Saturday, July 30, 2011

Housekeeping

Thanks to my better half for helping me spruce the place up. We worked on the header image together, and cleaned up a few loose odds and ends. I´m happy with the way the place looks.

The myopia of fashion, or the fashion of myopia

My vulgar utilitarianism has always made it easy for me to pass off fashion as the senseless triumph of form over function. Opting for milquetoast combinations of khakis with inoffensive button-downs or lifeless t-shirts lets me wear the same clothes for years without the slightest consideration for how they stack up against the latest summer wardrobes. There’s only one area where this strategy really ran off the tracks – glasses.

Here I’ve fallen hook line and sinker, with these hip-looking 21st century stylized spectacles that get me no shortage of compliments. Their clear frames make them look sleek and modern like an Apple designed tablet (I’ve taken to calling them my i-glasses). My enormously thick lenses (due to being almost legally blind) usually weigh down the glasses and make them look uglier and nerdier, but in this case actually create a sharp line along the frames that give them a tricked-out kind of appearance.

But the problem with these glasses, like just about any with plastic frames, is that they are horridly impractical. They never quite fit right, so they’re always slipping off my face. When it’s hot and my face is sweaty, they practically fall off every time I lean over to read something. I’ve found out the hard way that you can’t adjust them on your own – I’ve snapped frames down the middle trying to bend them. I once tried to heat up one pair of glasses with a lighter so I could mold them, which left a big burnt plastic smudge in the middle of the frames (chalk that up to fashion, I suppose). I once dunked them in boiling water to soften them up, which completely warped the lenses and forced me to buy new ones. Adjusting them requires going to an eyewear shop, where they heat up the glasses with a special machine to adjust them. The effects usually last twenty-five minutes before I’m back to shoving the glasses back up the bridge of my nose every ten minutes.

It reminds me of one of many Milan Kundera books that I never quite got through (The Joke maybe?) about a Victorian-era woman in Europe talking to a female counterpart with an annoying pince-nez that keeps bouncing up and down. The woman is ultimately so annoyed by the bouncing pince-nez that she ups and sacks the woman across the face for no reason.

Not like my old wireframe glasses, with the silicone nubs on the nose to hold them in place. Those actually stuck on my face. If they got a little bent out shape, all you had to do was bend them back into shape again.

So how did I get here? (At this point I should clarify – laser surgery is not an option. People with a prescription of -11/-9 do not have enough cornea to be able to safely undergo Lasic. The only other option is a surgically inserted contact lens. No thanks.)

There was actually a decade of my life that I managed to avoid the issue off glasses all together, escaping into the realm of contact lenses that turned a nerdy and self-conscious elementary school kid into a nerdy and self conscious junior high-school kid with delusions of being cool. I ditched the old huge, plastic-framed coke bottles – for good, I’d hoped – imminently increasing my chances with the girls.

I wore my contact lenses from dawn until dusk, never even touching my glasses except for emergency situations that usually involved me losing or tearing a contact lens. My eyes acquired a permanent blood-shot quality from over use of lenses, leading ophthalmologists to insist I was smoking pot.

I kept up that routine until I started reporting, and my eyes just couldn’t take it anymore. It was literally a question of weeks, just from spending so much time staring at a computer screen and reading newspapers. So I picked up the old school glasses I had, the wire frame kind.

“Oh my god, you can’t wear those,” said the woman I was kinda dating at the time. “Nobody wears those wire things anymore. We’ve gotta get you a new pair.” She dragged me down to an eyewear shop, where, at her behest, I tried on a dozen different pairs of plastic framed glasses that were all the rage. They reminded me of the old coke bottles I used to wear when I was a kid that earned me so many snarky side comments. “Are you serious?” I asked her. “This is what people wear these days?” I took this woman’s advice, 13 years after I swore I’d never touch another pair of those things. I bought ‘em, and I kept buying the same style years after she ditched me, or I ditched her, or whatever happened.

