who this creepy boyfriend was. Now I know, and it's hard to look at a picture of him without thinking about all his sexual hangups, his OCD, his bizarre feeding restrictions, etc. If I'd just seen him on the street I merely would've written him off as a douche, but knowing as much as I do about him, it's hard to look his image in the eye without needing a shower.

But the boredom. I took two naps last night, slept a full eight hours, and had another nap in mid-day just because of the boredom. We tried playing a board game but we're both so malnourished and irritable that it ended badly. I should be disappointed in myself: if the grid went down, I'd be the one stripping off my clothes, smearing my body in scavenged exterior all-weather latex paint, and howling from the tops of abandoned buildings just to have something to do. I would not be Honest John, patching up my cabin with horse manure, whittling a bear out of a stick, playing songs about crossing rivers on my banjo.

Now, just to mix things up, I'm going to go wash my dress shirts because I have an interview tomorrow. I wonder what I'm allowed to eat on this cleansing to prepare me adequately for this.

First Night of Cleansing

Let me tell you: life is boring without meat or electronic gadgets. I started reading a book and fell asleep immediately, around 9:30 PM. I woke up around 11 PM and now it's midnight and I should be asleep. Guess I could try to read another book.

That's so strange, because I've read books before. I got two Sheridan le Fanu collections from the library, I'm rereading three Wodehouse novels in search of a unique word I can't recall, I'm no stranger to sitting down with a book and focusing. But today it knocked me out.

No meat, dairy, processed sugar, or bread. I've been snacking on bananas, grapes, and almonds. I tried unsalted sunflower seeds but they tasted like beige. I'm allowed to go online to blog my progress, and I should contribute to my story-a-day blog too, but it's quarter after midnight and I feel like I should attempt to adjust my sleep schedule to normal parameters.

So, without video games, I tried to sit down and write a long letter. I successfully used up the ink in one pen (one personal goal has been to use up pens completely before disposing of them) but the letter isn't done and I had a hard time thinking of things to say to complete it. What I'm going to get out of this cleansing is some discipline and focus, I hope, because I don't seem to have it now.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cleansing Body and Psyche

Today's Monday the 19th day of September, and I'm going to embark on a three-day cleansing with my wife, Rebecca. She says mine only has to be two days, since I have a job interview on Weds., but I'm going to go all the way with it because jobs have impinged upon my health long enough. I'm in my early 40s, I can no longer be so cavalier with my intake, exercise, and sleeping patterns. (If I'm freaking out by then, however, of course I'll permit myself a coffee and a breakfast bar.)

What all does this entail? I'm not sure: I'm leaving it all up to my wife, who has clear direction and goals, and just following along. Would I have undergone a cleansing by myself? Maybe someday if I were really bored and feeling particularly flush, but probably not. Instead, left to my own devices, I probably would just double-down on healthful living, start exercising more, eat more fresh and raw veggies, cut down on meat--it was so interesting to live in Asian nations where meat is only a flavoring and not a dish or serving. My poops over there were like little report cards of passing grades for my GI tract. In the States and eating what Americans eat... it's much more depressing and sometimes alarming, and that was on top of rapidly regaining all the weight I'd lost by backpacking and eating stir-fried peppers and onions.

Right now I'm drinking hot water and squeezed lemon juice. I won't say "fresh" because, unless you live on a farm, subscribe to a CSA, you can't buy fresh food in the U.S. It's not available to you.

Anyway. Now starts the cleanse so maybe once a day I'll update how it's going here. Maybe less.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Best Coffee Shop in Minneapolis for Writers

Location: 2408 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55405, USA
I need to find the best coffee shop in Minneapolis... for writers.

By no stretch am I a coffee snob: I can pick out bad coffee very quickly (it usually exists in business offices) but I don't know where to find a well-made cup of coffee. I know the best cup of espresso comes from Bean Counter, but that's the sum and whole of my expertise. But more than this, I need to find a nice place to hang out and write--on my laptop or in my notebook--because I want to make a go at writing and getting published. It's difficult to do this in my own home because I'm so easily distracted, and I've amassed a good quantity of awesome stuff that I can go straight to, which is terrible for focusing on writing. And so I need a change of scenery, I need to get out and find a local business with an atmosphere conducive to quiet contemplation and the creative process. Vous savvez?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Epic Funny FTW, LOLz0r... NOT!


Yes, I get it. It's ugly. It's
not dead or magical, it's
just an ugly little toy.
On the BBS I frequent, someone produced this link: Would You Like To Buy A Monkey, and it sparked something unpleasant in my heart. I don't mean it scared me, not at all: it's just a worn monkey doll. Bleh. The writer's making a big deal about it but it's just an ugly doll made of synthetic materials.

The style humor in that piece is what I wrestle with.

She uses a lot of overused popular catchphrases, like many people do, mixing them up and pulling them out at intervals. They were interesting once but now people just love them because they're familiar. The use of "made of awesome" now refers to other times that phrase was used, so people get these huge memory tie-ins to other events, and when they get to use that phrase it's akin to being admitted to a larger group they'd only admired from a distance previously.

