Saturday, December 24, 2011
Monday, December 12, 2011
Saturday, November 5, 2011
Bidding farwell to Hilda and Rene, I hopped back into my Ford Focus with free GPS and headed back up that same damn hill. Passing maybe five or six houses, I see an older lady standing in her driveway looking down the hill. That, ladies and gentelman, was my step-great-grandmother. That was Angela.
Angela's place in my family is an interesting one. She is my step-great-grandmother. That's an interesting and slightly confusing designation, if I may say so. Here's what it really means: My great grandfather, Alfredo, had two wives. He had his children (one of whom was my grandmother, Helen) with his first wife. Alfredo and Angela didn't have any kids. Therefore, I'm not directly blood related to Angela, but she is still family!
I pulled up my car next to her house, and the first thing that she says to me as I exit the car is "Tu hablas espanol? (Do you speak Spanish?)" It made me laugh out loud. Imagine if I didn't! This would have been the shortest reunion imaginable, and perhaps the most anti-climactic as well. Luckily, I have some Spanish chops.
We walk inside of Angela's house. It's small and sparsely furnished, with religious symbols on the walls, wicker furniture, and photos of her family on the walls. It actually reminded me very much of my grandmother's house.
I took a seat at the kitchen counter and we got to chatting. One of the first things she said to me was that when Alfredo died (in 1990), that everybody forgot about her and didn't call her anymore. Awkward. However, she's absolutely right. The last communication that she received from the family was a postcard from 1994, announcing the birth of one of my cousins. Since then, nothing.
I changed the topic, as I was uncomfortable and truly didn't even know she existed until about a week earlier (further proving her point). We start talking about our families. She tells me about her sons, I tell her about my parents and sister. Then, Angela goes over into another room and pulls out a stack of pictures which look like they haven't been touched in 20 years. I thumb through them, finding many pictures of Alfredo, some pictures of my grandmother, some pictures of Aunt Nancy, and then, a baby picture. Angela tells me that she isn't sure who the baby is. I look a little bit more carefully... and realize it's my sister! It's a baby picture of Lauren, I announce with characteristic enthusiasm! What are the chances that there is a baby picture of my sister in some little village in a remote corner of Puerto Rico? Incredible.
We continued chatting for about an hour or two, and then Angela asks me if I'm hungry. I wasn't really hungry, but the thoughts of a sumptuous Puerto Rican meal, hand-made by a genuine Puerto Rican abuelita were too enticing. I said I was hungry.
Here it comes. Real PR food. I wonder if she makes her mofongo by scratch? Maybe she'll make me some rice and beans? My mouth is watering just writing this.
She comes back from the refrigerator. A plate of brown rice. That's cool, that's okay. Then, a tupperware container. I bet it's the mofongo!! It has to be. Luchresi cannot tell a mofongo from a sherry!
She pops the tupperware in the microwave. Ok, fine. But the mofongo, Mateo, the mofongo! It beckons!
It's done. The ding of the microwave, 'tis truly a clarion call for culinary celebration! A fanfare for festive feasting!
Angela unceremoniously plops the contents of the tupperware onto my plate of brown rice. A bit uncouth, but a student should never question the master so early in his education! Either way, it's... it's brown. I can see-- I guess those are onions? Either way, I'm here in Puerto Rico and here is some actual Puerto Rican cooking going on. Let's do this. Mofongo ahoy!
I dig in. I taste chicken. That's a good start, but I really can't tell what is in this. Finally, I can't take it anymore. What the hell am I eating? I ask Angela what is in it? "Chicken, onions, peppers. It's good right? Very fresh." I agree, and politely refrain from mentioning that she needed to nuke it longer because most of the contents on my plate are still frozen. I continue putting the chicken, onions, and ice shards into my mouth and wash it down with some instant coffee that Angela whips up for me.
[Side note: Instant coffee holds a special place in my heart. When living in London, I spent most of my time at a cafe that I lived on top of called Tiffins Cafe. Run by Roy and Jane (a lovely pair of Indian immigrants who grew up in Kenya and then moved to London and subsequently became my second parents when I lived in London), Tiffins is a simple kind of a joint, serving a mix of construction workers, locals, and the occasional hungover American grad student. Very simple meals are served with tea, hot chocolate, or, you guessed it, instant coffee. Ever since then, I don't mind the ashy, bitter taste of a fine cup of Nespresso. In fact, I love it. I'm instantly transported back to Tiffins, sitting at the table next to the window, eating fried eggs, baked beans, two rashers of bacon, and enjoying the welcoming company of Roy and Jane.]
