Christopher Pratt's Journal

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It's July 2013.
Friday, July 12, 2013, 1:50 pm
Remember when I wrote a lot on LiveJournal?

Yeah, me neither.
 
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Steve
Wednesday, October 5, 2011, 10:00 pm
I'm not surprised by Jobs' death, and of course my inner cynic wants to blame homeopathy or whatever the hell it was he was into; an anecdote that has stayed with me revolves around macrobiotic Indian food (or something) he tried to share with Gil Amelio back in the day, but of course I digress (and I don't really trust my own memory at this stage in the game).

My contact with Steve was virtually nil, but still more than most folks, so I'll run through the story again as honestly as I know how.

I first saw a Macintosh in high school. It was lovely; I was fascinated by the potential of doing my own typesetting, but ultimately I couldn't imagine ever making enough money to own one.

Later on, at UC Berkeley, I sold Macs at the student union book store; I still couldn't afford them, but I did pay a lot of attention to NeXT, which had recently launched at some gala over in San Francisco, I think.

After graduating, I wound up dating a guy named Joe whose flatmate Nick worked for NeXT. It was the first time I'd seen a NeXTstation; again, it was interesting largely because I was interested in typesetting, but God only knows it was outrageously expensive and way beyond my means. At least I was finally able to see the mythical computer that had been so widely talked about at Berkeley; no, it wasn't really exciting, but I did wind up attending NeXTworld Expo in May 1993, where I heard Steve talk for the first time; he introduced NeXTTime, a sort of QuickTime clone, with a clip of Star Wards. It was cool, sure; at first, though, it didn't seem any different than QuickTime, but it turns out was different in that he'd thought farther than Apple had, obviously spending time worrying about the sonics of it all and not just the visuals; if I remember correctly, it was THX certified and could handle more than two channels of sound, which I should have realized was typical of the man: sure, he gave you what you wanted, but he also made sure it had things you didn't know you needed just yet. After all, computers at the time had single speakers; it was only the previous year that Sound Blaster cards had made stereo an option, generally speaking. (Of course, NeXT hardware could do it, but again: who could afford that?)

I met Joe while I was working at CompUSA, a now-defunct computer retailer that was fairly widespread in the early 1990s. I became the chain's only expert on OPENSTEP for Mach, the NeXT operating system that ran on IBM compatible PCs. At the time, hardware that could actually run it was incredibly rare, more expensive than anything else on the market (heck, a JAWS video adapter alone cost more than most PCs), and although I knew what it was and how to configure it, I don't think that any store in the entire chain ever sold any of it, period, ever. Even so, it was kind of cool being an expert in a field that was totally irrelevant. Story of my life, I guess.

Fast forward another year and boom, I was working for Apple... technically. Mind you, I was only ever at Claris, in Santa Clara; although I had an Apple employee number, my badge wouldn't even allow me to enter the cafeteria at One Infinite Loop. The closest I could come was to visit the Company Store to buy unsellable Performa hardware at fire sale prices, alas. This eventually led to the other two times I had any kind of interaction with Steve; one was no more personal than NeXTworld Expo was, but the other still brings a smile to my face even today.

Claris was a software developer wholly owned by Apple that was best known at the time for ClarisWorks, which was essentially Microsoft Office lite for Apple computers. Its other money maker was a database called FileMaker Pro, which had originally started out as a DOS application called Nutshell, but which had really blossomed as a Mac application by the early 1990s. Although it's hard to imagine what things were like a quarter century ago, there was a time when industry pundits agreed that no one would ever buy a Mac unless it had certain types of software applications; Microsoft sold most of them (Word, mostly, but also Excel), but FileMaker Pro was the only credible database application available (Guy, I know 4D was cool, but honestly, no one really cared) at the time.

Anyhow, that job at Claris was the first "real" job I ever had. Unlike CompUSA, I was making more than minimum wage, didn't have to punch a time card, and even started contributing to a 401(k). Pretty awesome. However, what was really strange about my presence there was that I was not a Macintosh kind of guy: although I did own a battered Centris 610 that I convinced CompUSA to sell me for $400, I like to think that I had realized that Windows, however crappy, was obviously going to be the big winner in the operating system wars of the early 1990s. I became (in some weird sense) the Steve Jobs of Windows at Claris - that is, I had a theory that, in order to be successful on Windows and thereby earn so much fucking money that we could subsidize Apple, which was losing lots of money at the time, we had to be the best God damn Windows application we could possibly be. As a test engineer, I annoying the living shit out of the Claris engineers by hounding them to make sure that FileMaker Pro was the Windows-iest Windows application that had ever been seen anywhere near Cupertino. Heck, I even made sure that we passed Microsoft logo certification for our products; I was very, very proud that FileMaker products had those ugly-ass Designed for Microsoft BackOffice (and so on) logos on their boxes.

And, believe it or not, it worked (and not without a lot of hard work from colleagues such as Karl Pittenger, Christian Thomas, and Dave Heiber). By the time 1995 had rolled around, Apple was losing a lot of money trying to sell Macs, but the amount of profit - not revenue, but profit! - coming in from Windows software was canceling out those losses. That's right: if it weren't for Windows, Apple would have lost money in certain quarters. Go figure.

Anyhow! Fast forward another year: Apple was continuing to flail financially, the CEO was trying to figure out how to get a modern operating system, and there was a ridiculous amount of gossip flying around. Would we license Windows NT from Bill? Buy Be from Jean-Louis? Something else? Oh yes, something else: no one saw it coming, but NeXT bought Apple by the end of 1996. I was excited: finally, someone who seemed to actually care about what we were doing.

In the early days of 1997, Steve killed Claris. Yeah, he fired pretty much everybody, canceled all the products, and showed up in the Claris auditorium to explain what was going on. I had to come in early that day - I administered the Windows servers at Claris, and had to disable dozens of user accounts before the big meeting - and arrived late to hear Steve talking to everyone. That's the best example of the reality distortion field I ever saw: he convinced a room of shell-shocked employees that what he'd just done was absolutely necessary and was going to do wonders for Apple.

It did. Apple stole ClarisWorks just long enough to keep education contracts going before the Internet made that kind of software obsolete. FileMaker, the only product left standing, was strong enough to keep making lots of money, even if it was mostly on Windows. By the end of 1997, it was clear that things were going to be OK.

Now, another detour. It's a long story, but the software engineers who had been working on ClarisWorks had mostly left Apple for Microsoft by 1995. Gil Amelio and the gang at Apple didn't see the Internet coming, refused to fund any kind of Web browser development at Claris, and the ClarisWorks dev lead quickly got a killer deal with Microsoft going that led to them opening an office in San Jose to develop Internet Explorer for the Macintosh. My husband Dan wound up becoming the test lead for Mac IE; as a result, he was able to get development builds of the Apple Mac OS software for test purposes.

As an Apple employee, this struck me as, well, retarded. I mean, what the fuck? Microsoft employees could get Mac OS builds, but I couldn't? Even more frustratingly, I would surreptitiously copy the Mac OS builds Microsoft was getting to Zip disks (don't laugh) and pass them around the FileMaker office... and FileMaker employees would find bugs in FileMaker software that they could fix, which of course would be a real boon to Apple and its customers. Right? Even so, we'd continually go to our contacts over at Apple and ask them for pre-release Mac OS builds... and get denied. Fuckers.

Finally, I'd had enough. I emailed Steve, explained the situation, and asked for permission to access the build servers over on the Apple campus. I mean, we could see them on our own corporate network and all, but just couldn't log on to them.

A day later, I received a terse email from Steve that basically said "yes." That was it. Nothing more than that.

The next day, I received a panicked email from our Apple contact as well as voicemail with what I thought might be the sound of hyperventilation in the background. In essence, all he had to say was "you have access now, and for the love of God, don't ever talk to Steve again." Mission accomplished.

I never emailed Steve again - I had no reason to bother the guy - but I'll always smile when I think of that brief, indirect interaction with the man. (I'll always also smile at his announcement that the Apple campus was going entirely nonsmoking, or that the hamburger grill was replaced by a soba bar at the Apple cafeteria, but of course those emails were far less personal.)

More than anything, I'm lucky to have a few Steve-like people in my life. I won't name names - toadying is so unbecoming - but some are coworkers, more are friends, and I'm very happy to know them. As Yoko would say, we can all be Steve (if we want to).
 
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Wein Keller
Tuesday, May 24, 2011, 10:00 pm
It took ten days to clear Canadian customs and make it to San Diego, but Dan just installed the replacement thermostat for our crappy wine cabinet and it's thankfully cooling down nicely.

The cellar temperature is apparently on the interwebs somewhere; searching my old mail didn't find that URL, but it did find this barely amusing blast from the past: a post to an internal Netscape newsgroup that I made almost exactly a decade ago... here 'tis!

Posted: May 1, 2001

For sale: an Avanti WC400CL wine fridge. Holds 34 bottles; keeps them
from somewhere between 45 and 65 degrees cool (-> adjustable
thermostat).

Goes for $349 new at Fry's. A steal at $140 if you pick it up at my
house (S 13th St., SJ), or just $160 delivered to your house in the
South Bay (only). Includes original manual and receipt for warranty
registration.

For more info:

http://www.avantiproducts.com/wine/wc400cl-details.html

FAQ:

Q: Why are you selling this?

A: Because I built a wine cellar in my basement instead.

Q: Does the fridge include any wine?

A: No. But if it'll sweeten the deal, I'd be happy to throw in a bottle
of non-alcoholic sparkling wine that I've been trying to get rid of for
years.

Q: Can you do any better than that?

A: How about a $2.99 bottle of Argentine malbec? It's great for paint
stripping.

Responses to bear@marmot.net or cpratt@netscape.com.

Thanks!

- C
 
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That Was Yesterday
Sunday, October 17, 2010, 9:30 am
Went to Mexicali yesterday with Dan, Rex, and Roy so that Rex could blog the Mexicali gay pride parade. I decided it'd be more interesting if we crossed over into Mexico at Tecate and drove to Mexico that way because I always wanted to see La Rumorosa, a rocky mountain pass that descends from the mountains in the middle of Baja down to the desert where Mexicali's located. Bought my insurance online yesterday (US insurance isn't valid in Mexico), no problem there. Packed a cooler full of ice, threw in a few bottles of water, and hit the road at 9:15 yesterday.

When you enter Mexico as a passenger on a bus or when driving, they have a button you need to press that will give you either a green or a red light at random. At the Tecate border, we got the red light, complete with loud sirens. Awesome. Pulled over to secondary inspection and briefly chatted with a Mexican customs officer; we didn't have anything to declare, so we were on our way pretty quickly. We headed a few blocks into Tecate to get breakfast at El Mejor Pan de Tecate, or The Best Bread In Tecate, which has the best donuts in all of California. Yum. Bad coffee, but I noticed that the locals got espresso drinks across the street at the Oxxo convenience store, so I know what to do next time.

