Nashville and Memphis

I went to Nashville and Memphis last weekend, just a quick four-day getaway thing with another couple from New York.

Pictures: Nashville and Memphis

Various thoughts, because I am too lazy to write a whole entry:

  • Everything has music in Nashville. Like, if you go to get your oil changed, the 15-minute jiffy lube place is going to have a small stage with a bluegrass band playing on it, and they’re going to be totally pro. Every restaurant, hotel, gift store, bar, and tavern has performances. I don’t know the economics of being a musician in Nashville, but it felt like the last place in the world that still had a viable ecosystem for music.
  • I know nothing about country music, and it’s horrible to say this, but it all sounds the same to me. I won’t say I hate it, but in general, I don’t like 95% of it. It was like Christmas music to me: when I first hear a Christmas song (in like fucking August) it offends and irritates me. By the 50th holiday song, I pretty much have it blocked out and don’t even realize it is playing. The country music was like that for me.
  • We took the tour at the Ryman Auditorium, which confused me, because I thought the Grand Ole Opry was a place, not a show, and didn’t realize it had been at the Ryman forever. And then as we were taking the tour, I found out it’s not still at the Ryman. I should have at least skimmed Wikipedia on the plane before we landed.
  • The Johnny Cash museum had a lot of interesting artifacts, but it’s a very basic museum, a square maze in an brick building. But his house burned down in 2007, so there’s no destination to park it at. It is a convenient location, though. And well curated.
  • We walked around by all the bars and restaurants. There were a lot of bridesmaids walking around. They all looked identical.
  • It was hot. Not Vegas last year hot, but in the low 90s and humid as hell, which probably made it worse.
  • On Friday, we went to the Grand Ole Opry, which is in a large auditorium that looks like it was built at a ski lodge in Aspen in 1974. It’s out by a mega mall way east of town. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of hallowed history and Disney homogenization,  because they have hundreds of shows a year of top-tier country acts, but the whole thing feels like it was prefab constructed at EPCOT center.
  • The big draw the night we went was Carrie Underwood. Next was the actor who plays Deacon on the show Nashville. Lee Greenwood played the one song that I won’t even mention because it will get stuck in my head for four days, so google it. There was also some girl who was the runner-up on American Idle, and like a dozen other people.
  • The show ran like clockwork. They had a warm-up person, then MCs, then opening acts, then middlers, then the big acts. Everyone played like two songs. Every band change was flawless. Every cue was hit exactly. They finished at exactly 00:00:00.000 past the hour. They got everyone out and turned it over for the next show. It ran like a Space Shuttle launch, and they do it something like 250 times a year. That was very impressive.
  • The warm-up person and a few of the acts skewed slightly to the right in their banter. I think there was a requirement that you mentioned God or Jesus in your crowd work.
  • They also plugged their big sponsors between all acts, which were Boot Barn and Cracker Barrel.
  • Next day, we went to Franklin, which is a small town-square type place with lots of local shops, which reminded me of upstate New York towns, but with a bit more southern flare. Everyone was very nice. The place we had brunch had a stage, but no musicians playing at that moment. Lots of guitars on the walls, though.
  • We went to Carnton Plantation, which is the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. We took an hour-long tour, which was pretty phenomenal. The tour guide was far too into the history of the place, but that made it even better.
  • We also went to the Parthenon, which is a full-size replica of the real one, built in Nashville for some damn reason a hundred years ago. There were food trucks. Oh, and a stage and bands.
  • We went to a steakhouse for dinner, and when I went to the restroom, the muzak was Coltrane, which sort of freaked me out after hearing new-country everywhere we went.
  • On our last night in Nashville, we went to The Bluebird Cafe, which has a long and rich history as an 80-some seat music club, and is now famous because Taylor Swift was discovered there and a fake version of it is always on the show Nashville. It is almost impossible to get tickets there now, which is a shame because you won’t see anyone “famous” but you will see some quality entertainment.
  • The night we were there: singer/songwriters Dave Berg, Tony Arata, Craig Carothers, Annie Mosher. They all sat in the round, and went around the horn, each doing a solo number. This wasn’t even really country music, as much as it was very personal poetry set to acoustic guitar, and I really, really liked it.
  • Sunday — drive to Memphis. We had a giant SUV, which was about the size of a Hummer, so it was like sitting on the couch, watching the countryside scroll past.
  • We went straight to Graceland, for the big tour. We did not know this was Elvis week. It was packed, to say the least.
  • Graceland is strange, because it’s in a really dumpy part of town, like by a Harley shop and a discount mall. I expected it to be a giant plantation like the one in Franklin, but it was just sort of crammed in a neighborhood like the kind of decay you’d find around an airport. (It is near the airport.)
  • They now give you an iPad for the tour, which starts playing and showing various screens of info as you walk around. The tour is narrated by John Stamos.
  • The Graceland mansion is not huge, and it isn’t really that extravagant. It is about ten thousand square feet, but it didn’t seem that big. If you subtracted all of the out-buildings, it felt like a very big house, but not a mansion.
  • You can’t go upstairs. You can’t see The Toilet. You do get to go through the basement, with the infamous three TVs, and you see the jungle room on the back of the house, which is a Tiki seventies wonder.
  • I admit I went for the kitsch factor, and found it all funny, but the somber mood and the enthusiasm of the die-hard fans is infectious, and after seeing so many gold records and old women who show up every year for decades, you can’t help but get swept up in all of it.
  • The food at Graceland is horrific. There’s a cafe and I’m pretty sure they are just re-heating hamburgers and hot dogs from Sam’s Club in the same oil they started with in 1982.
  • We stayed in a new hotel on Beale Street. It’s a heavily gentrified area, all brand new, and it could have been Denver or Seattle or San Diego’s downtown district. Beale itself had a lot of the same bar. A lot of town was closed on Sunday.
  • We went to this hotel where they have ducks in the lobby fountain, and at 5:00, the ducks march into an elevator and up to the penthouse. I have no idea what the hell that’s about.
  • We saw the Mississippi. There is also a Bass Pro Shop that is a 40-story tall pyramid.
  • The Lorraine Motel, where MLK was shot, has been preserved and restored to its 1968 livery, and is now a museum. It’s really surreal there. What’s also strange is that area all pretty much looks like 1968 still.
  • Memphis was interesting, though. It’s probably got a weird, lost history that’s worth researching. There was also a lot I did not have time to see — I really wanted to go to the Gibson factory, and maybe catch a baseball game. There were also endless restaurant opportunities.
  • After we got back, there was a news cycle of Elvis stuff, because of his death, and I spent far too much time reading about it. I still am, really.

