Henry Mancini is an idiot

September 25th, 2009 3:50 pm by Ray

Dave and I flew back on Southwest together. At the airport Dave went to get the car, which was parked at Digidesign, and I went to get the luggage, much diminished by the amount of giftware we had unloaded on Elaine’s mother and sister for distribution to her family. On the way home we got a phone call from Lucas and Annika thanking us for the loot but the reception was bad. Their generation will grow up expecting conversations to drop out unexpectedly, just like my mother’s generation did. Only the baby boomers experienced a society where you picked up a telephone (black) and could reasonably expect to call another person sitting next to a telephone (black) in America and talk to them until the hourglass timer ran out.

We met Cyndi for dinner, and were joined by her friend Gayle from Motorola. While waiting for a table to open at Tamarine, Dave drifted over to her piano and played from the score, “Moon River”. I remembered that Dave can actually sight read. He’s not great at it, but his occasional unintended haltings and reassessments were a lot less rubato than you get from Old Blue Eyes.
I also remembered that Henry Mancini is an idiot. MAD Magazine made fun of him in the 1950’s and rightly so. He stirs his treacle in a safe and sane arc on the circle of fifths and cues every emotion with a soaring sting. It’s catchy; so is gonorrhea.

Speaking of sweet, Tamarine. When I first went there, I thought it was nice that it wasn’t as cloying at Three Seasons, but now it seems that everything is fished from a vat of simple syrup and what must Three Seasons be serving? Grilled Scallops on peppermint candy canes? I don’t even dare google that. I’ll have the Roquefort taffy and the Cadbury’s Chicken Mole and the Tofu Skins in Red Bull, Cherry Coke, nuoc mam, and lemongrass. It’s not just McDonald’s who supersize and drown iceberg lettuce in mustard flavored high fructose honey.

But for $300 you get to call it Fusion.

And so to bed, at home. Not until the next day will I discover what an alien creature has left on the laundry room floor. And I will get to meet the goat, who is terribly shy. And I’ll get to think of next summer. It seems we are going to skip the eclipse. The cruise ships are all full and the flights to small islands do not have a lot to recommend them and it is best not to be a total pervert about these things. I asked Howard Barney after 1977, if he was going to 1979, and he said if he did that he’d have to go to all the rest. I go to about half of them.

But there are other places I’ve heard about. Criminy, I have never even been to the Amazon before, or Socotra.

There’s such a lot of world to see.


September 25th, 2009 3:46 pm by Ray

Denver was pretty quiet.  Dave’s mother had three visitors: us, and Dave’s sister Jill.  We went out to dinner twice with Jill and Elaine, and ate at home the other three days.  Only one other Denver friend was in the area, a college pal of mine named Louis who has what I would call a dream job: sorting through old books at a recycling bin and deciding which ones can be sold for money or donated for right living.  There’s a hierarchy in voluntary poverty which we will all be discovering shortly.  The most powerful get to shuttle between Israel and Palestine and build habitats for humanity, others sort plastics from papers.  Louis finds the bound minutes of Methodist Church Districts in the 18th century (how did they even make it to Colorado, let alone into the trash?) and donates them to theological seminaries.

Dave’s mother is quite old now and we will be visiting her more often.

On Monday we flew to California.  The cost of the airport  shuttle has gone from $18 to $25 during the summer.  We should have bought those instead of even gold.  Our shuttle driver was from Morocco and seemed terribly nervous.  Another shuttle driver had just been arrested for what seems so far to be fairly thin evidence of a terror plot (peroxide bomb diagrams on his computer? better arrest Wikipedia), and I know that a lot of people in America regard Morocco and Afghanistan as pretty much interchangeable and Zakarias has to experience that prejudice.

Weekend in the Hamptons

September 19th, 2009 11:13 am by Ray

Bewley’s Airport Hotel in Dublin is pretty throughput. They take a huge bus of people from the airport and process them into their rooms pretty fast. Plane touchdown to in-room was an hour almost exactly, and that’s changing countries.

I told the passport control guy the story of Washington Multi Thomas when he seemed interested in the Mali visa. I felt very Irish and gabful at conversing so long with a passport official. Too bad all my ancestors who lived in Ireland came on the coattails of the British invaders. Although, they were escaping religious persecution on there own (How does that work, exactly? You’re being religiously persecuted at home in your empire, so you flee to a colony of the same empire. The Pilgrims came to Massachusetts, the Quakers went to Ireland. If the Dutch crack down on the Muslims, will they end up in Aruba? Do American drug and sex offenders go to Puerto Rico?)

I also was able to check my suitcase through from Dubrovnik to NY just as Dave checked his suitcase from Kiev, and I took the problematic map as carry-on. The signs in New York are largely in English. I can almost understand what people say.

Just as people truly phone in their performances, so they spend actually a weekend in the Hamptons. You think of it as being a movie set but there really are all these huge mansions with the characteristic Long Island architectures, and a bunch of people who own boats with big socialite grins.

You know, if you give a big smile every time a camera points at you, nobody will every have a picture of you scowling and you’ll never appear in the National Enquirer. A lot of people, including me, think that all they have to do is wince and somehow they won’t show up on film, but it doesn’t work that way. I was taking pictures every which way at the Clam Shucking Contest, part of “Harborfest” which is how Sag Harbor closes its summer season, and there was this one woman standing behind me who smiled every time my camera or anybody else’s camera was pointed in her direction, and I thought, there is no bad picture of this woman, anywhere. Her smile came up with no more thought than a rock being illuminated by a flashlight. You swing the camera, the smile appears, you swing it away, and it fades. And I realized, that’s how all those pictures get in Gentry. She did not have a stunning model’s face or teeth, in fact now that I think of it, she might have been old — but she was always on.

There’s a chain of high roller socialite magazines like “Gentry” but “Gentry” doesn’t appear to be part of it. Just as with the wheat and the beggars, 80% of rich neighborhoods have their society thrown back at them through the graces of “Niche Media”. Their website hints at the following franchises:


It’s so democratic. You can see samples of the localized smiles here.

