Thursday, April 30, 2009

No Prisoners

I can't remember exactly where I read or saw or heard it, but I think it may have been on the radio when I was in the car with YFU when someone said something (vagueness is very refreshing, n'est-ce pas?) about taking a "no-prisoners approach." And from tone and context, it was clear that this individual thought of this approach as a good thing. I started to grumble to YFU, who knows enough not to listen, about militarism and misuse of language and God knows what all. I may have worked a rant about the price of lentils (Up more than fifty percent in the last six months! Where is the outrage?) into the diatribe. I have, as you have doubtless noticed, managed to free myself from the heavy shackles of relevance.

My earliest recollection of "No prisoners!" comes from an early 1980s screening, by the campus film society, of Lawrence of Arabia, in which it is used as a mandate to Lawrence's army not to take any prisoners: i.e., kill them all and let God sort them out. Perhaps either my memory or my analysis is faulty, but I don't believe that "no prisoners" was a good thing, either in general or in the context of the film. But who remembers either Lawrence of Arabia or Lawrence of Arabia these days? And who laments the ineluctable slouching towards hyperbole that infects our verbal and written communications in an ever accelerating manner?

Well, I do, but if I'm less guilty than other people when it comes to linguistic inflation, I'm still not innocent. I blame the Internet, of course. It's the lack of immediate feedback that encourages us (or fails to discourage us) to hyperbole because a) we don't see the raised eyebrows and b) we think it helps us get noticed above the background noise. Swearing is not specifically what I'm talking about here, but it's a related phenomenon. I still remember the first time when, prompted by an online acquaintance and unrestrained by the normal inhibitions of society, I first wrote "motherfucker." And nowadays, well, boy howdy: it's motherfucker this and motherfucking that. I don't even flinch any more, and nobody ever even seems to notice that I've just said something that, ten years ago, I would have considered unutterably foul.

It's the same way with hyperbole. In the past, if someone was aggressive about getting something done, you'd say that they were aggressive about getting something done. But now? No prisoners! The administrative director at your office sends you an email because it's 10 am, and you haven't entered your timesheet information for yesterday yet. Whoa: she takes no prisoners. It's probably an exaggeration, especially given that the administrative director at my office is almost certainly armed with nothing more dangerous than a New Jersey accent, and while I would probably not want to run into her and a stapler in a dark alley, I'm 85% certain that I'd survive the encounter and live to report her for appropriating the firm's office supplies for nefarious and (hopefully) unapproved purposes.

Anyway. I'm not really here (today) to lament the fact that so much hyperbole exists or even the related fact that the existence of so much hyperbole makes it nearly impossible to create noticeable emphasis without resorting to such gimickry as Artificial. Sentence. Fragments. Besides exaggeration is nothing new: it's just that in the past, it was something that children were expected to grow out of. I leave it to others to determine whether the Internet, in addition to being responsible for the near destruction of English, is responsible for the late (or non-) arrival of maturity.

In fact, I've decided to suspend the fight. I'm going to embrace hyperbole for today. After all, who else has so fully earned the right to be described as a no prisoners kind of guy? Who else lives his life so entirely on the edge?

As an example, take my actions of yesterday afternoon and evening. Please. I could reasonably have been expected to work until 5:15, but I left the office at 4:55 so that I could pick up YFU earlier than usual. No prisoners!

I needed to do some shopping because this weekend we're having a brunch to celebrate b&c's birthday, and I need to make, among other things, a birthday cake. I could have gone with something simple like chocolate, but everyone does chocolate. Not TED. Nosiree, Bob. I've decided to make a yellow cake flavored with lime juice and zest. I'll split the two layers into four, and I'll fill the layers with lime curd. Then I'll frost with a dulce de leche buttercream, with a layer of toasted coconut around the sides. And all from scratch, of course. No prisoners!

So other people would have gone to the supermarket (other people would have used a box mix and canned frosting of course: ugh) for the materials, but those of us who live life On. The. Edge. shop at Costco. Sure, you can make enough dulce de leche for buttercream from a single can of sweetened condensed milk, but the no-prisoners approach is to buy six.

(I also bought a four-pound bag of spinach and a five-pound bag of Persian limes, which -- in addition to using for the cake batter and the lime curd -- I may use for Margaritas even though we're having brunch and even though Margaritas are associated with Mexico. No-prisoners men laugh in the face of la grippe porcine. Through surgical masks, of course, but I always say that nothing makes a party more festive than brightly colored surgical masks. It's practically Venetian.)