We hopped on the toll road headed East, paid our $4.25 toll, and drove for maybe forty-five minutes before reaching the hamlet of La Rumorosa, which is where the road gets interesting. They've got lots of wind farms up now - it is windy up there - and we slowly descended into the desert through huge rocks and plenty of crashed cars from decades ago slowly rusting in the sun. Temperatures crept to nearly 100 degrees - it's still very warm over there - and when we reached the bottom, we were treated to a leisurely military checkpoint, complete with pimply teenager wearing a machine gun. Given that there was no line, he took his time, but he eventually waved us through. We then passed turnoffs to a remote hot springs resort, the salt flats where Luciano Pavarotti sang to celebrate Mexicali's 100th birthday in 2003, and eventually passed a couple of geothermal power plants before entering Mexicali proper.

Me, I first went to Mexicali back in the 1970s. My Dad would sometimes volunteer at a children's clinic there - he's a podiatrist - which meant we'd make the long drive down from Stockton to hang out at the Hotel Lucerna pool while he worked. Super fun times for us kids, especially as we'd get a date shake in Indio on the way. These days, Mexicali's bigger than San Francisco, with about a million people living there; it's sprawled like crazy, and we spent a lot of time dealing with slow traffic and construction as we crawled towards Costco.

Yes, Costco. I love Mexican corn flakes, and I'm of course completely intrigued by Mexican wine - almost none of it is exported, and the stuff that is generally the cheapest of the cheap, six dollar bottles that are okay but not much more. Costco is of course pretty much middle class Nirvana wherever it is in the world; we stocked up on pesos at the ATM and hit the aisles. I found three bottles that looked interesting: a 2002 Ch. Camou, Monte Xanic chardonnay reserve, and a cabernet from Coahuila state in central Mexico (where the first winery in the New World was built hundreds of years ago). Got my cornflakes, a lot of cheap sugar and coffee, and then Dan noticed that Nochebuena beer had just gone on sale, so he put a case of it in the cart as well. Nochebuena beer is only brewed for the Christmas season and isn't exported, so it's a rare treat: you have to be in Mexico to get it. I've never had it, myself. Finally, Rex grabbed a bottle of Bacardi Solera and we were ready to check out.

We left, and I stashed the wine in the cooler - with temperatures in the upper 90s, I had to, or else it'd cook on the way home. We then headed across the street to Mega, a Mexican hypermarket, where Rex ran off to look for equipment to deal with a hangnail. Me, I bought a couple more bags of ice and a Coke. As an aside, you know you're in Mexico when there are plenty of store-uniformed parking attendants guiding you to parking spaces and helping you return your shopping cart... pretty ritzy stuff! Yes, it's probably just that it's cheap to hire a bunch of staff, but there's something pretty cool about parking under sun shades and... oh, wait, those are security guards too, so yeah, there's probably a big crime problem here just behind the surface. Hm.

Next up was a trip to La Ribó, which I had understood to be the best wine shop in northwestern Mexico. I was hoping to find a bottle of Mogor-Badan chasselas, which I'd had in Mexico City on my birthday last year and really, really enjoyed. They didn't have any - there's not a lot of it made, and it's almost impossible to find - but they did have a really interesting, carefully assembled selection of the best Mexican wines you could find. Pricing is always a bit of a shock; I'm guessing that taxes are fairly high in Mexico, at least compared to California, and that scarcity of their best wines doesn't help either. Most of the wines started at $20 - dollars not pesos - and a few of them were well into $100 territory. It's funny, but it's so easy to think of Mexico as dirt cheap... and it can be, sure, but there's a big, growing middle class there as well and it's clear that they spend money exactly as well as we do in the States. I picked up a six pack of different wines and got out of there to the tune of about $200, about what I was expecting. They had a single bottle of Mogor-Badan red wine (no idea what it is exactly), which was awesome; I bought the rest strictly based on criteria such as "can I afford this" and "is this a cool looking label or what?". Among the finds were some Mexican bicentennial wine - to celebrate Mexico's 200th anniversary on September 16, 2010, local winemakers banded together to produce some limited edition bottlings; I have one each of the 'cheap' one at $18 a pop. Into the cooler they went, and then we got serious about the business of the day: the Mexicali gay pride parade.

Some brief background information: Mexicali is the capital of the state of Baja California. Mexico, like the USA, is a republic with a lot of different states. Sonora, Baja California, Coahuila: these are all states. Recently, Mexico City - which isn't a state, but a Federal District much like DC - began allowing same sex marriages. Shortly thereafter, the Mexican equivalent of the Supreme Court also decided that all other states are required to recognize same sex marriages performed in Mexico City ("the DF" for short). So far, so good. However, a couple of weeks ago, the conservative government in Baja ("BC" for short), passed legislation that essentially says "we're not going to recognize those marriages." It gets more complicated; the legislation can't take effect unless the 5 "municipalities" (more like counties, really) in BC essentially sign off on it as well. This is why the annual pride parade in Mexicali was switched up to be more of a political protest this year.

Anyhow! We dropped Rex off at the start of the parade route so that he could talk to the activists who had organized the parade, and the rest of us headed a few blocks south to Beijing, one of the many Chinese restaurants in Mexicali. (For a while, there were more Chinese than Mexicans in Mexicali, and there's still a huge Chinese-Mexican community there.) Dan, Roy, and I feasted on a ridiculous amount of food; we went with the $8 menu, which included egg rolls, barbecue pork with spicy mustard, fried shrimp with Mexican mayonnaise, fried rice with pork, broccoli beef, and orange chicken. That's some of the best Chinese food I've had in years, but also very much of the old school North American Cantonese style; it's the kind of thing you only find in rural Washington state or similarly out of the way places these days. The fried rice was really interesting; it tasted very Mexican (I think it was something to do with the pork in it). Fresh limes served with our Cokes were a really awesome touch as well, and the Chinese-Mexican staff spoke perfect English to boot. All in all amazing.

While we were paying the bill, Rex texted us to let us know that the parade was starting, so we drove back up to the border fence and waited just a short while longer before the parade got going. Thanks to the heat and size of the city, the parade turned out to be a motorcade; a couple of dozen motorcycles, trucks, and cars drove slowly around the main streets of Mexicali, complete with police escorts on motorcycles and a huge flatbed truck with a few go go dancers and a couple of drag queens. Sweet. It was pretty cool seeing the friendly police officers stop traffic so that the gays could continue their procession; even cooler were seeing the locals smile and dance along to the pounding disco music in places. After an hour, the gays stopped at a small park three blocks south of the border, where the organizer did an interview with Mexican TV, a group picture was taken, and then folks went off to hit the gay bar. Us, well, we were done for the day, so we headed a few blocks northeast to wait in the long, slow, frustrating queue of cars crossing over to the USA.

After an hour of inching forward and declining all kinds of goods and services (cold drinks, ice creams, statues of tortoises, velvet paintings of the Last Supper, statues of beer drinking animals in sombreros with penises, Virgin Marys) and watching a wide range of beggars (grandmothers, people without legs, people with severe eczema, crippled children, the blind), we finally made it around the short curve to the border crossing itself. As luck would have it, we got a young Mexican-American woman as our border officer, who was emphatically not amused that we were taking 24 bottles of beer across - she wondered out loud if we'd ever crossed the border before - and within a couple of minutes she'd bundled up our passports along with an orange card, stuck them under the windshield wiper, and ordered us over to the secondary inspection lane. Joy.

Secondary inspection isn't just an awesome CD by Mexican electronic musician Terrestre. It's also where you get sent if they think you're taking anything across the border they suspect you shouldn't be. We parked, and waited just over an hour before a friendly officer came over to talk to us. We spent that hour watching families stand in front of their cars while they inspected them thoroughly for contraband; the poor woman to the right of us couldn't get her car started afterward, and they wouldn't let anyone else reposition their car so that jumper cables could reach her battery, so they eventually hooked up a couple of sets of jumper cables to get her car started.

Long story short, we were upfront about the alcohol we were carrying, and the officials made a list. Apparently - and this is news to me - the amount of alcohol you can bring back over the border if you're driving is dependent upon not your nationality or payment of import duties or excise taxes, but upon your state of residence. If you're Arizonan, for example, and you cross into the USA at Mexicali, you're welcome to carry a "reasonable amount" of alcohol - say, six liters of tequila or something - per person. However, if you're Californian, then sorry, you're allowed to carry one liter and one liter only of alcohol, regardless of what kind of alcohol it is. In short, three bottles of beer only, which strikes me as ridiculous. They did the math and decided that we were allowed to bring six bottles of anything across, period. We began by getting rid of the beer; the officer helped out by carrying one of the two cartons over to a special sink they had mounted in the secondary inspection area, complete with a permanently mounted bottle opener. It took some time, but I had to open all 24 bottles, pour the beer down the drain, throw out the caps, and put the bottles back in the cartons so that they could toss 'em. Next up, Rex agreed to throw out his rum because it was fairly cheap - ten bucks, I think - and then the Santo Tomas port-style wine, because it was screwcapped and maybe ten bucks. Total damage so far: forty bucks, which is incredibly annoying because the excise tax on beer and wine in California is a whopping twenty cents per gallon - and Federal tax on beer is five cents a can, not much more for wine. So what's the purpose of this exercise? You cross the border with twenty-four bottles of beer, which represents a loss to the State of about $1.85 in taxes (including California state sales taxes), and you're not allowed to simply pay the taxes and import the beer - nope, you have to pour it out, because that beer is somehow a threat, I guess? I have no idea what the rationale behind any of that was. You'd think that we'd have the technology to just have a kiosk at the border run by the State of California that would allow you to enter the amount of alcohol you're carrying, swipe your credit card, and get a receipt for your taxes. Heck, you could make that apply to all travelers, remove the arbitrary one liter duty free limit, and generate more revenue, period (the taxes on hard alcohol are way, way higher than for wine and beer).