 

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bones and memories

I visited Indiana recently – actually, it wasn’t that recent, but I meant to write about it at the time, and now two months have passed. It was an interesting quick trip, for a few good and bad reasons, so I wanted to play catch-up and get a few words down on it.

I booked a quick solo trip at the beginning of August, partly because of my sister’s birthday, and partly because I had to cancel a family trip to Florida in the spring and felt bad about that. I got an out-on-Wednesday, back-on-Monday long weekend, which seemed to work well for me. Time was at a bit of a premium, but it’s a bit like visiting Vegas; a week is overkill, but a weekend is not enough.

Not to dwell on the bad, but here goes: first, I screwed up my rental car reservation. Arrived in Chicago, and had a car waiting for me in South Bend, when I really needed a car in Chicago to drive to South Bend. Second, on Friday, at about 5:00, one of my crowns came off. After much panic and calling a bunch of phone numbers, I found a dentist nearby who opened back up and glued the crown back in, which was awesome. I still ate mostly liquid for the rest of the trip, until I could get back home and have my dentist permanently glue in the tooth. Also, on the last day of the trip, I lost my credit card, and while at the airport waiting for a very late flight, I found out and had to cancel it. So that’s the bad.

I stayed in an extended stay hotel in Mishawaka, right near the University Park mall. It was on Main and Douglas, which was mostly vacant when I left Indiana, but since, a second main drag of big box stores and restaurants has started there, one big street over from the Grape Road arterial of the same sorts of big boxes. It’s always odd and nostalgic and weird for me to stay right by the mall where I spent so much time as a teen, but it’s a newer hotel, close to everything, and that works for me.

Every time I go back, it’s amazing to me that the default routes and streets and terrain immediately pop back into my head. A lot of Indiana hasn’t changed, or at least the “bones” have not. If you asked me to drive from UP mall to the IUSB campus, I could do it without thinking, just on muscle memory. Never mind that the IUSB campus has basically doubled, and every store in UP mall has changed hands, but the roads and turns are still the same.

Indiana does change, but on a very slow scale. I think people find a certain comfort in that, and it’s understandable. There are changes, and things fade and vanish, plus simple economics dictate amendments and revisions. Some chains die, and some mom-and-pop businesses go away with time, but new ones pop up. Sometimes things are completely bulldozed, like the Scottsdale and Pierre Moran malls, which were both torn down and “de-malled” into plazas of freestanding stores. But other things still have the same “bones” for better or for worse. Old first-generation Taco Bells get painted blue and turned into Chinese buffets. The UP mall got additions and food courts and new Barnes and Noble grafted onto its front, with the concourses updated and the tenants being bumped up in scale and stature. (Like the tiny Software Etc. is long gone, but across the way, there’s a giant new Apple store.) I walked the mall and tried to think of what was where, back in the day, but I couldn’t spot any one store that was the same, aside from the big Sears and JC Penney anchor stores.

Driving, though – driving from Mishawaka to Edwardsburg, Elkhart to Millersburg, those things all looked almost identical. The amber waves of grain were still amber waves of grain. A few were turned into new industrial parks or large retirement communities, but for the most part, it looked like Indiana had aged two California years in the last 25. And normally, a twenty-something me would have found this disgusting, that all of the state should get off their ass and progress at a rapid rate. But like I said, part of me sees the comfort in this, the idea that things wouldn’t change. I’ve always thought that many people in that area feared change, and I think there’s some truth in that. When I was 18, that pissed me off beyond end. As a 44-year-old, I could see why someone might like that.

Some things, though, have atrophied beyond belief. I went to the Concord Mall, which was a mile from my house, my default mall as a kid. When I was a teenager and worked in that mall, I practically lived there. I would go to the store and hang out even on my days off. Now, it looks like nothing has been done to the mall at all since the last time I punched out at the time clock in 1993. The Wards store where I worked is gone, converted into a Hobby Lobby that has locked itself off from the rest of the mall with huge glass doors. Almost every store in the mall has closed; most are covered in plywood. The old Osco’s drug store was converted to a food court, and every stall is currently empty, except for a single, lonely Subway sandwich shop. Some shops have these weird, temporary businesses in them, like a vacant store with a bouncy castle set up inside it, or the horribly sad dollar stores with nothing worth a dollar in them. There are multiple churches in the mall now; it seems like every business in Elkhart that goes bust turns into a church or a Mexican bodega. There was even a “church” that just beamed in the services from a megachurch in Kansas or Nebraska, and of course took your money. The mall itself was almost abandoned, nobody in sight, like an empty shopping center in a zombie movie. After seeing that, I made it a point to not do anything else in Elkhart, dredge up any more memories or see the old subdivision or school or anything else.

Not all of the region was that destitute, though. The UP mall was filled with customers, even on a weeknight. And I went to Goshen one day, and it was actually transformed from what I remember. Most of the main street was art galleries, and small mom-and-pop businesses, a wave of hipsterization running through there. In 1990, I had a girlfriend who lived on Main Street, and at that time, it was largely abandoned, boarded up and done. Now, there are these brewpubs and artisanal butcher shops and groceries, almost like something I’d see in the hippest part of a college town like Bloomington.