Long ago, in a company far far away, a very nice person named Traci left to go work with her brother on movies and we’ve stayed in touch. She lives in Sag Harbor now. It is nice to catch up with people other than on facebook, especially since I don’t even know if she’s on facebook, so I made the very complicated Hampton Jitney connection out to the end of Long Island.

Note to Hampton Jitney connectors: No taxi driver at JFK has ever heard of the “Airport Connection”. It isn’t in their GPS. The Airport Connection is nothing more than a bus stop that the Hampton Jitney stops at. The thing you must tell them is that you want to go to the address

190-02 Horace Harding Boulevard
Fresh Meadows, New York

They will drop you off in front of a movie theater and you will wait by the pole for the next Hampton Jitney. Theoretically you should have a reservation but I was 2 out of 2 as a walk on.

Traci and Joe took me out for Lobster, and the next day to a really fine restaurant called “The Coast Grill” which is decorated like any bayfront dive in the world, but is blessed with an imaginative chef who must be new there because the Zagat reviews from last year don’t seem to be talking about the same guy.

Sunday is a working day for real estate agents, so I walked around the Harborfest and shops in the downtown area where unsaturated blue things are for sale. You get to a certain income level and suddenly the whole world is Wedgwood color, especially by the ocean. There were blue thing stores in Dubrovnik, as well. One thing that was not blue was a red and black cocktail glass that had the graphic for isopropyl alcohol on it. I thought this was funny because I guess that the artist was intending to draw the kind of alcohol found in cocktails, but didn’t realize there was an issue when you look up alcohol wherever you looked up such images if you weren’t a chemist and the Internet hadn’t been invented yet (it was an antique). After I went to the trouble of explaining why this was funny to Traci and the two antique owners of the shop, Traci said I should buy it. Since I was mailing back the map in a tube, I was free to acquire other inconvenient or fragile items to care for.

Monday Morning I fed the black capped chickadees in the Elizabeth A. Morton Wildlife Refuge and took the jitney to Manhattan.

In Manhattan I stayed with Emmett and Tollef and had a front row seat at their ongoing efforts to find an apartment, and in Tollef’s case, a job. Tollef has moved to New York because of a White House sex scandal though he won’t admit it. I think Emmett may find him a gig as a producer. I heard the day after I left they have found a place. They are moving into a mid-19th century home for indigent old ladies which has gone condo, and, post real estate collapse, gone rental.

The real estate market is tough all over. Traci’s company has lots of Bernie Madoff fallout homes on its block, homes owned by Madoff investors who are forced to downsize into appliance cartons under the Tri-boro bridge.

A guy I had met at Burning Man joined Emmett and me for dinner at a wine bar. He was doing some kind of sociology paper on the use of public spaces, and it had made him dangerously extroverted. We went walking out on the Lower East Side around midnight and he struck up conversations with total strangers to ask them what they were doing here, and why. Whenever I learned about New York as a child, it was that you really didn’t talk to people out here.

The next day I took Southwest from La Guardia to Baltimore to Denver. La Guardia is ridiculous. You taxi for one hour for a 35 minute flight to BWI. It’s all built into the schedule, but why is the schedule thus? The driver who took me from Emmett’s house to La Guardia was born in New York. His father was born in Ireland in 1908 and came to America when he was 19.


September 19th, 2009 6:24 am by Ray

When my sister came to Dubrovnik in 1980, there was a shortage of chickens in the restaurants. Or, she said, maybe it was that chickens were all that you can get. I told you there is a problem with the sign of memories.

I took a bus from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik on Monday morning. It was fairly unchallenging. The taxi took me to the bus station and I bought a ticket using Euros (I had been warned I couldn’t do this) and the bus left on time from a bay that had an electronic sign on it. There’s something very reassuring about an electronic sign. No language or alphabet seems entirely unfamiliar when it is formed by moving illuminated dots.

The weather became beautiful as we approached the coast. The Adriatic was travel-poster blue. It reminded me I hadn’t seen the ocean since we got off the boat at Tianjin. I took some photos out the bus window for Goran, who lives in Skopje and likes pictures of nature; even though I was fairly close to his home ecological niche. For myself, I took pictures of a pile of 50 kilogram sacks of sugar outside a cafe where the bus stopped, and oregano growing next to concrete rubble. All those herbs in your sugo, they’re weeds here.

The road down the coast passed through many versions of what San Clemente wishes it looked like. It’s all California. Red tile roofs. Dry washes. I came to Dubrovnik because I simultaneously learned that a friend from college was going to be there meeting friends from his own circle, and Aer Lingus had terrifically cheap fares from Dubrovnik to America, better than any other fare coming out of Eastern Europe, via Dublin. Even figuring in the price of an overnight stay at an airport hotel (Bewley’s), it’s cheaper than any other option.

On arrival in Dubrovnik, I walked three kilometers to my hotel, towing the wheeled suitcase behind like a Radio Flyer wagon. (Were wagons really named that? Why? What does that name mean?)

I walked because I took offense at the money situation. I hadn’t any kunas to start out with, and the rate at the bus station looked like a ten or fifteen percent commission. Sticker shock makes me leave places so I walked out the gate and turned in the direction of the hotel, fully intending to change money at the first reasonable place and take a taxi. The first reasonable money changer showed up almost immediately (when in Dubrovnik, change Euros at 42.65819 N, 18.08738 E; their spread is miniscule and they charge no commission. Also note close by an awesome storefront logo of a wheelchair stick figure holding a rifle), but I saw no taxis at all until I was about two blocks from the Old Town, and a cab offered to take me the remaining 500 meters for 60 kuna, about $12 US. From there it was downhill, anyway. I didn’t figure out the buses until half way through the next day. And it was such a nice day, and some people walk across Mongolia. The next day when I walked some place I could have taken a bus to, I got a chance to imitate an old man eating berries from an unknown tree. I would not want to have missed that, although the berries are not super rewarding in pulp to seed ratio.