If you listen to the so-called voices of moderation among the namby-pamby, life-of-quiet-desperation sheeple, you'll hear that dulce de leche has to be made very carefully in order to avoid shrapnel wounds from exploding sweetened condensed milk cans. And all of these warnings are out there basically because someone (I actually know this person: she was a friend of one of my roommates back in the 1980s) once tried to make dulce de leche and fell asleep and let the pot boil dry, causing a small fire that her overly excitable little brother unnecessarily attacked with a fire extinquisher, thereby creating a huge mess. If she'd left the lid on the pot, the water wouldn't have all boiled away, or, if it had, the fire would have suffocated and the only mess would have been some very burnt caramel.

Anyway. Other people may have been cowed into venting the cans or slowly cooking their sweetened condensed milk in a pie plate in the oven, but not no-prisoners TED. I got out my stockpot, filled it most of the way with hot water, put in three cans (even though I only need one: no prisoners!), turned the heat up to a boil, then reduced it to a simmer.

When the water seemed right, I didn't run around the house shouting DANGER WILL ROBINSON or put up signs warning people. I made sure the cans were submerged, I put the lid on the pot and, yes, I Left. The. Room. I went to the office, shut the door, sat at the piano, and tried to work out a three part a cappella arrangement for "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," despite the fact that I have no experience with arranging and very limited knowledge of music theory. I didn't get very far, but no-prisoners men like myself learn a tremendous appreciation for the second half of trial and error.

An hour or so later, I checked on the pot, and there was still plenty of water in it, so I adjusted the heat slightly, and then I left the room again (I apologize, but I reckon I've already spent my quota of Artificial. Sentence. Fragments. for the next thirty or forty years.) and went into an adjacent room to watch 1.5 episodes of season 4 of Buffy with YFU. Then I sent her to bed, checked the pot again, and returned to the television room to watch last night's episode of Make Me a Supermodel. Jonathan is yummy, but I get the impression that he's the sort who would take prisoners. I would have been sad to see Colin leave, but I don't get attached to reality show contestants because I am just too far Out. There. out there.

Anyway, around 11:30, when I had finished taking my slightly damp shirts out of the dryer (no-prisoners men DO NOT iron) to hang them up, I took the cans out of the water and left them to cool overnight.

This morning -- despite the irrational impulses of my true, no-prisoners self -- I labeled the cans. I did that mostly to appease b&c who would otherwise scowl at the unlabeled cans for a week or so before removing them to the basement whence they would never emerge. He takes prisoners.

Monday, April 27, 2009


This past Friday night, which also happened to be B&c's birthday, he and I went into DC to see Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n Roll at Studio Theatre. It was a very good production, and the play itself is both engaging and clever, but it runs very long, and for no very good reason. There's a lot of political argument embedded in the text, and, well, I think it's pretty much impossible to discuss Marxism these days and have the discussion be relevant. There's nothing wrong with period pieces, of course, but it's sort of like having scenes arguing over whether Louis XVI was in touch with the 18th century French public. History has pretty much decided the answer already. But it was mostly fun to watch, and parts of it were very funny, and I enjoy productions in the round in relatively intimate settings. It's also always good to see things in one of Studio's smaller spaces because the ushers' ineptitude in seating people in a timely manner doesn't matter as much when there are fewer people to seat.

Anyway, when we were on our way to the theatre, we stopped at a local cafe for some coffee, and I realized that I had discovered the center of the known gay universe. Seriously, take a look at the story of how this place came to be. It doesn't say that the owners met while out walking their tsitzus only because it doesn't have to. After visiting ACKC, you could be excused for finding Chelsea or the Castro oppressively hetero, by comparison.

The sterotypical ubergay existence is very much not my experience, but I'm amused, and even a little gratified, that places like a diva-themed chocolate shop/art gallery exist. Many of the gay men I know go to great pains to distance themselves from those, and other, gay stereotypes, but I figure we're probably all better off if there are places where those stereotypes can be embraced and celebrated. Besides, the young men working the counter were very cute.

I wasn't so impressed by the chocolates, if only because I'm pretty sure that they're mostly made elsewhere. Besides, the last time I was in Brooklyn, I bought some truffles at a chocolatier that had the most impressive and inventive selection I've seen, although, to be fair, M. Torres does not seem to have much of an appreciation for entertainingly cheesy artwork, divas, or attractive counterboys.

Of course, my own level of appreciation for so-called divas is highly questionable. For starters, I have an entirely different notion of what "diva" means, so I was somewhat nonplussed to find that the menu had concoctions named after Charo and Carmen Miranda, but you can't order a Wilhelmenia Wiggins-Fernandez. Or even a Maria Callas.