The thing that struck me the most was the feeling, the weather, the atmosphere. I haven’t visited Indiana outside of Christmas in years, decades. I think in the late 90s, I made a trip or two in October, and I drove through Indiana in April of 99, during my Seattle to New York move. But I don’t remember an August in Indiana probably since 1994, the year before I left. I’m very sensitive to temperatures and weather and the feeling of a place at a certain time of year, much more than I could ever describe it. And when I was there, the air held the same feeling as the summer before I first left for college, in 1989.

I so distinctly remember that summer, because it would be hot in the day, maybe in the 80s, but then at night, it would cool to the 60s. I was working days in a department store, just started dating someone, and we’d meet up at 9:00 every night, when the mall closed, to drive around aimlessly, stay up all night, go from Perkins to Bob Evans to Big Boy’s, making the loop of the few 24-hour places in Elkhart at that time. And I’d come home late at night, or early in the morning, and feel the summer’s humidity converted to a light mist, to dew on the grass. The summer had a certain freedom, of the end of high school, a brief period where I almost thought I had my life together and was leaving behind the shroud of depression that blanketed me throughout my four years there. But there was also the uncertainty and excitement and fear of packing up my entire life and moving it off to campus in a few short weeks.

Each day of the visit, I did the family stuff during the day, and it was good to see all of them. But then I’d return to the hotel, and either drive around by the mall, or walk at night, and just feel that weather, the cool evenings and the dew on my sneakers. (That’s another thing – there were no sidewalks by the hotel, and everyone was staring at me for walking, like wondering what happened that resulted in me not having a car.) Or I would sit in the hotel writing, with the windows open, feeling the air outside.

I spent a lot of time wondering if I could ever go back. There’s a part of me, as I plummet into The Crisis that has hit at this age, that wishes I had a three-bedroom ranch and a garage and a lawn and everything else, working on an old car or a boat or something. I know I could never live in Indiana because of the politics and money and career. And the crippling nostalgia of being back there would consume me. But it was interesting to see it for a moment.

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Various Vegas thoughts

I planned on blogging more from KonCon in Las Vegas last week, but I didn’t, because I am lazy. I probably should write a synopsis of the trip, but the TL;DR is that it was way too fucking hot – usually at or above 110 each day, and even hours after the sun set, it was still above 100. So that’s why it’s so cheap to go in July.

Someone asked me for some advice on Vegas while I was gone. I have not spent much time there in years, and everything I mentioned in my book about Vegas is largely gone. But my response to this question in an email is an interesting companion to the trip itself and my thoughts during it, so I’ll just leave this here for your amusement.

  • I waste a lot of time on this site when I am planning: http://www.lvrevealed.com/deathwatch/ – their casino reviews are decent, but I am sort of obsessed with who is rumored to get imploded in the near future.
  • If you look at a map of the strip, most of the mid-strip properties are what I’d consider first tier (Bellagio, Paris, Harrah’s, Caesars, etc), and the Wynn is north strip, but I’d group it in with those mid-strip properties. Same with Aria/City Center, which is technically south strip. It’s the newest; I’ve never stayed there, but from eating/shopping there, it’s pretty high end.
  • The south strip was the big deal maybe 10-15 years ago, and that stuff is now dated, but can be tolerable to stay there. It can be cheap, and the location is decent. So Mandalay Bay, MGM, NYNY, Luxor, Excalibur in that order. (Most of those are owned/run by the same monopoly, so they’re similar.) Tropicana got bought by Hilton and redone, so the rooms are nice, but there’s not a lot in there.An example: the Luxor is not that trendy of a property – I think it was so-so when I stayed there in like 99, and now it’s really lost its focus. It used to be Egyptian-themed, and they decided that maybe flyover rednecks aren’t into that, so they started de-theming it and ripping out the king tut stuff, but it’s still got these random stone pyramid walls in places.  But, the rooms are now ridiculously cheap, and it’s a really good location, and connected to the big mall by Mandalay Bay. So if you don’t plan on spending a lot of time in your room, it could be an option.
  • Everything north strip is shit. Everything downtown is total shit. Everything that’s not on the strip is mostly shit, unless you stumble on some deal to stay in a timeshare at Trump or something weird like that.
  • Absolutely do not stay at Hooters like I did.  I won’t go into the horror stories, but I’ve stayed at hotels in rural Mexico that were much nicer.
  • I used to never rent a car and cab it from the airport and around town. But the last few times, I’ve found an okay deal on a rental car bundled with the hotel (I think I used Expedia this time) and if you drive at least once a day, it’s usually a better deal. You can generally park at any hotel for free, or valet for almost nothing.
  • If you are driving, don’t actually drive on the strip to get north/south. Either go west to I-15, or go east to Paradise, Maryland, or Eastern.
  • Think of whatever amount of water a person would drink in a day that would be entirely excessive, and double that.
  • You can drive off the strip and buy a case of water for four bucks or whatever, or you can buy two bottles of water at a hotel for seven bucks. The problem is almost none of the hotels have a fridge. You can buy a crappy foam cooler at the grocery store and then commit to filling it with ice every other hour, but that’s a huge pain in the ass.
  • Opentable is a good way to get reservations for dinner.  There’s a surprisingly large number of high-end restaurants with decent food.
  • Every buffet is a ripoff. Wynn is almost tolerable, if you pace yourself and don’t eat all day and go in with the plan of fucking them by eating five pounds of lobster. But I made the mistake of going to the MGM buffet, and paid $35 for about $10 of Sizzler-grade food.
  • If you’re into steak, Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak at the MGM has a fairly insane three-course beef selection that is not cheap but is awesome. Or in the opposite direction, there’s the Golden Steer, which looks a little dodgy because it’s ancient and has never been remodeled, but it’s cool because it’s ancient and has never been remodeled – it’s one of those old-school places where the brat pack used to hang out.
  • Everyone associates the Grand Canyon with Vegas, but really it’s like a 4-5 hour drive each way, and easy to kill an entire day to spend a few minutes there.
  • If you are actually interested in going to Area 51/Rachel I could fill up another post with details on that.
  • If you are there and hit the wall and need to bug out and go somewhere quiet to get work done or whatever, go to UNLV. You can hide in their library and use wifi without any hassle.
  • There’s a huge Fry’s Electronics south of the strip, at a big outdoor mall right before 215. There’s a Target at Flamingo and Maryland. There’s a few Vons grocery stores (Safeway-owned, I think) on Tropicana and Flamingo.
  • Pinball Hall of Fame on Tropicana is worth checking out. The atomic testing museum on Flamingo is neat, but their Area 51 exhibit is pretty cheesy.
  • If you want to tour the neon graveyard, book it early.  They have limited tours and they always fill up.
  • Don’t stay at Hooters.

