Monday, June 30, 2008

Tales From the Bungalow

Jimmy is an awesome roommate and often puts the clean dishes away...but where he puts them I know not. Hmmm...where would I put the vegetable steamer if I were Jimmy? Or the salad tongs? Smiling, I patiently search the kitchen...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Freaked Out By Google Earth!

For the past couple years I have heard people refer to Google Earth and what an amazing website it is...but I paid little attention. Years ago I had poked around on the USGS satellite site and figured it was a similar thing...decades old high-altitude satellite shots of the rooftops and city streets. I thought "been there done that" it has taken until today for me to venture onto Google Earth. Well, what a bloody shock it was to find out that there is the high-up plan view of my rooftop...but there is also a closeup of my house! Taken June 2007! And not only can I see my house but I panned around to see my neighbors houses and down my street. I was astonished!

As I spewed expletives and stared at the screen my brother was in the room and sarcastically asked me where I had been for the last few years. He explained that a fleet of big vans rigged with wide-angle-lensed-cameras drive around photographing our world and posting it onto the web for all to see.

I ventured to the marina where my boat is berthed. I found my was empty. A June day...I was out sailing. Then I panned to the parking lot and saw where my little mini was parked.

Ok, that is fucking freaky. For many reasons. The world is shrinking from such technology while it simultaneously isolates many of us, relegating many relationships to being virtual...we no longer smell, touch, see, hear each other if we don't want to. Professionally I am being called upon to do more and more online facilitation....tethered to my phone by a headset, staring at a computer screen while someone miles away edits. All this technology is liberating in some ways but I ponder the costs.

For some reason this whole discovery leaves me feeling a bit unsettled and I am not completely sure why. Perhaps I fear that the next time the van comes I might be innocently sunbathing nude in my front yard or some such thing. But I think it is much deeper than that.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

I Love Michael Tallon's writing...

...because he writes things like this, a crafty, scathing critique of pampered, over-educated hippies in his Guatemalan bar professing an ignorant and ahistorical cultural relativism regarding Guatemala's chicken buses. My friend, Mike, the Surly Bartender, was havin' none of it! He rants:

Pathetically and predictably, the hippies in the back [of the bus] took the opportunity to flaunt both their arrogance and their ignorance by shouting the oldies down, arguing, I guess, that driving like a fucking sociopath is part of the “cultural heritage of Guatemala.” The Hippies said that to ask the driver to slow down was “cultural imperialism” of the worst kind. How dare they! Fascists.

That sent the Surly Bartender over the top. This, in essence, is what I screamed at them:

Listen up, you hacky-sacked pack of jackasses! Hurling an ancient school bus from the United States down a poorly constructed highway at Mach II is not a manifestation of an ancient Mayan tradition. It is the logical and predictable consequence of the “free market” taken to its extreme.

In his essay, Mike goes on to historically, economically, and politically situate the notorious chicken buss phenomenon - the overcrowding, the insane speeding and whatnot. He clearly and incisively links decades of exploitative US foreign and economic policies in Central America, and the brightly colored buses that cheaply and aggressively move Guatemalans (and the occasional ignorant hippy) all over the country everyday. And later in his essay he notes:

The Chicken Bus system of Guatemala is as free and unfettered a market as one might find anywhere in the world. It is what the shills of corporate globalization champion. It is the tell-tale stain on the bed linens after a neo-con’s wet dream.

I love Mike's writing because he is really fucking smart - he makes the connections and communicates them in concise and sardonic language - his commentary is biting, heartbreaking, and bitter-sweetly entertaining all at once.

And I love Mike, the man, the Surly Bartender, - not just because he is smart and can write. I love him cause he gives a shit. He calls himself the Surly Bartender...but it is just a veneer, a laminate over a hardwood of idealism and hope. He gives a shit in the face of so many reasons not to. He harbors hope while knowing so much of what is so horrible to know.

He hails from New York City, but now lives in Guatemala, a country that is struggling with the unimaginable hangover of a 35+ year "civil war." A place where any past political stability rested on a cornerstone of exploitation and repression largely linked to US policies and intervention. He lives in a country where, with the help of western activists and forensic scientists, Mayan families in the jungles of the Peten are working to identify and reclaim the bodies of their dead relatives slaughtered and buried in mass graves. He lives in a country of endemic poverty, high crime, and inept and corrupt "civic institutions"....and these circumstances continue to be hugely informed by the practice and residue of unconscionable US policies.