But I digress. We're now down to eight bottles of wine, no beer, and no rum. The officer has graciously agreed to allow us six bottles, which is slightly more than the four liters we're allowed to take home from Mexico. I grab the two bottles of bicentennial wine - they're the cheapest, and I figure that any novelty wine like that is probably not going to be amazing - and take them over to the sink. I remove the capsules from the bottles - the plastic stuff that covers the cork - and we hit a snag. I don't have a corkscrew, and they don't either. They're well prepared for beer drinkers, but not for wine drinkers. Things bog down. Our officer goes to find backup in the building; me, I stand around and shoot the breeze with two more agents. It's friendly, chatty, and actually kind of interesting; they suggest that the only workable solution to the problem is to do your drinking in Baja, rent a hotel room there, and come back in the morning with nothing but a hangover. They also say that they've heard that they're making wines in Baja now (shhhh: they've been making them longer than we have in San Diego county), and they think the bicentennial wine is pretty cool (almost all of the officers here are American-born bilingual Hispanics). I point out that I was born on September 16 (Mexican Independence Day) and am bummed that I won't be able to try the wine. Eventually - and God knows Dan, Rex, and Roy have been waiting in the car for a long, long time now in the extreme heat and are probably as tired and exasperated as I am - our officer comes back and generously, graciously agrees to let us take the wine. No one can find a corkscrew, and I can't just leave it with them; what I'm supposed to do is apparently return to Mexico, drink it there or buy a corkscrew there, and then return to the border, but it's late, I'm tired, and I'm very happy that we're allowed to proceed with eight bottles of wine, net loss to the combined tax coffers of the USA and California slightly over one dollar notwithstanding.

People talk a lot about freedom in America, and this is why I don't always feel free. I don't see any problem at all with driving half an hour to a neighboring country, buying locally produced products that are not exported, and then driving home to California. I also believe that it's only fair to ask people to pay the tax due when importing goods to the USA. In the case of wine and beer, it's not a lot of money - maybe fifty cents a six pack - so why shouldn't we make it easy for citizens to do this? Hell, just make a Web site where you can prepay, print your receipt, and show it to Customs when you come back to the States. But no: instead, you are allowed to bring three bottles of beer home with you, period. What useful purpose this serves is beyond me: how do four bottles of beer represent a threat in any way, shape or form? Thirty cents in taxes is far, far less than the salaries of the officers who were paid to supervise me as I emptied them into the Calexico drainage system. Is it just that American beer distributors (such as Cindy McCain) are politically powerful enough to have enacted laws that prevent you from doing this?

Anyhow, once all of the border drama was behind us, we turned left in Calexico and set out on the last adventure of the evening: dinner at Camacho's Place, a Mexican restaurant in rural El Centro - seriously, like ten miles out of town, way out in the boondocks - that's been there since 1946. We pulled up, walked in, and found a nearly empty dining room with a really smart, funny, and somehow vaguely Tea Party-ish woman holding down the fort. We had tacos, machaca con huevos, and beer while talking about Mexico (she hadn't been there in maybe 15 years because it's so corrupt) and the uselessness of the border controls (she thinks it's ridiculous that they require passports now, especially because she grew up a mile north of the border and they didn't need passports for most of the lives (and I totally agree with that)). We paid up, bought some homemade cat toys for fifty cents, and started the long drive home to San Diego, eventually finding the freeway after dealing with random road closures (earthquake damage?) in the dark, foggy farmland - good times.

One last annoying Border Patrol check - this time from a fresh-faced 18 year old who mostly just looked bored - we stopped for gas, noted that our cell phones were on a Mexican tower (the interstate goes very, very close to the border there), and finally made it home to fall asleep just before midnight.

All in all, a fascinating day, even if we lost an hour and forty bucks thanks to ridiculous alcohol policy. Hopefully the wine will have been worth it - I'll blog it later - and with any luck the BC gays will see that legislation die due to benign neglect (the government changed shortly after it was passed, so there's a very good chance they'll simply ignore it, which means it will never take effect).
 
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The Food
Thursday, September 30, 2010, 5:30 am
Without question, one of the things I was most looking forward to about visiting Southeast Asia was the food. Although I enjoy seeing a YAFTE as much as the next guy (that's short hand for Yet Another Fucking Temple, by the way), being on vacation means good food and drink as much, if not more, than schlepping around the Vietnamese outback staring at old things. So, without further ado, here's a quick rundown of where we ate:

The Duxton, Saigon: My favorite breakfast of the trip by far, the Duxton had a huge spread of all kinds of delicious things, including fresh fruit, pain au chocolat, pho, Singapore noodles, char siu bao, shui mai, and excellent Vietnamese coffee. Because my daily breakfast is so small and so boring - either granola or toast with honey, plus coffee - it's a great luxury to hit an all you can eat breakfast buffet and one of my great pleasures while on vacation.

Pho 24, Saigon: Our United flight from Hong Kong to Saigon was delayed by nearly eight hours, which meant that we arrived at our hotel just after sunrise (instead of the originally scheduled 10 pm). The day's tour started right on schedule at 08:00, which meant that we found ourselves having a hard time coping with the heat and chaos of Saigon. At lunchtime, our guide stopped at a busy public market and gave us directions to a pho joint across the street where Bill Clinton had eaten, but two minutes in the market and I gave up, asking that they drive us over to the fancy Malaysian-built air conditioned mall we'd passed earlier in the day. Good call: a modern food court (with Popeye's chicken, even) was much more tolerable than a hot, questionably sanitary pho joint. I had "shaky beef" with a Pepsi, which was just fine: mildly spicy, good quality beef over rice, served by a young Vietnamese man who both wanted to practice his English and receive a large cash donation as he'd come from a poor family.

Highlands Coffee, Saigon: After lunch, we stopped by Highlands Coffee - think the Starbucks of Vietnam - and had traditional Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk, which was stronger, richer, and sweeter than any version I'd had before. Tasty! I also badly misjudged the size of their moon cakes; we had one - black sesame I think - and they served it cut into four tiny pieces with four forks. Cute! Also: tasty.

Temple Club, Saigon: I can't really remember the rest of that Saturday; I think we probably passed out asleep shortly after returning to the hotel in the late afternoon. I do however remember heading out for a walk in the late evening to find drinks, which we did: this resulted in two ridiculously OTT cocktails served in a lovely, air conditioned room filled with trendy European tourists. This also marked the first can of 333 beer, which was OK.

7-11, Saigon: On the way back to the hotel, we grabbed snacks. Those triangular sandwiches on white bread seem to be ubiquitous around the world, and they're pretty tasty and cheap, so what the heck. Add in multiple cans of good, cheap beer and mystery salty snacks and you're picnicking in style without the hassle, time, and cost of eating in a tourist restaurant.

Life Resort, Hoi An: After another amazing breakfast at the Duxton, we flew to Da Nang and drove to Hoi An, a sleepy ancient trading town on the coast. Jet lagged, we gave up and ate lunch at the hotel, which was just fine: I had grilled German sausages and potato salad. Nothing special, but pretty cheap and the beer was cold. Afterwards, everyone fell asleep for about eighteen hours. Breakfast at the hotel was okay; annoyingly, they wouldn't allow you to start eating until 30 minutes after the posted opening time, which is lame if you're jet lagged, but the breakfast itself was fine. Good pho, half-decent fruit, mystery pineapple juice that seemed to have separated in the serving container, and okay pastries.

Cargo Club, Hoi An: This place had just what we needed: an air conditioned place to sit after walking around Hoi An for five hours. Very, very Western, it reminded me of a generic European café. I enjoyed Coke with Cuban rum and a BLT, theoretically a bad idea in terms of food safety, but Vietnamese standards of hygiene seemed overall exceptionally high; I didn't wind up with any GI issues on account of fresh produce, which was a real relief given the ubiquity of fresh ingredients in Vietnamese cooking.

The Mermaid, Hoi An: Later on that evening, we walked back through Hoi An in a torrential downpour to have dinner at The Mermaid, which is a single-room restaurant that opens out onto the street very close to the public market. The rain outside cooled things down, as did the huge fans mounted to the walls; we also enjoyed huge bottles of La Rue beer. The food was fantastic, absolutely everything I had hoped for from a Vietnamese restaurant, moderately spicy, utterly fresh, and a lot of fun. Adam had some incredible stuffed squid; me, I had a couple of noodle dishes that were not greasy and absolutely stacked with thick slices of roasted garlic. Delicious.

Shitty tourist restaurant, Hue: Our second guide in Vietnam was a moderately annoying woman named Tien, who in best China Tourist Agency style (that would be the state travel agency of the PRC) had that annoying habit of stranding us at businesses that were obviously there to sell you marginal goods at huge markups, splitting the profits with the tour company. Ugh. Without any warning or discussion, we were dropped off at some restaurant I didn't recognize, stuck in a stuffy room with chain smoking Spaniards. The food was pretty lame: eel that hadn't been deboned, hair on a couple dishes. Still, whatever: deep fry anything and at the very least it won't make you sick. The spring rolls were OK and the Hue style fried rice was fine. Everything else though can suck it.

DMZ Café, Hue: What can I say? We had beer. Huda beer was very good and very cheap, and the staff brought us free peanuts. Meanwhile, street vendors would stop in and try to sell us sunglasses. Fun! The food menu was weird: almost completely Western, with pizza combinations I didn't recognize. We didn't try anything. Oh, and Hue brand beer? Not so good.

Mercure hotel, Hue: We took a quick trip up to the top floor for sundowners. Sure enough, the view was spectacular, and the drinks were very, very girly. They were fairly priced, reasonably strong, and a good time was had. Bonus: Some English guy that had long since emigrated to NZ kept us entertained for a while, but we blew him off and went out to dinner.

Why Not? Bar, Hue: My God, this place was crazy. Dan ordered the nachos, which were pretty damn good - not Mexican, really, but kind of like tortilla chips with typical Vietnamese meat-fish sauce-garlic stuff on top of them, and really delicious. I had a couple of Vietnamese things that were just fine, and Chris ordered a pizza that was too cheesy to be really good. The amazing part of the evening started when a waitress named Ha Ha overheard Dan wondering if the nachos were served over rice crackers. She took great offense at this and started demanding he apologize - I couldn't tell if she was being threatening or trying to be funny or what! Bizarre. She then started demanding some of his nachos to prove Dan wrong, I think. She then got into a long conversation with Chris about his beard - "lazy!" she said - and then demanded half of his pizza. We were all stuck in that weird "is this happening? is this funny? should I laugh?" place while her conversation with Chris detoured into weird digressions into the use of beards as sexual organs... I was stunned. I was thankfully able to pay our bill to someone else, and we eventually left, watching Ha Ha eat Chris's pizza. Truly amazing.

Saigon Morin Hotel, Hue: Definitely the off season, this place was kind of sad. We had some overpriced beers in the courtyard and a moderately okay breakfast the next morning. Not bad, not great, and if I ever return to Hue I'll stay somewhere else. Colonial piles are fun and all, but the Mercure looked more comfortable, even if generic.

Tinh Gia Vien, Hue: We spent five hours here "learning" how to "cook," which thankfully mostly involved carving vegetables and watching attractive Vietnamese women prepare food for us. Yay. The food was tasty enough - the fried rice was truly of the Gods - but it became clear that Hue royal cuisine is much, much more about presentation than taste. I carved a pineapple into a lantern, stuck long toothpicks into it, and stuck spring rolls onto the toothpicks. It didn't make them taste any better than any other spring rolls in Vietnam, but dude. It was a LANTERN. It had fire in it. YAY.

