Thursday, July 31, 2008

Made it (Barely)

During spring quarter, I was riding my bike to school both ways most days. Even at about 18 miles a pop, it was no big deal. Granted, it took time, and occasionally, I felt like the morning slog in was endless, but essentially, the commute just became what I did, a regular part of my day and nothing particularly to get worked up or tired out over.

Today, for the first time in more than a month, I did the route, heading out there to turn in an overdue library book I had left in my office. And ZOMG, as they say, I’m beat. It was all I could do to mash up the final hill to my house and all I want to do for the rest of the day is sit on the couch and nap.

Now, admittedly, today’s trip, unlike a typical school day, was nearly continuous. All I did was pop into my office, grab the book, and go, but still…

This is what happens, I guess, when you’re 51 years old and you spend three weeks overindulging in food and drink while the most exercise you get is climbing stairs to an apartment where you’re doing to have another big meal; the bodily decay time gets faster and faster, apparently.

The good news, though, (if any), is that it provides me with a bit of incentive to keep riding and doing yoga and whatever other habits I have that may be moderately salubrious. At least, it reminds me to be afraid to stop doing these things for fear that if I do, I’ll never be able to start again.

This morning, I was hoping it was the new moon day (nope, it’s tomorrow), so I could justify lazing in bed rather than getting up and doing the Ashtanga series. Eventually, I tricked myself into practice by pretending I’d only do one sun saluation. Then, another. And another. Until I'd made it. (Barely.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On the Beach

Neville Shute’s classic cold-war era novel, On the Beach, concerns itself with the lives of a group of Australians living on the island (and the crew of an American submarine docked there) in the final days of human civilization as a deadly radioactive cloud makes its southerly way across the planet on its inexorable march to kill off earth’s last few thousand human survivors of the recent global thermonuclear war.

What makes the book so poignant, and so very much in keeping with Shute’s prediliction for characters who behave with stereotypical British reserve is that, by and large, everyone in the novel acts as if the world were not ending, even though all know they have less than a year to live. For instance, they plant gardens, attend school, pay their bills and so forth, and even continue to abide by the moral norms that have always guided them. Thus, two of the main characters, a somewhat bawdy Australian girl and a highly-principled American sailor choose, rather charmingly, not to have a sexual affair because he has a wife back in the States (although she is surely dead) and his views on marital fidelity prevent him from betraying her.

One might therefore read the book as a kind of existentialist tome: people choosing to living meaningfully in a world that has no real meaning; it is the absurd human condition, abandonment, anguish, and despair, and yet they freely choose to live in a manner that is meaningful to them.

Point being: I get the feeling, especially after our travels abroad, that Shute’s picture is pretty apt for human life on earth overall right now. Essentially, I think, we’re doomed. There’s just too many people, with too many desires, and not enough planet to go around.

But what else can we do but try to live in a manner that respects each other and ourselves?

And for me, absurd as it is, that means biking not driving.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Context

Paris seemed all loud and smelly until we went to Barcelona; upon our return to the City of Lights, though, the French capitol struck me as reasonably calm and fragrant, so I guess it’s way more about me than it is about the place; perhaps that’s the key lesson to take from our trip abroad.

But if indeed one learns most about the subjective nature of human experience from heading off here and there, then why go anywhere at all? Couldn’t I have simply stayed in my living room and meditated—that is, made a visit to the vaporium and stared at the inside of my eyelids?

Probably not, since I’m probably not that creative; I need to be shown things very different than what I’m used to to enable me to see what’s right in front of my face—which is, I guess, just another way of noting that, as fine a vacation as this has been, we’re all ready to get back home.

Mimi’s looking forward to gorging on multimedia: she’s already planned her strategy for simultaneously emailing, instant messaging, Club Penguining, watching TV, talking on the phone, and listening to her iPod.

Jen’s especially ready to eat recognizable food from her own kitchen and have organic honey in her morning tea and I’m hoping to get a few longer bikes rides in over the next few days, with any luck at least a few of those enhanced through the application of my favorite herbal remedies I’ve eschewed over the last three-quarters of a month, Europe being exotic enough without having to stir up the pot, so to speak, no pun intended.

It was nice, in any case, to have one last day in Paris; we visted the flea market and I found the perfect souvenir: a vintage tin figurine of a cyclist drinking from a bottle as he pedal; and as hot as it was in the metro and around town, after Barcelona, it seemed temperate.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

First-Class

Today’s the day we decided that what the fuck, Mimi can go to public high for grades 9 through 12, anyway, because why not go to an old school fancy restaurant like the ones my parents used to take my sister and me to—Simpson’s in London or the Tour D’Argent in Paris—this one, the 7 Portes in Barcelona with white tablecloths and waiters in tuxes and the same meal we could have gotten for half of what we spent, but we did manage to stretch it out for two and a half hours, including coffee and a couple of digestives for dessert.