Mike lives in Antigua, Guatemala....and there he drinks, he talks, and he writes. And I have sat across the bar from this man, talking for hours, drinking and smoking and discovering a common language...a common sensibility...and in the end, a common idealism and a seemingly unjustified hope.

In another essay, Mike laments the passing of one of his favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut. His piece starts with him at the bar listening to a young couple fresh from the states ready to do good and change the world.

It is good that these kids are willing to dedicate their spirits to what is most certainly a losing game, because the only causes worth fighting for are the lost ones....[sic] My only hope is that they do so with the wisdom of men like Vonnegut whispering in their ears.

He sits and thinks cynical things and then shifts...channelling the wisdom of Vonnegut: hopeless. Be completely, utterly hopeless. But make it a hopelessness of your own design.
Off the shelf hopelessness – the kind you get by watching too much television, or hanging out with pious assholes – is a poorly woven hair-shirt; it is a bed of nails. Instead, take Kurt’s implicit advice and look at this world, and your own frail body. Know that the world-wide and centuries long forces of greed, avarice, violence and injustice are beyond your abilities to remove or repair.

And then set to removing them and repairing them anyway.

We’re all in a sinking boat, but the stars look beautiful tonight. Bail.

Be what Kurt showed us we could be: positive nihilists.

This shit breaks my heart because I totally relate. The inherent and intellectually irreconcilable tension between reasons for hopelessness and hope...and god damn it, I remain hopeful. Even after liberating myself somewhat from the yoke of my early western education, the barrage of disinformation presented in a historical vacuum - the simplistic narratives with the neat and clean arc and resolution of half-hour sitcoms.

The other day I read Mike's latest essays in La Cuadra and thought to myself, "I went to Antigua and met a little slice of my conscious. His name is Mike Tallon." And when I put on a clean shirt, go to the city and eat something delicate and self-consciously prepared in some urbane restaurant...there's Mike, among others, sitting on my shoulder tap-tap-tapping on my conscious, "don't ever forget all that you've learned...and enjoy your dinner."

The first night I stumbled into the Surly Bartender's bar and started drinking in what would become a long, liquor-soaked evening of disclosure and waxing philosophical, I heard Mike say to someone, "It is amazing how water finds it's own level." I looked at him and asked what he was referring to...."you being here," was his response. I'd known Mike a couple of hours and yet I knew of what he spoke. When people meet thousands of miles from home and recognize in each other something that transcends the can I already love this man I have known for only a couple of hours? I stop myself. It doesn't matter, Mer. Don't let your analysis get in the way of truth. Be wise enough to just accept it. And so I did. I smiled and nodded. Indeed Mike.

Mike, keep hoping and writing buddy. Keep challenging us to do something hopeful in the face of hopelessness. Keep writing for me and the many others you continue to challenge, touch, and inspire. We'll all be the better for it.


The essays quoted above appear in La Cuadra and are titled:

On the Chicken Buss, by Michael Tallon
God Bless You Mr. Vonnegut, by Michael Tallon

Read them online:

To read the state departments perspective on crime in Guatemala visit:,+guatemala&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=3&gl=us

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Horoscopes for Barflies

This astrological insight is written by Mr. Snuggles and the advice appears in the magazine La Cuadra which is published by my really fucking smart mescal-making-and-drinking buddies in Antigua. The mag is a wonderful mix of history, political and cultural commentary, unadulterated irreverence, and drunken humor...and Michael Tallon's writing always moves me (more on this soon). But for now, at the risk of being sued for copyright infringement, I give you my faves from the latest issue:

We just figured we'd be the first to tell you that the cool new Chinese character tattoo you got does not mean "strength." Idiot!
(I am an Aquarius and have decided to avoid Chinese character tattoos!)

After a night of wild partying, you'll finally find a safe place to lay your head. On the reassuring, cool and piss stained linoleum of your bathroom floor.
(My ex is a Taurus...hmm)

Don't believe what inspirational speakers tell you. Your dreams suck. Follow someone else's.
( for thought!)