Thoughts?  Leave ’em in the comments.

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Frozen Irish

Hello from a veyr frigid Northern Indiana. I am sitting in a Bruno’s pizza just north of Notre Dame, waiting on a pizza and sort of passively glancing at the fourth quarter of the Colts-Jets game. It is cold as hell here, I think in the teens, and I’ve done more ice and snow driving in the last 24 hours than I have in the last several years.  I spent a week in Milwaukee, and yesterday, drove through Chicago (with a stop in Chicago to have lunch with John Sheppard and Helen) and then zipped down the Indiana toll road to our hotel.  We’re now seeing my side of the family, and I’m also visiting various ghosts of decades ago.

The level of nostalgia isn’t as high as it has in the past.  I mean, I’ve been out of Indiana longer than I actually lived here.  And so many things have changed since I left.  Like I drove by University Park mall last night, and was astonished how much it has changed since the early 90s.  But I still see bits and pieces of the Michiana I knew way back when.  Elkhart was never a big city to me, and Chicago was my main urban center, but South Bend held wisps of big city to me, the way the downtown grid creeps between the couple of tall buildings.  Back in high school, I’d drive around South Bend, driving up Michigan and down Main, wishing I was in a real big city, in New York or Los Angeles.  And now that I’ve lived in both, it’s odd for me to be back here.

I also drove to Scottsdale Mall last night, which is no longer there.  It has been “de-malled”, torn down and replaced with Erskine Plaza, a collection of big block stores.  I can kindof see where some parts of the old mall used to be, the McDonald’s on Miami; the Kroger across the street from the mall.  But it’s weird to see the mall gone.  I never shopped there as my main choice, but when I went to IUSB, it was the closest mall, and I always ended up there on paydays.  It’s weird to be driving through a parking lot full of strip mall, knowing a giant two-story mall used to be there.

Not much else to report.  I’m coming off a cold and need some sleep…

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Hello from the land of cheese

Hello from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I am here for the week, visiting Sarah’s family, and hoping we don’t get hit with a foot and a half of snow.  We flew in on Saturday, and took a relatively painless Southwest flight to Midway airport in Chicago, where we got a rental car and drove up.  Our plan is to spend the week here, and then drive to Indiana on the 26th and visit my side of the family for a few more days, then head back in time for work on the 31st.

The flight out proved to be the first test for the Kindle.  I sat in the airport in Oakland, browsed the store a bit, and picked up the e-version of George Carlin’s latest, which is an autobiography he had worked on for years, which was completed after his death.  No problems buying it at the last second in the airport, and I got about halfway through it on the plane.  Maybe I will save a future report for the actual end-to-end experience on the thing, but I find it pretty easy to get lost in the book.  You really do forget the interface and get lost in the writing, which I guess is one of the major concerns with any non-paper reading.  Probably the only major drawback with the Kindle is there is no old-fashioned way to give someone books for Christmas.  I guess you could give them a gift card, but I’m the kind of person who always ends up with many dead trees wrapped up and under the soon-to-be-dead tree during the holidays.  There’s no easy way to get around that.

I saw this funky documentary last night called Alone in the Wilderness, which was about this dude who went to Alaska and built a cabin, with the original plan being to stay there a year, but he ended up staying for about thirty years.  The whole time, he filmed himself cutting lumber and notching logs and building a fireplace and tracking the wildlife and surviving through a -45 degree winter.  Later, his son-in-law took all of this silent film footage, added sound effects and narration, and made it into a documentary. Its good stuff, and makes me wonder if I could ever do the same out on my land.  Of course, I don’t have a bunch of trees to cut down, and I’m not right off a lake where I could fish and haul my own water.  Still, very interesting stuff.

Time to get my act together and go off to a lunch.  Had a very good pizza for lunch yesterday, that ultra-thin crust type, from Balisteri’s.  I have no particular pizza religion between thin versus thick, but I always appreciate a good specimen of either, and this was good.

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Hello from Mexico

IMG_1643I’m writing from a hotel room in Ixtapa, Mexico, where I’ve been hanging out for almost a week.  We flew down last Saturday, and fly back on Sunday.  This has been our first real vacation since our honeymoon in the Bahamas in 2007, except for long weekends, trips back to the Midwest for holidays, and the week I took off to move into our new place, and it’s been long overdue.

Mexico’s a strange place.  First, it’s strange that my didn’t-pay-attention-twenty-years-ago Spanish is somewhat functional here, and fragments of it have been coming back to me as we stumble through menus and tours.  Yes, most of the people here, especially those in the tourism-related industries (which is pretty much all of Ixtapa and Zihuantanejo) speak English.  But they also like it when you try to use Spanish, and they all seem to love trying to teach you a few words here and there en Espanol.

We’re in one of the poorest states in the country, and once you leave our hotel, you can see it.  Ixtapa’s not much more than a marina, a row of resorts, and a couple of golf courses, but Zihua is a pretty beat city.  Walking the rows of open markets and ramshackle properties, pretty much the only high tech things you will see are Coke or Corona signs.  Any feeling you may have about being the Ugly American here is quickly dissipated by the thought that at least the pesos you’re throwing out there are going to someone who needs them.

