Saturday, December 24, 2011

Wasted Opportunity

Never one to shy away from diplomatic drama, the French recently passed a law making the denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide a crime. In response, the Turks countered by calling attention to French massacres in Algeria in the 1950s and 60s.

Let us state a fact: the Armenian genocide happened. There is no question about it, and in that respect, the French legislature is correct in labeling the denial of the genocide a crime (think of it as a libel law on a larger scale). After all, it is a crime in Germany to deny the Holocaust. Therefore, the French National Assembly is not acting without precedent.

Turkey's retaliation, calling attention to French crimes in Algeria, is equally truthful. Indeed, the French committed awful crimes in Algeria during the rebellion there, including mass murder.

Now what? We have two sides reminding each other of past atrocities-- and neither side is willing to take responsibility for its respective actions.

This is childish. Instead of comparing who has the bigger diplomatic stick, I offer an alternative: Admit past mistakes. Learn from them. Educate.

Imagine if Sarkozy and Erdogan came together for a press conference, alerting the press that they intended to address the recent diplomatic row. The two stand at their podiums, with their national flags draped behind them. Microphones are clipped to lapels. Notes are shuffled and arranged. Then, the unthinkable happens: both men admit that their respective countries have made terrible mistakes in the past; that they have done terrible things and affected the lives of countless people. They stand before the press, and state, definitively, that they are sorry for the past actions of their people.

After extensive consultations, they have decided that the best and most effective way of honoring the dead and remembering those past mistakes is not to continue slinging barbs at each other, but to educate future generations about what happened. By telling the truth, we hope to move forward. Therefore, with equal funding from both the Turkish and the French governments, a new International Center for the Prevention of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity will open. This new organization will work towards educating their respective societies about these crimes, and identifying crimes against humanity in our own time. Through education and action, the Center hopes to prevent the mistakes of the past.

Alas, this is just a dream. They'll probably pull their diplomats out of each other's countries and, like feuding children, refuse to talk to each other. After some time passes, nobody remembers the feud and it becomes a footnote in history-- in much the same way that the Armenian genocide and the French conduct in Algeria is remembered by a few and forgotten by most. What a wasted opportunity.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Home-brewed Hemlock

Note to self: Exercise caution when sampling home-infused booze.

I did a stupid thing today. At work, I've been experimenting with infusing different alcohols with different ingredients recently. To my surprise, there have been quite a few successes. I've come up with some pretty tasty tipples. However, not one to be satisfied, I wanted to try something a little different. I wanted to push the limits. I wanted to be a visionary. I wanted to reach mixologist heaven. Well, without some more caution, I'll end up there.

The idea was innocent enough: I let a batch of three rums each infused with a different ingredient steep for a week, after which the resulting tonic will be concentrated and delicious! Right?

Here's where I should have stopped. A week? I'm going to drink something that's been steeping for a week in cheap booze? That is dumb.

Perhaps the most shameful part of this sad story is that before I took a sip of my potent week-old brew, just as the glass was about to reach my lips, I stopped suddenly. I thought, don't people go blind from drinking home-brews? I feel like I've heard that before: Man makes gin in his bathtub. Invites over friends. They all drink. They all go blind. They all insist that masturbation was never a part of the evening's festivities.

Then I remembered that people only go blind from drinking home-brewed booze, meaning the kind of booze that a guy literally distills in his outhouse. I didn't distill anything! I merely infused. Bottoms up!

I held my nose. I closed my eyes. I took a drink.

GAH! It's way too strong. I'm telling you the honest truth, dearest reader, I took in maybe a thimble-full. At most. And now I feel like shit. I was infusing in little teabags, which I think partially disintegrated, and now my mouth tastes like I've been snacking on the phone book. I have a slight nausea, faint headache, and an overwhelming sense of whatthefuckwasithinking.

Lesson learned. Oddly, I'm really in the mood for some Stevie Wonder right now...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

In Search of Angela

(Author's Note: This story is too long and drawn out. I could have shortened it and made it much more accessible and enjoyable to read. However, I wish to record this story not so much for other's enjoyment, but because I want to go back to this post in years and be suddenly transported back to these moments. Details count. Please excuse the overuse of them.)