Once inside the walled city I determined my hotel was at the top of a stairway, but the taxi couldn’t have helped with that, at any price.

I have decided that the next time anyone asks me why I travel, I will tell them, “because I like the sound of Australian accents.” Any language descended from 18th century criminal cant has promise. However, the Foster crowd are well disciplined and stay on the Fisherman’s Wharf street and in the Carmel Town and by the time I had located the alley that leads to my hotel and walked up its 120 steps carrying the suitcase (feature suggestion to Garmin: “Pedestrian with suitcase” routing mode) I literally can’t hear the crowd, which is really loud when you’re in it.

Dubrovnik is the citadel of a city-state the Romans called “Ragusa” which existed as a more or less independent entity, navigating the diplomatic channels between Venezia and the Byzantines and the Ottomans until 1808 when it was conquered by Napoleon and later handed off to the Austrian empire. It has been damaged or destroyed many times, customarily by earthquakes but most recently by military action by the Yugoslavians who were attempting to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in 1991-1992. Each time it is rebuilt with the original aesthetic — no I.M. Pyramids here, or steel and glass Kremlin Palace of Congresses — and the residents are rewarded for their submission to the architectural review board with World Heritage Status and a most attractive look. Once you’re off the shopping street —but, you know, in 800 A.D. that street was filled with shops too and they were probably brash and unsightly then as now. In 2700 AD when Disneyland is a reconstructed ruin and shops sell plaster models of what was once the castle; will my intellectual descendants be around to complain that it’s got all commercial?

The Dubrovackis attempted to make their economic fortune by making sailing ships in the late 19th century, but settled on tourism. They’ve always been neoliberal. Abolished slavery in 1418 says the town website. I wonder about the economic motives behind the abolition of slavery. If you regard it as a given that workers have no say in their situation, which seems to be pretty much the case everywhere, then abolishing slavery has really no more effect than privatizing (abolishing) the social welfare responsibilities which used to fall to the slaveholder. Naturally when “free” workers are regarded as being more disposable than slaves, capitalism supplants slavery simply because it saves money for the factory owners, or, as the economists say, who count only the pecuniary interests of the owning classes, is “more efficient”.

I did little in Dubrovnik. Walked the city wall, finished my stack of post cards. Had dinner with Blue and Louise. Generally speaking very good food. Hard to get into the best restaurants but satisfying when you did. Nice pizza. I picked up the dining guide at the tourist information office and chose out of it for the most part. I do wish that someone trained in Continental manners had been there with me. I lack the temperament to sit in a succession of cafes all day long, even though I know I am lazy enough. It’s just not the British North American Way.

I failed to see a concert Wednesday night. The playlist was like, Unchallenging Pieces from the Western European Baroque Canon played by the Town String Quartet. If the ticket price had been 50 kuna I would have gone but the lady said the price was 100, a price not on the poster. That bit of sticker shock provided a good excuse not to go. It put me in touch with the fact that I didn’t actually feel like hearing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Tourist joints teach you about yourself.

Thursday night, however, I did see a concert. It was Unchallenging Pieces from the Western European Romantic canon played by the Dubrovnik Symphony orchestra, principally Grieg’s piano concerto. I was seated about ten feet from the piano which made it even more pianistic than it already is, but what a fabulous space the Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik is, for a concert! The orchestra sets up in the courtyard, the audience is on risers under the arcades, and the sound reverberates on the limestone and marble and rises up into the sky and by the way, if you are in Dubrovnik and go to a concert here, get the cheapest tickets, the standing room ones. I paid full price, and people who paid were placed in little removable party seats, but the standing room crowd was on the stairways to the upper floors, listening to the music through the balustrade as if in a Victorian lithograph of the Night before Christmas.

The day of that concert I had rented a car and driven to see Kotor, which is a less known walled city than Dubrovnik but the same idea, like San Jose and San Francisco. It seems that the large cruise ships don’t go there. The crowd looked much more yachtie than cruisy. They also have ineffective beggars in Kotor.

“Beggars” is not the word I’m looking for. What do you call children who are in the employ of sinister mobsters, and who beg as their job description? It’s what the kids were in Slumdog Millionaire. I wonder if I’ve even seen a beggar in the last ten years. They must be as rare as independently owned diners in airports. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to learn that there are only five megacorporations who control 80% of the world’s mendicancy, just the same as with wheat. How could an independent operator hope to survive?

I wish I were Kone, our guide in Mali. He could read beggars just like that. Sometimes he gave bread and sometimes he said, “I’d sooner throw my money down a well.”

Giving food is the key. The little girl who came to my table on the square when I sat eating a feta and lamb salad at the Hotel Vardar in Kotor would not take an apple. She wanted 2 Euros. She said: “Two Euros”. That was a non-negotiable point. From another table, she wouldn’t take a lesser amount of cash, even. It’s 2009, franchised beggars can be choosers.

I owe Bosnia 13 Euros

September 19th, 2009 5:51 am by Ray

Imagine Switzerland but without the snow capped peaks, just neat little houses around meadows with haystacks and cornfields, cut by babbling brooks and yellow ribbons with red and white signs with skull and crossbones and the notice in many languages: DANGER MINEFIELD. And on the walls, the pretty designs that aren’t quite swastikas, of the many flavors of mutually exclusive Nazis. Imagine sturdy blond youth singing “Tomorrow belongs to me,” in dialects so similar that they can only be distinguished by knife attacks.

A life lesson: don’t rely on trains being on time. Allow 50%. The train getting into Belgrade was so late that my nearly two hour layover was more like 8 minutes, time for one taxi rejection and a ticket lady who told me to buy on the train. No money changing opportunities. Not that Serbian money would do me good in Sarajevo. But at least, to cash my Euros. And the train out of Belgrade was 40 minutes late by the time it had been an hour out. The last run, to the town of Strizivojna where you change trains to go to Bosnia, it went 150 kph to make the connection, but I felt nervousness all round.