My level of ignorance was reinforced at Studio Theatre, when I was struggling to remember what I had last seen in the Milton Theatre. B&c finally remembered that we'd seen Lypsinka there. Just a few minutes earlier, I'd noticed that one of the program inserts mentioned that he would be performing at Studio Theatre again next season. It has been several years since we saw Lypsinka, and I'm afraid that the performance went right over both of our heads. Subsequently, however, someone who's much better versed than I in Hollywood divas and the movies they starred in assured me that the production had been brilliant. Good to know.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I Say It's All Just Wind in Sails

The beach at the Best Western Emerald Beach Resort. Very nice.
So let me get the informational stuff out of the way right up front, because I know that the real reason my six semi-regular readers come here is for useful travel tips. The U.S. Virgin Islands are great. The beaches are beautiful, the water is clear, the people are very aware that they have no industry other than tourism pleasant. But vacationing there is expensive, at least by my standards. Getting there and staying there can be done reasonably, but it's difficult to keep your daily expenses low. Most notably, transportation involves either taxis or renting a car, both of which are very pricey. And the food tends to be both overpriced and uninspired. On the plus side, most of the beaches are free, and we found it hard to work more than two meals a day into our schedule anyway. Also, if you look around a bit, you can find pretty good happy hours for the bulk of your drinking.

Anyway, we arrived Thursday afternoon and lost no time getting to the beach. Even though the hotel (Best Western Emerald beach) was only a short walk from the airport, it felt secluded (the air traffic there isn't all that intense, and it's mostly limited to the afternoon, so planes taking off were objects of curiosity rather than annoyance). For the most part, if you looked out into Lindbergh bay, you only saw a few sailboats, but on Thursday afternoon, I did see a cruise ship.

No, really. This is a picture of the big cruise ship in the background. The attractive young man who took a quick dip in the ocean and then plopped down in a beach chair a few feet away from me and then proceeded to fall asleep only made it into the pictures because he happened to be in the foreground. Also, I was worried that he'd get a sunburn, so I kind of had to watch him. Concerned citizen and all that, you know.
I'm not, I have to admit, a big fan of sand, but I love the water. And once I'm in it, I really don't ever want to come out. A lot of the adults I saw on the beaches hardly got wet. At best, they'd wade knee deep into the water, without removing their ball caps or extinguishing their cigarettes, then retreat to their beach chairs, put on some sunblock, and lie in the very, very hot sun. I don't really get that. The water has a very atavistic pull on me. I guess lying in the sun is all right, but I'd rather just stay submerged. I should have been a sea creature. If I weren't so worried about my head and shoulders getting sunburned, maybe I could stay in the water long enough to devolve to my primordial roots. The notion of devolution amuses me, but mostly for musical reasons:
God made man
But he used the monkey to do it
Apes in the plan
We are all here to prove it
I can walk like an ape
Talk like an ape
I can do what a monkey can do
God made man
But a monkey supplied the glue

I think "Jocko Homo" came out before I was in high school, but I didn't really hear much Devo until I was in college. I love hearing Devo singing the bridge of that song almost as much as I love hearing Patsy Cline singing "Crazy" or Janis Joplin singing "Ball and Chain." Of course, when I was floating in the water, I didn't think of that. My thoughts were never any more profound than, "You know, clouds are a lot like islands."

Anyway. Around the hotel, as throughout the Virgin Islands, there were a lot of wild chickens.

There was even a mother hen with nine chicks.

Also, many, many lizards.

I am unreasonably fascinated by lizards. They're cool.

I wonder whether the chickens eat the lizards. You have to think that the lizards eat the chicken eggs if they can get them. It's the circle of life.

Pretty much all we did on Thursday was swim, lounge, and have dinner. There should really be a law against charging more than $20 for an entree if you're not going to offer freshly ground pepper with it, but apparently there isn't. On the other hand, I should be smart enough not to order salmon in the tropics, but apparently I'm not. Live and learn.

On Friday morning, b&c wanted to go into Charlotte Amelie. I don't think I had ever before been to a town that exists primarily as a stop for cruise passengers, but now I have. B&c said it looked a lot like some other town that exists primarily as a stop for cruise passengers, but I wasn't paying enough attention to remember which one. I think that if you go to St. Thomas, you can pretty much skip Charlotte Amelie, and you won't be any the worse. Unless you have a lot of money that you aren't using for anything and you feel like buying jewelry, in which case it's the place for you.

Seriously, we were about a block off the water, and I looked around, and I think I saw every establishment mentioned in the bridge of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Talk to me, Harry Winston, tell me all about it. There weren't any cruise ships at the dock that day, though, so the town was relatively empty. A few jewelers and art dealers tried to get us to look at their stuff, but you could tell their hearts weren't really in it. I reckon they were conserving their energy for the boat people. I did buy a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off my neck, though. It had "St. Thomas U.S. Virgin Islands" embroidered on the front. It made me look ridiculous. I was going to say "painfully ridiculous," but I really just don't care enough about my appearance to be pained by its ridiculousness. You would be pained if you had to wear it, though, I bet. I got it at the street market there, so it only cost about half as much as it would have cost at a souvenir shop.