I ask Angela how she makes it. She goes over to the freezer, and grabs a bag. "Here." Oh shit. It's a frozen dinner! So much for authentic Puerto Rican cooking!
After some more chatting, I felt like it was time to go. But before I left, I asked Angela if I could take her picture. She refused at first, saying that she was "fea". Not true! Bonita! Eventually, I got her to accept. And, here she is:
We exchanged phone numbers and addresses, and I bid Angela farewell. Getting back into my Ford Focus with free GPS, I waved goodbye, switched on the AC, and turned up the salsa. Climbing back up the hill, I stopped and pulled the car over. Reflecting on what an adventure this had been, I grab my pen and paper and start furiously taking notes.
And that's my story of how I found my step-great-grandmother in the hills of Puerto Rico.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Check out this video of the Guess Who performing their hit "American Woman". This seems to be from their later years, and it just doesn't seem very rock and roll to me. I mean, it sort of looks like a bunch of your high school teachers got on stage for the annual talent show. The chemistry prof is on drums, the gym teacher is playing an impressive guitar, and your English teacher can sing better than you imagined, but still looks like an idiot and he obviously overdressed for the occasion. Trying to stay hip, he broke out his Saturday Night Fever polyester suit and trimmed his mustache to perfection. Yet, he still looks like he's trying too hard. Poor guy.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
s of politicians. The empty phrases and promises, the backdoor dealings and backstabbing, the egos, and the lies and the misrepresentations. It's an old story.
I'd like to see more confrontation in politics. More of "my word against yours-- and here's why". More "let's look at the facts"-- and a citation of the sources of those facts. More of a presentation of ideas in a clear, transparent, and precise manner-- rather than a catchy sound bite. Call it an "academia" approach to politics. In fact, academia should be used as the model for the presentation of political ideas and arguments. Academics must cite their sources openly, present their arguments clearly, and try to persuade the aca
That's what it should be like. Less posturing, less anti-intellectualism, less rewards for bullshiting, less laziness, less image over content, less slick guy or girl with nice hair standing at a podium trying to tease out that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you hear a vague but still kinda feels good and American kind of quote. More intelligent, fact-driven, research-oriented, transparent, and willing to confront bullshit kind of politicians.
A boy can dream.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother of Hamid Karzai, was killed yesterday in Kandahar. In sum, AWK basically ruled southern Afghanistan as his personal fiefdom, has long been suspected of profiting from the drug trade, and has been both a nuisance to the US due to his reputation for corruption and a boon to the US due to his usefulness as a source of information (he was on the CIA's payroll).
Several points bother me. From the article:
--Mr. Karzai was shot to death by a police official, Sardar Muhammad, a longtime confidant, who was immediately killed by Mr. Karzai’s bodyguards, Afghan officials said. Mr. Muhammad’s body was later hung above a busy Kandahar street. His motives were not known; the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing, but there was no evidence that Mr. Muhammad, a member of the Karzais’ Populzai tribe, had ties to the insurgency.--
A police official and longtime confidant, Sardar Muhammad, killed him. Mr. Muhammad was a member of Karzai's tribe. The Karzai's are in power. Why the hell would the Taliban claim responsibility? I'm thinking they're just fucking with us. With Mr. Muhammad dead, there is no way to prove or disprove that he was sympathetic to the Taliban-- and that's the Taliban's opening. Their strategy must be "Why not? Let's just say he was with us. We'll claim responsibility, people will think we scored a huge success, and the US will have to come to the negotiation table from a reduced position of power. Booyah bitches!"
Basically, it can't hurt to lie when nobody knows the truth.
Further in the article:
--One American official on Tuesday lamented the “huge power vacuum” left by the assassination. “Do we care more about security and fighting the Taliban, or about drugs and corruption?” said the official, who would discuss the internal debate only on the condition of anonymity. “I think that most people would agree that taking on the Taliban is our top priority, and Ahmed Wali Karzai helped us with that.”--
I fail to see the distinction. Security and fighting the Taliban are Promethean pursuits unless a viable alternative is offered to the Afghan people, such as a functioning Afghan state. Kill and kill and kill Taliban, but if there's no other option, what good is killing Taliban going to do? Are you going to kill them out of existence? Impossible. As long as there is corruption (often motivated by drug money), and the state lacks legitimacy, there will always be a Taliban. In fact, the "Taliban" are not a united organization, like they were before the US invasion in 2001. Now, it's more of a catch-all term for religious zealots who kill Afghan officials and don't like to play with intelligent girls. Therefore, there will always be a "Taliban". There will always be "terrorists". As long as there is no functioning Afghan state (there is progress, to be sure), there will always be the Taliban, because anybody can call themselves Taliban if they resist the government. And as long as the government sucks, the "Taliban" have a smidgen of legitimacy.