A dollar is worth 12 or almost 13 pesos.  Prices in pesos still use the dollar sign though, which first freaked me out when I picked up a room service menu and saw a can of Coke for $35.  I can’t really tell how much we’re spending or how good or bad of a deal it is, because we’re charging a lot of stuff back to the room, and there’s the whole ‘monopoly money’ factor.  Anything less than 20 pesos you get back in change will be in coins, and the paper money is very colorful with pictures of Indians and pyramids.  Also, the Banco De Mexico on the 100 peso bill is in a font that looks like the Iron Maiden logo, which is very metal.

Most days, we have been doing nothing but sitting on the beach, reading or writing.  I have crossed the 50,000 mark on this book, which means it is officially done as far as NaNoWriMo is concerned, but it’s really like 30% done, and that’s just a first draft, so don’t look for a pre-order any time soon.  We also took a long tour where we got to see a tilemaking operation in the countryside and wander through a town that had a big open market.  It was all centered around this one Catholic church that had a Jesus that looked tragic in a Faces of Death sort of way, bewildered and on his knees dragging a cross, bloodied and beaten.  Not exactly the airbrushed and toned Jesus I was used to seeing as a kid in Indiana.

We also went on a long tour yesterday on ATVs, which was a lot of fun.  It was mostly through woods and farmland, and most of the farms here grow coconuts, or raise cattle.  We also got to cruise at top speed across a wavy oceanfront.  ATVs are fun as hell, and it makes me want to buy a couple and tear up my land in Colorado to put in some kind of dirt obstacle course.

And the bad news.  First, there was an earthquake here last Sunday.  There were actually three, a 3.7, a 4.6, and a 4.2; I think we only felt the middle one.  It wasn’t much, a very quick shake that we thought was just someone next door or maybe below us, and we didn’t hear confirmation of it until the next day.

Second, we got sick.  We were both careful about what we ate and drank, and they purify everything here at the hotel, but something got us.  It was a horrible, flu-like thing where I was feverish and totally weak for about 24 hours, and then it went away.  So, Montezuma had his revenge, but a day later, I was for the most part better.

And also, on last Sunday, I was eating a piece of cake, and one of my crowns fell out.  It was my lower rear one, and it and the tooth appeared to have no damage, but there was some sensitivity, and immediately went ballistic.  “Mexican” and “Dentist” go together like “Turkish” and “Prison”.  I got an appointment the next morning with a dentist in Zihua who had an office about as clean and friendly as my last dentist in Astoria (which isn’t saying much, but it wasn’t like the dental scene in that Tom Hanks castaway movie.)  He shot me up with novacaine, cleaned everything, glued the crown back on, told me in broken English that I needed to get it redone as soon as possible (going back next week, in the US…) and then charged me roughly  $40.  No paperwork, no insurance hassles, no waivers to sign, nothing.  It was truly a “you are not in the US anymore” moment.

So here I am, the temperature double what it is back home, no rain or gloom.  No turkey yesterday, and the only football on the tube was the no-hands variety with the round ball.  Lots of pictures to upload when I get back on a real internet connection, so stay tuned.

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Back from Germany

I’m back. Pictures are at my site here, and on flickr (although I’m liking that site less and less the more I use it.) Not everything is captioned, and yes there are a lot of pictures that are blurry and fucked up. Museums with low light, no flash allowed, glass cases, and my piece of shit camera will do that.

I enjoyed the trip and seeing new things, but I’m so glad to be back. My main two problems were food and drink. I thought I liked German food, but it turns out that I like German food made with American ingredients. There are some real differences in the quality of food in Europe. The meat is much tougher, and the pork products are cured way more, so they have this horrid taste, like if you’ve ever had shelf-stabilized bacon in a can from a camping trip or an MRE. Vegetables are all non-GMO, non-big agra, and not that incredible. I’m sure the eurotrash contingent would disagree, but I like tomatoes that are bigger than a golf ball. What was frustrating was that there are many American chain places that use German ingredients. I went to a McDonald’s hoping for the same burger and fries I’d get back home, but the meat was tough and gamey, and the potatoes in the fries didn’t have the same magical starch composition as Idaho spuds back home, making them taste odd. If I lived in Germany, I would lose 50 pounds in the first three months, because I simply wouldn’t be able to eat fast food anymore. (In fact, I lost about five pounds since we left, but I’m sure most of that is dehydration from the plane ride.)

And not all food was horrible. On our last night, we went to a more traditional German restaurant, and I had the best damn potato soup I’ve eaten in a long time. We also went to the fancy-schmancy restaurant in the hotel one night, and I got an eight-course dinner that was pretty incredible, if not a bit weird. The best dish was a cajun scampi that was lightly fried in spices, but was as tender as baby food inside, and served with a wasabi sorbet, which sounded odd, but was incredible. The main dish was three types of ox: tongue, shoulder, and breast, done up with some kind of reduction and cooked to the point where they were almost jelly. I also tried a lot of stuff I’d normally never eat, like duck liver, caviar, mackerel, and a few others. It was a strange meal, but very memorable.

Oh, the drink part – I think Germans don’t consume as much liquid as Americans. That eight glasses of water a day thing didn’t make it over there. I can understand the lack of fascination with large soda sizes; I went to a Burger King and got a super maxi size, and the soda was like 16 ounces, which is the child-size at an American fast food place. It’s hard to even find a 12-ounce Coke, let alone the 16 or 20-ounce big plastic bottles. The most popular size was a .2 liter or .33 liter. And that’s fine, but the water sizes are even more scant. Go to an American Safeway or Kroger, and you will find a million bottles of water that are a liter, if not more. (“Sport” sized.) I never, ever saw that. They don’t serve water with meals, they don’t have drinking fountains, and the water they do have is some kind of carbonated mineral water. No Dasani, no Evian, just the stuff that tastes like it will give you lead poisoning. And I drink like ten glasses of water a day, plus three or four American-sized Cokes. After a day or two of begging and pleading at restaurants to get a second four-ounce glass of water, things got old fast.