When we laugh at "Worst... (noun)... ever," it's only because it takes us back to Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons. It's an "OMG! You saw that episode? So did I!" spark of connection... which is really asinine if you examine it. It meant more in the '80s when Dennis Miller honed it to an art (long before he turned into a conservative Shar Pei) because he really was culling from obscure cultural references. But we've all seen The Simpsons, we've all seen that episode, and swapping out nouns in that heavily borrowed phrase is beyond tired. Now I have to wonder whether its popularity is only a symptom of some astounding disconnection people feel with society, a vacuum of community, and bonding over a popular TV show's catchphrase momentarily assuages the pain, like why zombies eat brains.

And that's fine. Much of entertainment is loved only because it's familiar, not clever. Like yelling "Freebird!" at a concert. We've passed the generation of concert-goers that have no freakin' clue what that references--they just think it's something you yell at a live show, and for some reason it's funny.

That's a totally valid school of humor--not my preferred school, but valid--and when I look at my own writing I think I'm unable to break free of it.

We chooses our muses. (Image: Memphis Flyer)
This concerns me because of the humorists I admire: Eugene Mirman, Paul F. Tompkins, Tina Fey, Dave Atell, Maria Bamford, Kirsten Wiig, Amy Sedaris, Zack Galifianakis, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Colbert. Their humor is not characterized as "derivative." They have their inspiration, sure, but they're innovative, they come up with new ways to tickle and provoke hilarity. They don't fall back on "(noun) of doom" or "failed miserably" or other threadbare phrases. They come up with new concepts to make people laugh.

I don't feel I have that ability, but it's to what I aspire. I want to get out of the "taquitos!" camp and into the blown-mind campus. I don't know how. The closest I come is when riffing at a party with certain other luminaries in my esteem, but when I sit down to write, I feel like I'm pulling touch-worn phrases out of a paper bag and rearranging them on my screen.

So when I read something like that woman's copy, buying the old monkey doll, it makes me self-conscious. It makes me angry... but angry at myself. It's like copyediting: before I was an editor, I was obsessed with every mistyped "teh" and I'd freak out over "their/they're/there" like every freshman grammarian trying to prove his worth. Now I'm concerned with much larger issues, more subtle nuances. I'm beyond even grinning appreciably at those elemental, basic errors.

What I'm saying is, if I were very good at humor and could generate The Funny on the fly (see, even appending The to a concept, that's trite and reliable), then I would be more confident in my position and her tawdry spiel wouldn't ruffle me at all. And I know that if any of the comedians I mentioned were in conversation with me and I brought up my concern, bringing up the "made of awesome" writer, they'd nod and wince and look away with a "Yeah, but," and explain to me that even though those jokes characterize a certain level of humor, it still has its value. Like the Buddhist monk to spent so much time impressing upon me the value of every human life, how people I perceive as suffering and troubled are every bit as valuable and meriting as healthy, indolent, successful business leaders. I should have no pity for the suffering (wow, that sounds bad) but recognize their existence, their perspective has important value.

That's how the comedians I admire would (essentially) justify these poorer, derivative soi dissant comedy writers to me. They'd remind me I'm not so great and they're not so bad. I'm already very clear on that first point, is my point; I want to get better but I don't know what muscles to flex to even begin this workout.

How do you practice startling, original thought?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Broken Images


I apologize for the sudden disappearance of all the images in this blog. I was tooling around on Google+ and saw that all my Picasaweb albums manifested in the Photos section of my new account. Not wanting them to appear in my profile--they wouldn't make sense outside of their blogging context--I deleted them in Google+.

Today I discovered that also deletes them in Picasaweb, where all my online albums are stored. Now I have to go through my backed-up archives, dig out all the photos, re-upload them and re-link them to each individual post. I'm very upset about this hassle and embarrassed about the inconvenience, but at least I learned something and therefore grew as a person.

Images will be restored in the next week or so.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

In Search of Mailboxes

All right, so anyone who knows me knows that I love the postal service. Not the indie-pop band so beloved by Maria Lucia when The Current first got off the ground, no, I mean the actual USPS. I'm involved in an international postcard-exchange program, Postcrossing, and I've even contrived to engage the intermittent friend in shooting a couple letters back and forth.

Now I live in an apartment building where repairs are slow, recycling is non-existent, and where the hell do I drop off mail? None of my postcards will fit in the crude mail slot someone gouged into one of the compartments of the buildings mail bank. I did a quick online search to find out if there were any widgets or apps designed to locate mailboxes in my region, and there were a couple. The one I liked the best is Mailbox Map, working with Google Maps to create a graphic layout of mailboxes, USPS offices and UPS offices.


The only problem is that most of the mailboxes that come up in Mailbox Map don't actually exist. Fewer and fewer people write letters, and traditional mail services such as bills or banking are moving online. As a result, mailboxes shown to be in disuse are uprooted and hauled away. This doesn't affect most people, who live in a house with a personal mailbox, an apartment building with a good mail collection facility, or who work in an office where they can drop off outgoing mail. I realize I'm the exception and I'm not asking the USPS to please mount a personalized mailbox in my neighborhood just for the couple of postcards I send out each week.

But I still want to know where any mailboxes might be, so I copied the above map into a hand-drawn sketch and went out on the town. Out of the ten listed mailbox locations, less than a third actually had a mailbox standing. There are a couple in front of the nightclub Ground Zero (Hennepin & SE 4th St), some upstairs of St. Anthony Main (SE 2nd St & SE 2nd Ave), and a few behind Union Bank and Trust (SE University Ave, between Central and SE 2nd Ave).