Before I left for a recent vacation to Puerto Rico, my mother casually suggested that I "look for family" when I was there. Now, I have quite the convoluted family tree, and somewhere deep down in those roots one can find a little bit of Puerto Rican, and according to family lore I still have family out there in some tucked away corner of that enchanted isle. I consulted with my dear Aunt Nancy and discovered that I do indeed have some family still living there. Most notably, my great-grandfather's second wife, Angela. Aunt Nancy gave me her full name and an address. Well, not quite an address. A P.O. Box number, to be specific. With nothing more than that information, I set off for Puerto Rico.

Don't get me wrong, the purpose of my trip was not to bathe myself in glory by triumphantly rediscovering lost family members. The purpose of the trip was to drink pina coladas and kiosko cafe in a plaza, hit on cute Puerto Rican girls, and maybe get something approaching a tan. Given the mission objectives, I can proudly declare that after three days in San Juan, I could definitively declare Mission Accomplished.

But after three days, adventure beckoned. Lounging in the tropical sun is all good and fun, but I needed to do at least one thing that brought me close to incarceration. Naturally, I rented a car.

Driving down to Cabo Rojo (after a side trip to Isabela and Boqueron with a friend), in the southwest of the island, I began my adventure. Updated mission objectives: Find my lost step-great-grandmother.

How to even approach this puzzle? I've got a name and PO Box number-- that's it. Weighing my options, I figured that I guess I should start at the beginning (a phrase my grandfather liked to use). The first thing I did was drive into Cabo Rojo proper. A provincial town of no real interest to the adventure seeking tourist in skinny jeans, Cabo Rojo is a quiet series of streets mostly populated with elderly men gathering on street corners, playing cards or dominoes and smoking cigarettes. I parked my car on one of those quiet streets and walked into the local marketplace. A market seems like a good starting point for an adventure of this type; I can ask the locals for information, get a feel for the contours of the land, plan my escape routes, detect enemy surveillance, monitor-- fuck me, I'm hungry.

I hadn't eaten breakfast yet, and I get moody when I'm hungry. Therefore, I made my way over to a food stall. The workers at this particular stall quietly eyed me as I approached and did not greet me. I, however, greeted them and then pretended to read the menu, because I had already decided that I didn't like this place nor intended on eating there. However, being a mannered boy, I gave my mannered glance at the menu and after an appropriate amount of time elapsed, I muttered a thanks and moved on. Sheepishly wandering amongst the stalls, I settled on one of the quieter ones, run by an attractive older lady. I sit down, order some eggs and a coffee, and get to chatting with her. "Yo tengo una pregunta extrano. Yo estoy buscando para mi abuela (I don't know how to say "Step-great-grandmother" in spanish). Yo no conozco ella, pero yo se que ella vive en este barrio. Puedes ayudame?" Please don't correct my shitty grammar. I'm aware of it. But, I'm also aware that terrible grammar can be charming for those on the receiving end, so I was quite content to let my mistakes remain. Plus, after hearing me use terrible grammar, there is less of a chance that the other person will rattle off a complicated sentence in reply that I couldn't understand. I've thought about this too much.

The lady tells me that my best chance is to go to the post office and see if I can get any information from them. Realizing that my chances of getting an actual address from the post office are close to zero, I reluctantly agree, pay my bill, give my thanks, and set off.

The post office was surprisingly normal. I don't know-- I guess, given the heat and the sparsely populated streets and the relative tranquilidad, I was expecting the post office to be some kind of backwater station on the edge of the galactic rim with Greedo sitting in the corner booth writing a postcard to Jabba. It wasn't like that at all, though. Bummer. It was like my post office. Whatever.

I walked up to the desk and gave my pathetic "eres tu mi mama?" ( speech to the guy behind the counter. He looked at me with a puzzled look on his face. Is this guy for real? Naturally, and thankfully, he didn't just hand over this poor woman's address to this young man with carefully groomed facial hair. He got his boss.

Again, I gave my innocent "eres tu mi mama?" speech, this time to the boss. He looked at me and then started speaking way too fast for me to get anything. But, by the tone of his voice and the repeated use of "no", I gathered that he wasn't going to give me Angela's address. Shit. However, he ends his monologue by motioning me over to back door. Half expecting to see The Gimp beckoning me down in Zed's basement, I reluctantly open the door and step inside.
I was greeted by a friendly guy-- who spoke English! Looking at his title, as displayed on the plate on his desk, I see that this is the boss. The jefe. The General... Post Master General. Sweet.