Nice things: the mass transit. There are two types of subway (S-bahn and U-bahn), plus streetcars, busses, light rail, longer rail, and the Eurail. The subway was a bit daunting at first, but it was also odd because there are no turnstiles to stop you from entering any station. There are just little paper tickets – you buy one, then stamp it in a validator machine to show you’re riding the train now. If you get caught without a validated ticket, there’s a fine, but nobody ever checked ours. If they did this in New York, there would be 40,000 people living in each station in a matter of seconds. The stations were clean, maybe as clean as a PATH train, so not sterile, but decent. Each station has digital signs telling you where the trains are going, and when the next train will arrive. (Same with bus stops.) Let me repeat that: THERE ARE SIGNS THAT TELL YOU WHEN THE NEXT TRAIN IS ARRIVING! Not “eventually”, not “at some point”, but “in two minutes”. They could never, ever, fucking ever do this in New York. And before you ask, yes the times were accurate. Trains regularly showed up a minute before the time. I never saw one run late. Another odd thing is that subway doors don’t open or close at each stop – you press a green button on the inside or the outside to open the door, and they close automatically as the train leaves. What’s weird is you can open a door as the train is slowing down for a stop. In New York, that feature would kill about 9 people a day. The trains were very nice; the S-bahn is more long-haul, above-ground stuff, while the U-bahn is underground, but more transfers to get from point to point than a NY train. But figure in that New York City hasn’t been divided and reunited and leveled by bombs over the course of the last 50 years, so their routes can be a bit more static.

In general, people in Berlin seem to be more trusting and self-policing than what I’m used to in New York. There were many times when I saw something and wondered “why doesn’t someone just steal that shit?” Like eating at a buffet restaurant, the German approach might be “just take some food, then tell us what you ate and pay for it”, where the New York version would be “Pay for the shit before you even touch it, then go through the metal detector, pick up the food, and get the fuck out of here because we’re not running a hotel.” There were many coin-op public toilets on the street (like the kind that clean themselves between uses) and it made me wonder if they could ever do that in NYC, or if people would just put in the 75 cents and move into the bathroom and never leave.

People were largely nice, and I never got called out for being an American, and didn’t have to pretend to be a Canadian or whatever. Not everyone speaks English well, but a lot do. The main problem is that we both look German enough that people assumed we were German and would start babbling away rapid-fire into conversations with us. The other problem is that German is alien enough to me that I can’t tell if a person talking in my peripheral vision is talking to a friend, talking on a cell phone, trying to get my attention, or frantically trying to tell me to stop what I’m doing because I’m about to massively fuck something up. I can tell people are talking, but I can’t tell if they are talking to me, or what the tone is. I don’t understand much Spanish, but I know enough that I can figure that out when I’m here. But it really started to make me paranoid, because I was always worried there was some small social thing that I was fucking up, like if I didn’t take off my jacket when I sat at a table, I was disgracing the owner of the restaurant and he would have to challenge me to a duel. Or whatever.

The big thing about Berlin is the wall, even though it’s largely gone. Every gift shop sells little pieces of the wall, which are probably just cinderblocks smashed up into little pieces, just like the Mt. St. Helens ashes you used to be able to buy in Washington. A lot of the former lines of the wall are now outlined by twin brick lines embedded in pavement and sidewalks. Most people envision a single, long wall, like a castle wall, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. The wall zig-zagged all over the place, and it was actually two walls: a taller one on the east side, a smaller one on the West, and a DMZ between the two. We went to the Checkpoint Charlie site, which is now a Disneyland for hucksters selling cheap shit to tourists. Want a picture with a fake army guard at the checkpoint? A bath towel? Snow globe with a piece of the wall in it? Former commie t-shirts and hats? Come on down, bring your Euros. We went to the museum there, and it was the most tacky and ghetto (no pun intended) museum I’ve seen since me and Larry went to that John Dillenger museum in Brown County a decade or so ago. So yeah, the wall is a big cottage industry. And I bought a fridge magnet, so I guess I’m just contributing to it.

I can’t even begin to describe the museums we went to, although I took some photos. The German historical museum was my favorite, and did a good job of describing German history from before christ up to present. The up-to-WWI collection was an excellent primer on the early days of Romans and Huns and Emporers and Napoleon and everything else. The 20th century part was Nazi central, with a lot more than I’d expected. They had a lot of original third reich stuff, which was interesting for a bit, but after a few rows of it, it was like watching the History Channel’s WW2 marathon on repeat for days on end. It was odd that the Treaty of Versailles was called the “treaty of shame” in all of the exhibits. It was also eerie to see a display of an engine from a British bomber that was shot down over Berlin. I’m desensitized to seeing these “spoils of war” displays in museums; it was weird to see one from the other side.

We also went to a couple of art museums, which were interesting. I don’t know a lot about art or modern art, so when I see something I think is neat, I’m not thinking “wow, what does this represent?” but rather “wow, how did he do that?” I’m more interested in large-scale modern art from the welding/carpentry/stoneworking point of view than the actual art, so maybe that doesn’t make me the best critic. But the museums were great. I saw a lot of Andy Warhol at one, Picasso at the other, and Felix Gonzales-Torres had a huge showcase at one place. I also saw a Damien Hirst in there, “The Void”, the one with all the pills. That museum also had a huge display of video-based pieces, all of them incredibly odd and interesting. Like one guy was showing the movie Psycho over a 24-hour period. Maybe I should get a video projector and start filling out grant forms.

Oh, I also saw the world’s largest model train layout. There are a bunch of blurry pictures of that in there, too.

I am sure there’s more to talk about, but I need to either take a nap or try to get started on the day…

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Back from Milwaukee

[Before I begin, does anyone know anything about WiFi? I have a router next to my Mac, and when I’m in the next room on my laptop, I’m lucky to have it work for five minutes before the signal drops. When I have a signal, it’s 100% excellent, no problem, but then BAM it’s gone. This happens even if the laptop is physically touching the router. There are a lot of other routers in the building, and I’ve tried fucking with the channel settings a bit, but to no avail. This is extremely frustrating, because every page I’ve found on google says “well, have you tried moving into a cabin in the woods with no walls?” as like step one. I also don’t want to dump a lot of cash into repeaters or antennae just to find out it’s a fundamental problem of living in NYC with too many hotspots. Oh, and I mention all of this because I already wrote this entire entry, and on like the last word, the connection dropped, and then when I went to the other computer to fix it, it overwrote the backup file with a blank file. I was seriously on the verge of smashing my laptop into little tiny pieces with a hammer. I still might. Anyway.]