Another life lesson: If you’re going to take cash, take useful cash. It’s true big bills get better rates but it’s also true that they are useless with humans. I took cash this trip because Wachovia charges something like 8 dollars for every foreign currency transaction and the last 5 dollars don’t even post to your account until the end of the month, in a lump sum. The whole bank is a ripoff. I did not realize this until recently, but balloon mortgages were invented by World Savings, which collapsed into Wachovia last year.

I bought a ticket on the train leaving Beograd. There wasn’t time to get one at the ticket counter. I used my one remaining US $20.

The ticket I bought on the train did not cover all the way to Sarajevo. The lady at the train station in Strizivojna could not tell me this. She couldn’t read the handwriting of the conductor.

So I got on the train to Sarajevo without a ticket. I intended to buy one on the train if necessary. Three sets of Bosnian conductors decided I needed to buy a ticket, which cost slightly more than the 5 Euro note I got in change from the $20 bill, but none of them could change a 200 Euro note, nor a US $100, nor a Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Korean, Japanese, nor Mongolian anything. They each of them threw up their hands and did not trouble me the rest of their shift. They saw me walking off the train. I asked tourist information at Sarajevo if there was a money changer in the station and he said “no” but his friend would change but I feared a very bad rate and used the 5 Euro note for a taxi to the hostel. It is only double the metered price, but it was also night time by then.

What is it my life long teachings say, don’t cross borders on a weekend? I crossed three of them on Saturday, and each was a problem.

Sarajevo is another town partially in ruins, and coming on the tail of so many other ruins, the dramatic impact of it depended on your knowing the story. I bet I would not have noticed the shell holes on the street or the bullet holes in the walls if I hadn’t been looking for them. Concrete crumbles so badly anyway. I spent Sunday walking around Old Town, which is the European word for Mall, and was tremendously disappointed that nobody would sell me the poster for the bee products market that was on. Buying bee products when you’re on the way to America is not wise. The agriculture department doesn’t want you to. But I peered in churches and mosques and graveyards and shops. There is a great deal of tourist knickknackery built out of shell casings. Talk about making lemonade when life gives you lemons. The souvenirs are rather heavy so I passed.

The post card situation was better. Not all the shops had the same post cards. I don’t know what it is about my Babbitt taste, but tell me if you have noticed this: you see something, you think it’s cute, and then you see that every store in the entire neighborhood has exactly that thing and suddenly it doesn’t seem so interesting any more. Is this a valid aesthetic? If a thing is pretty, shouldn’t it be pretty though there be a thousand of them per mile covering the whole earth? I never have this reaction to the fields of Farewell-To-Spring that carpet the hills near Tehachapi, but handsome little scratched metal plates that seem so refined the first time you spot them look tawdry the one hundredth. And when they say “Made in China” on the back, that affects perception, too. Let’s go to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and slap a Made in China sticker on it and see if the crowds leave.

There’s a monument to the children killed during the siege of Sarajevo. It is made out of stacked up glass. I don’t get the artistic connection between the glass and the children but I don’t suppose you want anything very representational in that public space, either. One of the children who was not killed ended up working at Draeger’s, in about the year 2000. His name is Mirza and he is missing his right foot and his sister lost an arm when a grenade landed in their backyard. I know that it’s bad social policy to name laws after children who have suffered, but you would have to be near dead at heart not to feel the impetus.


September 19th, 2009 5:44 am by Ray

There are many kinds of tourism, many things that you vary in your life incidental to changing your geographical location. In Craiova I went food shopping with a newly pregnant woman. Last September I went to Dan and Laura’s wedding here; the upcoming baby is an adjunct to that. The day that I arrived, Laura couldn’t keep food down very well, and she thought that some widely varied commodities might help.

I suppose this can be classified as a kind of gender tourism. It’s not an experience that puts itself often in my life.

The next two days she was feeling better. I’m told that it goes on like this for some time.

Things in Craiova are not good. The economy that I wrote of last year, everyone making deals furiously, was the froth on the bubble that was bursting at that moment in America. Now everyone asks me: “Are things getting better in America yet?” There isn’t a lot of bill paying happening in Romania, except for the insane insistence of everyone on paying for my dinner.

The lack of money has caused some tensions in the extended family of the village of Teasc. Everyone patched stuff up to take care of me, but they aren’t all happy with the deals they have made with each other in the days when Euros were flying around like sugar in a cotton candy machine.

Here is a phrase: Cristi’s girlfriend Ana Maria, in her avatar as news reporter for her radio station, was assigned to ask questions one night to a televised interview with an education minister. She conducted the interview on the phone. He was in the studio being managed by some other interviewers. I always thought that “phoning in your performance” was an exaggerated stage slang expression, but it turns out to really be a phenomenon. We were watching in the living room. She was on her phone in the bedroom. I was surprised at how good the sound is from a cell phone. Of course I couldn’t understand what anybody was saying, but the sound was good.

The last day we spent at two restaurants. The first one was a grandiose thing financed by an ex-Securitate person who wanted to build a bit of extravagant wooden rural Romania a ways north of Craiova, and the second, on the southwest of town, which I think represented also a Securitate second career (well who do you think had the money in Romania in 1989? It isn’t like it all went into a pot), is a monument to Ceausescu Kitsch. Bright orange is the theme color; there are ferroconcrete white statues everywhere, a brand new little chapel, and a bunch of tanks and artillery and snowplows and other war materiel on the front lawn. We sat in the shade and drank juice, since there was no room for any food after having a pound of meat at the first place. I bought an orange t shirt. Laura was feeling well enough at that point for a huge dish of ice cream. Her baby is getting a varied diet.

After that it was time to go to Dan’s mother’s house for another dinner, and for her to completely stuff my backpack with food for the Sarajevo train trip which began just after midnight. We waited for the witching hour at the town square, which has been set up with musically synchronized fountains splashing along to the music of Old Vienna. I mailed a batch of post cards and got on the train.