Green Tangerine, Hanoi: I'd consider this to be the first misfire of the trip. We walked there from our hotel, which was a hair-raising experience: Hanoi traffic is FUCKING INSANE. We did make it, though, unlike those three English women we saw wandering in and out of traffic, dazed, clearly unable to cope with the chaos and heat. Anyhow: GT is a tourist restaurant par excellence, set in a beautiful building with ten people to greet you and absolutely no one to get you a fucking drink once you've been seated. Grrr. We did eventually get our panachés - beer and lemonade, which was perfect - but the menu was ridiculous. You know those 90s style fusion restaurants where every dish seems to have about five ingredients too many? Yeah, this was one of those places. We went with the "cheap" Vietnamese set menu instead, which was totally bland and boring. Vietnamese food without fish sauce, garlic, and chilies makes Howard Johnson's seem appealing. When Dan looked down at his main course, he just sighed and said "Ugh, Chun King." He was right. Even dessert was boring. Avoid.

Flower Garden Hotel, Hanoi: This hotel felt like a recently built Chinese tour group place that was already falling apart; I wasn't a fan, especially as the hallways were extremely hot. Still, the room was comfortable and they did bring me a huge bouquet of flowers for my birthday. Breakfast was served on the top floor - nice view - and was okay. There was a lackluster selection of Japanese things - those weird steamed egg cups - some fruit, some cereal, and woefully undercooked omelets, plus watery juice and extremely slow coffee service.

Highway 4, Hanoi: I celebrated my 41st birthday here and was not disappointed. Everything we ordered was universally excellent: the banana flower salad and stir-fried crickets were special treats, but the hill tribes smoked ham was my favorite. Excellent service and an English menu too. I'd gladly eat there again.

Café Goethe, Hanoi: Intrigued by a New York Times article about döner kebap banh mi, I was hoping to find it here... and didn't. Instead, we found a lovely, upscale, jam-packed happening lunch spot with an extremely German menu. We sat in a room with a Vietnamese language specials board and ordered the thing that included "banh mi," which turned out to be classic Vietnamese beef stew, which was delicious enough. After lunch, I wandered around the premises looking for the fabled döner kebap stand, which looked like it hadn't been used in years... and then they fired it up in preparation for the afternoon snacking crowd. Thankfully, I was able to buy a couple before leaving for the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and they were amazing: easily the best $1 sandwich I've ever had. Delicious. So: If you do go here, don't go at lunch, but after lunch, and look for the cart out front - they don't serve the d. k. b. m. in the café, only from the cart out front.

Indochina Sails, Ha Long Bay: Hey, it's a tourist boat. Be prepared for dumbed down Vietnamese food, but at least it's a buffet so you can have a lot of it.

Lucky Café, Hanoi airport: If you're flying out of Hanoi, you really, really want to eat before clearing Immigration: the prices on the other security are double, triple, even quadruple what they are in the publicly accessible areas of the terminal. Lucky Café had good Internet access, $5 foot massages, at least one roach on the floor under our table, cold beer, and a perfectly acceptable "California" sandwich. Cheap, too.

3 Nagas, Luang Prabang. At first, I experienced sticker shock after Vietnam, but prices were of course absolutely reasonable considering the amazing food. We ordered a selection of different traditional Lao foods, all of which were tasty and thankfully far spicier than anything in Vietnam. Most remarkable, though, was the hyperattentive service - in a country like Laos, it's apparently cheap to hire lots of employees, so you'd better get used to several waitstaff hovering nearby refilling your beer every time you take a sip. Beerlao, by the way? Tasty. The dark stuff is even better. We stayed at this hotel, and I can't recommend it highly enough: truly luxurious and keenly priced to boot. Breakfast was one of the best of the trip, with either Lao rice pancakes stuffed with spicy meat (tasty) or various French pastries on offer, both with fresh fruit, wonderful coffee, and friendly service.

L'Elephant, Luang Prabang. We sat on the outside patio, cooled by fans, and enjoyed their Lao tasting menu, which included the absolute spiciest thing I ate on the trip: some kind of almost-gritty ground chili paste that was heavenly and painful. High points for me were the sticky rice (kind of a purple color, and served in a small basket) and the mixed vegetables - that's exactly the kind of thing that sounded lame but which turned out to be delicious. I don't know what I was so happy to see cauliflower again, but everything was fresh and prepared in a light sauce that was undeniably French but also not out of place in Laos. Seriously, between these two restaurants I could happily spend a week in Laos doing absolutely nothing.

Nest, Siem Reap: This is an amazing space, a large outdoors plaza covered in white fabric sails to protect against rain and sun, with comfortable seating and fans everywhere to keep you cool. It felt like it could have been in Los Angeles. I had an amazingly strong mai tai and their Cambodian tasting menu, which was heavenly, right down to the grilled mango and sticky rice. Beers were cheap and cold, and the only off note was the LED-infested tank cover on the toilet (I think that was supposed to be stylishly modern). After surviving the oppressive heat of Angkor Wat, it's a wonderful thing to be able to relax in a clean, stylish, cool place with wonderful food. I know it's decadent and Western of me, but hey. I like being on vacation.

La Maison d'Angkor, Siem Reap: This hotel would be perfect for individual travelers. The manager is an affable French guy who knows everyone who can help you out, from tour guides to local cooking schools. He even had tuk-tuks on call for guests; $5 gets you anywhere in town and back, no problems. Breakfasts were modest, with good coffee, juice, pastries, and eggs served in vast quantities. We also had lunch here; food was just fine, reasonably priced, and tasty.

Sugar Palm, Siem Reap: Recommended by the manager at La Maison, this place is an absolute must if you're looking for good Cambodian food. I decided to splurge on a bottle of steely, acidic West Australian chardonnay that wasn't overpriced at $25, which was a nice counterpart to the rich, heady spices used in their salads and mains. The coconut milk curries were amazing, as were the barbecued pork skewers. Really, really good stuff, well priced, and well worth seeking out.

Bougainvillier Restaurant, Phnom Penh: I don't think anyone really loved this place, but I was fine with it. We had a cheap set lunch that included all you can eat appetizers and desserts, plus one main dish. I had entrecôte with fries, which was just fine considering the logistical challenges of sourcing good beef in Phnom Penh, and enjoyed the île flotante served afterwards. However, I also managed to get some gristle stuck between my teeth in a way I've never experienced before and spent much of the meal trying to get it out with a toothpick (no dice). The rest of the gang ordered fish, magret de canard, and beef Burgundy style, all of which looked good indeed considering the price and location. It may not be Paris, but it was good for what it was.

Foreign Correspondents Club, Phnom Penh: Overpriced, dirty toilets, and an amazing view of the riverfront. I had a fresh coconut (not bad, not great), some beer, and random appetizers, all of which were just OK. Good service, but you don't go for the food, just for the view.

Unnamed restaurant, Phnom Penh: I forgot the name of this place, but this was classic backpacker grub. Pizzas and cheap Khmer food, $3 a dish, seemed moderately clean, friendly service. I stuck with the fried rice, which was OK.

Amanjaya Pancam hotel, Phnom Penh: One of the best hotel rooms I've ever enjoyed, with powerful AC and a great view, plus a bathroom so big you could get lost in there. The hotel breakfast was just fine, another Franco-American mishmash of eggs, pastries, and good coffee. In a huge, chaotic, rumpled city like PP, it's a wonderful thing to be able to enjoy luxury like this. I can't imagine any other hotel in town being any better, not even the Raffles.

Dairy Queen, Phnom Penh airport: OMG, what a blast. $2 Oreo Blizzards? Yes please, especially after visiting the Killing Fields. True Western decadence.

Asia Hotel, Bangkok: Home of the Calypso ladyboy cabaret, every single restaurant in this hotel looked depressing; it reminded me of an unrenovated Intourist hotel in Minsk circa 1994. After wandering around the hotel for a while, we eventually gave up and ate at the "Western style" cafeteria, which turned out to have really good pad thai and Mussulman curry at very reasonable prices. The only drawback? You have to listen to a Thai Elvis impersonator at overly high amplification levels during your meal.

The Dusit Thani, Bangkok: Huge international breakfast buffet with fantastic Bircher muesli, good coffee, and a wide spread of things ranging from Chinese dim sum to what I can only assume was natto (based on the smell alone). Really superb omelets and excellent pastries. Second only to the Duxton, really.

Sala Rim Naam, The Oriental, Bangkok: We wound up here coincidentally for a buffet lunch on Friday. I didn't want to leave. Everything you could possibly hope to experience by way of Thai food was here, all served by the most wonderfully friendly staff you could imagine. Every time you'd pause and stare at something, one of them would come over, explain what it was, and more likely than not prepare you a plate of it. I ate so much that I'm embarrassed to think about it. They had fresh mangosteen, desserts of every imaginable variety, fried rice with crab meat, four different curries... They had bright purple chicken dumplings, sweet-savory rice desserts with coconut milk, sesame, and spring onion, pandanus, petits fours, four kinds of rice... I'd go back to Bangkok just to eat here again. It was seriously good.

Dusit Gourmet, Bangkok: The Dusit Thani also has a delicatessen in the hotel. Late in the evening, they apparently discount the baked goods they sell; we paid half price for bacon onion quiche (amazing) and a few other things. The macarons they sell are fantastic, too. If you're staying here, head over to the 7-11 a block west to stock up on beer, but stop here for the sandwiches and tarts.

Maya, Millennium Hilton, Bangkok: This was the great dining fail of the trip, unfortunately. A local avant garde dance school teamed up with the Hilton to create an evening's entertainment mixing Thai food and live performance, which sounded great - but wasn't. It started off well, with a cocktail made of Thai holy basil, strawberries, and sparkling wine, plus tasty appetizers and intriguing dancing, but... it quickly fell apart. This place has real pacing problems: it will take you three hours to get out of here, at least two of which is spent watching some really boring dancing while waiting for your next tiny morsel of food to arrive. Totally disappointing, but at least it wasn't a ripoff at around $50.

Unnamed restaurant at the River Kwai: Sorry, but this is tourist trap central. This was home to terrible, watery green chicken curry. Yark.

Food court, MBK Center, Bangkok: When you enter, you're given a card that the different stalls scan to ring up your food. After seeing this place, I wish we'd eaten here: it had everything you could possibly want at great prices, including amazing looking Indonesian food. I truly regret not having had the mie goreng here. Next time I'm in Bangkok, I'm definitely headed back here.

Benjarong, The Dusit Thani, Bangkok: Supposedly one of the better Thai restaurants in Bangkok, this was more miss than hit. Slow service, and they served the wrong dish entirely as my main. However, the mixed dessert tray made me extremely happy. Hint: Order the draft Singha, not the bottled version. It's $3 cheaper and tastes better.