So I’m back from Milwaukee, and the trip went well. We spent a lot of time with Sarah’s family, and that was all good. We also went to the art museum (where Sarah’s dad works), Irish Fest, the public museum, a Brewers game, and did a lot of driving around and seeing all of the places where Sarah grew up. We also drove down to Kenosha to meet up with John Sheppard and his better half. It was a pretty packed 4-day weekend.

Milwaukee, to me, seems like a Chicago-lite. It’s smaller, and doesn’t have as many of the big things, but it’s also easier to get around, it’s cleaner, maybe a bit quieter, and more relaxed. But a lot of things remind me of the Chicago I knew as the kid, like the little corner bars with the giant Old Style signs out front, the giant, old brick factories and chimneys from the breweries, and the general feel of the place, the way houses are built and how stores are laid out. It really made me think back to my grandparents’ old neighborhood (which is Larry’s current neighborhood.)

The only time I’ve been to Milwaukee was for the metalfest, in ’93. We drove by the big Eagles lodge that was the venue for that show, and I saw the only things I experienced on that trip: the hall, the street where Ray parked and we tried to sleep, the McDonald’s next door, and the quick pick minimart across the street. The other indelible event that I associate with Milwaukee is Jeffrey Dahmer’s capture. I remember in 1991, reading all of the news magazines in the Osco drug at Concord Mall, going over all of the facts of the butchery that he ran in his apartment. Turns out his lair at the Oxford Apartments on 25th and Kilborn was maybe three blocks from the metalfest. Oddly enough, when Sarah was born, her parents lived in a house just a couple of blocks down Kilborn. When we were driving around one night, we tried to locate the spot of his old apartment, but they tore it down years ago, and now it’s just a vacant lot with some old chainlink around it. Driving in the neighborhood was weird though, because I always pictured the area as an ultra-urban slum, like maybe where I lived in Washington Heights. But the neighborhood looked more like the rougher parts of Elkhart, by the projects.

The other big surprise was that I really enjoyed the Brewers game. I haven’t followed baseball since I was a kid, and even then it was only half-heartedly. I’ve never seen a professional game before, and this was my first. It was against the Astros, which is funny because my peewee league team was the Astrobowl Astros, and because of that, I was vaguely an Astros fan when they had the stupid-looking bright orange jerseys, the AstroDome (with AstroTurf), and Nolan Ryan on the mound. Now that all of that has changed, not really a fan, for whatever stupid reason.

We went with Sarah’s sister, and her boyfriend and group of friends that all had season tickets. We first went to their place and did some indoor tailgating, and they had some bratwurst grilling away in a soup of onions and peppers. Those were pretty much the best damn brats I’ve ever had, especially with some sauerkraut and a good bun. We ended up eating and listening to everyone’s bitchfest about the Brewers, and before long, we were into the first inning, but not yet at the stadium. We took off in different cars, and we paid the $12 for “preferred” parking. Dan and the others parked illegally at the back of the VA hospital for free, and we ended up walking up to the gate at the same exact time.

Miller Park is a pretty decent place to see a game. It has a retractable roof, modern seats and shops and all of that (no pee trough in the bathroom), and they have a lot of new LCD screens and score things everywhere, so you can always see all of the stats, and also keep up on other MLB games in progress. Lots of people were there. Lots of mullets. Lots of beer. I think I was the only sober person there, but that only added to the energy. I was surprised at how close we were for $38 seats, and watching a game in person is nothing like TV. In fact, watching on TV really sucks in comparison.

The game itself was sedate – it got tied at 2 by the second inning, and went on scoreless until the bottom of the 9th, when the Brewers got one in. But all of the little stuff made it interesting. Bernie Brewer, the mascot, slides down this huge slide whenever there’s a run. He used to slide into a giant beer mug, but I’m sure some parental nazi group got that taken out. There’s also the sausage race, where a group of people dressed as various kinds of sausages race across the field. (Italian sausage won.) The place went nuts when the first home run went over the wall. And at the very end, when they were getting everyone really riled up, they did this whole “more cowbell” thing on the video screen, playing the SNL sketch intercut with various home runs hit during the season, which was pretty hilarious. There were only 30,000 there, with a lot of empty seats at the top, but the crowd had a lot of energy (and a lot of beer), so it was a lot of fun.

Coincidentally, we were shopping at Target (so good to be out of NYC…) and I found a “more cowbell” CD, which has a dozen or so tracks featuring cowbell. It was a good buy at $8.99, although I’m a little don’t-fear-the-reapered-out for now.

Irishfest was also a blast. It’s the biggest one in the country, and it’s held at these fest grounds that are used for a lot of other festivals. So there were the same food courts and concert venues and all, but also a ton of tents selling Irish crafts and shirts and whatnot. I’d like to say I got some incredible food, but the lines were so long, I used the shortest-wait approach and grabbed a hotdog and fries. We saw two musical groups, one that was more drum-oriented, and we had a front-row seat for the Billy Mitchell Scottish group. They were bagpipes and drums, plus some dancing too. The whole thing reminded me of Simms and all of the times we watched So I Married an Axe Murderer. This alumnus of the group, who was 150% Scottish, was sitting behind us and making comments to a friend in his thick-as-hell accent, and it greatly tempted me to ask him to call Simms on the phone and leave a message on his machine, like “if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!”