Again, "eres tu mi mama?".


That was easy.

He tells me that giving the address is a breach of privacy and security and there's no way he can give me her address. I agree, saying that I understand and didn't really think there was a chance that I would get her address anyway. It was worth a shot! No big deal. Thanks for everything.
"But you seem like a nice guy."

I'm in.

The two men confer in a corner of the office. I sit there, trying to looks as non-intimidating as possible (not too difficult a task for me, given said skinny jeans and groomed facial hair. Thankfully, there aren't too many metrosexual murderers out there). They come back to me and offer their deal: they cannot give me her address, but they can give me the neighborhood she lives in. It's a small community, so if I go out to this neighborhood and start asking around, I will find her. Offhandedly, one of the guys asks me what her name is.
"Angela P----".
"Yeah, I know her."
"Wait-- WHAT? You know her?"
"Yeah," he says, in a kind of "I don't want to say too much" kind of way.
"You know my grandmother?" (Again, I sometimes just said that she was my grandmother. It makes the story a little more personal).
"Yes" he painfully replies. Then, he takes a sheet of paper out and starts drawing a map. This is awesome. I'm on a fucking treasure hunt. HE'S DRAWING A MAP. I'm really excited about this. I'm in Puerto Rico in search of relatives and this guy is drawing a map!! How cool is this?
Coming back to reality, my friend finishes his map. I ask how far away this is (he didn't note if this was drawn to scale. I was only slightly intellectually offended). "About 20 miles." I guess I'm driving. To orient yourself, cherished reader, we are on the left side of the map. There's that long road in the middle, and we're heading to the right side of the map. Sounds pretty simple, right? And what is the name of the street we are looking for? "Calle Tuna." Like the fish. Fantastic.
My buddy tells me to look for a store (he labelled it on the map, if you can make it out, dear reader) and ask for Angela there.

I give my profound thanks, tell them that if they are ever in New York I can hook them up with some tea and scones, and head out.

I find that big road in the middle of the map right quick. My amigo told me to take it all the way to the end. Sure thing! I start driving. At first, it's still obvious that I am in the city of Cabo Rojo. Ok. Then, it starts getting a little bit, oh, rougher? Rougher in terrain and rougher in ambiance. The road narrows. The houses become less frequent. Then, the road starts making some twists and turns. Soon, I'm beginning to realize that I am in the back woods. I'm in the country. This is not in your guide books. Furthermore, this map is bullshit!! That straight line of a road should look like a strand of knotted spaghetti! And then, all of a sudden, it stops. I literally drive to the end of the road, because I thought there would be more to it. But it stops. Right now. Throwing my free upgrade 2010 Ford Focus with GPS that I got for free because I flirted with the ladies behind the counter at the rental place in San Juan into reverse, I backed up to the last street.

Sure enough, it's Calle Tuna.

Calle Tuna isn't marked "Calle Tuna". In fact, there are no street signs here. Truly, I am where the streets have no name. The only reason I know it's Calle Tuna is because as I was driving along these twists and turns, I saw this:
A wall covered in friendly graffiti! Now, my Spanish is okay, but I still don't really know what this says. It's something like "Bienvenidos a las brisatunenas de Tona ambiente familiar y una moderna bellonera." Which translates to something like "Welcome to the brisatunenas (?) of Tona, familiar ambiance and a modern bellonera (?)." Whatever. As far as I'm concerned, I see the word "tuna", so I know I'm in the right place.

I drive down Calle Tuna in search of this store that my Post Office buddy told me about. I drive through all the twists and turns, keeping an eye out for anything unusual. There's a man on a horse in the middle of the road. Nothing too unusual about that. I'll ease the car around you, thankyouverymuch. There's a hawk in the sky. Carry on, carry on.