Anyway, I love Andrei and Alex and Dan and their friends more than I love my own hair color. I never want to leave any of their company. I hope that things will work out well for them.


September 19th, 2009 5:41 am by Ray

Most of what I do in Romania is converse, and I am dutifully reporting on it embellished with the wit of a distant staircase. It is hard for me to model to myself, how an entire civilization may be run when everybody is drinking coffee and fresh de portocale and chatting in cafes all day long, but Romania and many other European countries are that advanced. To American eyes it looks like the Krell machines. Even when you go to job sites, the work is being accomplished by sleight of hand. Andrei’s mother, I know, works very very hard, but she never lets you see it. Maybe it’s just not cool to look busy. Such the opposite of Office Space.

One touristy thing I did in Iasi was to visit an unauthorized garden of modern sculpture made during the Ceausescu years, way out in the woods. They aren’t lurid or anything. The artists wanted to avoid the permit process. It isn’t flooded with tourists and I think I will leave it that way by not saying where it is. You get to the garden via a long walk. It looks like an abandoned version of the Djerassi estate. It’s another instance of ruins, although the pieces aren’t ruined. There is at least an old ruined monastery on the site, with an old ruined bell. The clapper has been replaced by a can. It’s hanging from a tree.

After sipping orange juice for four days at the handiest cafes in Iasi, I was deposited with 90 seconds to spare onto the afternoon train to Bucharest. It wasn’t intended to be that close a cut.

At noon Andrei and Nikos decided we would go for coffee and orange juice with Stef and Butza. Like we do every day.

We were sitting on the patio in front of Andrei’s family house.

All morning long we had been hearing this cat going “mew, mew mew” from down in the street. I was thinking, poor thing, it’s probably lost its mom or something.

So we got in the car and started driving to “Magic Pizza” by Stef and Butza’s work.

And we heard the cat. Nobody wanted to believe his ears but after about 800 meters we looked at each other because the cat was IN THE CAR somewhere.

Andrei stopped directly in the middle of the street, put on his flashers. We all got out and started looking under the hood. It’s hard to tell where a sound is coming from in a car.

Andrei was all, I don’t want to burn it up in my engine, we have to get it out, I am going to go to a car shop.

So he drove very slowly and stopping a few times to over to “Auto Adria” and told the guys his story. They were laughing at him I think, but at the same time, they could hear it going “MEOW MEOW” in the car, and even if you are all macho about the fate of small animals and have large paintings of seal hunts on your wall and yell at gypsy children, the fact is, if you do roast a kitten in the engine, you’re then going to have a repulsive barbecue hair smell, it is a problem that has to be fixed so they rolled the car over the pit and three guys got under and started taking the car apart from underneath.

They did get the cat out. It was a little gray kitten with blue eyes, all covered with dust. I guessed it to be about 5 weeks old, counting for some stunted growth.

Nikos got in the back seat holding the kitten who promptly escaped and crawled under the gas pedal into the engine.

Meanwhile, Stef and Butza showed up with a container of milk for the kitten. They were about to open it but the kitten was at that point hiding in the engine so I said, “Don’t open the milk until you have the kitten,” which Stef for some reason thought was the funniest thing he ever heard and talked the rest of the time how it was going to be his new watchword. Maybe it reads better in Romanian.

The cat was extracted again and I held it by the neck this time. Andrei gave it some milk. It was starving. It was also old enough to know how to drink milk from a dish, which is one problem less.

Andrei decided it had crawled in at Radu’s apartment block so he went there and found some boy who said that it was one of a band of wild cats that lived under the apartment so Andrei left it there with the milk and the kitten tried to follow him back.

I will bet that the next time Andrei parks there, the kitten is going to get in his car again, or try to make friends. Nikos wants to keep him. He is a wild animal. He was biting me, the kitten I mean. His teeth are too small to go through skin but he doesn’t have any human society manners. Cute little thing though.

I had time for one glass of juice at Magic Pizza which I drank in 90 seconds and then we left for the station. Andrei went down two one way streets wrong. If we had been stopped I would have missed the train.

There was a crazy guy in my compartment 80 years old talked non stop, only every 2 minutes this poor old lady next to me who nominated herself to be Social said “Da, da, da” the men just buried their heads in the newspaper.

The newspaper said that Putin apologized for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, 70 years too late.

I stayed one night in Bucharest at Coco’s Hotel. The next day I had lunch with my friend Alex. Also joining us, the same as last year, were Ben and Poli Timis, the parents of a fellow who worked at Opcode. What had changed since the previous year, was that their son had died, at a terribly young age. It was not a total party lunch.

How Do You Know What You Know?

September 19th, 2009 5:39 am by Ray

It seems to me that Stef and some of his countrymen are more likely than most of my crowd from the world of science and industry, to believe in explanations other than the official ones about various recent catastrophes, and I can’t say I blame him.  Skepticism is to be encouraged, and to be found among nationalities which have spent their whole history wedged between empires.

I try as an exercise to put myself in the mind of a Romanian soldier on August 26, 1944, who awoke to find himself charged with killing the Germans along whom he had fought side by side for the last three years against the Russians, whose alliance with the Romanian interest was doubtful.  What is it like, to be so mentally flexible?  But I can’t put myself in the mind of a soldier.  I don’t know enough about the army, a piece of ignorance I spent some effort attaining in the Vietnam years.

Andrei’s grandfather got along well with the German soldiers.  He was a blond child, not one of the 13,000 residents of Iasi who were systematically suffocated in railroad cars in June of 1941.  When you’re ten years old and a soldier lets you fire his gun — well nowadays that in itself would be suspect; as John Waters said, “Making eye contact with a child will get you life.”  But back then, it won friendship.

When the Russians came, their family lost its land and the Russians were loutish.  They had their reasons to be loutish, owing to three years of invasion eagerly participated in by the Romanian army which had switched sides so belatedly.