That makes the nearest mailbox a seven-block walk from my apartment. At that point, I might as well boot off in the opposite direction and use the Dinkytown Post Office...

...and I just discovered the USPS has its own mailbox locator. I should have thought of that in the first place. Anyway, it generated five hits for my neighborhood and of these I can confirm one location, I know of one collection box they don't list, and they have a new one in an area I was unaware of. More work is to be done.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Experimenting with the Miracle Berry

Took two tablets of Miracle Berry, one each, and crunched into them. Hard and stale, had to lick them off our teeth and crush the granules.




  • Grapefruit: tart like rind, but sweet like a mellow ruby red.

Rebecca: It was very unusual, and in the realm of what grapefruit shoudl taste like, this isn't there.
  • Sanpellegrino Aranciata: very sweet, none of the bite, like a high-quality orange soda.
  • Organic cranberry concentrate: the high-end flavors of gellied cranberry, none of the acrid bite. The aftertaste is very sweet.
Rebecca: It's like drinking cranberry concentrate with an undertone, a strong undertone of essence of cranberry, buried under a thousand pounds of heavily sugared huckleberry.
  • Rice vinegar: Reminds me of another syrup or sauce that was stinging with fermentation on top but bodied with thick, golden sweetness. Residual strips of tang on the edges of my tongue.
Rebecca: Oh my God, I said it perfectly! It's very intense and it feels like there's a high-energy chemical reaction going on down the front of the tongue that made me quiver.

In-between samples we cleansed our palates with coffee grounds.
  • Angostura Bitters: very dry and acrid, like thin strips of wood up my tongue. Behind that an alcolic ghost-cloud of musk, then sweetness coming in from the sides with exotic spices.
Rebecca: It turned into a licorice thing with an aftertaste that dries your tongue and becomes a kind of pepper-cough syrup.
  • Took two more berry tabs, tried sucking on them for a while.
  • Tabasco: The heat comes through, but it's very sweet! It's a burning, spiky heat but I can handle it. All the vinegar and acid have turned to sugar, like a sweet-hot sauce in a Chinese restaurant.
Rebecca: Initially tasted like Tabasco, but it was somehow wrong. Later figured out it was too sweet. (ran for gluen-free cornbread) it felt too hot, despite being highly intimate with Tabasco.
  • TJ's raw almonds: differences are too subtle.
  • clove of garlic: acid sting came through first, then the overall sharpness of raw garlic. No difference, though I thought it was mellowed for a second, but I was wrong.
  • Coca-Cola: There is no bite. It's just sweet and muted, without the robust sweetness of Pepsi.
  • ginger slices boiled in water.
Rebecca: The initial taste of ginger water was mild and lacking something. Next I chewed a small piece and the power of the root came through. I could feel the heat, tingle, some of the aroma but the whole thing was muted. Other than the heat, actually. It wasn't bad but isn't needed in a nice ginger tea.

I thought this was a formula for ginger tea. It was made for me like this in Indonesia and it is not only delicious there but works small miracles for which I can testify.

I sliced up three slim coins of unpeeled ginger and swam them around in my coffee mug, filled with water, stuck in the microwave for 90 seconds. The formula came out tasting kind of weak. There was some ginger-like sting around the edges of my tongue but otherwise it was just a cloudy, weak, earthy water.

Kraken rum and Jameson's whisky similarly received no benefit of alteration.


Experiment ended for now.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Blogger Deleted Some of My Data!

Infuriating: Blogger ejected all my linked blogs. I had two sets of blogs I link to in the sidebar, and today I went to add one and noticed that all of them were gone.

Gone! Friends I'd made along the way, interesting blogs I found circuitously, stuff like that. I didn't Follow each one and I didn't add each one to my Reader list, they only existed in that sidebar. And now they're wiped out.

To rectify this in the short term, I've added the blogs I follow from Google Reader. Already I have recollections of other blogs I'm now missing and if I were a better person I'd know how to find them again. (I also discovered several blogs that are no longer updated, indeed, don't exist at all. Cleaned those out.) I'm wondering if I can find a cached copy of my blog in, like, Internet Archive or something. Maybe that'll show all the places I linked to. I don't want to lose all those blogs!

I liked them!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Falling Out of Touch

I'm still getting text messages for the previous owner of my cellphone's number.

How sad is that? I bought this phone in the middle of April and have had this number for over two months. That means, in all this time, these "friends" of the previous owner haven't bothered to contact her in two months. Text messages and sometimes phone calls still come trickling in, though. Guys inviting her to go running. Girls inviting her to Valley Fair. Coaches wondering why she's not at practice and announcing upcoming meets.

It's been two months. I hope this girl didn't go missing or something horrible like that. But the alternative explanation isn't favorable either: she got a new phone number and somehow forgot to tell everyone, or else no one was sufficiently curious to learn about it. I hope they see her every day and have little occasion to bother with a text message, if that's the case. That would be a good scenario.