Finally, I find a store. It's not the right one, I'm sure of that, but it's something. Actually, it's more like a mechanic's garage and a bar wrapped in one little dilapidated building. Let's be an overenthusiastic and naive young American boy and jump out of my shiny new rental car (make sure the GPS is switched off!) and stroll up to this group of five Puerto Rican mechanics and strike up some jolly good conversation about my lost grandmother, shall we? Right-o! And I did.
The mechanics were a rough lot. One guy looked like Frank Zappa. Spitting image of him. The other was overweight with bad teeth and the most piercing blue eyes you could imagine. Another was wearing a cowboy hat and was sitting at the bar drinking a Medalla beer. He looked like one of the bad guys in a Clint Eastwood western. I chose the fat guy as the least likely to kill me, and cautiously approach him.

I give my by now well rehearsed speech. He thinks. "Does she have any brothers or sisters?" I have no idea! I don't even know what she looks like (or, truthfully, if she is even alive). He thinks. "Does she have any children?" Dude. I don't know the chick, can you help me or not? Frank Zappa comes over to weigh in his opinion. We three talk and scratch our respective chins (In Puerto Rico, it is considered bad form to scratch another man's chin). "What is her last name?" "P----". "Hmm, there are many P-----s over there." He points to the distance. Apparently, unlike in the US, families stay basically together here and congregate in one neighborhood, and all the P--- live in one neighborhood not too far away. After getting some basic directions from the fat guy, I give my thanks and head back to the car.

I take off again, this time with a supplement to my hand drawn map. The fat guy told me to take the second right once I get up the hill. The problem is that the hill is more of an idea, rather than a physical entity. The entire area is hilly, so I really don't know which hill he is designating as "the" hill. Whatever. I'll just turn right when it feels right.

I get lost. I pull over to the side of the road and take a picture-- because I'm lost and need a second to make some decisions.
There. I feel better. I take in the scenery and appreciate the fact that I am in Puerto Rico.
Ok. Time to find my step-great-grandmother.

I head in the direction that Frank Zappa and Fatty tell me. Still more hills and narrow roads. But, as I reach the crest of a hill, there is a young man and two elderly ladies just getting out of a car. I pull over, turn down the salsa music that I had blasting, and recite my speech. "Does she have any brothers or sisters?" Ok, this is getting old. They tell me to look for a cafe at the bottom of the hill, and to ask around over there. You're kidding me? What ever happened to looking for the little store that the post office guy told me to seek out? Fuck it, I'm in the moment. Look for a cafe? Done. I'm on it.

I drive down the hill and suddenly the landscape opens up. There's a large house in the middle of a wide open field here. Very modern looking. The area is open, and there are a bunch of horses behind a fence next to the house. And then, as if gifted unto me from the Gods of Adventure, a cowboy appeared.

Allow me to paint a picture. This was a real cowboy. He was an older guy, maybe 50 years old, about six feet tall, deeply tanned, and spoke only out of the right side of his mouth. I'm not kidding: he was carrying a large saddle (with a Puerto Rican flag patch on it) under one arm, and a hoe in the other. The farming implement, that is. He wasn't abducting a working girl and carrying her under one arm.

Now see here, this here cowboy moseys on up to my car when I pulled up alongside him. I give my speech, and he garbles out a few words which I can't understand due to the combination of his use of only half his mouth's surface area, and because he's a cowboy and probably has a cool accent even in Spanish. All I can sort out is that he knows of an Angela, and she lives up the hill (where I had just come from). He tells me to go back up there and ask for her.

So I do. I drive back up the hill. As I slowly drive my car down the road, cruising at a leisurely pedophile's pace, looking into the houses to see if my step great-grandmother is eagerly awaiting the arrival of some American kid she's never heard of. I see a woman watching TV.
Out of car. Speech. Awkward stare. "Go back down the hill." Fuck.

I go a little further up the hill, in flagrant violation of TV lady's instructions, and come back to the young guy and the two old women. One of the ladies come straight up to my car. "Did you find her?" I report the sad news. She sighs, and then goes into a monologue. An extended monlogue. I really don't get what the hell she is trying to tell me, but she looks very concerned and is speaking in a sad tone. I'm getting worried. All I can catch are the words "cama", "enferma", and then finally, predictably, "se murio". Bed, sick, dead. You've got to be joking. I've come all this way, ALL THIS WAY, and you, crazy woman, are telling me that Angela is dead?! I ask her if she knows which house Angela lives in. No, but then she keeps repeating something. Some phrase. I can't get it though. She tells me to write it down. What? She tells me to write it down. As I'm struggling to grasp what the fuck she is talking about, I record the following in my notebook: "Med sed ulti 30". That's me trying to follow her. I give her my notebook and pen and ask her to write it down. "No se escribir." Goddammit. She doesn't know how to write. I'm going back down the hill.