With so many people with such conflicting histories living in close proximity, perhaps it is well not to overdevelop the critical capacity.  I know that my house was built on land that was captured from a people, the Ohlone, who were murdered.  But at least they aren’t living next door to me, so it’s a philosophical issue.  That’s the upside of genocide.

But having cultivated ignorance and denigrated imagination, how do you treat new questions?

What sort of tools do you need, in order to evaluate the competing explanations of history? — especially, I would say, the official versions.  I think most people are willing to conjure themselves up into an Illuminati board meeting where a master plan is made to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center, blame it on the Arabs, and reinvest the huge profits from the Osama-puts into securitized fraudulent mortgages to bring down the global economy.  It would be just one more closed caption parody on an Angry Hitler video on YouTube, and some of them are really funny; although Top Gun 2 Brokeback Squadron is still my favorite recut.

Contrariwise, to imagine the effort of going to the moon is beyond many people’s experience; hard to shoehorn into a clause containing the verb “can has”.

The education system doesn’t encourage careful thinking because it would destabilize the church, and the church is a big campaign contributor.  If you were to develop the mental tools to determine that it was unlikely on the evidence that a baby alien was caught in a mousetrap in Mexico, and you were to train these intellectual superpowers on the stories about a man who survived crucifixion or one who rode a magic horse to Heaven from Jerusalem — well, you can see where that would leave some extremely rich ecclesiastical organizations, so we are just going to have to live with an overwhelming majority of ignorant people for a long, long time.

For that matter, California schools must be of two minds to teach even statistics, since they are nominally dependent on silly poor people playing the lottery (fortunately, most of the lottery cash seems to be getting stolen before it gets to the schools, which decouples their interest somewhat with the perpetuation of out-and-out mathematical illiteracy.)

We speak on Andrei’s porch.  There are grape vines overhead and the sound of animals in the street.  PETA would admire the independence of the dogs and cats in urban Romania, though not some of the other cultural things.  Maybe Madonna will take up the issue.  Andrei’s parents pretty much don’t let you sit around without food in front of you.  It all begins with cucumbers and tomatoes and onions and cheese and it continues until it is time to go out to a cafe and converse.  I have this point to make, arranged neatly this time in paragraphs:

What would you have to learn, to evaluate the OFFICIAL explanation of:

The World Trade Center attack?  Do you know what’s involved in demolishing a building?  The total amount of energy contained in the tanks of a fully fueled 767?  The way in which the design of the insulation around steel girders to resist ordinary fires works against the stability of the girders when you have a sustained jet fuel fire?  The actual policies on the handling of hijacked aircraft in effect on September 11, 2001, given that every hijacking in the world to date had played out approximately the same way, with the commandeered aircraft flown to some airfield to begin a negotiating process carried out with some level of gentility, even at Entebbe?  The performance of those or any other military policies under stress?

There is a tremendous will to believe that the U.S. military functions perfectly at all times, and any apparent mistake must be a gambit.  Don’t know where that idea comes from, except that few people have direct military experience now.

The Moon Landing: There must be some standard course material on the analysis of two dimensional pictures of illuminated three dimensional surfaces.  Eyes are a start.  Do the moon pictures look so unlike a picture of a landscape to you?  How powerful a laser pointer would an amateur astronomer need, to fire up to the corner reflector the astronauts left on the moon and recover the signal back a few seconds later?

What search terms should be used to locate the amateur astronomers who listened in on space conversations in the 1960’s?  You read about them from time to time.

Laboratory AIDS:  One must at least look up “cladistics” in Wikipedia, understand something of the published history of the early samples and the human and animal genetic variations of the virus, and know the basis of the calculation that AIDS transited from chimpanzees to man around 1910.  Then you can speak of whether it’s more likely that all of these samples were faked together with all of their genetic variations, all in a decade when biological knowledge was a fraction what it is now, and cladistics not even a word, unless you postulate an entire alternate science which is kept entirely under wraps and so on and so forth until you are directly examining the Solipsistic Paradox, which of course cannot be resolved, as any scientist will tell you before changing the subject.

Global Warming: One must know at least the elements of atmospheric science.  One must understand in some detail what it means for a particular molecule to trap the energy of solar radiation as atmospheric heat.  And at a very minimum, one must have a map of the earth and the atmosphere to a one meter resolution, together with something at least as useful as 65,536 petaflop 128-bit processors, each with a 256 terabytes of memory, and the whole of human chemical knowledge loaded in as initial conditions, so as to be able yourself to evaluate the latest published theories just like Galileo was able to build Lippershey’s telescope.

The JFK assassination:  Learn to fire a sniper’s rifle, and kill a few people.  Go to Dealey Plaza and to the Grassy Knoll.  See what it looked like from the School Book Repository.  Imagine the mind state of a bar owner and guess why he would decide to shoot the most heavily guarded man on the planet because he loved JFK, and die of cancer shortly thereafter.  Study Texas history and learn how many people in Dallas in 1963 loved JFK.

Madonna and the Gypsies and the Homosexuals:  What should the relationship of music and politics be?  What is the history of these bedfellows, from Joe Hill to Horst Wessel to Volunteers Of America?  Does a performer have the right to say anything on stage that isn’t about a shimmying booty?  Is there nothing political about the booty?

Is an audience supposed to agree with everything, and do they have the right to do anything but clap if their opinion diverges?  And as far as content, what would you do if you were born Roma?  All of us not Bedouins, Tuaregs, or Mongolians, have given up the nomadic life for that of cities.  It would be good to learn the history of our personal races while making this transition, to learn how and whether to encourage it among gypsies.

Why is it OK for Proudhon to say “Property is Theft”, but not OK to live it, if that in fact is what happens?

And what if Zamfir comes to Oklahoma and mentions the Trail of Tears?  Does Nadia Comaneci have any Cherokee gymnasts in her Norman atelier?  I’m sure they only talk about booty, though.