ANA lounge, Narita airport, Tokyo: Best. Noodles. Ever. Also: all you can drink Suntory whisky, fun beer machines, Japanese alcohol tasting bar (I have no idea what that stuff was other than the plum wine), and fussy English tea sandwiches. Recommended.
 
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Angkor Wat
Sunday, September 26, 2010, 4:52 am
Taken by danlmarmot http://www.flickr.com/photos/92601235@N00/5025927754




Sent from my iPhone
1 imageCollapse )
 
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What Vietnamese men do in the morning
Wednesday, September 15, 2010, 5:51 pm
Check out this video on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtpnUvXEwzg&feature=youtube_gdata_player


Sent from my iPhone
 
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Day 17
Thursday, September 2, 2010, 10:00 am
Day 17. A song that you heard often on the radio

It's been about fifteen years since I've listened to the radio: just as soon as I could afford do, I replaced the stock AM/FM radio in my Saturn with a CD player. Who wants to listen to the radio when you can listen to your own music?

Given that, I'll tweak this question to suit my needs. How about a song that I often played on the radio? When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to have an early morning slot on the school's somewhat weakly powered FM station - which meant that classmates would sometimes listen to the show on the way to school. At other times, I'd have very late night slots, though, which would mean I could play pretty much whatever the hell I wanted to, figuring that it was extremely unlikely that anyone would be listening at such a late hour.

The only rules - other than the usual FCC proscriptions against profanity, etc. - were that I had to play a couple of songs before the end of the show from three bins of records sent to the station by record labels. The newest ones were in one bin; the other two hard progressively older material in them. This was the mid 1980s, so most of that stuff was pretty weak; I wasn't in a mood to play Simple Minds or Shriekback or whatever was there, but there were usually some things that I didn't mind too much.

I have only the vaguest memories of what I played on the radio - the strongest memory I have, albeit still extremely flimsy, is that of a memorable morning with call-ins from other students who were annoyed at something or other, probably my criticizing some song they didn't like or not honoring a request for Love Removal Machine or whatever. Some girl wound up cursing up a storm, and I didn't quite manage to cut her off in time for at least one F-bomb to hit the air... well, good thing our signal was weak and that we didn't have too many listeners in the first place. Still, those that were listening would sometimes phone in to say thank you for playing Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Severed Heads, Revolting Cocks (or, as we'd say it, Revolting Roosters), The Carpenters, or whatever else I felt like. (Yes, I did once mix two copies of Wiseblood's Death Rape 2000 so as to keep it going for twenty minutes. If anyone still had their radio on after that, I'd have been very surprised.)

Here's a sample of some of the shiny, happy music I'd play:



Mind you, I still think this is a damned good song.

To place this in some historical context, thought, I would like to take this moment to point out that I was not a goth, a punk, or whatever. I didn't wear any black clothing; I wore 501s and flannel, a beard and a flattop. I was doing my best to create an identity for myself in the absence of any kind of role models. This was long, long before the Internet and any hope of finding like minded fellers; instead, I did the best with what I had. Yes, it probably looked ridiculous - I mean, I was only 17, and I was trying to look like I was 25 - but it seemed right. I liked this music - nay, still like this music - because it seems to me to be worlds apart from the cheap "shocking" crap put out by the likes of Marilyn Manson. Years later, I think shortly after Trent Reznor signed MM, there was a ridiculous amount of publicity trying to explain precisely how shocking MM were (because they borrowed serial killers' names, or something), but the music was wussy as hell and the lyrics mostly just plain stupid. There's a raw power to Swans and a naked, ugly, degrading beauty to the lyrics here; it conjures up all kinds of upsetting imagery, transcending the simpleness of the song and becoming something remarkable in the process. I like to think of this music as the equivalent of Larry Clark's photography: kind of beautiful, kind of upsetting, and evocative of a time and place that was miles away from the affluent middle class town where I went to high school.
 
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Day 16
Tuesday, August 31, 2010, 1:30 pm
Day 16. A song that you used to love but now hate

Try as I might, nothing jumps out at me here. Strange, really, because there are probably a hundred wines that I used to love but don't particularly care for any longer; with wine, the more I know about winemaking, the less tolerance and understanding I have for certain styles, especially those whose foundational elements are primarily human-engineered and not natural in origin.

Music doesn't really work like that for me, though; there are plenty of songs that I didn't like the first, second, fifth, or twentieth time I heard them, but which eventually blossomed into pleasurable listening experiences. Yes, there are also plenty of songs which I liked just fine the first several dozen times, but which grew less interesting over time and which I haven't heard in some time (an example: J. G. Thirlwell's Node Wresting, which is a fantastic track, but which I haven't felt a need to listen to since shortly after buying that album). However, there just aren't a lot of songs - if any - that I actively hate after once having enjoyed them.

So, in lieu of anything better, I'll give you this:



I kind of like XTC (and I really, really like The Dukes of Stratosphear). But it's never been stronger than a weak like. I liked that Oranges and Lemons was packaged on three 3" CDs, but twenty years on I have only the vaguest memories of the songs on that album. I remember that Fruit Nut is a God awful song. I remember that Love On A Farmboy's Wages is beautiful. And so on: I still own XTC CDs, but I'm usually not sure why.

Nonsuch, their final album (OK, technically not, but it sure felt like it at the time), well, I remember liking it... I guess. Sure, it had the usual quotient of stuff on it that initially left me entirely cold (Rook), but other parts of it I vaguely remember having liked. Today, however, I went back to the album for the first time in pretty much forever, and realized that yeah, I kinda sorta do hate this song, which was a big hit at the time (just before I graduated from college, in the spring of 1992). The tempo is plodding, it sounds weirdly dated, the political references are trite and uninteresting, and the video itself is really not helpful in any sense of the word. In short, it's middling XTC, but a good example of "political music" - in the most high school sense of the word. Hearing lyrics along the lines of "nailed him to a chunk of wood" makes me cringe; it's not clever, it's actually totally fucking obvious, and the banality of it all is overwhelming.

It's possible that I thought this was cool as a 22 year old, that I found this thinly veiled retelling of Christ's story somehow clever or (God forbid) rockin'. Now, though, it's just pathetic, really. After all, if you can't write anything new or interesting, might as well just rehash the Bible in a transparently obvious way, add some ringing guitars and a shitty video, and see if you can turn it into a radio friendly unit shift.

I'm through with XTC, but at least I'll always have Ladybird.
 
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Day 15
Friday, August 27, 2010, 1:00 pm
Day 15. A song that describes you

Before I begin, go ahead and shift-click this link so that you can see what I'm talking about. If you have a second monitor, go ahead and position that window so that you can refer back to it. OK? Oh, and one more thing: You really want to be using Firefox to open this site, not IE. Ready? OK. Here we go:

Taking liberties with this admittedly inane meme, I'll overreach a bit and talk about a entire object, for lack of a better word. This isn't about a song: it's about all of the things that come together to make a particular instantiation, a specific physical object. The object I'll be talking about today is A Big 10-8 Place, by Negativland, a "band" of sorts from Concord, California.

Let me start with a brief description of Concord. Concord is in Contra Costa County, a county in Northern California. I imagine that most folks have never heard of Contra Costa County unless they grew up in the Bay Area: it can hardly be said to contain anything of note (apart from a dentist's office referenced in the liner notes of Happy Hour by King Missile). Even the name is nothing more than an empty signifier: it means "the other coast," pointing out indirectly that it is not the interesting one, i.e. San Francisco, which is across the bay from western Contra Costa County.

Me, I grew up in San Joaquin County, which borders Contra Costa County. Keep this in mind; if Contra Costa County can be said to be suburban in relation to San Francisco, then Stockton can be considered to be pretty much Nowheresville by comparison. The first memories I have of Contra Costa County were in the 1970s - my grandfather had been admitted to a Kaiser Permanente facility in Concord (he lived in Livermore, a smaller city a ways south in Alameda County), and we made more than a few trips out there, usually taking California Highway 4 across the Delta to get there, passing by Discovery Bay, Brentwood, Clayton, and other fine rural Contra Costa County towns.

So: Imagine moderately affluent suburbia, most of it built after World War II. Know that it's close enough to San Francisco to almost feel Bay Area, but also that it's pretty damn close to the rural wastelands of San Joaquin Delta country. There's another town in Contra Costa County I'm familiar with from my childhood: that would be Antioch, a town on the Sacramento River that's best known for smelling really fucking terrible thanks to a large paper mill there. (Fun fact: some of the best wines in California hail from San Joaquin and Sacramento Delta river country. I'll be enjoying a Verdelho from Clarksburg, about an hour upriver from Antioch, later this evening). For reasons I don't even remotely understand, our family would often eat at a riverside restaurant in Antioch, where I'd enjoy fried seafood along with a snootful of that God awful pulp mill smell. Thanks, Antioch.

Paper: Given that you probably don't own a copy of this recording, let me describe it for you. I first encountered A Big 10-8 Place in Eagle Rock, California, as a teenager. My good friend Jesse had moved there to attend Occidental College; there, he'd heard Negativland's 3rd album Escape From Noise and had liked it so much that he'd picked up their 2nd album as well. Unlike most albums, the packaging was incredibly complicated. I don't have a picture of it handy - my copy is at home and I'm not even sure I'd be able to find it - but you'll have to imagine the following details: The album is packaged in a 12" plastic bag, which is not unusual for imported vinyl albums. However, what's inside is: instead of a cardboard sleeve, there's a stiff paper insert that is constructed so that it has flaps that fold over in the front, kind of like a bracket - [ - this way, if you look at the album from the back, it looks normal (all paper), but from the front, it has two strips of paper down either side. Inserted into the plastic bag is a bumper sticker in a matching green color placed diagonally so that the entire package approximates a capital letter N: paper strip, bumper sticker, paper strip. Behind the strip and in front of the record itself, you should be able to see a small yellow "Inspected By" piece of paper (not dissimilar from the "This errata slip inserted by mistake" object in that one Alasdair Gray book), a small Baggie™ of lawn clippings from an actual suburban lawn in Contra Costa County, and finally a folded newsprint poster that contains collage art as well as a giant map of Contra Costa County.

In short, without even listening to this thing, you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect: something elaborate, pretty damn cool, and also very specific to a part of the world which isn't generally well known. That is, exactly the kind of thing you probably know that I really, really go for. When I say that this "describes me," what I really mean is that this object is typical of the things I really, really care about in this world. Typography, in-jokes, maps, nerdtronica, localized references some folks may not get, site specificity, I could go on... it's all here.