One guy didn't believe me when I tried to explain someone else had this number. He kept saying, "Okay, be that way." I didn't want him to get mad at the young woman (I've learned a lot about her, from all the messages I get) so I really tried to explain this happens all the time, people change numbers. It could be that youth no longer understands how to appropriately use "be that way" in a conversation and it means something else now.

I mean, she sounds popular, based on the kinds of messages she gets. But the fact that no one knows how to reach her sounds like a matter for some concern.

Monday, June 20, 2011

No More Custom URL

Heads-up to anyone reading this: I'm not renewing the domain name for this site. Instead of swevenvolant.org, please update links (ha ha, I'm sure this will affect millions of people) to swevenvolant.blogspot.com.
My registrar's prices went up--as I'm sure every registrar's prices do--and it's not worth it to me to shell out even more money for a vanity URL attached to a blog I do nothing with. The name of the blog's still in the URL and if anyone ever, ever had any curiosity to find my site, it would be only too easy to do so.

Seriously, seven bucks a year to start with and then sixteen dollars? And for what? I get zero customer service (unless I pay more for it) and I'm not asking them to host anything. Nothing's changed, nothing's improved, but I'm supposed to pay double for a fancy domain name. It doesn't seem fair to me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why Is Eischens Still In Business?

Location: 414 7th St SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414, USA
We finally moved into our new apartment. Rebecca and I returned to the States in the first week of April and have been staying at her sister's place since then. It was very generous of her to put us up as we looked around for an apartment to sublet for the interim before taking off for South Korea to teach English.

Eventually it became clear we weren't going to South Korea, or anywhere else. Once we realized that, I accepted a position with my former employer, who has stated they'd like to take me on contract-to-hire. We'll get another place in the autumn, but we picked up the last three months of a University student's lease in southeast Mpls., a building called Andrew House.

And of course, we hadn't heard anything about it until we moved in. And we hadn't researched it until we showed up and found all the things wrong with it. And once we started that research, of course we discovered the place is one of a few dozen properties owned and "managed" by a well-known slumlord, Jim Eischens. We found this article on his misadventures in the MN Daily, a campus newspaper reflecting the concerns of students and student life. We're not students, but we're close enough to campus that we're living among them. Indeed, one particularly maligned renter started a blog in 2003, the same time the article came out, mainly to vent spleens, and a more recent Facebook group has been formed.

There are many things wrong with the apartment we're renting. Some of the matters are small, like holes in the plaster walls where past tenants nailed things to the walls and pulled the nails out or stains on the blinds and in the shower. The bathroom was filthy, the shower was unusable the way we found it. Some of the matters are much larger.




This stove has been inoperable since before we arrived. Only one burner is broken, but whomever was working on it left it like this. We keep hearing about a replacement part being ordered...

There are lofts in the bedroom and living room. Their ladders lean against the lofts with a metal flange screwed into the top. The one in the bedroom is completely stripped and should collapse any day now.

Bedroom ceiling. We've been talking with the guy doing the repairs for this. He said the pipe running above the ceiling has been repaired and he can scrape and replaster the ceiling by the end of the day today (six days after our lease started).

This is an assortment of repair supplies that were left on the loft in the bedroom. We showed up to move in and found them sitting there, looking like someone started the job on the ceiling and immediately abandoned it, like the "repair" done to the stove.


One explanation we were given for the delay in repairs was that it's too hard to complete a repair when the building is being evacuated two or three times each week due to fire alarms. This being student housing, a lot of these kids living on their own for the first time still don't know you can't put foil in a microwave, stuff like that, so I can understand that the smoke detectors are working overtime. At the same time, it's not reassuring to learn your apartment can't be repaired because the building is constantly catching fire. The tenants here attest that the alarms go off a few times a week, and that getting Eischens to repair anything involves a long campaign of nagging and reminding, which results in a temporary band-aid solution (after outright hostility).

So I feel like a sucker. It hadn't occurred to me to run a background check on the owner of this place. In a just world, one shouldn't need to: you should just find a place to live and live there without worrying about criminal activity or threat to one's livelihood and household. Additionally, Eischens has a reputation for suing tenants who complain too much, trumping up fabricated charges of eviction notices and rent payments missed, so there's that to worry about, too. We've got legitimate complaints, we're paying good money and expect reasonable services provided in return, but instead we've got this slum lord to deal with. Can we survive the next three months?

UPDATE: I went to ask about the pet deposit on this place. Pets are allowed, you just pay a fee to have them here. In the management office were Sergei and a woman. I've dealt with Sergei before, he's very helpful, and I've seen the woman in the management office several times.

They said the pet deposit is $100. That was a pleasant surprise, as the woman we're subletting from told us it was $200. I didn't argue this point.

Sergei said the deposit was refundable. The woman tried to tell me it wasn't and they argued briefly about this. She insisted that recently it had been made non-refundable and Sergei said he'd never heard of such a thing. She backed down and I'm recording here and in my date book they agreed the pet deposit is refundable.

They said they'd need to know what kind of pets they were. I said "two cats," and Sergei questioned the need to charge a deposit at all for cats. The woman insisted that the deposit was required in case they sprayed--they don't, but try telling her that. In fact, this whole interaction with her made me mistrustful of her.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

First: Impressions of Indonesia

Location: Bali, Indonesia
Your Veneration,

I wish to thank you for your counsel in my time of need. Such a small thing for you, but it meant so much to me, and while I was pleased to help you practice English, in no way do I consider my service equal to what you provided. I don't know what could be, since you have none of the questions or needs with which my life is laden and I have nothing reciprocal to offer.