There are times in your life when it seems like everything is possible - true love, compassion, chocolate covered mittens, giant buildings shaped like lava lamps. Remember, during these times you are very very stoned.

I am sure some will find these little bits of wisdom puerile, but then, such folks are probably not barflies. And they probably don't know Mr. Snuggles. I think they are hilarious...and I read them sober.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Deep Questions

Spent a day walking around the Mission in San Francisco. You never know how or when the deep epistemological questions are going to present themselves....

I Was Attacked by An Agave Cactus!

The little fucker plunged one of it’s spines about a half an inch into my knee causing some dramatic looking blood loss and a swollen softball sized bruise! But I reckon I should start from the beginning.

I am not a gardener. I actually have a rather brown thumb. For this reason I have always appreciated cacti and succulents…they thrive if you leave them alone and I am really good at that. But every spring I give the nursery some of my money and come home with some plants and flowers to brighten the yard for the BBQ season. And so it was last weekend….me and the marigolds and a big bag of potting soil.

Towards the end of my once-a-year gardening day I was innocently putting some new flowers into a pot. This pot sits next to a large spiny plant that usually causes me no trouble at all. I ignore him for the most part…I occasionally look his way with a fleeting sense of appreciation….but I rarely go near him. He has his little corner, I have the house and yard. Seems fair. But this day I needed to get to the empty pot next to him to fill it with flowers. Well for some reason the spiny dude chose to stab me viciously with one of his stiff sharp spines. It fucking hurt!

At the time of the attack I was holding root-balls and was covered in dirt and sweat so I decided to just let the wound bleed and deal with it after my chores. The blood poured out for a bit and then stopped. Cool. I finished the potting, watering, cleaning up, and headed to the shower to scrub the dirt and dried blood off my body. I got dressed for dinner in the City and forgot about the attack and the spiny dude.

Had a wonderful dinner at Range with my buddy Jill and afterward we ambled into an art studio on Valencia to have a look. Walking about after a couple of hours sitting for dinner, I suddenly became aware that my knee was aching. I leaned down and felt it through my jeans…it had swelled up. I pulled up my pants and saw a giant bruise and the bull’s-eye hole in the middle where the spine had breached my flesh. Shit. Jill looked at the spectacle, made a face and said, “oh my god Mer!” I immediately went to the bathroom and dropped my drawers praying I would not find giant reds streaks crawling up my leg towards my heart! Nope. All clear. Just one motherfucker of a bruise.

So Monday I am in Auburn facilitating a meeting with all sorts of scientist-y people. At lunch we are gabbing about this and that and somehow I work in the story of the cactus attack. I show them my leg and most everyone is thoroughly grossed out by the sight of my huge bruise. It was dramatic. One of my scientist-y friends (a herpetologist…if you don’t know what they do, look it up…they are often particularly fond of frogs) sends me a note suggesting that the offending plant is an agave cactus. I go to google images. Mother fucker! I was attacked by an agave cactus I have had for years and never knew was agave! So why is this so significant to me? Read on.

I have been drinking tequila and mescal for probably close to 30 years. Not everyday. Not every week. But I have probably had at least a couple shots a year since the start. And just for the record, the early days often involved driving 3 hours south to the border to Tijuana where my under-aged-self bought $2 bottles of mescal, the ones with the worm at the bottom (now I drink top shelf stuff!). And late last year I ventured south to Antigua, Guatemala, where I met a scrappy gang of dudes (and a couple of chicks) who have an over-the-top affection for mescal. And they can drink a lot of it….in one night.…and then the next night. They so enjoy this libation that they started their own label, Ilegal Mezcal.

When I was down there, I too drank a lot of mescal and tequila. And most nights, I paced and held my own. After all, I have had some experience. Or so I thought. Perhaps I got a little cocky….maybe just a little. Maybe I needed a little humbling. Maybe I wasn’t ready to play with the big-boys….at least not full time.