There was a discussion at Andrei’s table about the practice of buying and selling babies, another place where the gypsy story and the Madonna story intersect.  It really is a critique of market systems, in my point of view.  It seems obvious that buying any individual baby offered for sale is a tremendous benefit to the baby, because he loses a mother who would sell him for money and gains a mother who was willing to pay for him.  But once you establish that that can be done, people start fabricating babies for sale and a large social distortion ensues, rewarding some seedy folk.

It’s not so different from saying, wow, lets have the state get the numbers money instead of the Mafia, which is good for the first month but shortly the state finds itself in the position of depending on the revenue stream and advertising stupid behavior, and I guarantee you that if drugs are “legalized and taxed”, or “distributed” by “doctors”, there will be a huge industry in radio ads for heroin that use the same taglines as the current ads for lottery tickets.  Dream a little dream……..

Moving right along, the psychology of somebody at a Madonna concert who would boo her for propagandizing for gay rights is completely beyond me; it’s like the standard scene in all the date comedies where whoever Seann William Scott is playing wanders into a gay bar and doesn’t realize it right away.

Who do they think is dancing up on stage, and why do they think they have a boner?  Unless of course, it was the serious condescension of it all.  I don’t know much about Romanian society but nobody slags Dave and me for getting a double bed when we are both here and the distribution of opinion seems to be about like any European country, less gay than Amsterdam, less homophobic than the Vatican.  Homophobia is an interesting mental condition.  Is there an animal model?  Did God make a mistake with humans, and make boys so cute and so hot that He had to synthesize a psychological state, else the race die out, that would force boys and girls to mate with each other in spite of the fact that it was obviously not the best option?  Butza, Leon, any comment?

And So To Iasi

September 9th, 2009 7:24 am by Ray

Two old guys with badges numbered #2198 and #2030 spent 15 minutes tearing up the threshold of the door to the train compartment I was in at the border between Ukraine and Romania, and the same with every compartment on the train.  They used crowbars and screwdrivers.  If they were looking for contraband, it should have become obvious from the first rusted screw, that nobody had been in there for a LONG time.  The wood is also mostly decayed.  I’m guessing they were looking for some railroad connected malfunction they saw evidence of under the car.  The car was elevated for the bogie changing operation at the time.  By looking at the turning screws I estimate the rate of rising and descent was about 3 mm per second, which explains why we didn’t feel it in Mongolia.  I was motioned not to take photos of the operation.  Security by habit.  I expect you could find movies of bogey changing on YouTube.

Romanian customs was not so deep.  The man said to me:

“You have liquor?  You have health problem?  You have gun?”

There was a bit of confusion in Suceava because the train did not go to the station it said it would on the Internet and Train Station schedules.  With the use of cell phone technology, rendered more difficult by low battery and low money conditions for Andrei and me respectively, we managed to connect with each other nevertheless.  I got off at Suceava instead of continuing on to my Iasi connection, because Radu lives there during the week, managing some aspect of Iulius Mall’s existence, and Andrei was driving him home for the weekend.  Radu’s car was in the shop.  While waiting for Radu to finish work for that Friday, Andrei and I drove out to the nearest arguable tourist site, a monastery.  There are a lot of them in South Bucovina.

I bought a photo permit for the monastery but I’m not sure what I got for it.  The right to take a photo of Andrei in an apron, to be sure.  He had shorts on and they gave him the apron because you aren’t to wear shorts in a monastery.  God is distracted by thighs.

(The Buddhists at Erdene Zuu took the opposite approach to the problem of Andrei’s thighs.  They put a giant stone effigy of a penis pointing at a valley in the shape of a vagina, to defuse the issue of the Buddhist monks thinking about sex.  Lenny Bruce took the same approach when he said Nigger Nigger Nigger.  The cultural effect has been mixed.)

But beyond the invisibility of Andrei’s knees, you can’t take pictures inside the church because I’m not quite sure why on religious grounds, but there is certainly a physical reason given the cumulative effects of flash on paint and tripods on worship.  And the nuns and monks did not want themselves photographed.  The nuns would not even let me take a desktop photo of chopped peppers they were preparing, presumably for pickles since it’s that time of year.  In the end I took a picture of vestments drying on a clothesline.  I hope it comes out.  The iconoclasts were never vanquished.

(Nor were they victorious.  After al Qaeda were briefly driven from Kandahar, a book was published of photos the Taliban had taken of each other in a portrait shop they had closed.)

And so to Iasi.

My personal experience of Romania is of lesser interest to the general public since I go there to hang out with my friends.  It would be an affectation to pretend that there were issues of privacy involved; the Internet was privatized 21 years ago and in 2009 even surveillance cameras have surveillance cameras, there to insure that nobody is taking unauthorized photos of the surveillance cameras.  There is a line in Blue Velvet about this — “Don’t you look at me!” — which is echoed in the G.I. Joe mashups both as “Don’t look at me when I’m talking to you!” and “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”  Now that I think of it, I’m not quite sure whether the Blue Velvet quote is a Do or a Don’t.  I think we often forget the sense of our experiences.  We remember we felt strongly about a thing, or that something was important, but after 20 years we forget whether we liked it or hated it.  Advertisers count on this.

It’s not like Andrei’s boyz sit around plotting assassinations or drug smuggling or even affairs.  And even if they did, it’s not like people haven’t posted their murder details on MySpace (I had to say “MySpace” for the Retro of it all; it’s like two metaphors back in the expression of inappropriate publicity, having been replaced by “facebook” and “twitter”.  Does anyone mention Twitter any more?  I’ve been out of touch.)

(“Fools’ names and fools’ faces/are always found in public places.”  Did your mother teach you that?  It was about writing on walls.  Physical walls.  I wonder who owns foolsface.com.)

But a part of the cachet of this writing is making rude remarks about God vs. thighs and Ukrainian security, and one doesn’t speak of ones’ friends that way.  I will say any number of things about God I wouldn’t say about Andrei.  And you aren’t going to be googling for how to visit Andrei unless you already know him.