In conclusion, instead of deciding that seeking security and fighting the Taliban are more important than combating drugs and corruption (and presenting that conclusion as self-evident), why not ask who was and is the source of the overall problem of lack of governance in Afghanistan: the Taliban or AWK? The answer is: both. Address that problem.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
I knew I had to be at the restaurant quite late, so I went out with some friends and planned on returning closer to midnight. As I was leaving to go meet up with my friends, I said to D the dishwasher that "yo voy a volver en dos horas". D, who doesn't speak a word of English, asked me if I could bring him back two beers for him and his friends later. I don't think he understood that I was going to a bar and that I can't really bring drinks back with me, but I didn't want to disappoint him, so I agreed. On my way back I stopped in a Duane Reade and bought a six pack of Corona. D and I were going to drink beer together.
And we did.
I came back with the six pack, and after struggling to open the front door, found D cleaning in the kitchen. I told him I bought some beers and asked him if he wanted a few now? His face lit up and we went back to the dining area.
D and I parked ourselves at a table and got to chatting. Maybe it was the beer, or maybe it was the fact that I was there so late when nobody is usually there, but he shared a lot of interesting stuff with me that I never would have known before. I am going to record it here, because it is a story that with some minor variations holds true for most of "los primos".
D has been with us for a little under a year. He is of average height, quite tubby, clean shaven, and speaks Spanish very clearly and without much use of slang. He is a big fan of asking "como estamos?" which directly translates to "how are we?", which is a kind of funny and informal way of putting it. None of the other guys use the phrase.
D is from Puebla, a mostly poverty-stricken state just east of Mexico City. Prior to coming to the US, he worked "in the fields", as he put it. Picking and cutting vegetables in the scorching sun, doing back-breaking labor for little pay. He had dropped out of high school after one year, much to the disapproval of his father, who is a first grade teacher. D dropped out with his then girlfriend, now wife. They simply didn't enjoy it. Looking back now, D shakes his head at the memory of dropping out. It looks like he regrets it, but he consoles himself by saying that he was just a kid and didn't know any better.
After dropping out, he continued to work full time and soon enough he and his wife had a very pretty daughter who is 8 now, and lives with her grandparents, spending the week with one set and the weekend with the other. She lives with her grandparents now because when she was 6 years old, for reasons he didn't quite share, D and his wife decided to go to the US.
I didn't ask details about how he got here, as that is quite personal and a bit inappropriate. Needless to say, it was "difficult". But, they made it.
D has worked as a busboy for an American restaurant and bar on the Upper West Side, in a slaughterhouse in Brooklyn where he carved chickens all day while working inside of a freezer, and at our restaurant as a dishwasher and night cleaner. He has never been fired from a job. He simply leaves when he finds something that pays better.
His wife cleans houses for two different patrons, one of which, an Italian woman, is very nice to her and pays her very well.
At our restaurant, D wants to eventually become a food prep guy. He has been taking notes (actually handwriting notes) from our current prep guy, and understands that we can't switch him now, but to remember his interest "en el futuro".
D and I continued drinking beers, with my Spanish becoming more fluid with each sip. At times we struggled to find mutually intelligible definitions for words he didn't know in English and I didn't know in Spanish. We'd use progressively simpler and simpler Spanish words and phrases, until finally, when combined with appropriate hand gestures and sound effects, we would reach our Eureka moment and both of us would smile broadly and toast our small lingual victory.
He plans on going back to Mexico next year. Most of the guys say that. I tell him that another primo has been saying that for three years now. D understands. The money here is good. Things cost less. Clothing, food, and beer are cheap. Buying a few beers is not intelligent when you are living in Mexico and struggling. But here, he can buy beer whenever he wants. It's a good life. The plan is to give a good life to his daughter too. In order to do that, he saves his money (he doesn't buy beer, hence why he asked me to do it), sends some money to Mexico and keeps some here, and eventually after saving enough, he and his wife will go back, buy a truck, and start a small farm. He tells me that he needs money to buy the truck so he can bring his food to the market.
And that's all he wants. A truck, a farm, and a family. A very Jeffersonian dream, that. A very American dream. And he is earning it every day.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Some dogs liked each other. They would sniff and maybe playfully jump in the air. No barking or yapping. Just sort of scoping the other dog out. When it was time to leave, they would leave, but not without giving a parting glance.