And then, we may as well sit outside and have a couple more drinks in the café square since, after all, we’ll never be here in Barcelona again, or at least not like this, so who cares how much we’re spending since it’s only money and given the way the economy has been tanking of late, we may was well get rid of what we have while we still have it.

So sure, too, how about a caricature—although I didn’t sit it for it, I’m thrilled to see Mimi and Jen immortalized by another of the town’s characteristic money-making schemes and in the long run, I’m sure I’ll treasure today’s creation way more than some pair of pants or something I might have acquired instead.

Finally, we’re traveling to Paris, first class, on this overnight “hotel train” from Barcelona; we could have covered the same distance for a fraction of the cost on one of the no-frill airlines, but so what? I have to keep in mind my mom’s (failed) project to eventually pass away with just one dollar left in her pocket.

Today’s the day we’ve made mighty inroads into that endeavor and I’m trying not to regret it a bit, since, after all, in some way we’re greasing the skids of the global economy and the wheels of the hotel train, too.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

On the Make

Barcelona’s thrilling, and we had a fine day at the nearby beach town, Sitges, yesterday, lazing in the sun and surf, but I’m exhausted by it all, mostly because the place is so relentless with desire: everywhere you go somebody’s coming at somebody—often enough you—wanting something: money, attention, directions to the nearest metro, your order in the restaurant while you’re still trying to figure out the difference between five kinds of potatoes and which of them, if any, might not possibly have ham in them.

And it’s hard to say which is worse: when indeed you are the object of their need, as when the beach vendors are carrying those cold beers you’re too lazy to walk fifty meters to the stand to buy for yourself and so happily pony up the extra half-Euro to purchase their wares, or when you’re not what they’re looking for at all, as when gangs of tough-looking hookers beckon at you unabashedly for a “date” when all you want is to get safely home and into bed.

But, of course, the world—at least the human end of it—runs on desire, doesn’t it? All these people needing something—food, drink, sex, money, a plastic light-up tabletop model of the Sagrada Familia made in China, a hand-drawn caricature of themselves and their family on vacation in Barcelona, the chance to be made fun of by a human “sculpture,” a couple more glasses of surprisingly cold beer—are what keeps the human condition in condition.

I had two bottles of lager at the Betty Ford last night after Mimi and Jen went to bed; I may not have been the oldest one there—the building at least pre-dated my birth—and while I enjoyed myself, I felt so out of it with nothing powerful need to be snagged on or catch others with; the most pressing desire I had was to avoid gagging on the guy next to me’s cigarette smoke.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Up and Up

Maybe if I had grown up around here, I would be more religious; in any case, it’s clear that lots of painters, architects, and ticket-takers have had a much more vital experience of one particular version of a higher power than I ever have.

I mean, for instance, this morning we made it to the famed Familia Sagrada church in time to beat the worst of the crowds and rode the elevator to the top of one of the completed spires. Each of us felt, if not some sort of religious epiphany, at least that tickly feeling in your belly as you gaze out and down over the city from way up. Maybe this doesn’t mean that you’re actually closer to God, but you can imagine how it might feel if that were the vocabulary you had been surrounded with all your life.

Still, I kept thinking that there had to be more about all this ascension than merely capturing it on film, which seemed to be the dominant mode of expression for nearly everyone there, especially those wearing shorts.

But there’s high and there’s high: and what made me almost believe in a supreme being—or, at least, kinda wish I was Catholic—was our visit in the evening to Tibado, the highest of the hills in Barcelona, upon the top of which sits a church whose topmost top you can ascend to and command a panoramic view of the entire city and miles beyond to the sea and mountains such that you really can believe that all of this including the human spirit to create can’t simply have sprung into existence for no reason whatsoever and then a bit later, when we were circling in the 1928 airplane ride at the amusement park and after thunder and lightning, a rainbow emerged over the city, it took practically all of my secular humanist impulses to remind me that high as we were, there’s still nothing higher.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Vacation

It took swimming in the Mediterranean to remind me that we’re on vacation; I think I’d been turning our trip into too much work. You know, you gotta visit this or that church, see all this here art, make sure you don’t miss some spectacular sight or another, and whatever you do, don’t drink too much or you might overlook something important.

A couple hours of body-surfing in the ocean, though, reminded me that we’re here to have a fun and that I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to—except maybe make halting attempts to speak some semblance of a language I don’t understand.

So, I didn’t even beat myself up for spending most of the afternoon in the room yesterday watching the Tour de France on TV; I spread out a blanket on the floor and dozed in air-conditioned comfort while enjoying the spectacle of world-class cyclists attacking a mountain high above the tree line.

Nor was I bothered that we didn’t find the perfect spot for dinner last night; it was enough to wander around, fall into a bar called the “Betty Ford” where Jen and I traded drinks because she liked mine more than hers and I—again, adopting my celebratory spirit—decided not to care.