But instead, let me give you what I have, and that is an alternate perspective.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Podcasts in Review

I've had plenty of opportunity to check out new podcasts. Traveling through SE Asia, often I found myself with seven to 12 hours to kill, riding a minivan through the mountains, riding a VIP or sleeper bus from city to city or country to country.

Reading was out: in a minivan en route to a small northern Thailand town that prides itself on over 700 turns in the road to get there, I re-learned how to become carsick. One can't rely on stimulating conversation when one might not speak the languages of every rider in a vehicle--and if they're French, sure, they can speak a little English but they have no desire to speak with an American. Staring out the window is only reasonable for 12 hours in the day, because night falls solidly and it is dark and there's nothing to look at when you're riding through the night.

I had a nice little iPod Nano, which I surrendered to Rebecca when hers crashed. Her sister gave us their first generation iPod Touch and I loaded that up with apps, games, and podcasts. Podcasts were the way to go: they kept me in touch with what was going on in the States, from national news updates to opinions on World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. Closing my eyes, I could drift in indie music reviews or murmur Thai language lessons.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Quizzed on U.S. History, Government, and Geography

Okay, I'm curious. Generally I don't read Newsweek but I found an old issue from the week of March 28 with the teaser: "How Ignorant Are You?" This leads to a short quiz you can take yourself. There are 25 questions in this quiz and I'm gong to run through them here to see how ignorant I am before the semi-public eye.

1) When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?

I have no idea so I'm going to guess 1776. That sounds like a highly popularized year associated with our nation's freedom.

2) What happened at the Constitutional Convention?

Again, having to guess, I will suppose this was when the Constitution of the U.S. was written.

3) Who was president during World War I?

I know they called it the "Great War" but as for the administration? No clue. I can recite all the presidents in order so if I work backward from a fixed point I can guess... Teddy Roosevelt?

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Cute Town With a Catch

Location: Taman Jambu, 34000 Taiping, Perak, Malaysia
Oh man. Travel has its ups and downs, and that's why people love travel, to be sure, but sometimes the downs are really scary. Like, we've had rough rides on the roads. There was that minibus wending its way through northern Thailand, and the driver's gone from Chiang Mai to Pai before and he knows there's 729 bends in he road (or whatever number the t-shirts boast), so why would he gun the engine and never relent? Why would he insist on whipping angrily around every hairpin turn?

We had a tuk-tuk driver like that in Bangkok, too. He drove us from the mall to our hotel like he was pissed at us, but every time he happened to turn his head his expression was calm and slightly bored: jackrabbit starts and abrupt braking was just his style, as was squeezing between vehicles in active traffic.

But this is a different kind of loathing I want to talk about. We checked into a cheap hotel, Peking Hotel, because it looked pretty nice and it's cheap. We blew into Taiping, Malaysia, this afternoon and no sooner did our boots hit the sidewalk than the skies released a torrent of rain. We hid in a KFC for a couple hours, making small talk and having a little lunch, waiting for the downpour to relent but it never did. It only ranged from "pissing" to "end of world." Eventually I put on a rain jacket and took some advice from a friendly young Muslim man (who refused to acknowledge Rebecca, unfortunately) and sought a cheap hotel in the SW end of town.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Handbasket Has Landed

Location: Battambang, Cambodia
I'm feeling an amount of anxiety this morning. Sure, I had a coffee and I've been giving up coffee, but I don't think that's what's agitating me.

The overseas job search has turned up nothing hopeful. South Korea has turned out to be very difficult to break into: if you talk to tourists they're all, "Oh yeah, there's incredible demand for teachers there! All sorts of jobs!" but if you look at the websites they're all, "This is the worst time of year to look for work, and anyway, you don't have your paperwork in order, and here's a new stipulation we came up with last month." As well, the message boards are full of horror stories, teachers working in private institutions headed by a schizophrenic or simply running afoul of a foreign bureaucracy with little to no legal recourse. Many of these are written poorly, a warning flag for me when reading reviews, and of course people are going to hyperbolize the negative, but even when dialed back down from 11, the ratio of "I had a good time" to "what a Kafka-esque nightmare" is not encouraging.

So we've expanded our search terms to include Thailand and Japan. The latter seems unlikely because it's increasingly in demand--we might as well try to teach English in Italy or France--and the cost of living is prohibitive. At least in Korea, we could've worked for a year and built up some savings, as a pair of teachers sharing living expenses. In Japan, not so much. As for Thailand, I love it (though I don't like their current battle in trying to usurp a Cambodian temple for its revenue potential) and a couple affable Aussie boys told us that the city of Trang had a great need for English teachers, yet I can't find anything there. I've seen three ads for schools that offer ESL degrees like the ones we got in Bali, but no jobs. Do we have to hop on the bus there? It's 180 miles from here (Battambang) to Bangkok and nearly 500 miles from there to Trang. And then what? Knocking on doors, handing out our résumés? Is that how it's done? I certainly couldn't read the Classifieds.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Online Adventures Abroad

Location: Battambang, Cambodia

All right, call me a tedious wannabe geek, but I'm really enjoying the online applications at my disposal right now. The above image is my personalized Google Map of where we've gone in Cambodia. I've been tracking hotels, restaurants, temples and other sides, shopping centers, etc., with customizable symbols.