Other pairs of dogs were fucking Satanic drenched-in-blood-and-brimstone enemies, spewing visceral growls of contempt, flashing fangs of fury, thirsty for gore, held back from mauling their nemesis into a wet pulp only by the thin rope tether connecting them to their masters. Those leashes saved doggy lives, be assured.
Maybe the same goes for people, in a kind of more "civilized" way.
I've always believed that sometimes there is an attraction between two humans that goes beyond looks, fashion, intellect, humor, and common interests. It's a primal lust, a magnetic attraction that is unexplainable and unimaginable until experienced. Let two strangers with this attraction pass on the street, and sparks will fly. It's only happened to me a handful of times. But it happens!
On the other hand, there are times when I just plainly dislike somebody from the moment I meet them. Nothing they have said offends me, nothing that they have done is disagreeable. I just don't like them-- straight off. Again, it is rare. But it has happened.
In a way, perhaps we are similar to dogs, in that respect. I don't know. It could be an evolutionary advantage to recognize immediately, without reason or thought, an attraction to some distinct other individual in a crowd. There would be no fighting, no struggle for supremacy against other males (in my case). Just a mutual, unfathomable attraction. Maybe they make good babies. Maybe they simply have great sex, which will lead to many babies, which will lead to passing on those individuals' genes. I don't know. Just a thought.
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Fearless little birdies hop hop from spot to spot like playful schoolchildren. Tempting fate, they inch closer and closer to my shoe searching in cracks for crumbs. They remind me of when I was in Spain, and the birdies, "los pajaritos", were courageous enough to come right up to my plate to steal food. "Los pajaritos no tienen miedo", I said to an old couple who were also admiring the little critters. We went back to our meals. Later, the old couple got up to leave the cafe and got not more than a few strides away when the old man stuttered, turned around, and gave a smiling "Buenos tardes" to me. I returned the parting comment, and continued sipping my vermouth and nibbling on my Tortilla Espanola, smiling the whole time. I made sure to leave some tortilla for the pajaritos.
Cicadas buzz about, fighting valiantly against an invisible-- and unfelt-- breeze. A roadside weed, with brilliant little purple flowers, latchs on to some passing refuse, refusing to release the dirty plastic bag from its barbarous grip.
An old Hispanic woman sips from a Big Gulp (I didn't know that they still sell Big Gulps; I didn't think people still bought Big Gulps). The old woman is smoking a cigarette that looks longer than it actually is due to the way she holds it, pincered between her two gaunt and bony fingers-- all knuckles sheathed in a leathery thin skin. I can see the arthritis. The cigarettes are cheap, and they release a heavy dirty smoke. The smoke smells like an ashtray.
Friday, July 1, 2011
First, reading this book and especially the passages that McCollough quotes from Adams's letters, reminds me how much I love classical correspondence. The art of the letter is mostly lost today, as the letter has been outclassed by so many technological achievements: the email, the photograph, the recording device, the telephone, the therapist. Whenever I had to do my own research, on Lafayette for example, I always enjoyed the physical descriptions that authors often inserted in their correspondence. Phrases like "Aquiline nose" and "a sharp chin" had connotations that modern audiences can't quite appreciate. We see somebody with a sharp chin, but don't label it as such. We actually "see" the chin, whereas hearing about a chin in a letter calls much more attention to it. Viewing a photograph, we would note the chin, but not highlight it. If John Adams had to describe someone, say, myself, in a letter to Abagail, it might look something like this:
"A strange gentleman stumbled onto the streets from the City Tavern yesterday evening, dearest Abagail. His name is Matthew Reed. Travelling from Brooklyn, New York, he is tall and slender, with oriental eyes and a broad nose. Nearly always unshaven and preferring to wear his hair in the vertical style, Mr. Reed's origins are not immediately recognizable. He has an enthusiasm and curiosity for many ventures, most notably, the City Tavern. A strange fellow indeed."
The other thing that I am currently thinking about is symbols of power. The King, George III, had a crown (as is fashionable among monarchs). The crown was a symbol of power. People refer to "The Crown" as if power-- and responsibility-- resides not within a person, but within a heavy hoop of metal. The Crown provides security and comforts, but is also to be blamed for corruption and terror.
Statesman, on the whole, don't wear crowns anymore (except the Pope-- and yes, that is a criticism [and yes, I know, it's not a crown, but a Papal Tiara. Like he's a fairy princess or something]). That leaves the question, what is the modern crown? What comfortable yet intimidating symbol acts as the buffer between people and those who hold authority?