Finally, in keeping with the theme, we ended the evening doing something probably none of us would have ever done were we not on vacation: standing on a street corner next to a fast-food restaurant where Mimi, her appetite whetted by a night of tromping around behind us and sucking on fruit drawn from the sangria pitcher, ate French fries from a cone, while Jen and I carried on a conversation with a transsexual streetwalker named Luana who spoke excellent English, honed by her years in Canada, and who regaled us with tales of misadventures with immigration authorities and invited us to her home in Portugal should we ever make it there.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Homesick

Barcelona’s amazing and our Europe trip continues to be thrilling. Yesterday, we went to the beach in Barceloneta and today I’m going to rent a bike and ride around to places a bit off the beaten track. The yoga studio I’m going to is great and everyone has been nice to us, with hardly any of the eye-rolling and smirking we’d get from waiters and salespeople in France.

But I’m starting to really miss Seattle, not so much so that I wish I were there but enough to feel some real longings for home and hearth.

Whatever foibles you may ascribe to the good old US of A (and there are many, starting right at the top with our clueless chief executive), there are at least two areas in which—at least as far I can tell—we have real reason to be proud.

First is ice: no other place we’ve visited manages to provide as consistent a supply of frozen water as does America the Beautiful. In France, you’re lucky to get one or two lonely cubes in your glass; here in Spain, you seem to get a few more pieces, but they tend to be smaller.

Second is plumbing: Things seem to have improved quite a bit since we visited years ago, but in France, at least, it’s still not that unusual to have to do your business in a hole, especially in cafes and small restaurants. At home, even our random 7-11 has a place to sit down.

And I guess I’d maybe add a third, one humorist David Sedaris has already pointed out in his book “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” The US still rules the world when it comes to people taking care of their dogs’ shit. At the train station the other day, Jen, in an act of great altruism, scoop a turd that was sitting on the train quaie, right in everybody’s way. A woman looked at here like she was crazy.

Tourist

In France, I could pretend, at least until I opened my mouth, that I lived there, or could sort of flatter myself from time to time that even if I was visiting, I had come to the city from the provinces or vice-versa. We made a pretty good effort to avoid the worst sorts of tourist traps and our best experiences were in at the homes of locals.

Here in Barcelona, by contrast, there’s no denying that we are just three more of the hundred of thousands of tourists who’ve come to the city to look around, eat, drink, and clutter up the streets, restaurants, and museums with their bodies, voices, and backpacks.

It’s hard to come to terms with, but what can you do? The fact of the matter is we’re here to look around; none of us speak the language, and all we really have to offer the locals are our Euros, many of which continue to pour from our wallets just as quickly as we can extract them from our pockets.

That said, we have seen a few reasonably cool things today along with the rest of the crush of humanity that is enjoying them as well. We strolled through the La Boqueria and ooed and awed over dried pig in all its forms; it might have made me wish I was a meat eater were there not an equally amazing array of fruits and vegetables, including a whole bunch of types of tropical fruit I’ve never seen before.

Then, we marched along this grand boulevard to eye a couple of Gaudi’s masterpieces; the lines to get in to both of them were entirely too daunting, so we just stood outside and made plans to beat the tourist crush early tomorrow.

By chance, we did find our way into a tapas restaurant frequented mostly by locals; I had an order of fried potatoes, a choice so safe it obviously marked me as a visitor.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Arrivals and Departures

Not that it’s all about goodies, but in my limited experience, the superiority of the arrival over the departure is made manifest by how much more stuff you get while waiting by the roadside for them to arrive as opposed to wandering about trying to get a glimpse of them before they leave; I speak specifically about the Tour de France riders, but in a larger, more metaphorical sense about life in general, including seasons, children, and the waiter who may be bringing you your drink and your meal.

The anticipation of climax, is, by its very nature, more intense than the anticipation of debut; while this may not be true in the case of human life—although waiting to die is probably, for the individual involved, more consciously looked forward to than is waiting to be born—there is something about knowing you are experiencing the end of something rather than its beginning that makes it more rarified, more luminous, and more memorable.

So, for instance, as we come to the end of our stay in the south of France, each moment has a greater weight and concentration of sweetness; last night, by way of illustration, as we sat around a picnic table under a full moon, drinking, carrying on, and being serenaded on guitars by members of local musicians, Keskonfae, the images became etched in one’s mind particularly powerfully: there’s Mimi up on one table bench doing a furious tap routine with Nicki dancing the flamenco on the other; here’s Jen, her head thrown back laughing at French jokes neither of us quite understand; or look at me, carrying on the chorus to “Smoke on the Water” even though I don’t really know any of the lyrics.