It brings to mind a phrase I like to think I either coined or popularized myself – the Highschool Yearbook Phenomenon ™. It’s that outfit or shirt or haircut which, through a process of collective cognitive resonance, goes from being unforgivably ugly to unbearably hip. And often evolves back the other way again, such that what you knew for a fact was cool in highschool will without the slightest doubt look just plain dumb a few years later. At 14 I woke up every morning to “tight roll” my pant legs so nobody could accuse me of wearing bell-bottoms. By 17 I had to start buying pants baggy enough to cover my shoes so nobody could accuse me of tight-rolling. Now tight-rolling is back, but with a big baggy bulge at the crotch. I can’t say I get it. I mostly learned to stop running in this circle and stay on the sidelines with my lifeless Gap fashion.

Except for my glasses. Arguably the most important thing I put on every morning, the one that lets me get to work without getting hit by a truck or running into a telephone pole, the one that should most logically be exempted from the dictates of modern fashion. I can console myself with the fact that these glasses sure do look cool.

Though I’m just picturing it now, sitting down with my kids in 20 years time to look at old family photos on our shiny new i-pads or whatever people will be using in that day an age. And one of my kids will stumble across one of the few photos in which I didn’t take off my glasses, and practically jump out of their chair, shouting what I’d known for decades I’d hear.

“Dad!!!! How did you ever manage to wear glasses that UGLY!!”

Friday, July 29, 2011

Blog much?

How often should a person put up posts on their blogs? It obviously depends on the person. What's fascinating for me is how much you can understand about a person (and how much I understand about myself) based on the way they blog.

I started this blog as a place to let me write, to really sit down and think through an idea and develop it in ways that I can't do on my job. The result is that I don't end up blogging that much, on the grounds that I don't want to fill this space with idle chatter. But an overly silent blog runs the risk of feeling like a house unlived in, a place that people forget about because there aren't any reasons to go there. My answer to this conundrum a contemplative post like this one, something of a blog about blogging.

When the web was first exploding in the late 90s I was desperate to put up a site, but was constantly confronted by the same dilemma -- what do I really want to say to the world? Developing a career in journalism was  in part an answer to this question. Journalists by profession are given specific subjects to write about, and don't generally find themselves questioned about their legitimacy to be writing on that subject. But this only in part solved my writing problem, as this blog evidently demonstrates.


It's the same problem I find myself having with Twitter, which despite my initial eyeball rolling have come to respect as serious tool to do all sorts of things including really good journalism. But from what I can tell, it really functions for you once you start throwing tweets out into the world, which isn't natural for me. It's the same reason that I want to sit down and really think about blog entries and ultimately feel like the post is reaching a conclusion and saying something coherent. My original post on this blog conjured up the idea of a version of a Twitter based on 400-word well-written and punchy posts on subjects of profound relevance. It's easy to see why micro-blogging will always trump my medium-sized blogging idea.

Trying to reserve this space for Writing with a capital W leaves out a lot of worthwhile things that could be said. It's possibly my biggest flaw as a writer -- not wanting to write things on concern that they aren't worth being published. I've been consistently surprised at how just about any post I put up -- even the ones I considered sending to the recycle bin instead of publishing -- almost always get at least a few readers. It's comforting to me that people still want to read some dude's blog even in today's overwhelming landslide of digital noise. I always turned up my nose at blogs filled with pedestrian details of a person's lunch meeting or shopping dates because they struck me about as interesting as a Twitter feed filled with "I'm eating soup" or "I'm drinking coffee" tweets.

Turns out people read both. Which is hard for me to believe, but an obvious sign of why blogging is self discovery.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Vegetable scraps for dinner? Waste not, want not.


I was glad to see the Times story today about the world’s most important and most overlooked subject – wasted food. Having yelled and screamed about our obsession with the world running out of food, I’m glad to see a story on how to eat things that we normally consider trash.

The headline could hardly sum it up better: That’s Not Trash, That’s Dinner.

Gourmet cooks and sustainable eating types have found ways to put potato peels, radish stalks, and cauliflower leaves into every day meals. Watermelon rinds can replace cucumbers in salad? Peach soaked in wine to make an after-dinner aperitif? These are folks after my own heart.

I’ve done some of this sort of thing in my own kitchen from time to time. I from time to time eat something I like to call “leftover vegetable soup,” which is more or less what it sounds like – broccoli stalks and thick watercress stems in a salty vegetable broth. It has a virtuous quality to it that I enjoy more than flavor itself.