I started doing this when we were going to school in Bali because I wanted to see how far our villa was from our school. This was inspired by taxi drivers charging different rates for different routes, so I thought I'd try to discover the shortest route. Then I started marking where I liked to eat, where the post office was, and many other landmarks not listed in Google Maps or Lonely Planet for my personal reference. And then why wouldn't I keep this up in the other nations I visited?

For other people this may seem like a lot of unnecessary work, but it's a fun hobby for me. What I really wish, though, is some online travel group would realize I'm already abroad and would love to write and take pictures for their database. Half the stuff I'm pegging on my personal map doesn't exist in the satellite photos: the coffee shop I'm writing from is depicted as a broad block of dirt field with no buildings whatsoever. I'm here, I can document that change, and who'd begrudge me a nominal sum for that assistance?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Battambang Bamboo Train

Location: Battambang, Cambodia
Hopping cities yet again: today we loaded into a minibus that took us to a vintage and ramshackle old school bus, and that wended through surprisingly tight back alleys to get us to the actual bus that would transport us from Siem Reap to Battambang. They said it would be a five-hour trip but I know I wasn't listening to five hours worth of podcasts while we drove over, or else we just made good time.

Upon pulling into Battambang we were swarmed with men waving pamphlets for the local hotels. My wife and I got two of them competing against each other for the lowest rate with the amenities we wanted, which left one man sore but by the look of him we made the right choice. And no sooner had we agreed upon a room (double bed, AC, wi-fi, hot water) than we were pressed to start choosing our agenda for the next couple days, but that was easily settled: we came here for the bamboo train.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

More Than Freshmaking, I Assure You

I'm not generally a fan of Mentos.

Why? I'm not a fan of hypermint candies or gums. The taste that replicates cell death due to exposure to cold does not generally appeal to me. I'm not suggesting that I'm a supertaster and that the flavor actually hurts: I just mean that real mint is nice, and laboratory-synthesized mint is not. To me.

And in SE Asia, there are other flavors of Mentos, to my wife's delight. She likes the regular stuff and was downing it with alarming frequency throughout Indonesia. I don't know if that was a coping mechanism with the heat or just gave her jaw and papillae something to do. But here, it also comes in grape and pineapple and mixed fruit varieties. It even comes in a sour version of the mixed fruit variety, but candy's bad enough for your teeth with all the sugar, without introducing industrial-grade citric acid to erode your enamel.

That said, SE Asia has introduced new concepts of Mentos to me. I don't know if these are available in the States--maybe they are and I'm well behind the times--or they're entirely Asian domain and the States can only lust after them from great distance. I'll grant you 4,000 miles is a long way to pick up cola-flavored Mentos.

You heard me right: Mentos that carries the rich tang of the cola nut. It will remind you of RC Cola gone flat, or Coca-Cola syrup if you've been lucky enough to sample it prior to carbonization, and it does not have a shred of mint in it. It's just a hard, chewy candy that bursts with cola concentrate! I liked it a lot.

But when I saw Mentos X, I was sufficiently intrigued to try this as well. All other Mentos comes in a foil roll covered in paper, but not Mentos X. The candies are wrapped in foil, rolled in paper, and then sealed in a long and dense plastic packet like a glowstick might come in. Why? Because Mentos X has to contend with unnatural forces that would defeat regular packaging.

Mentos X tastes like Red Bull. And not the crappy, acidic blue-and-silver bubbly concoction we have in the States. It tastes like the serious, medicinal/apple, uncarbonated syrup that is the original Thai Red Bull. Oh, yes.

Does it contain taurine? Does it give you wings? Does it abuse your metabolism like a teenager discovering onanism? I can't answer these questions, but I can tell you I would buy it again if I found it anywhere else besides one tiny island off another, larger Indonesian island. I've only seen it in the one place and I'm grateful for the experience...

And yet, and yet...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Underdressed in Angkor Wat: Travel Gear


It's one thing to strut around town wearing too few clothes or clothes that reveal too much. Not "too much" by Western standards, but too much according to the country you're in.

But you would think that if they can't show any respect for the culture in which they find themselves, at the very least they would dress appropriately when visiting a temple. Or maybe you wouldn't think that, but I would, and in that sense I am contradicted by the reality of international tourists visiting Angkor Wat.

Maybe I should be grateful they're not shitfaced drunk? They are in Siem Reap, the town right outside Angkor Wat, the town you hole up in to visit Angkor Wat. I went out for ice cream tonight and happened to walk by a short cross-street called Pub St., and true to its name it was dense with watering holes. Everyone was getting drunk and starting to cross over into the "leap about and holler" phase of the evening. And it must've been killing them but at least they waited to get sloshed until they left these eight-century-old temples.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Underdressed in Cambodia: Travel Gear


All of these people are travelers, or like to think they are. All of them like to think they're worldly and experienced, that travel has imbued them with perspective broader than one gets while sitting on one's ass at home, never leaving one's city. They like to think they're part of a global community.