Earlier in the day, things were a bit less magical, although we did get an autograph from one of the riders, a Belgian named Phillipe Gilbert; never heard of him before, but now he’s my favorite, both coming and going.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Check

I’ve never been to a Superbowl or an NBA Final; I’d like to get to the Kentucky Derby one day and it would be amazing, I think, to be at a World Cup soccer game, as long as you were safe from hooligans; I have—thanks to my dad’s connection to the president of the American League back in the 1970’s when Pop was dean of the Medical School at the University of Pittsburgh and New York Yankees pitcher, “Doc” Medich was going to school there—attended a 1971 World Series game (in which the Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles on the strength of some great long-relief by then rookie pitcher Bruce Kison); and I did go to a Formula 1 auto race when I was a kid in Holland in 1968; but now I can add to my list of personally-attended world-class sporting events the one that I’ve probably wanted to see longer than any other—since I first became enamored of Belgian Eddy Merckx back when the cannibal still ruled the cycling world—a Tour de France stage, the arrival, to be exact, of the riders in the 13th stage of Le Tour 2008, in Nimes, the conclusion of their day’s stage which began 182km away in the town of Narbonne.

Jen, Mimi, and I waited along Boulevard Jean Jaures for 4 hours to catch 20 seconds of the riders flying by and had a swell time, catching loads of schwag thrown to the crowd by the publicity vehicles which preceded the peleton’s arrival.

The throng was enormous, festive, and greedy, clamoring loudly for caps, keychains, and meat snacks tossed from cars and motorcycles modified to look like everything from cups of cocoa to jockeys on horses. We scored a sackful of junk, including the sack to carry it in and thrilled to the final sprint which was won by British rider Mark Cavandish, a result we couldn’t really see except on the giant video screen down the street. video

Friday, July 18, 2008

C'est Qui

Travel is supposed to broaden you, and it’s certainly doing that to me—at least around the waist and posterior—but it’s also, at the current point in our trip, constraining me in an odd way: that is, the typical components of my daily life that define me are being cast off or denied, so that I begin to wonder who I am and whether I’m even the same person I am when I’m at home.

This sounds heavier than I mean it; simply, I’m finding it slightly remarkable to notice what it’s like not to do the things that I do.

So, for instance, were I in Seattle, I’d get up early, do yoga, drink coffee, ride my bike, surf the internet, eat a vegetarian diet, pay a little bit of attention to the baseball season (more when Tim Lincecum pitches), have a beer or two, (and maybe on a Thursday night ride or weekend at home, partake of some pot); I might do a tiny bit of yardwork, read the local paper, cook some food, walk the dog; chances are good, I’d rent a movie and watch it with Jen and Mimi, but I’d still usually be asleep in my bed before midnight.

On our trip right now, though, none of the above really obtain. I’m rising from bed later and later each day; my yoga practice is cursory at best, if not non-existent; and while I did finally, on our last evening in Paris, get to try out the VeloLibre, that’s the only time I’ve been on two wheels in more than a week; I’ve tasted pork sausage and I dined on jumbo shrimp last night; I’m drinking wine almost exclusively (and my two internationally-smuggled joints remain untouched); the closest I’ve come to cooking is to butter a baguette, and I haven’t gone to sleep earlier than 1:30 in the morning since we’ve arrived in Europe.

Someone’s still writing 327 words, but who is he?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Souvenirs


The one thing Mimi most wanted to do in Paris was go up the Eiffel Tower; since when Jen and I lived here, I was pretending to be French, I never deigned to have that experience; so today, we got up and out early in order to avoid the crowds and succeeded well in that effort.

When we arrived at Gustave Eiffel’s masterpiece, there was hardly a line at all for the stairs—by contrast, the queue for the elevator was pretty long—so not only did we get to feel superior for choosing to walk up, we also managed to do so with nary a wait. And frankly, the view was pretty awesome, well worth the climb, and every bit as magnificent as advertised. I was glad to have indulged the kid and done the tourist thing; certainly, it’s a memory of Paris not soon to be forgotten.

The one thing I most wanted to do while we were here, apart from seeing friends and attending the races at Longchamp, was to make a pilgrimage to the shop of arguably the most famous of all the remaining French bicycle constructeurs, Alex Singer.

Yesterday, Mimi and Jen indulged me a long metro ride to the outskirts of Paris—a place called Levallois-Perret—and then a couple mile hike to the semi-industrial street where the Singer shop is to be found and hung with me while I gushed in fractured French to Marcel, who apparently is currently the main builder (at least of racks) for owner Ernest Czuka who, Marcel said, was currently ill and at home.

Marcel took us in the back of the shop, where the frames are made, and we shared a laugh over the hand-drawn design they use, (in contrast to my custom Tournesol, sketched out on a computer), and then, as we were leaving, he kindly gave me an Alex Singer cap (casquette) for free (gratuit!), so far, my one and only souvenir of Paris.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Frog Horses

We like making sport of this Rick Steves guy; even though his basic message of cross-cultural immersion and communication is admirable, and even though his position on the decriminalization of marijuana is quite reasonable, he’s such an easy target, it’s hard to avoid dissing him and his NPR-listening constituents at every turn. “Europe through the back door,” sure; but for Mimi, Jen, and me, it’s more fun to be invited by the locals through the front, or else crawl through a casement window left open by accident.