Upscale Sao Paulo eateries have gotten in on this act too. Restaurants in the hip neighborhoods of Vila Madalena and Pinheiros have joined an event called Vila Integral that challenges chefs to come up with menus including usually discarded odds and ends. Last year’s event included chicken in watercress-stem pesto, salads with beat stalks, and a dessert made from coconut and watermelon rind. The event is sponsored by the non-profit Banco de Alimentos, which seeks to reduce hunger by reducing food waste – something I wish were the basic starting point for anti-hunger programs.

On a practical level these sorts of events only scratch the surface when it comes to reducing food waste, but they do get people thinking about what’s food and what’s not.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Reggaeton sells out (finally)

I had a strange experience getting into a taxi in Caracas last week – I heard a reggaeton song that I actually liked. It was something I had expected would happen, even as far back as five years ago when I started hearing (and hating) the genre – the self-same gang-banger monotony was finally evolving into something everyone could enjoy. Or maybe it was just selling out. It’s about time.

The first reggaeton hit that really shook Caracas was one I never lived down because it was written by a guy who called himself Mr. Brian (incidentally from my wife’s quasi-home city of Barquisimeto).  Ando Buscando was a minor annoyance, mostly because people would stop me and say “Mr. Brian? What are you looking for? HA!” He put out a second flop that confirmed his status as a one-hit wonder. At that point I really thought reggeaton was going to go away.

Then along came La Gasolina. This took the whole thing to a new level, not just because I heard it every time I got on a bus or walked through a mall. The song just plain made my skin crawl, simply because it was so dumb. Listen for yourself if you want to appreciate the lyrical and musical sophistication. I couldn’t escape it. At my wedding I almost got in a fistfight with a local-yokel DJ who insisted on playing Daddy’s Yankee’s greatest hits. It didn’t matter (not like I could have taken the guy anyway) because my wife’s cousins were about to burn they place down if they didn’t get their reaggeaton-fix. Reaggaton is crap became my mantra. I knew at some stage the predictable combination of fifth-grade misogynist lyrics and commoditized gangster mottos was eventually going to run out of steam.

And reggeaton all sounded the same to me, but this complaint is the hallmark sign of someone who just doesn’t know anything about a given type off music. I’ve heard people say this about blues, jazz, classical music, rap, punk and country. I had to grudgingly admit maybe I just didn’t know the music well enough.

And I knew condemning an entire musical genre was going to be problematic. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my mom in which she declared, categorically, that rap isn’t music. That of course struck me as silly, because someone from my grandmother’s generation no doubt told her that The Beatles wasn’t music. And someone from my great-grandmother’s generation must have told my grandma that jazz was a bunch of crap. This one can keep going about as far back as history books do. Musical purists of the Middle Ages, in medieval iteration of Tipper Gore puritanism, declared the pipe organ a blasphemous machine capable only of a vulgar imitation of the world’s only true instrument – the human voice. And so the circle goes.

I got a respite from reggaeton when I moved to Brazil, which thankfully doesn’t have the slightest interest in this genre (though it does have Brazilian funk, which I find equally boring and based on my limited observations has evolved little in 30 years).

I was back in Caracas last Christmas and was watching some videos at Isa’s cousins house when this weird thing happened – I heard some reggaeton that I actually liked. Don Omar – one of the usual gang-banger types – had put out a cheesy, poppy top-ten hit called Danzar Kuduro. One for the whole family to enjoy. I actually do like it. My inner cynic calls these the 401k hits – a hard-core gun-toting gangster writes a radio friendly song that will get him all over the airwaves and fill his retirement account. An alternative and probably more likely explanation is that these guys realized their songs were only making them famous among the same small group of fans. It must get lonely and isolating for thes guys, stuck with this tiny group of dedicated fans, while Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus get millions of screaming teen-age fans chasing after them. All of a sudden now we’re hearing songs meant for the average listener.

Or to put it more simply, all of a sudden reggaeton cares what I think. Who would have guessed?

Monday, July 11, 2011

A glimpse of what Caracas could be

The crime-ridden colonial center of Caracas was lit up in celebration, the bars packed to the nines and the streets brimming with revelers enjoying live music on a Saturday night. In the eight years I lived in this city, I never saw el centro look this way. It was a rare glimpse of what I hope someday Caracas could become, a ray of a light for a city shrouded in darkness, struggling to overcome an international reputation for violence and decay.