This alludes to the question of Utility.  If I say Chasing Two Hares is dumb or Coco’s Hotel by Gara de Nord in Bucharest is still a nice place and the best choice of where to stay in Bucharest, and the different Andrei at their front desk is still a sweetheart, who actually remembered me from last year — that’s news you can use.

The Zone of Alienation

September 4th, 2009 5:20 pm by Ray

A student working on a thesis concerning “disaster tourism” told us that the poisoned area downwind of the Chernobyl plant is known by different names in different branches of the Ukrainian government. His favorite is the “Zone of Alienation”.

Hopefully he is giving some thought to the boundaries of “disaster tourism” (a name he doesn’t like, nor “dark tourism”). It seems to me, as the converse of “it’s an ill wind that blows no good”, that almost any touristic place is the site of somebody’s disaster, from Marathon to Disneyland.

I have received more inquiries, “Why are you going to Chernobyl?” than nearly any other place I’ve been, or announced I was going to. People even in Kiev ask that. But then, they’ve already been there; or at least Chernobyl has come to them.

Why anybody wouldn’t want to go to Chernobyl? It’s the second most contaminated spot on the planet and the site of one of the most powerful metaphors of hubris to lie near a comfortable tourist infrastructure. You all know where you were when Reactor 4 exploded, or where you were when you would have found out if information had not been suppressed. It would be like going to Dallas and not visiting Dealey Plaza.

The abandoned city of Pripyat lies 7 kilometers downwind of the nuclear plant. It was evacuated forever two days after the reactor blew up — an unconscionably long time, whose story is told in documentaries and books. You can go there for $185 US, or some other price. That’s how much Sergei charged us.

The sight of a town full of ruined buildings is not intrinsically moving, if you’ve spent long in any rust belt. The whole Soviet Union is full of ruined buildings just like what you see here. When Communism fell, hundreds of thousands of factories went out of business overnight, whole cities were abandoned, cities that had been built by the Communists to achieve the absurd industrialist ideal of full employment for workers, but never made any sense by the unthoughtful capitalist economics that has succeeded it. So everywhere you go in Russia, or ex-Russia, you see concrete shells, with papers scattered on the floor, all the wires ripped from the walls to sell for scrap, trees growing out of the upper floors. I mean EVERYWHERE. It’s like the Foreclosed City of Modesto.

Don’t buy recycled metal from the Ukraine.

The forest has grown up so completely that you don’t really sense the size of it (population 50,000). You just wander around in old concrete buildings like the ones in Kyzyl or along the railroad, until the guide warns you that your 15 minutes are up and you have to get out of the radiation zone before you absorb too much. In Pripyat the radiation rate is 1-2 milliroentgens per hour, more on the ground where the mosses pick it up.

We went to an amusement park, a gymnasium, and a school, in addition to the “tourist center” outside the reactor wall where an ex-KGB scientist explains what happened and tells you where you can point your camera and where you can’t. The culture of nuclear secrecy never dies. He also showed a video which contained a subset of the information on the video that was shown on the bus on the way to the Zone of Alienation. The tourist center also has the COOLEST doll house you ever saw, a scale model of the concrete-enclosed plant that opens up to reveal the destroyed reactor inside.

You are allowed about 500 meters from the “Sarcophagus”. So many men died where we were standing, putting out the reactor fire. They saved Europe.

I wonder where their bodies are, and if they are incorruptible?

Lunch was served in Chernobyl. The town, just to the south of the plant, is not in the Zone. But the vegetables are imported, locavores suspend your belief for a meal. The fish in the cooling pond at Chernobyl are not eaten. They are huge, and tame.

More death:

The catacombs in Kiev are number one on my catacomb list as of now. We visited the Lavra Monastery. They have dozens of mummified monks, more innocently incorruptible of course, wearing the most elaborate embroidered burqas you ever saw, in glass top coffins, in a maze of twisty little passages underground. All light, by candles only. No photos obviously but a photo would duplicate nothing of the experience, unlike galleries and museums where photos capture most of what is felt and would interfere with the revenue stream. If you ever come to Kiev, allow yourself much more time than there is to see this and the other city marvels.

Also in Kiev:

The Great Gate of Kiev was never constructed. There’s a structure built in the 1990’s incorporating a few rocks from the original city wall that goes by that name, but it mostly is for drinking beer around in the late summer afternoon. The drinking age in Ukraine appears to be about the second trimester. I never saw such a collection of kids wandering the streets with open containers as on the Ukrainian National Day. I don’t have any idea what laws might apply, but the police would have to put down their drinks to issue a citation so the heck with it.

Don’t bother with the restaurant “Chasing Two Hares”. That’s the sort of place that gives Tourist Restaurants a bad name. Three bored musicians playing along with music-minus-three versions of: “Girl from Ipanema”, “Brazil”, “What a Wonderful World”, “Besame Mucho” hear anything Ukrainian yet? me either. There was a video loop of a movie with the name Chasing Two Hares which appeared to be something like The Music Man, and they were the sound track. The food took forever to arrive and it was tepid and the waiters were invisible. The main courses were good enough, but the side dishes may well have come from packages. And oh, there weren’t any Ukrainians there. The first tourist restaurant, O’Panas, had plenty of local people and it was fun.

One more restaurant recommendation: the Fornetto wagon at the town square. It always had a line. Dave left on a flight for New York via Warsaw and I bought train food there and around the square, on our last day in Kiev, as I was going overnight to Romania.

Fornetto is a franchise where you get a trailer with an oven and the company ships you little balls of stuffed dough to bake up on the spot and it’s great snacks in the under a dollar category. It wasn’t so great for train food, as the dough cools; and my salad from a convenience store leaked; so I ate everything early on the train ride to Suceava, and had nothing the rest of the ride. Not eating is an impossible decadence in Eastern Europe.