Yesterday, we got to do both of those as we mixed arguably the most touristic excursion conceivable with one that was almost devoid of foreign visitors, heading in the morning to the Louvre and then, following that, later in the day and into the night, with a trip to the Hippodrome de Longchamp for the Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris and fireworks at the track afterwards.

Naturally, the museum visit was both amazing and overwhelming; we saw a number of the greatest hits, including, of course, the Mona Lisa, and the crush of humanity pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of her.

I found myself as impressed with the building as with much of the art, although the scope and size of so many of the 18th century French paintings also blew me away; still, I was perfectly happy to escape to a quiet café close to our hotel in the 5th for a leisurely lunch, far from those madding crowds.

Then, recharged by a nap, it was off to the Bois de Bologne for our equestrian adventure; it took a bit to get used to the French system of gambling, but eventually, I figured it out enough to pick the winner and an exacta in the featured race, much to my satisfaction, if not monetary gain.

Fireworks, choreographed to the Star Wars theme capped the evening; it wasn’t Davinci, but in its own special way, certainly fine art.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Philistine

Here’s why I’ll never be a real intellectual: I prefer experiences with people to experiences with art and usually, I’d even rather be outside in a park than indoors standing before any number of the world’s most celebrated paintings.

This was brought home to me in stark relief yesterday as I enjoyed far more drinking wine and laughing with old friends Monique and Olivier in a park called Buttes Chaumant than I did gazing at and stroking my chin thoughtfully in front of Monet’s superb Water Lillies at the Orangerie Museum in the Jardin du Tuilleries.

In fact, I’d even say I got more out of the ferris wheel ride Mimi, Jen, and I took than the paintings; in any case, I enjoyed the view from the top of the Grand Roue—which afforded us a spectacular view of Paris from above—more than the sight from the museum banquets—which only gave me a perspective on the marvelous surface of the great artist’s work.

And although the Monet are unquestionably among the greatest pieces in the history of art, modern and classical, I think I was more moved by playing petanque with my old buddies and several new acquaintances; certainly I had way more fun throwing larger steel balls at a smaller wooden one than I did casting my eyes at paint on canvas.

The high point for me, probably, from the standpoint of visuals, was seeing Mimi and Hippolyte, the five and a half year-old son of a couple with whom we were playing petanque, climbing up on the base of a monument in the park and striking heroic poses a la the other nearby sculptures. That image will likely stay with me longer than the memory of the dozens of marble (or was it bronze, see?) animals that adorned the gardens though which we strolled earlier.

But then, that’s because I’m such a philistine; or maybe because the wine flowed more freely with people than with art.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Human Condition

It’s sort of amazing to me that people live everywhere; it makes it hard to be a solipcist.

Here we are in a huge city, thousands of miles from home, and everywhere you look, human beings are scurrying about here and there, busily living their lives, from morning till night and beyond.

There’s a lady walking her dog, leaning over to drag it by its collar. Here’s a young man in running shorts jogging through the neighborhood. And look at that older gentleman with the fat stomach; he’s in a hurry somewhere, his briefcase banging his knees as he minces rapidly across the street.

And all over the world, are billions more like them, every person the center of his or her universe, but every single one—except maybe Brad and Angelina—no more important to the world at-large than anyone else.

Contrary to the conceits of New Yorkers and Parisians (among others) the city in which you reside confers no special importance upon you. Maybe you feel cooler having an address on the Cours de La Reinne (we marveled at some amazing apartments overlooking the Seine after our visit to the Eiffel Tower last night) than 30th and Alder (like our humble abode), but it’s not obvious that any of it really makes any real difference—except to real estate agents, bankers, and shop-owners.

Granted, all this opulence and magnificence makes a person feel small and insignificant by comparison, but that’s probably a good thing. Having the world’s greatest 327-word blog to the contrary, it’s nevertheless good to be reminded that I’m nothing more than a single data point in the six-billion-strong array of individuals who are just as important to themselves as I am to me.

While I sat in a café off the Place Contrescarpe yesterday afternoon, I watched a drunken old man sitting in a doorway suck on a bottle of wine and sing “If I Were a Rich Man” in French.

Clearly, that mattered, somehow.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

About the Same

It’s funny: you’d think that when you’re living the life, life would all be wonderful. But it’s not like that: a stone in your shoe is still a stone in your shoe, even if those shoes are strolling over avenues you’ve been dreaming of for months.