But what about the music? Well... it'd be a gross oversimplification to call this music. Going back to my formative years as a music listener, the major technological advancements of the time were the advent of inexpensive home recording, especially compact cassettes (as opposed to reel-to-reel tapes) and affordable synthesizers. These are markers of two bands I particularly like: Severed Heads (from Australia) and Negativland (from the next county over). Both of these bands learned from Steve Reich and Edgard Varèse: both of them learned to use magnetic tape as a building block for music composition. If Severed Heads were more Reich - the aforementioned Alaskan Polar Bear Heater shares certain artistic tendencies with It's Gonna Rain - and Negativland was more Varèse - which we'll get to in a minute - then both of them went beyond in also producing accompanying physical artifacts that extended the audio somewhere else. Severed Heads sold cassette tapes packaged in broken TV sets; Negativland cheerfully produced unique, one-off, handmade covers for their first album and then this wonderfully Byzantine package for A Big 10-8 Place.

Meanwhile, back in Concord: Is there a chance that Mark Hosler of Negativland had ever heard Varèse's Poème Électronique? Well, who knows? It seems plausible to me. Mills College, which in some ways is the Western Hemisphere's version of Boulez's IRCAM, is just over the hills to the west in Oakland. More than anything else, though, I think it's safe to say that an obsession with ham radio, crappy suburban television, commercial radio, and cheap recording technology all led to Negativland and to this album in particular.

That window over there to your right? If you're at work, ignore it: the point of it is to make some noise. If you're at home, headphones work really, really well for this; ideally, you'd also have the stereo on loud at the same time you're listening to the headphones. Go ahead and click on the PLAY button to listen to the first track for a minute. Pay attention to the first few seconds: radio static/interference/jamming, a girl saying "I" (repeated three times), a 1960s radio commercial kind of voice saying "Everybody welcome," and then The Weatherman (explaining who that is is beyond the scope of this post; let's just say that he's, um, a local character) starts in, singing. As Maude Lebowski would say: The lyrics are ludicrous. That, of course, is the point. (If you listen carefully, you'll hear the phrase "seat bee sate," for example; that was printed on a small button included with their first album. It's a Weatherman-ism and doesn't mean anything.) Pretty soon, though, we'll move on to local place names: Richmond, Orinda, Pleasant Hill. Very stupid. Very stupid. What does it all mean? Again: I have no idea, but there's something here that's deeply, deeply satisfying to me. Growing up in a similarly unexceptional town, I imagined that I too could write an album singing the praises of Morada, Lodi, Calaveras, and Escalon.

Let's move on to the second sample on Negativland's Web site: A BIG 10-8 PLACE Part One. It's here where this album really, really gets going (at least for me). We're well and truly beyond any kind of "music" or "songs" here: instead, we get tape collage, Burroughsian cut-ups (or is that Gysin?), postmodern intertextuality, references a go go, you name it. All of those afternoons I spent watching Captain Mitch on Sacramento Channel 40, all of those strange filmstrips I watched at David Elementary School, all kinds of Hunter S. Thompson-esque cultural seepage and badness from the 1970s... it's all here, all here. There's not nearly enough of a sample on the Web site to get an idea, unfortunately, of how carefully and beautifully it's all been spliced together (carefully, by hand, mind you! this is long before the age of digital cut 'n paste); but you can at least hear "now go to sleep doubting" and "Concord... end of the line, all passengers please disembark," "I," "We're in Concord," and other snippets. I do remember riding BART (the San Francisco Bay Area subway) from Concord into San Francisco the week it opened with my Mom, so part of me remembers those BART announcements well; at any rate, the point isn't mere nostalgia, but the way it's all so skillfully woven together into what (to me) approximates the threatening stasis of growing up in American suburbia, the horrible feeling that you're hemmed in on all sides by cheerful radio salesmen ("The door opens automatically to let you in!"), Koonsian banality ("clowns and ballerinas!"), and some unnameable dread, some Pynchonesque paranoia fusing it all together disguised as a loving parent ("Now go to sleep, Donny") who is probably plotting to murder you in your sleep ("I smell gasoline"). It is unarguably brilliant and probably the finest album to have ever come out of Contra Costa County.

OK. We're 10-8. The number is 180 and the letter is G. There is no other possibility.

Finally, the reason this album reminds me of, well, me so much is that there's an insistence of getting out of The City ("you have to head East") in order to experience something undeniably strange (e.g. renting a Rug Doctor at Safeway in Concord) that just wouldn't happen to you if you stayed at home. This album represents both an inversion of what we all believed to be true as children (that we had to go somewhere else to find truth, or at least a decent taco) - for the first time, someone is proposing that we leave the culturally vetted City and head East - as well as liberation from the canon, an open invitation to create your own art, to produce something that is deeply personal and locally specific.

If I were talking about this in wine terms, then of course I'd point out that one of the most striking examples of this or any other great album is this: that it couldn't conceivably have been made anywhere else or by anyone else. There are thousands upon thousands of albums that sound absolutely fantastic, but which are ultimately interchangeable with thousands of other albums - Whitney Houston comes to mind - and then there are albums that don't sound like they could have been written, performed, or recorded by anyone else - Nick Drake and Boris come to mind, for example. This is one of the greats.

Me, for one, I'm proud to be from Stockton. Not all great art comes from the academy or from the City. Some of it comes from us, from somewhere underneath the shag carpets and burnt orange appliances looking out over empty Delta fields.
 
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Day 14
Tuesday, August 24, 2010, 6:00 pm
Day 14. A song that no one would expect you to love

No one? Like, absolutely no one? That's ridiculous. (Don't you kid yourself.)

If I limit no one to "no one on LiveJournal," then I might have a better chance of it. I just spent half an hour going through my iTunes library, and there's nothing in there that would surprise anyone. Jevetta Steele, Jane Siberry, k. d. lang, Aimee Mann? mamoosh knows my secret shame. Dan's seen me listening to most everything, and nothing else should be remotely surprising, not even Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, Mahir, Modern Talking, or Crazy Frog. That CD of East German cowboy-and-Indian movie music from Aquarius should come as no surprise to anyone who knows of my fondness for odd stuff; that shelf includes the Conet Project as well as copies of Shut Up, Little Man and random business-card-shaped 3" CDs.

The only place I suppose I get really surprising is "classical music" - I know, oh, no other people that listen to that stuff (other than relatives). Yes, there's Stockhausen, Reich, Xenakis, Varèse, and Riley. However, the least likely candidate is probably... Morton Subotnick.

Here, try some. I first hear this when I was working at CompUSA; we had Voyager CD-ROMs for sale, and Subotnick's was pretty fascinating to me at the time. I bought the CD of this ages ago, and I still love it. Yes, it has kind of a cheesy factor to it, but I like the empty spaces that aren't music really, just texture. It's music that's mostly timbre, I guess; no real melody, just "a feeling," at least not for the first part (before the really dated Synclavier-esque keyboards kick in). Reminds me of Stockhausen a little bit, but much more of Ryoji Ikeda and Carsten Nicolai.

Here's something unrelated from Paris a couple of years back:



But I digress. What songs would you think I wouldn't like at all?
 
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Day 13
Monday, August 23, 2010, 6:30 pm
Day 13. A song that is a guilty pleasure

Oh dear. Some candidates: the first nine tracks of Sous Hit by DAT Politics (because they're so incredibly horrible that Dan gets angry if I listen to them while he's anywhere near the house), Christmas Tree by Lady Gaga (thank you, Amazon, for the free MP3), Boom Boom Pow by Black Eyed Peas (I'm especially ashamed by that one), but my all time guilty pleasure has got to be this rockin' teen number:



Why guilty? This song features more or less everything I profess to hate about music: women singers (OK, this is a dude, but it still sounds like a woman), shameless slap bass, excessive Fairlight CMI orchestral hits, overuse of the pitch bender thingy on cheesy synths, bright, shitty guitar that sounds like it's there only to make it more "pop," lyrics that include words like "girl", "love," and "oooh baby," terrible sounding fake drums, terrible sounding fake brass section, terrible sounding fake everything.

Worst of all, I just Googled the lyrics and realized I've mishead this line for a quarter century: How could two muffins be so sweet? Go figure. Guess I spent too much time listening to Spinal Tap.
 
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Day 12
Monday, August 23, 2010, 3:30 pm
Day 12. A song from a band you hate

These guys are from England and who gives a shit?

The day U2 was released, I bought a copy at Amoeba Records in Berkeley. The clerk warned me that I was not in fact buying a U2 record; my first instinct was to tell her "well, why the fuck else would I be buying this record?"

For the record, I hate U2. Really, really, really hate U2. Here, let's take a typical U2 song:



Damn near eleven million people have watched this video, which features four middle-aged, obscenely wealthy Irishmen cavorting in what I assume is not Ireland. True to form, they're hamming it up in a foreign country (this time, it's Spain) in a way that only the most successful entertainers can afford. Watch as they rock out in a giant Target logo (OK, not really) featuring thousands of euros worth of gravel. Thrill to their listless miming of archaic, tired rock 'n roll styles - everything from the disaffected cool of Charlie Watts to the anemic almost-windmilling of Pete Townshend affected by some doofus who's ditched his real name for something cribbed from Euclid. Oh, and the sunglasses. The sunglasses. Always the sunglasses. At least they make sense in this context.

Listen to this song for a minute without looking at the screen and I find myself wondering what laundry soap commercial this is... no, wait... what second tier car marque this is advertising, probably with a chesty blonde in a convertible somewhere near Big Sur. Look back up at the screen; the only thing missing are the usual MPG statistics. This isn't a song, it's an advertisement for frozen entrées or Cialis; it doesn't really matter. Hey, there's nothing quite like middle-aged men, shirts unbuttoned to Club Med depths, clutching at their tacky necklaces in the Spanish desert sun, is there? Oh wow. Cool.

Best of all, this song features lyrics that are no better or worse than any other U2 song. They're vapid, they're cliché, and they probably sound incredibly meaningful to either American tweens searching for something "adult" or (more like) to anyone whose native language is not English, which would explain a lot in terms of their worldwide profitability/popularity. All of the following feature in Vertigo alone:

  • Counting in a foreign language
  • Mistaking fourteen for four
  • Exhortations to increase the volume
  • Comments on ambient lighting
  • The jungle (is this where Toto blesses the rains?)
  • Heads and their innate inability to rule hearts
  • Feelings and how they're stronger than thoughts
  • Your eyes, wide (open or shut not specified)
  • Souls and their inability to be bought
  • Intermittent Spanish ejaculations (perhaps in a bid to increase chart sales in Bogotá?)
  • "You give me something I can feel" (hopefully "something" != "a natural woman")
  • Twinkling bullets that feature sky-ripping mechanisms made of gold (?)
  • Dance-challenged boys
  • Rock and roll
  • A girl featuring nails á la Nomi Malone
  • Jesus straddling her face
  • "Swinging to the music" (Trig Palin style? This is not further specified)
  • A positively Nabokovian reference to chess for no apparent reason
  • Product placement for U2 the b(r)and ("All of this can be yours!")
  • Didactic, palpable love (not sure what this refers to - an audio-animatronic Steely Dan?)
  • Kneeling
  • Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah (sic)

For those of you on my friends list who love this song (or, hell, even this band): Why?
 