That means, to them, disrespecting those cultures they visit and doing whatever the hell they wanna. In Phnom Penh I happened to find a very useful tourist map for fun things to do in the city, and right there was printed a list of things to be mindful of so as not to offend the locals, foremost being to "keep your upper arms and thighs covered." Simple rule, basic rule, and a rule not exclusive to Cambodia. Yet somehow each of the above (and the hundreds they represent) seemed to miss this in any guidebook or posted sign at the airport or passport station. Or, worse, they did see the notice and willfully chose to ignore it.

Note: Please to note the elderly man second from top, second from left. I first saw him strutting through my hotel's lobby with a prostitute, and I figured he was shirtless out of convenience. When I saw him the next day, also shirtless, wearing the same dress pants, coming back from the morning market and without a prostitute, it was harder to tell whether he believes Cambodia is the place to show off his physique or he's simply gone senile and needs some real help.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Underdressed in Laos: Travel Gear

Location: Luang Prabang, Laos
This is something I can't get my head around. International is not cheap--it's cheaper for some than for others, sure. International travel offers treasures in perspective, wisdom, and experience. And yet there is a class of tourist unworthy of the name: "vacationer" might be more appropriate (or "holidayist" in the UK).

But I don't understand why people shell out for international travel solely to get drunk/stoned in other countries. And I don't understand why people are so intent on traveling to those countries yet feel no compunction to observe the least of their social conventions.


Any guide book, travel map, or phrasebook for Laos will tell the literate traveler: "Seriously, cover up your shoulders, chest, and thighs. Uncovering these is considered improper and rude in Lao culture." It's a simple enough observation. The weather is hot, yet at least 12 hill tribes have survived wearing clothing enough to keep covered. Why can't the tourists?

Why can't the backpackers, who make such a big stink about how important it is to see the world? What those hippies aren't saying is, "...to see the world and trammel its cultures." The garment known as a tank-top in the US and a singlet in other places is a convenient thing for people who want tans, have zero heat tolerance, play sports, or beat women. But it has no place in Laos, despite all the hippies and backpackers who insist on wearing them. It was not a difficult feat in the least to camp out on a sidewalk curb and take pictures of all the foreigners who exhibit complete disregard for Laos' considerations in their wardrobe.

The exposed thighs is another thing. Even when we were traveling through the Muslim-predominant areas of Indonesia, some women thought flaunting their sexuality was more important than preserving their livelihood and staying out of jail (or at least respecting the local culture). Denim short-shorts with the rolled cuffs or the Daisy Dukes are in display throughout SE Asia. I can't say that only Australians violated this code, nor that this was the staple of the Australian outfit, but I can say that most of the time, whenever I saw someone wearing as little fabric as possible to expose as much leg as possible, I thought I detected an Aussie dialect when they spoke. Other nations violated this too, but one could make a strong case that Daisy Dukes and halter tops are standard issue when leaving Australia.

And it's not just women, note. Women frequently exposed their shoulders in thin singlets, exposed their bra straps in a real display of taste, but men were right up there with uncovering as much of their body as possible. Why? There are ample notices (for anyone with the capacity to read) that advise in friendly terms any traveler to Laos that there are certain things you don't do. Why would someone spend all that money to go to another country and not have a basic concern for any local customs they might violate? I'm all about customs and culture when I travel. I want to make sure I do nothing wrong, I don't want to accidentally offend the locals. So I don't understand these hypocritical, callous, and ignorant people at all.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Laos: Inequity Overwhelms Me

Location: Luang Prabang, Laos
Today, Rebecca and I woke up at our hotel, Kinnaly Guesthouse, washed up, organized a bag of laundry to have done, and went out for breakfast. Our tastes weren't for anything in particular so we walked up and down one of the main streets to compare prices. Unfortunately, the closer you are to the river, the more expensive the restaurant will be as the price goes up with the scenery. There is also the variable of what kind of food the place offers: Western dishes will always be at least twice as expensive as Lao food, and very nice Western restaurants will jack up the price even further. There is a French restaurant and a Japanese fusion restaurant we cannot even consider; on the other hand, there's an amazing Indian restaurant we could patronize daily without any financial alarm.

We settled on Pizza Luang Prabang—doesn't sound like a breakfast joint but they served omelets, continental breakfasts, fruit salads, all the like. The interior was much nicer than a regular place but a little rougher, a little more timeworn than the very upper-crust establishments in this city. Chalky white walls with dark wood furniture and floors are such a simple way to fill out an interior but still so classy. The staff wore tidy Polo shirt uniforms and hovered about the periphery attentively. If they got locked into conversation with friends passing by, they made sure to snap their head around and run their attention around the room every few minutes.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Heroes Are Bold With Food

Location: Phra Singh, Mueang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand
I don't recall where I first heard/read that slogan (I'll be embarrassed if it was only from a fortune cookie) but it sounded like a reasonable concept to live by. Food is a cultural identity: local dishes in any region tell you what resources are or were available in the area. Cuisine is the testimony to thousands of years of self-preservation, the tradition that formed after passing down all knowledge of edible or poisonous plants and animals from generation to generation. Many or most animals have food preferences, but what is so capriciously human as the need to have as much variety available all the time?