So, for instance, it still set my teeth on edge that, after walking all the way from our hotel to the Gare d’Austerlitz—a promenade of about a mile and half—and then going through the entire process of reserving train tickets on the computer terminal there—this, after having tried to do the same yesterday and despairing of even getting to the screen given the long pre-holiday lines—none of my credit cards would work, making my trip my effort for naught and causing me to feel something of a failure or at least a bit of a sap, even though, fer fuck’s sake, I’m a sap in Paree and ought to be happy about that at a minimum.

Or, for example, it doesn’t fail to bug me when some lady is yammering into her cell phone as she strolls obviously down the street in front of me, despite that fact that her yammerings are in beautifully-accented French.

Nor am I free from being annoyed by this jerk standing next to our table in the outdoor café sucking on a cigarette and wafting his smoke in our direction, although at least his brand is something made in France with a fancy Continental label.

All this just goes to show that you can’t get away from yourself no matter how far you travel. The Ashtanga poses I struggle with at home in my bedroom are the very same ones I couldn’t bend myself into today at the studio I visited in the 4th arrondisement, just down the rue from the lovely Place des Vosges.

No doubt this sounds like complaining, but I’m not; my surroundings are different, but the voice is the same.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Pauvre Moi

Aristotle reminds us that happiness is not to be found in any of the popular conceptions—power, pleasure, or money. Instead, eudaimonia is defined as something like rational activity in accordance with virtue; as such, the truly happy life is the truly virtuous life.

I’m sure.

I, myself, am not all that interested in power; generally, I prefer to be left alone. And while pleasure is great, often, just getting a little stoned and riding my bike is plenty. Most of the time, too, I don’t wish I had more money; I’ve got a lovely home, all the food I could ever eat, and more toys than I can possibly play with at one time.

However.

Being here in Paris and seeing all the amazing things that a lot more cash than I have could buy—and for that matter, rent—I do find myself wishing I was some sort of corporate robber baron on an expense account funded by government-sponsored no-bid contracts.

For instance, our hotel in the fifth arrondisement is fine; we’ve got two beds, our own bathroom, and a balcony that overlooks a busy street with plenty of people and cafes to spy upon at all hours of the day and night. In short, it’s all I could ever need in a home away from home. And all this for a mere hundred and, I dunno, seventy or so bucks a night.

But then.

I start looking through the Michelin guide and the fancy hotels on the right bank, the ones where single rooms start around a thousand dollars each per day.

Wow.

I wish I had the dough to afford some place where the gold leaf was real gold and the Louis Quatorze chairs in the lobby actually came from Louis XIV. It makes me all envious to see pictures of the Crillon or the Plaza Athene, especially when I know that those pictures are the closest I’ll ever get to staying there.

Still, I’m happy.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Death and Food

Our plan today was to visit the catacombs, the Parisien mass grave where Mimi could indulge her affection for skulls; however, the line was around the block and we didn’t feel like wasting precious hours in line with loads of other American sweltering in the July sun.

So, instead, we took a stroll through the nearby Cemetiere Montparnasse, where I felt that strange mixture of awe, melancholy, and disgust that one gets viewing the impressive, excessive, and excessively impressive sepulchers that French families have historically built to house their remains. (One, for instance, was a grand mosaic, each tile laboriously applied to a structure the size of a large garden shed; many others featured beautiful stained-glass windows and/or columns to do a small chapel proud.)

An hour or so of that worked up quite an appetite, oddly enough, although I suppose in keeping with the tradition of large meals after funerals, so we wandered about, Michelin guide in hand, and having passed on a place the book highly recommended since all they had on the menu for the sissy non-flesh eater was, I dunno, maybe the paper it was printed on, we found ourselves at a bistro called Plomb du Cantal, whose beautiful composed salads provided the perfect sustenance for our weary bones.

It did seem a little weird (to me, anyway) to be enjoying such delicious meal such a short time after hanging out with the deceased. Something about the juxtaposition of life-giving nourishment alongside dead bodies just struck me as weird—not bad weird, but weird nonetheless.

Not that it stopped me from fully enjoying my food and the carafe of wine Jen and I shared along with it, but I couldn’t help thinking about all those lost souls who would never again enjoy a morsel blue cheese or a boiled potato again.

And even it they could, I wouldn’t have shared dessert; we had three spoons on one crème brulee as it was.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Just Pretend

The Euro is about a dollar sixty to the dollar, meaning I’m paying more than time and a half on every purchase here in gay Paree.

But WTF; I’m pretending that it’s one-to-one, that the lovely lunch with half a carafe of wine that Jen and I enjoyed with Mimi—the kid a delicious tartine with smoked mozzarella and ham, Jen, a beautiful salad with potatoes and prosciutto, and me, also a tartine, only with plain mozzarella and I tucked the ham under my uneaten greens—was only 46 bucks, no more than we’d pay at Café Presse in Seattle.