1. The podium. Whenever somebody steps up to a podium to speak, chances are they are important. If we can see camera flashes as the person approaches the podium, they are definitely important.
2. The White House. The actual building and the phrase. "The White House released a statement today..." Oh really? Did it now? "I need paint." Or, "I don't like the snipers on my roof."
3. The Brass. A military uniform. The epaulets, the service bars, the medals, the name tag, the backwards American flag on the right sleeve. Read my past post on name tags entitled "Name Tags, Legit or Shit."
4. The limousine. Executives, government officials, drunk 16 year olds. All important, depending on your perspective.
5. The American flag? Symoblic. Powerful. Feared, to a degree.
None of these quite capture the degree of seperatness and authority that something like The Crown represents. I imagine it's just another reason why democracy kicks ass.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
The best part about the daiquiri is that it is not fancy, not difficult to make, and yet so easy to drink.
1.5 oz white rum
3/4 oz simple syrup or a level tablespoon of sugar
1/2 oz of lime juice (which is often about the juice of a half a lime)
Combine in a mixing tin and shake the hell out of it.
Serve straight up.
Sit back and sip with care. These things go down so easily, you could be lounging next to the pool in the porcelain in no time.
Saturday, June 25, 2011
Reading these posts now, it reminds me of something from my "youth" (I'm only 26). Whenever I was being a little asshole to my mother, she knew just how to get under my skin. She knew the one thing that she could say that would trump all other arguments. The one thing that would end the session.
"Matthew, you're so young."
I can't describe how pissed off I would get after hearing that. Here I was, a moderately well traveled boy who had gone to college, gone to Europe, been on my own-- and I'm accused of being "young"!
She was right.
Reading these posts, I can't get over how young I sound. How vulnerable! How willingly vulnerable! I really let my life pour out on to those posts. I couldn't fucking imagine writing some of those things today. Details of my romances (or lack thereof)? My idiosyncrasies and idle thoughts?
Growing up, to me, seems to be about becoming more guarded. More analytical. More careful. I have a better filter now. I look before I leap. I don't quite wear my heart on my sleeve, as I used to. All those cliches. The change is motivated by a combination of trying to be more professional, more selfless (well, that's a tad dramatic. Let's go with "trying not to be an asshole"), trying not to hurt others, and trying, myself, to be better protected against insult and injury. I don't want to be ridiculed, so I am careful with what I say (and in the case of this blog, where I say things). I have my moments where I forget that I'm supposed to be "mature", and that's usually when I end up putting my foot in my mouth.
I like how elderly people revert back to their youth, lose the filter and start saying whatever the hell they want to say. Insults are not important anymore, as they've all been heard by that time. Plus, we're all gonna die sometime, so we might as well start telling it like we see it. It's a wonderful cycle.
Well there you go. I opened up! Maybe somethings haven't changed. Maybe I am still so young.
"Armed gangs" are to blame for killing 120 security forces.
In April, "tribal leaders" were threatening rebels in Misrata, Libya to lay down their arms.
And now in Yemen, "Islamist gangs" have captured several towns.
I hate useless labels. They are meant to scare, or they can be used as a substitute for lack of information. A perfect example is the word "terrorist". It's empty! It means very close to nothing. Ready for a curveball? How about the word "patriot"? Define patriot. I'll give it a shot: "One who exemplifies and embodies the values that a certain nation or country holds as central to its identification". Pretty good.
Here's the rub. To many, Sarah Palin is a patriot. To others, John McCain is a patriot. Still others say that Barack Obama is a patriot. John Brown, Abe Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Herber Hoover, General MacArthur, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton (your choice), Bush (the latter). All have, I imagine, at one time or another been called a "patriot". I'm also reasonably sure that all have at one time actually been called a "traitor" or a "disgrace".
Calling somebody a "patriot" reveals more about the speaker, the one who is doing the labelling, than it does about the one who is labelled. Calling somebody a patriot means that they embody the ideals that YOU hold sacred or important. It says very little about the "patriot" themselves.
I find that the same holds true for words like "terrorist". The worn cliche of "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is apt.
In the previous news articles, the use of the phrase "armed gangs" straddles the "lack of information" and "fear" categories. I also find it pretty laughable. I will gladly admit that I derive actual pleasure from the Syrian government's use of the phrase. As if the world has descended into this Mad Max dystopia where armed gangs rove the streets of Daraa, randomly killing security forces and strapping them to the fenders. The gangs have no names and no motives, except their thirst for vengeance! And gasoline! And victims for the Thunderdome! Ridiculous.