More than anything, food is the most obvious connection that spans all nations. We don't agree on how affection should be expressed, we have radically different ideas about shelter and clothing, but food is what makes brothers out of strangers. When I travel, the most important thing to me—more important than a museum or ancient landmark—is finding the cook who makes the local dish. With each spoonful, I begin assimilating the culture, the climate, the emotions and the spirit of the region in which I find myself; every plate provides a lesson that can't be imparted through conversation or guide books. Some people travel and see all the sights but still hide in their homeland's food, camped out in McDonald's or some expensive Western-style restaurant (that never quite gets it right, in my opinion), but I prefer to plunge into the new and expand my palate.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Branding: Clove Cigarettes

Location: Sri Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand
One thing (among many) that I enjoy about foreign travel, or at least reading about other countries, is shopping. I like to see all the foreign brands and products I've never heard of, and I'm interested in seeing what the familiar US brands offer overseas but not in my own country.

My time in the goth scene imbued me with an appreciation for clove cigarettes. i began to develop my own favorite flavors: I liked Black because it came in a stylish box, though Sampoerna were my first love. I also really liked Bali Hai because they were so flavorful, but the bright blue box with a stylized surfer on it looked kinda goofy to pull out (when you're trying very hard to look cool). And once, I blew my shot at dating a very attractive woman because she insisted on pronouncing the "D" in Djarum. No matter how many examples of the silent D I provided—djinn, djellaba—she persisted in disingenuously asking me if I actually meant "Duh-jarum" cigarettes. I could have shut up and had access to her amazing body, but I probably wouldn't have lasted long with someone who posed a burr beneath my intellectual saddle.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Thinking Aloud: Teaching English Overseas

Location: Sri Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Hmm. In the process of applying for work (teaching English) overseas (South Korea), it appears we've run into a speed bump.

Background: we left the US at the end of October. Over the course of November we lived in Bali and attained our TESOL certification. Now we're laying low in Thailand and searching for work in South Korea, but Rebecca's conversation with a job recruiter unearthed some unanticipated information (seriously, certain authoritative websites direly need to update their content).

As of the beginning of 2010, third-party visa applications are forbidden for first-time teachers to private schools. Applicants for the E2 work visa must submit their requests from their home nations--we would have to return to the US to apply for our work visas. Personally, this fills me with dread: it was so difficult to get out of the States initially, if we return I'm 80% convinced we'll never leave again--the end of the Grand Adventure. (Rebecca thinks it might be possible to submit the application from Guam...)

We could apply for work in a public school with a third-party visa application. However, we wouldn't be able to start work until August (assuming we can find work), and we would have to start applying in March because South Korea is increasingly popular for English teachers. Soon it will be as hopeless as trying to teach in any major European city.

As of Sept. 2010, all teachers applying abroad are required to submit a notarized copy of their four-year degree, authenticated with an Apostille. I interpret this to mean that I can request a copy of my diploma ($20), write a letter saying this is my degree, sign it, and get my signature notarized (have to find a notary here in Thailand); or I can have my College Registrar append a letter affirming its veracity and request that be notarized as well. As for the Apostille, I would have to submit the degree to the Secretary of State in Minnesota, inform him it's intended for South Korea, and pay five bucks for the Apostille stamp.

Official transcripts must arrive in stamped, sealed envelopes, but this is nothing new. I was troubled with having them sent to my apartment (when I had one, in Minneapolis) because I thought that would compromise the transcripts' validity, but apparently they are sealed and stamped inside another envelope, so they're good. I have two copies of my transcripts from both ARCC and SCSU, so I should be safe.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Sabadi Bpi Mai, Thailand!

Location: Sri Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand
It's the new year, 2011, year of the Rabbit if you subscribe to that. I haven't decided on horoscopy of any nation. I like the Chinese zodiac just because it's supposed to remind you of what you already know, like a Tarot reading. I think the Latin zodiac distracts from the point.

What did we do on our first day of the new year? Well, we celebrated it abroad, for one thing. We celebrated with the city and I kissed my wife at midnight, and the next day--this day--we walked around Chiang Mai, basking in the afterglow of celebration. The partying wasn't done, to be sure, and an all-embracing bonhomie yet persisted among the citizens and tourists alike. It was a rare moment and we took advantage of it.

The Year in Review


Got bored, thought I'd mess around with the collage function in Picasa. This graphic represents the entire year of photos I took in 2010 for my 365XN photo blog. I fell about 25 days short of a full year, but I'm starting over again for 2011. Why would I stop? I'm in a freakin' foreign nation! Why would I stop taking photos just when things are getting interesting?

Anyway, 365XN was much more successful than my first attempt at a photo-a-day blog, way back in 2006. I started out well enough but made the mistake of joining a Flickr community dedicated to similar projects. When I posted some pictures the community didn't like--aspects of my life and existence rather than literal self-portraits--I was reprimanded several times, and the fun drained away like pus from an abscess. I quit before reaching the middle of the year, I think.

So in that respect, 365XN was more successful. I saw it all the way through to the end of the year, and I found it so easy to do I'm extending for another year and on into the interminable future. Why not? And I'm trying to encourage my friends to do so as well.

The above photo links to a much larger graphic, 5000xtoo