Jen said, wisely, that as long as I’m pretending, why not pretend that the Euro is just half a dollar, but that would be cheating, wouldn’t it? One can only suspend disbelief so far, and even less of a distance come next month when the credit card bills come due.

Mais, zut alors, je m’en fou!

I’m having a great time right now sitting on our balcony in the Hotel Royal Cardinale, that may actually be the very same place we came on our honeymoon twenty years ago, only with a new name and an updated lobby.

We’ve already taken a stroll around the neighborhood and the kid has already had her fill of Mom and Dad saying, “Oh look! Here’s where we used to so and so or such and such.” The upside, though, is that at least one of our old favorite patisseries is still there and the éclair au chocolat that they make is as good as ever.

Other places haven’t persisted; the little stationary store near our apartment on rue Buffon is gone; that’s where I used to buy my composition books that I’d fill with scribblings not unlike what goes on here. The difference is, back in the day, I had a lot more to say than merely 327 words.

But of course, the dollar was strong then, and talk was much cheaper.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Generation Gap

My mom and dad weren’t all that particular about my childhood amusements. My father’s position was that as long as I was getting good grades in school, then what I did with my free time was up to me; and I’m pretty sure my mother’s view was something like unless I was destroying the house or spilling her coffee, then no further intervention was required.

I don’t recall them nagging me too much about watching TV or listening to music; I did have a few of the classic bouts over hair length with my dad, but even those were fairly half-hearted; he even let me transfer from prep school to Central Catholic High so I could let my locks fall over my collar.

So it’s sorta weird to me that I get so exercised over the kid’s screen time in front of the computer playing online Flash-based games. I feel like some sort of clichéd old man: “Turn down that damn music!” Or “It’s a beautiful day, why don’t you go outside and play?!”

The one that particularly makes me nuts is called “N.” The player controls this little stick figure man as he jumps around these platforms trying to avoid being killed by falls, explosions, Pacman-like balls, and other challenges.

Under certain conditions—long, empty afternoons, commercial breaks during American Idol, mornings when she should be getting ready for school, the kid will sit in front of the screen for as long as we let her, tapping at the keys, making her little guy go here and there, level to level.

I suppose it’s teaching some sort of hand-eye coordination skills, and maybe an appreciation for the interface, and perhaps even empathy for the little man on screen, but to me, it’s just an insipid waste of time and I find myself wanting to shut down the computer and never let her play again.

But, at least she’s not destroying the house or spilling my coffee.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Don't Panic

One of my favorite pieces of advice ever given to me by my yoga guru, David Garrigues, was “don’t panic.”

This was in reference to my behavior in urdhva dhanuranasana, the “upward bow” pose, where my tendency is to grit my teeth and lose all control of my breath, huffing and puffing in pain until such time as I can plop back down and lie in a quivering heap on my mat.

David’s advice was intended to have me notice that in spite of how painful and difficult back-bending is for me, it’s not likely to be my demise; I might want to die in the pose, but I’m not going to, in other words.

That’s sort of how I feel about the world in general today. It’s all going to hell in a handbasket, but this is no time to freak out about it. I’m an old guy, after all; it’s important to take the long view; I may feel like I’m going to—or want to—die, but chances are good things will generally take care of themselves if I just calm down and breathe.

Of course, I could be fooling myself horribly; this might be just the time to go raging around, selling everything, casting caution to the wind, and changing everything all at once. But I guess if it IS that time, then it doesn’t really matter all that much what I do; all is lost, anyway.

DON’T PANIC is the core advice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, too; and insofar as it worked for dear old Arthur Dent as he bounced around the universe, I take it as a pretty good admonition for my own adventures here and there. It’s pretty obvious to me, anyway, that all the times I have panicked in my life—that that time I freaked on ‘shrooms and called my parents in Pittsburgh at 2:00 in the morning from San Francisco—it’s been a mistake.

So, don’t panic, indeed.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Second Class Citizens

For most of its history, I think, the United States was something of a second-rate backwater. You had to go to Europe to find good art, fine cuisine, and, in lots of places, indoor plumbing.

It was only, I guess, after World War I, but then, I would say, not really until the great engine of American industry really kicked it into gear for the Second World War that the good old US of A became a major player on the world’s economic and cultural stage. So, the country had about 50 really good years, from the late 1940s to the late 1990s, but now, especially post 9/11, it seems like we’ve reverted to the mean somewhat and are no longer really where it’s at—which might not be such a bad thing.

Maybe it’s time to reconceive America as more of the way it was in the 19th century, when we were mostly a nation of cranky individualists who knew more about how to fix a plow than the best way to dabble in international geopolitics. Maybe we are better suited to being hicks than cosmopolitans.

Now, I’m not advocating protectionism nor isolationism here; I’m just wondering out loud whether our country’s aspirations for greater power and influence globally haven’t been a source of many of our economic and social problems over the past few years. Maybe if we weren’t always trying so hard to be number one, we wouldn’t end up looking (and smelling) like number two.