Of course my last night in Antigua was spent at Café No Se sipping and shooting mescal with my new best friends. Because this was my last night, folks were quite eager to buy me a shot and make toasts…to new friendships, good booze, smart folks….whatever. They bought me a lot of shots. We made a lot of toasts. And at about 2:30am I suddenly realized I wasn’t right. The feeling was unmistakable…Mer, get to the head ASAP! Until that night I had thrown up from alcohol exactly three times and all three times I was sober, had drank beer on an unsettled stomach, and was a teenager. And so it was early that morning in the Café No Se bathroom I broke a 27 year no-vomit-from-booze streak. Humbling.

Now, why the hell am I rambling on about my history of boozing with tequila and mescal? Well, if you don’t know this already, these two spirits are made with the agave cacti. So I am now considering all this context and history. I am trying to assign meaning to this incident of attack by an agave cactus I never knew I had and is used to make spirits I have drank for decades. What does it all mean? Why did the spiny dude attack me? Is it divine retribution for drinking too much? For indirectly participating in the killing of fellow cacti? Was this little incident reminding me to get my ass back to Antigua ASAP? To drink more tequila? (Also recently recommended by my doctor…but that’s another story). Maybe the little guy just wanted more attention and was acting out? Well, despite the metaphysical meanings I have yet to discern and/or decide on, the story doesn’t end here.

So back to my frog-loving-scientist-y friend. After I show her my disgusting bruise and wound and tell the story, she looks at me quizzically and says, “Why don’t you just prune the spines off?” For fucks sakes! Told you I wasn’t a gardener! So today my little spiny pal lost his spines. I cut those little buggers right off. And then I reminded my little pal that he did not need them in my yard anyway…no predators. Besides, I noted, I am the one who waters his sorry ass a couple times a year when the rains stop! So I think we have reached a truce. But one thing is for sure, I will never again forget he is there. He now stands out…even without his spines. And he has made his mark….and apparently it will be around for a couple of weeks. This is what I found describing the affects of an agave cactus stabbing:

If the skin is pierced deeply enough, by the needle-like ends of the leaf from a vigorously growing plant, this can also cause blood vessels in the surrounding area to erupt and an area some 6-7cm across appear to be bruised. This may last up to two to three weeks.

I got out the tape measure. Three and one quarter inches my bruise measured. That converts to 8.3 centimeters. That fucker went in deep!

Well, I think I will go pour myself a shot of old spiny’s cousins….and maybe check on flights to Guatemala….


Spiny dude before pruning. Notice lovely flowers to the right?

Spiny dude after pruning...not so spiny anymore!

Close up of spiny dudes weapons. Damn!

Now, go check out this video of Chris Walken, a plant-phobic gardener who uses googly eyes to manage his fears.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Tales From the Bungalow

Jimmy and I out for a drink on Friday night. I pick him up at Ben 'n Nicks where he has landed after an REM concert. He's got a head start. We head to the Lucky Lounge. Too many home boys and our black boots and 501s don't mix with all the baggy pants and white tennis shoes. It's not our scene. We check out The Ally. But this neighborhood tavern/piano bar was positively geriatric...not saying that is inherently a problem, but we weren't in the mood. So we end up at the gay bar around the corner. A couple Coronas and a shot of tequila poured by a lovely and flirty bartender who matches me with a toast and a squeeze of lime. Jimmy gets chatted up by a switch-hitter....women love him, even in gay bars.

We get home late and Jimmy is lit and starving. He makes scrambled eggs and toasts a piece of bread over the stove flame while drunkenly cursing me for not owning a toaster. He gets eggs on the floor I just mopped...I watch him from the deck, laughing. Cosmo eats the fallen eggs and Jimmy eats his fare from a paper towel while I make fun of him (I DO own plates!). Here are a couple shots I took of the action at the bungalow at 2:30 in the morning.

Cosmo always hoping for mistakes made by human-food-handlers...Jimmy proves fruitful tonight!
I like this captures something I can't find words for. Took the pics with no flash and I like the blurring affect and the lighting that resulted. The kitchen shot flooded by the track light....the porch shot, Jimmy silhouetted by the kitchen light juxtaposed with the yellow porch light. It speaks something of the mood of the night.

And the parting shot, a tribute to Jimmy's ineffable good nature. Breakfast of champions! Of course none of these shots can capture the crude hilarious conversation taking place at the is a strange little middle-aged-queer-straight-family-bachelor pad Jimmy and I are creating!