Sure, it's not every day this kind of thing happens. The government spruced up downtown for the bicentennial independence anniversary celebrations and paid big bucks to put on all sorts of shows and organized restaurants to join bar-crawl type events. And there were the occasional obligatory references to Chavez and the revolution that I could have done without.
But it was a unique experience in a city where street life has been drowned out by the steadily growing dominance of cars, the blatant disregard for public spaces, the crime rate that the most dire estimates show Caracas as dangeorous as Baghdad. Few foreigners care for Caracas except to make it the butt of jokes, and I found myself over the years repeated defending it to out-of-sorts ex-pats who couldn't make the place work for them. It's a city I've always wanted to hear some good news about.

On Saturday I got a call from a friend who was heading down to the Plaza Bolivar to see a group called Bacalao Men (I'd first gone to see them in 2001 and was surprised to see they were still around). The city's old colonial center looked cleaned up, the facades repainted and repointed, with enough lighting and security around that people looked geniunely relaxed. I drank stale Malbec out of a Gatorade bottle. People took pictures of each other and had random conversations with whoever was standing next to them. They even put up tanks of potable water -- a brilliant touch for people like me with ideological baggage about buying it in bottles.

This is what Venezuela's supposed to be, it struck me. People are not quiet or shy and taken to hiding in shopping malls or staying inside their houses. Venezuela's oil wealth meant it had cars and highways before most other countries in the region, which left Caracas with a plethora of malls and parking lots. But Venezuelans were born to drink and dance on the street, and there's no reason that Venezuela's colonial center can't be a thriving center of nightlife.

For as long as I can remember, it hasn't been. That plaza was overtaken by clouds of tear gas or convulsed by politically-sparked shoving matches that ended in confused gun battles more times than I could count. Its isolated and poorly lit streets were always prime territory for muggings and robberies, its sidewalks for years overrun by informal street vendors hocking everything knock-off t-shirts to bootleg CDs.

We finished watching the show and walked to a restaurant, where I used to have lunch while covering Congress, that was holding a poetry slam. The place literally has a sign that says "Dancing is Prohibited -- The Management" but it didn't seem to be bothering anyone. On the way out we ran into a parade with a live band of drums and brass and a line of people in a Chinese-New-Year-dragon-style costume walking through the streets with kinds and grandma's lined up to dance alongside.

Could downtown Caracas eventually become a nightlife center the way Rio's colonial Lapa district transformed itself from a Brazilian skid-row into the city's main night-time attraction? A decade ago, few would have believed that Lapa would be home to the city's most exclusive clubs or be a magnet for moneyed cariocas looking to see a samba show. Rio had a number of advantages, a country a thriving economy and no political polarization or ideological doctrine splitting its society in half.

I think the answer is yes. There's a lot that will have to get straightened out before that happens, a lot of which goes far beyond what the local authorities in Caracas can do. People begin taking back public spaces when they realize the advantages of doing so. Let's hope the scene this weekend will remind them that being on the street is better than hiding in your house.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My unexpected Russian following

The meager traffic on this site has doubled in the last week, with nearly all of the increase coming from Russia. This strikes me as either a strange internet fluke, some virus hitting my page for no reason, or an error in the Blogger stats. Russia has never been remotely on my radar screen, or on my blog so I can only say I’m confused, if pleasantly surprised.  

I noticed one source of traffic was this site which includes a search for my blog. But none of this new traffic appears to show up on any of the posts, so I can’t tell what I might be writing that could be interested in Russia.

I haven’t done much to promote this blog, so I’m guessing it’s unlikely I’ve developed a fan club of Eastern European readers. I think Russia’s fascinating but can’t say I’ve really followed it much, apart from a fascinating book about the Litvinenko poisoning. I also found it a bit strange that among my Google followers is a person named “UA1p.0EnvoObo_M28C.SPoFwArQ-“

I couldn’t figure out for the life of me who this might be. I have seen that comments on some blogs were clearly coming from viruses or bots. I honestly don’t get it. I’d love to think more people are reading, but I’m guessing it’s a glitch somewhere.