So I do. Another elderly couple is outside of their home. Having no filter anymore, I pull over. This old man is wearing one of those cowboy hats that you see young boys wear. Like the one that Woody's son wears in Toy Story 2 (or is it 3?). That kind of cowboy hat that is red, made out of straw, and has a chinstrap. Got it? Good, because this old man was wearing one-- and using the chinstrap. It's like they emptied all the crazies onto this one fucking hill! Anyway, they couldn't help me either.

Another old man on the road. By now, I know I'm onto something. Nobody has gone, "Nope never heard of her." All of them are kind of struggling and thinking really hard whenever I say the name, as if it rings a bell. This guy, however, was different. He said he knew Angela! AWESOME. He tells me to go to the bottom of the hill and go to the big house there, because Alfredo (my great-grandfather) used to work there! WHAT!? YES, this guy knows of my great-grandfather Alfredo. He didn't know him, but he knows the name. How cool is that?

I take off, with new found enthusiasm, for the house at the bottom of the hill. I pull my car over, and luckily spot a petite old woman watering some flowers outside. Walking up the driveway, trying my hardest not to look like a Bible salesman, I call out to her and give my speech. She approaches the fence to hear me better, so I repeat my story, still trying to look as unintimidating as possible. When she asks me for the woman's name, I tell her Angela P----, and that her husband's name was Alfredo P-----.

Then, from within the darkness of the house, a man's voice calls out,
"Alfredo? Alfredo es mi tio!"
Wait a second. Did he just say that Alfredo is his uncle?
I call out, asking him to confirm it. "Alfredo es tu tio?" (I should have used "usted". Whatever.)

And out comes Rene. Let me spoil the story: Rene is insane. He's not normal. He's cray-cray. Rene didn't stop speaking from the moment he walked outside. His wife, the petite woman, hushed him most of the time and spoke for him. Her spanish was very understandable, so I was gracious at having a conversation partner who actually pronounced all their consonants and vowels. Rene might be crazy, however, he did just say that Alfredo is his uncle. I press the issue. I ask him about Alfredo. When did he die? "Noventa". Yeah, that's right. Around 1990. Was he married to Angela? "Yes, he was. She was his second wife." That's right! We're talking about the same guy.

HOLY SHIT. Rene is my cousin!!! It hit me. I wasn't even thinking about it. Rene's uncle is my great-grandfather, which means that we're related by blood! I proudly declare "Tenemos el sangre lo mismo!" Rene seemed amused by my enthusiasm (and probably my improper grammar. However, both Rene and Hilda, his wife, complemented me on my Spanish, thank you).

I'd love to stay and chat with my newfound insane hillbilly cousin, but I did come here seeking out Angela. I ask if she lives around here. "Yeah, she lives on the hill." Really? Go figure, because I'm feeling a bit like Sisyphus right now. Hilda goes to the phone and returns a few seconds later and hands it to me. What do I do with it? "Angela!" What? Oh man, Angela is on the phone! Hilda called her!

My head starts spinning. Angela is on the phone. One, she's alive. That's a relief. Two, she lives in the neighborhood. Cool. Three, she's on the fucking phone Matt! Talk to her!
"Hola." I say, probably sounding like an idiot.
"Hola." This is going nowhere fast.
"Uh, yo tengo una pregunta extrana." My signature opening line.
"Usted es la esposa de Alfredo?" (Are you Alfredo's wife?)
"Alfredo P----"
"Okay. Alfredo tiene dos hijas, Helen y Emma, no?" (Alfredo had two kids, Helen and Emma, right?)
"Cool." I accidently let that slip. Not important. "Uh, Helen es mi abuela!" There's the punchline! Helen is my grandmother. The grand reveal! Hooray!!

A single cricket chirped. A tumbleweed blew past. Somebody coughed in the audience.