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Day 11
Friday, August 20, 2010, 3:00 pm
Day 11. A song from your favorite band

Easy. Band means that: a band, not one person, but a group of people who tend to play together, preferably live. Not one person with a backup band, not one person with multitrack recording capabilities, and not fucking U2, just because.

There is only one band that I've seen live more than twice, and the would be the Melvins:



It's hard to describe what exactly the Melvins are. I'll just say this: there really aren't any other bands like them. They've been going strong for a quarter-century or so; bassists come and go, but King Buzzo (guitar) and Dale Crover (drums) have been constant. Every record they release is wildly variable (in the best sense of the word): Lysol and Eggnog were the first ones I got into, but every single one, even the generally awful ones (Prick being potentially one of the worst CDs ever released) have had at least one awesome song on it.

What they play ranges from more-or-less straight up speed metal (this track?) to almost country (Lizzy?) to pretty much WTF (the one the trombone solo). They've had two drummers and an insanely woofy bassist for a few years now and have never sounded better live; I sure don't miss Hat (well, that's what we called Mark Deutrom, the guitar player from Clown Alley who played with them in the mid-90s - he proved the adage that you should never, ever hire a guitar player as a bassist (noodle alert!!)), but they can do virtually no wrong.

This song, we all love JUDY, is as good as any as an introduction to the Melvins, but I will say that it suffers from being taken out of context of this album. The track the follows it in particular sounds like something from that Squarepusher bonus EP Vacuum Garden; it is emphatically as not metal as this song is, but makes the perfect interlude between this song and their cover of The Green Manalishi that comes later on.

Bonus beats: the only bands I've seen live more than once are Dweezil Zappa (walked out on the second show as it was terrible), Foetus (same story; the second show happened during his alcoholic Gash period), Swans, and Primus (they opened for Swans at the I-Beam in the '80s; Melvins opened for them in the '90s).
 
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Day 10
Thursday, August 19, 2010, 10:00 am
Day 10. A song that makes you fall asleep

The summer of 1987 was a particularly good one; it was also necessarily the end of my childhood. I spent my days working at Thrifty Drug in my home town of Stockton, California; it was a brutally hot summer. I remember tarmac sticky with heat, but also soothing morning cool that almost made having to show up at work at 5 AM to unload the truck bearable, even if I was stuck wearing tan polyester slacks and a cheesy Thrifty polo shirt.

When I'd get paid, I'd take my money and head up the 5 about an hour to Sacramento, home of the original Tower Records; I knew where all of their locations were and was fortunate in that their buyers did their very best to import all kinds of wonderful records that other shops just didn't have.

Predictably, summer ended. I was just 17 when I started at UC Berkeley; I went back to school a week early so that I could attend (don't laugh) band camp. However, much to my chagrin, the Cal Band had a strict "no beards" policy, so I quit band the after marching around in the hot Davis sun for two days. Those few days waiting for the semester to start in my cool, indifferent room in Cheney Hall were the last few quiet days I had for what seemed like years.

School started; I was excited to be almost on my own for the first time in my life. I was also excited to (hopefully) finally find a fellow Bear; I figured that sooner or later it was bound to happen. It was the Bay Area, there were thirty thousand students, and surely it wouldn't be too hard to find a similarly inclined furry fellow, would it?

Turns out it was, alas. I joined the Gay Men's Undergraduate Support Group the first week of the semester, somehow finding it in me to show up at a dingy basement room in the university hospital that smelled of Betadine. Instead of meeting a bunch of friendly guys that I could hang out with or maybe even snog, I instead met a bunch of effeminate, gay gays whose primary interests appeared to be going to the End Up, wearing tasteful sweaters, and generally being horrified at anything they didn't like, including but not limited to big, furry bearish fellers such as myself. I don't think I've ever met a group of folks more openly hostile to me than those folks were; I lasted a few meetings, but ugh: how depressing.

And I do mean depressing. That first semester at Cal was an unmitigated bummer. (The only bright spot was meeting a fellow Bear named Steve, but I'd just turned 18, didn't realize he was hitting on my exactly, and at any rate was kind of panicked about the situation, so we didn't wind up actually doing anything. I just ran into him last May for the first time since 1987 and we recognized each other, though, which was awesome.) Given my emotional state - mopey and generally blue - and given the noise of the dorm, I had a lot of trouble sleeping. Thinking it would help, I did scratch together the cash to buy a CD (at the time, they were novel and expensive) of a recording of summer rain that I hoped would help me sleep:

Summer Rain (at amazon.com)

It did, mostly, but what helped more was meeting cbertsch; it was an unbelievable relief to finally meet someone who didn't have a problem with not just my sexuality but also my personal preference for, you know, bears. Odd, really, that the only validation I got back in the '80s was from straight folk: it wasn't until later on in college that I met other students, all of them graduate students, who were cool with the bears - and then of course I eventually met bix02138 and then Mark, but that's another story for another time.

To this day, I still listen to that Summer Rain CD: I have a $5 MP3 player with just enough room for the mp3 version. Add a AAA battery and cheap earphones (and preferably an Ambien as well), and I've got everything I need to sleep through tedious intercontinental flights. I definitely got my money's worth on that one.
 
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Day 9
Wednesday, August 18, 2010, 6:30 pm
Day 09. A song that you can dance to

Some fun facts about me and dancing:

- The first dance I remember going to was in 7th grade. For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, much of the music was very black in a New York City kind of way, which was awesome. This struck me as very odd given that Lodi is a mostly white Central Valley farm town, but what the heck: who wouldn't want to hear Genius of Love at a junior high school dance? Awesome.

- I generally don't dance, but there was one notable exception all the way back in 2002. At the Mardi Gras party in Sydney, I danced my fool ass off with nzbear5 at the Hordern Pavilion. Rachel Auburn was doing something absolutely amazing that night. I've since had a listen to some of her solo work and it wasn't anything like what she was playing: bummer.

- I can dance to pretty much anything, largely because I can't really dance. As a result, what's mostly interesting to me is "will this sound awesome in a big club with an amazing sound system?" Sometimes I'll hear a song and think, hm, not interesting as music really, or not as a song, but I bet this would be freakin' awesome in a club. Here's an example:



It only gets going about a minute into the track, and then there's a bit at about 2:10 that almost makes my ears hurts. Almost. I really, really wouldn't mind hearing this at top volume someday.

In the meantime, other options would include stuff like Mueve La Cintura (sample here), which always sounded like it was designed to play in clubs.

However - no surprise here - you probably won't see me dancing any time soon, alas.
 
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Day 8
Tuesday, August 17, 2010, 8:45 pm
Day 08. A song that you know all the words to

One of my great weaknesses is an inability to remember all of the words to just about anything. Even as a child, the most terrifying things I had to do were to memorize poems (to read in class) or (even worse) music (for recitals). Every single God damn time I had do that it just didn't work: no matter how many times I was asked to memorize and even the simplest e. e. cummings poem, it simply never cohered. I used to have dozens of "thanks for showing up" third-place ribbons from frustrating competitions where I was supposed to play something on solo piano or saxophone; the only thing I can even remember how to play at all is about the first measure of a Gershwin piece whose name completely escapes me.

I just spent the better part of an hour trying to find a single YouTube video which features a song for which I know all of the words; if I couldn't write down the lyrics before listening to the song, then it didn't count. Even Hooch, a song for which I know most of the words, didn't cut the mustard.

Instead, I give you this:



Of course, this is actually what I was looking for: Severed Heads, Alaskan Polar Bear Heater, which features the following lyrics:

"Well, if you like it that much, you oughta do it again. You like that? Wanna do it again? Do it again."

Listening to it again, however, I realize that I've forgotten half the lyrics. Sigh.

I guess this is the only song to which I actually know all of the lyrics:



Sad, isn't it?
 
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Day 7
Monday, August 16, 2010, 4:00 pm
Day 07. A song that reminds you of a certain event

First off, I'll be blunt: I'm gonna cheat on this one by misinterpreting "an event" to mean "an episode of my life." I'd apologize, but whatever, you're getting this for free so it's not like you're losing out or anything.

As mentioned in an earlier post this month, I moved in to a rental house in Oakland (the garage, actually) after graduating from university. I'd know the rest of the housemates there because cbertsch was the previous tenant of that garage; most everyone in the house was a grad student (English department) at UC Berkeley at the time. This included a strapping young red-bearded man by the name of Josh.

Now listen up, kids. Back in 1992, bears were not widely known. Bear magazine numbers had just crept into the double digits, the Internet was not widely used, pop cultural references were virtually nil, and things were on the whole, well, different. In my social circles at the time, however, it was generally known that I was attracted to men who looked like myself, even if the two boyfriends I'd had up until graduation were only marginally bearish. As a result, I was fortunate to have friends looking out for one of my best interests. Now, I didn't know Josh well, and we were never friends, but we did become housemates. Josh was straight. Josh was also a reader of Granta, the UK literary magazine. And one day in 1992, Josh handed me a copy of Issue 38 of Granta, which contained a story entitled Bears in Mourning, written by Welsh novelist Adam Mars-Jones. (You can read this story here if you'd like.)

Oh, to be young again. Bears in Mourning affected me deeply. Being 22 and not as self-conscious as I am today, I borrowed other housemate's Ben's Macintosh IIci and wrote a fan letter. (I am cringing as I type this.) Much to my amazement, Adam wrote back (even though I had mistakenly read the story as autobiography and not as fiction, which is making me cringe AGAIN as I type this.) A friendship developed; we met for the first time after reading from his Monopolies of Loss at A Different Light in San Francisco over dinner at Ma Tante Sumi along with Bruce, the guy who gave me the copy of the new recording Einstein on the Beach. A year later, I flew to London to visit for a week, and danlmarmot picked me up at the airport. I had a blast: Adam was then the film critic for the Independent, so I got to sneak in to a press screening of The Hudsucker Proxy with him. We saw Eddie Izzard perform in a David Mamet play. I rode around London on the back of his Harley. I met Salman Rushdie at Erica Jong's book launch (for Fear of Fifty) at the Groucho Club. And I met a young girl that enjoyed a particular song very, very much:



As a result, I think of Adam whenever I hear the word Albuquerque; I was reminded of him when mlr mentioned the city. It's just one of those things.