In Kenosha, we met with John and Helen at The Brat Stop, which was also had a pretty good bratwurst. I also had some fried cheese curds, and I’m glad they aren’t available here, or I’d be pricing out bypass surgery by now. It was good to see John again, and also good to see tons of cheese and Green Bay Packers stuff available. We also stopped at the Mars Cheese Castle. Unfortunately, this was not a castle made out of cheese, but rather a store that sells a ton of cheese. Fortunately, there were free samples. We also stopped at the largest grocery store I’ve ever seen in my life. It had a beverage section bigger than most groceries in New York. And if you have been to a super-huge Kroger in the Midwest, well this place’s freezer section was bigger than this. It was truly awesome, except I couldn’t bring any of it back on the plane, so it wasn’t.

And that’s all. Well, we went to the museums, and the art museum has a pretty funky building, with these big spines that open and close, and no right angles in sight. And we had a lot of food, which was good. And now I’m back to the daily grind. And no, we’re not moving to Wisconsin. (I still can’t believe I can’t write about anything without someone mis-reading an ulterior motive into it.)

Anyway, pictures on flickr. Back to work.

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Amsterdam

I’m back from Amsterdam, and we had a good time there. Part of me wants to write a big trip report, but part of me wants to do a rm -rf ~/www/journal on a fairly constant basis, (and that might be coming soon), so no report. The basic synopsis is that the jetlag really fucked me, I got a bad cold and was not able to buy any medicine to get better, but we still got a lot in, and the trip was more than worth it. Pictures are posted, but I’m too lazy to add a link, so figure it out.

Although I’ve been to most of the 50 states, and I’ve been to Canada a half-dozen times, I’ve never left the country otherwise, so this was a cool trip. Ever since the first time I went to Canada in high school, bought a Coke can from a machine, and felt the slight difference, I have been fascinated by finding out the differences in places based on their consumer goods. I don’t land in Utah and seek out the Mormon people or find out why it’s called the Beehive state; I immediately find out if they have a Denny’s, an IHOP, a 7-Eleven, or where people go to buy their records. I enjoy travel to states that are test markets for new soft drinks, or that have odd hamburger chains I can’t find anywhere else. I know I should care more about the history or culture or climate or something else, but seriously, fuck that. I want to know about the things I consume, that I use.

In that sense, The Netherlands were very interesting, because EVERYTHING was different. Okay, this wasn’t like going to some third-world former Soviet shithole where people drink chlorinated rainwater and eat gamey horsemeat on important holidays. The Dutch speak English and enjoy many of the same foods as Americans. But the differences I look for were there in spades: .33L bottles of Coke; Fanta everywhere; bottled water in those plastic-impregnated cardboard boxes like soy milk; automats; coin-op bathrooms that were cleaner than hospital operating rooms; weird soaps; weird cell phones; weird cars. Everything was interesting. I wanted to buy one of everything just to open it, taste it, smell it, and decide if it was better or worse than what I’d become used to over the last 34 years. Even the money was weird; it took some time to get used to having a fistful of coins that was worth like forty bucks.

Everyone in Amsterdam speaks English. I read that before I left, but I was very surprised at how well most people did. And I’m not talking “your total is ten Euros” sort of proficiency; I mean, I had conversations with people who spoke such unbroken English that I could have sworn they grew up back in the states. The bad news is that everything is in Dutch, with occasional English subtitles. Shopping in a grocery store was a little difficult; I almost walked out with a large bottle of drinking water that was in reality vinegar. The most odd aspect of the whole English-Dutch thing was the number of times a cashier started talking to me in Dutch instead of English. You’d think I would have a giant “American” sign above me, but I guess not.

I mentioned elsewhere that things were completely politically neutral, which was nice. I was at the very least expecting a huge fuck-george-bush display in a city square, or some hippies hassling the American tourists over their fascist leader. But nobody said shit, and furthermore, there was no real display of political strife or issue locally. I was very pleased to find a place to go where I didn’t have to hear someone drone on and on about it.

I think my favorite thing was the botanical garden, which had three different big greenhouse climates with different temperatures and humidities, plus some smaller rooms and a lot of excellent landscaping and scenery. It was maybe in the fifties when we were there, but one of the big rooms was a jungle climate and so humid that my glasses and camera fogged over. They had some huge trees in there, and of course, this immediately made me wish I had a similar setup out on my Colorado land.

Anyway, that’s the basic story. Now I have to get over this cold, and start on my next project, which is learning Apple Pages, the new word processor/page layout program that’s part of iWork. It’s basically an Apple version of something like Adobe InDesign, and I think it might enable me to drop FrameMaker when I design my next book. I have only played with it for a few minutes, but it’s very fun.

But first, the evening’s Nyquil…

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From the IMU

Today’s journal is coming to you from the bowels of the Indiana Memorial Union. Although I’ve written paper journals in weird places (at 30,000 feet, in the middle of the golden gate bridge, at disneyland, at MIT, etc), I think this is the first online journal entry I’ve written outside of Washintgon.

Of course, I have much to write, and little energy. I’ve slept far too little, and done a year’s worth of walking in a day. I’m staying with my former roommate Simms, in my old house, on my old couch. He threw a massive Halloween party last night – more people than I’ve ever seen in that house before. He, Bennett, and Jason played his score to the classic silent vampire film, Nosferatu. The band was in the kitchen, and 3 TVs in various places in the house showed the laserdisc part of the show. Incredible stuff! I also saw many of my old cronies, and many people who knew of me that I didn’t know – Simms tells his Konrath stories to everyone he knows, and he knows many people. My costum- I went as Poison Ivy from the new Batman film. Don’t ask.

I managed to give away a shitload of zines last night – I set a stack of them on a table, and within an hour, a bunch of people were reading them or taking them. Cool.

Yesterday, I saw a lot of the town and realized how small it really is. I took the walk from the IMU to y old place in Mitchell Street. A lot of it looked the same, but it didn’t ring a bell anymore – it seemed distant. Most of my visit sofar has been like that. Things from my past are still here, but it doesn’t feel like it did before. Maybe my brain is telling me I should move on.

Speaking of moving on, I’ve got a shitload to do. Maybe I’ll try another entry while I’m still in Indiana…

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