"Uhhh. Puedo encontrarte?" That's shitty spanish, but I was trying to say "can I meet you?"
I ask her the color of her house. "Peche". Um, we didn't learn "peche" in school. "Que es peche?" I ask. "Peche!" Oh lord, this isn't going well.
Hilda jumps in for the save. She points at the big house and declares "peche!" Indeed! The house is... wait for it... peach. I probably should have figured that one out. No matter.
I decide to set off in search of Angela and her peach house. But not before taking a group picture with Hilda, Rene, and myself.
Yup. Just me and my cuz, hanging out. Looking at this picture now, I can't get over the similarity of our group picture (which I shot by holding my camera out at arms length, self-portrait style) with a certain famous painting. Our very own Puerto Rican Gothic. For the sake of comparison:

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

A Call for Confrontation

I'm quite tired with politics. That's not a grand revelation, nor is it a terribly controversial declaration. But therein lies the rub: I'd say that most people hate politics, or at least have a distrust of the political process and the motive
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
demic community of their argument's merit, all while disproving previous arguments and contrary contemporary arguments. Officially, attacks on a contemporary collegue's character is unheard of in academia.

Imagine, Candidate A gets up with a pie chart. "Here's how we currently spend money at the United States government:"

"I don't like this. I propose cutting the Department of Defense by 10% and welfare by 5%, and adding that money to Medicare so that we can expand the number of people with health insurance. Here's why I think that's a great idea..."

Here's a good example of what I'm talking about: Here is a clip of Senator Al Franken destroying a Focus on the Family witness's testimony during a congressional hearing. He does this by actually reading a study cited by the witness, and exposes that the witness completely misrepresented the study's findings, probably in the hope that nobody would actually call him out on it. Unfortunately for the witness, Franken does.

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.

AWK: A Worthy King or A Wealthy Kleptocrat?

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

Cerveza Con Mi Primo

For reasons that I can't really professionally go in to, I had to be at the restaurant last night at around midnight. Now, our restaurant closes around 8pm, so this is definitely after hours. The only person there at that time of night is the guy who washes the dishes and who doubles as the night time cleaner-- the very guy I became buds with last night.

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

Man's Best Friend

I was watching dogs today. Sitting at an outdoor cafe, I watched as pairs of dogs on leashes would "meet" each other in the street. Owners would let the dogs sniff and circle each other, give them a moment to "socialize", and then pull on the leash to signal that it was time to move on.

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

Ronkonkoma Blues

I am sitting at the Ronkonkoma train station. It is a hot day and the heat only makes the commanding silence all the more audible. Men loaf about, cracking their knuckles while leaning back on worn benches. There is nothing to do but wait. No amount of technology can make their friends arrive faster. They have to wait. Waiting is a very un-21st century thing. Then again, so are trains.

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

Letters and Symbols

I am currently reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams, and a few things have struck me thus far:

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


Summer is here, and that means it is time for a Daiquiri. The daiquiri is an adult drink. It's a drinkers drink. Ordering a mojito automatically makes me judge you a little. Ordering a daiquiri makes me respect you a lot. I mean, Hemingway drank daiquiris. Need I continue?

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

All Those Years Ago

Well now! I haven't posted on this blog in about a year now. I've grown up a bit, I'd like to think. Going back into my own archives, I'm tickled by what I read. It really doesn't feel like yesterday. It feels like a different lifetime. A different person! But, I can close my eyes and remember those days perfectly. (Look at me. "Those days". Like I'm talking about 20 or 30 years ago. It was 4 years ago! It puts things into perspective, I guess).

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.

Hey, Hey, The Gangs All Here!

Syrian "armed gangs" are to blame for a bus ambush.

"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.

What's most laughable is that the Syrian government switched the meaning, or the motive, of the "armed gangs" over the past three months. When the riots first broke out in Syria in March, the armed gangs were killing the rioters. They were, effectively, the opposition to the opposition. Read: it was a label for the security forces of Syria.

But then, in WWE fashion, the armed gangs turned face and started fighting the security forces. In effect, they went from the opposition-of-the-opposition to just the plain old, against-the-government opposition! They switched sides! But, the Syrian government didn't bother to stop calling them "armed gangs". No, images of roving armed gangs is much more sympathy inducing than calling them, oh, "pro-democracy protesters", or (dread the thought) "the people".