Sadly, it all ended badly. I'll just say that I made mistakes - sadly not surprising for a 24 year old - and didn't do by right by our friendship. In early 1997, his new book arrived in my post box in Sunnyvale, CA. The dedication reads in part thusly: For Christopher, in memory of friendship.

And that's the last I heard of Adam.
 
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Day 6
Sunday, August 15, 2010, 5:00 pm
Day 06. A song that reminds you of somewhere

Have you ever seen a Toyota Corona? Not a Corolla, but a Corona? The Toyota Corona was a classic 1970s econobox: underpowered, not much to look at, and pretty obscure, at least here in the States.

I graduated high school in 1987. Thanks to my less than stellar performance in high school, every single college to which I applied rejected me save for two: Occidental College in Eagle Rock, California (now famous as Barack Obama's alma mater) and UC Berkeley. I went with Berkeley because it was cheaper: I suppose my parents would have gladly paid for either of them, but I figured that Berkeley was not only somewhat more prestigious, but also a hell of a lot cheaper. This turned out to be a mostly good decision; the big problem was that I was overwhelmed by it all when I started there as a 17 year old. That first semester was depressing and rough, but it got better the second semester.

My high school friend Kevin started at Cal the same time I did, and he was the proud owner of a Toyota Corona that barely ran at all. He was living in an apartment upstairs from the Radio Shack on Shattuck. From a graduate class of about 120 students from my high school, about ten of us were at Cal, but we didn't see each other much; the others were generally what I can only describe as good students, and I wasn't: I'm pretty sure I was only there thanks to incredibly good SAT scores (as I'm fond of pointing out, I had the highest combined SAT scores in my class, but was the only one out of 12 National Merit Scholarship semifinalists not to actually get a scholarship, presumably thanks to my pathetic GPA). It wasn't that I was disinterested in learning - not all all! - but that I had a habit of not turning in homework, figuring that exams would prove I knew what I was doing (which they did, but you of course don't get the grades except by doing the homework). Regardless, it happily turned out that I was a better college student than I was a high school student, and I managed to graduate with a 2.99 GPA, which really wasn't bad considering the competition.

So: the second semester of college saw me taking the usual kind of classes. Because I'd taken a bunch of AP exams and done well, I had virtually no requirements to fulfill save for the ones required for a major. I'd decided to do a double English and German major, which left plenty of room to do pretty much whatever I felt like. This mostly became spending hours and hours in the library reading up on things that interested me, none of which was valid as coursework, but what the heck. Anyhow: as you can imagine for a German major, there was always kind of a low level buzz about who was going to go abroad for a year, a semester, or even just the summer. In the spring of 1988, I heard incredibly last minute that a local community college over by Cupertino had a summer jobs program in Switzerland - and the only way I could get there in time was by borrowing Kevin's Toyota Corona, rust yellow, and a few jugs of water for the inevitable radiator boilover.

Two hours and fifty miles later, I'd arrived after several radiator refills, interviewed with the creepy Swiss guy running the program, and got a job. A few weeks later, I packed up all my stuff, drove home to Stockton, and found myself on an Air Canada flight to Zürich via Frankfurt a couple of days later. After a chest X-ray to prove I didn't have tuberculosis the Swiss approved my work visa and I went to work a day later as a lifeguard/sauna attendant at Säntispark, a shopping mall, bowling alley, sauna, swimming pool, hotel, restaurant, you name it complex, then newly built, about an hour east of Zürich on the way to St. Gallen. I spent the summer living in a lovely room in a large apartment shared with a Swiss-American couple (the American woman, an Italian-American from New Jersey, was teaching aerobics at Säntispark) and a young Mormon Cal student in the next room over. Lots of memorable things happened that summer: the Mormon turned out to be gay and a huge enthusiast of cruising parks for sex, which he tried to introduce me to (I demurred), and it also marked the first time I was ever hit on (which I didn't understand at the time, sadly, leading to my first big regret of my adult lite).

At this point, you're probably asking yourself what the point of all this is - and of course there's no point, not really. I worked at the swimming pool for three months, clad only in short turqouise shirts, a Säntispark polo shirt, and a Speedo underneath for when I had to jump in the pool. I taught water gymnastics, fanned the air regularly in saunas after dousing the oven with eucalyptus scented water, and made sure small children didn't get sucked into the wave machine. It was a wonderful summer, even if I couldn't afford to eat anything for the first month (they hadn't paid me yet and I didn't have much money), living off of fried potatoes, onions, and mint tea for a while. I got along fine with my coworkers, learned to speak Swiss German reasonably well, and was treated to a wonderful couple of days in Ticino by the company at the end of the summer. It was a blast.

The only weird thing, though, was the Muzak that played in the sports complex. I don't remember any of it except for this one song, done of course in a 101 Strings manner:



Sitting in the cafeteria on my lunch break, eating a carefully chosen, small selection of salads (because it was the cheapest thing they had), drinking out of a carton of Ice Tea brought in from the supermarket, watching affluent Swiss splash about in the pool, my attention would occasionally wander and then I'd suddenly realize that White Lines, Muzak-ified, was once again playing throughout the complex. I'd look outside, up towards the Alps, smiling, happy because life was so strange.
 
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Day 5
Saturday, August 14, 2010, 7:45 pm
Day 05: A song that reminds you of someone

Oh, let's see, only about a hundred different songs to choose from... here's a short list before I actually go off on a proper tangent:

mamoosh: Max Tundra, Lysine - Matthew housesat for us for nine months in 2002. When I got home, I was very excited because the new Max Tundra album had arrived the week we got home. Matthew got giddy after hearing this very small "- - -" percussive thing that happens in the song.

danlmarmot: Heartbeat Reggae, which is a compilation CD I've never listened to. Dan doesn't listen to a lot of music. He does however have a few CDs from his college days which have been lying around our house for decades, unlistened. Most of them have long since wandered off to Amoeba, but this one stays because it's such a WTF: he doesn't like reggae, so what's the story here? I have no idea.

cbertsch: The Cure, Catch. I've never actually heard this song, but for at least a decade I would go through every Cure section in every CD shop I visited to try to find a copy of this CD single. I never did, unfortunately.

tpratt: Melvins, Lysol. Tim invited me to a Melvins show at the Kennel Club almost twenty years ago. They played this album. It was a transformative moment for me: I'd never heard anything like it and I was utterly transfixed. I stopped making fun of Tim's MRR days and realized that the man had good taste. Although I eventually became a fan of Steel Pole Bath Tub and Helmet as well, though, I'm still not really a punk/metal kind of guy.

itchwoot: Grauzone, Eisbär - because we saw Knut together in Berlin. Proof here:



50poundnote: Severed Heads, Greater Reward, because of his tattoo. Alternatively, the Max Tundra remix of Fledermaus Can't Get It - because even though I've sung the praises of Max Tundra for a decade, Jeb is the only person I know of who's ever listened to any of it on their own volition (unless Matthew has, I suppose). Frustrating really.

OK, that's enough logrolling for one post. On to the crux of the biscuit, and that's this song:



ケン・イシイ, EXTRA (1995年)

Here's how this story goes: when I graduated from college, I took the only job I could find, which was a position at CompUSA #297 in San Bruno, California, just a mile or two away from SFO. I was living in Oakland at the time, so the commute was kind of a hassle - and I could barely afford the coupon books I needed for the bridge tolls. However, my rent was $200 or so as I was living in an unfinished, unheated garage at the time. (I know, glamorous.) Eventually, though, I had the great good fortune to meet sinnabor, danlmarmot, and other various Silicon Valley tech/nerd types who seemed to think that I could certainly get a "real" job at one of the tech companies in the South Bay if I wanted to. After all, these were early days; there was no outsourcing to India, everything was muy cowboy (in the sense that degrees didn't particularly matter and anyone who could demonstrate technical competence was a good potential hire), and business was booming.

By the fall of 1994, danlmarmot and I had become fast friends; those of you who attended our wedding may recall that our mutual AAA membership dates back to August 14, 1994. It was around that time that Dan, Brian, and I all moved into a rental together in Belmont, about halfway down the Peninsula to what I think of as Silicon Valley proper. Dan, who had started working in tech support at Claris maybe a year or so ago, convinced me to apply for a job there, which I thought was pretty scary given that I was not a FileMaker Pro user or even vaguely familiar with Resolve, ClarisWorks, or any of their products. However, what I did know something about was networking (I'd made that my specialty at CompUSA), the Internet, foreign languages, and of course (most importantly) how to deal with angry, frustrated end users who didn't know much about computers in general.

Long story short, I was hired, I started making an impossible amount of money (that salary was $34,000 a year), and within a year I had transitioned into software test engineering for FileMaker Pro Server and all Windows products, being the super sekrit Windows guru of the kind always in very, very short supply at Claris - after all, they were a wholly owned subsidiary of Apple and staffed mostly with hardcore Apple enthusiasts who would often ignore bugs in their Windows products because "Windows sucks" - so why fix it, right?

Anyhow: About a year later, we hired a guy I'll call Stan. We sat next to each other and struck up a pleasant workplace friendship. Stan was pretty much your stereotypical Jtard: he had taught English in Japan, had been dating (and I believe eventually married) a Japanese woman, had a container of My Shaldan in his car, snacked on Pocky, and was generally utterly smitten with all things Japanese.

At some point, he loaned me a Ken Ishii CD and suggested I'd like it. I did. I've got a good half dozen Ishii CDs these days, but it's Jelly Tones that always makes me think of Stan.

Sadly, though, our friendship came to kind of a crappy end by the time I left the company in July 1998. Being a naturally gregarious kind of guy, he ingratiated himself with the management team (by doing things I'd never do, like playing a lot of Magic: The Gathering) to the point where he'd become an unstoppable corporate ladder-climbing force, which I thought was tacky and, well, just generally lame. Of course, he also happened to be a very good test engineer and handy with Japanese localization, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that promotions and pay rises came so quickly and so easily. Me, I was younger and more prone to anger; I have vague memories of driving over to Shuei-do manju shop on a lunch break with Stan in the summer of 1998 and angrily lashing out at him for being such a brown nose - something about the pay rises and fancy new titles pissed me off. Shortly thereafter, though, I learned that the best way to get ahead is sometimes just to quit. I left Claris about a month later after accepting a position at Netscape that paid double what I was making at Claris, which of course felt pretty damn good in more ways than one.

I did return to work at Claris for a few months in early 2003 as a contractor; Stan interviewed me for the position and of course asked me if I was still going to be such a dick about his success. I was appropriately contrite - and I wasn't faking it; five years' experience had taught me a few things - and he gave a "hire" to the hiring manager. We were cordial, I was grateful that he gave me a second chance, and when I left that job to move to Redmond a few months later, that was the last time I ever saw Stan.

Music's still good, though.