It’s like when I lived in Los Angeles back in the early 1980s and was hanging around with Carl Reiner’s son Luke and some of his friends; I spent way more money than I had and made a much bigger fool of myself than I usually do just trying to play at their level. When I finally gave up and started hanging around with my old friends again, I was way happier.

Less cool, for sure, but way happier.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Whirlwind

A couple years ago, I rode my bike from Seattle to San Francisco. I was thinking I was all gnarly until, about halfway down the Oregon coast, this Danish kid, cycling in Birkenstocks on a mountain bike with knobby tires, caught up with me and, while riding together, I learned he was on his way from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska—where he’d started in the 24-hour a day sunlight of high summer—to Tierra del Feugo—where he expected to arrive some months hence.

That’s where it became clear to me that there’s always someone harder core than you; and that’s how I felt last night when the second crew of riders showed up at our Green Mountain camp on the Kitsap Peninsula in the pitch darkness, having blindly scaled the two-mile rocky and washed-out logging road that I’d been thinking I was all bad-ass for successfully navigating earlier in the daylight.

It was a whirlwind adventure, though, just the thing to usher in today’s fireworks.

First, fourteen of us were on the ferry boat to Bremerton; then, the sweaty ride west and generally up towards Wildcat Lake; then, we bounced along and occasionally walked and pushed for two miles past clearcuts made lovely with wildflowers; space cookies were eaten and then there was fire and food and beer and lies and laughter and eventually, sheer amazement when the second wave of sixteen or so arrived out of the darkness —including Kat on an Xtracycle and wide-eyed Alex, who had showed up at Westlake Center just expecting a typical Thursday night ride but who came along, anyway.

I stayed up as late as I could to bask in their awesome before finally succumbing to those same molecules that knocked out practically all the cookie eaters like bowling pins falling down although not too early to have it already be dawn and just about time to get up, bomb downhill to the ferry and be home in time for family breakfast.

Whirlwind.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Conference Bike

I’m fairly obsessed with this contraption, the Conference Bike, a human-powered machine that carries seven riders and has room in the middle for a keg of beer.

I believe a sufficient number of Conference Bikes used appropriately could—in a small way, anyway—save the world, by offering an alternative “zero-carbon” transportation option as well as fostering discussion and dialogue among riders of all ages, genders, and classes.

Or anyway, it would be hilarious and delightful to see a fleet of “CoBi”s deployed on Seattle city streets; seems to me that they’d be way more efficient than, say, the South Lake Union Trolley, far less expensive, and no tracks to endanger cyclists of the two-wheeled variety.

So, I’ve been talking with the guys at Dutch Bikes Seattle, who have the local Conference Bike franchise, such as it is, about getting my hands—and I guess, feet, too—on a CoBi so I can start exploring ways it might be deployed more broadly in the community.

What I hope to do is lease one for the month of August and just start trying it out in different applications: as sort of a “pedicab” for sporting events or street fairs, as an “attractive nuisance” rolling by in the nightclub district, as a venue for taking an “underground” tour of Seattle, or even as a jitney bus around my neighborhood.

I also think the CoBi would be the perfect place to conduct philosophy discussions; I could see people taking a “Pedaling Philosophy” tour, where we would ride around and engage in philosophical inquiry, but maybe this is the sort of activity that only me and half a dozen of my friends or acquaintances in the entire world might find interesting.

But this is just the sort of thing I want to find out in August, by having a CoBi of my own to experiment with.

First thing I have to find out is whether you can get a banquet (drinking) license for it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Slaughterhouse Five

Another book I read and enjoyed as a teenager and liked at least as much this time around, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade, A Duty Dance With Death, has held up surprisingly well, I think, in spite of its tincture of hippy-dippiness and modicum of late 60s/early 70s anti-war pedantry.

The book is sometimes described, I believe, as science fiction, primarily, I suppose, because the main character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time,” and bounces around, in scene after scene, to places as spatially and temporally distant as Ilium, New York in the 1920s, to Dresden, Germany, in 1945, to the planet Tralfamadore, millions of miles of earth, sometime in the distant future.

But I think Vonnegut—or that is, Billy, writing about the Tralfamadorians—actually accurately describes the metaphysics of time.

“All moments, he says, “past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

As three-dimensional creatures, human beings can only experience one instant at a time, so it seems like time is passing, or that we’re moving through it. If we had access to the fourth dimension, like the Tralfamadorians, we would see everything all at once, and recognize, as David Hume observed, that cause and effect exists only in our minds.

Granted, Billy Pilgrim’s abduction by space aliens is pretty far-fetched, but as I think Vonnegut is saying, not really any stranger when all is said and done than the fire-bombing deaths of 153,000 German civilians by Allied aircraft late in World War II.

So it goes.