We only stayed an hour or two in Charlotte Amelie, including the time we spent eating a late breakfast. Then we headed back to the hotel for a nap and some afternoon sun. I tan relatively easy, but I'm never in the sun, so I'd hoped to get some color while on this trip. To that end, I didn't apply any sunscreen and stayed in the shade of one of the beach umbrellas for a couple of hours. I got sunburned. Red wasn't really the color I'd been hoping for, but at least I had peeling to look forward to. I took cool showers and Advil.

The next day, we decided to visit St. John. We took a taxi to the dock at Charlotte Amelie and caught the ferry.

It's a very pretty trip. It's probably even prettier from the upper deck, but we were avoiding direct sunlight. I love riding on boats. I like it even better when the ride is bumpy, but this ride was very smooth.

When we got to St. John, we went to have breakfast. I had some pretty good huevos rancheros. I did not feed the chickens.

Then we took a taxi out to Cinnamon Bay. We'd been warned by b&c's sister (whose girlfriend is a native of St. Thomas) not to go to the nearest beach, which would likely be the most crowded. Also, the guide book had said there was a good hiking trail at Cinnamon Bay, and I figured that if we hiked for a while in the shade, we could go to the beach later in the day, when the sun is less potent.

The taxi was basically an open air short bus, and there were about eight of us on it. The driver stopped to give us a view of Trunk Bay, which is, apparently, more famous than Cinnamon Bay.

When we got to Cinnamon Bay, we stowed most of our stuff in a locker and then set out for the trail. There were two trails, and I selected the longer one which said it was wooded. It was definitely a shady trail. Later that evening, I looked up the trail specifications and found that it was 1.1 miles long and had a rise of 700 feet, which, if you do the math, works out to a gradient of, well, really steep. Especially since large parts of the path are gently uphill. The first tenth of a mile or so has a rise of about 200 feet. It seemed like a good idea at the time, though I couldn't help thinking that coming back down was going to be a lot trickier than going up. And wishing that I'd worn light hiking boots instead of running shoes. Live and learn.

The trail was somewhat strenuous, but it had much interesting flora.

And lizards!

When we were about halfway up, I began to think that we might never reach a spot where the trees parted enough to give us an overlook of the ocean below, and that doing all that climbing without getting a good view might be something of a disappointment, but then we got to the overlook. Gorgeous.

We hiked all the way to the end of the trail, where we found ... the highway that runs along the spine of St. John. It was a bit anticlimactic, but at least we had 1.1 miles of downhill to look forward to. We stopped again at the overlook.

The steep descent was as difficult as I'd anticipated, especially in inadequate footwear, but we did see a number of lizards and a particular stunning, yet camera-shy, hummingbird. There was also a tree that reminded me of an arm with a flexed bicep.

The very end of the descent was especially tricky, but we got to the bottom and rewarded ourselves with a frozen mango drink, with rum. You have to love a national park that offers rum.

Cinnamon Bay was my favorite among the beaches that we visited in the Virgin Islands. I took more pictures than were strictly necessary.

I liked that the water got deep more quickly than at the other beaches (where I sometimes had to swim out quite a way to get to a place where my feet weren't touching the bottom), but it was just very pretty and not very crowded.

When it was time to leave, we went and found another taxi/bus. It was already loaded with a group of six drunken women from Northern Virginia who noisily insisted that there was plenty of room for us. I ended up next to their ringleader, who offered me a mini of rum to go in my vitamin water. They were all forty-somethings and on vacation from their husbands and kids, whom they seemed not to miss. When they told me where they were from, I made a joke about them being the real housewives of Stafford County. They didn't appreciate that, especially, but they were too drunk to hold a grudge. We separated when we got back to town, but we somehow ended up at the same restaurant, ordering the same drinks. They were too drunk to divide their bill by six, so I did the math for them, earning their eternal gratitude.

We said goodbye to them, again, and headed for the ferry back to Redhook. It was well past dark, so we sat on the upper deck, and when the boat cleared the harbor, it turned off the very bright floodlight, and, oh, the stars. We took another long cab ride back to the hotel and crashed.

The next day was Sunday. We rested.

At some point in the afternoon, I remembered that every time we go somewhere that's near the ocean, I intend to collect water and let it evaporate into salt, but then I always forget. Sea salt seems like the ideal souvenir to me, and I suspect that it would be very easy to collect with a little time and perhaps a black frisbee. The bricks on our balcony were hot, so I took one of the ziplock bags I'd brought to contain any mess if my toiletries happened to leak, and I collected about half a gallon of salt water and put it out in the sun.

I think my contraption would have worked fine if I'd gathered the water on the first day we were there, but two days wasn't enough time for it to evaporate, and I ended up leaving it behind. Alas.

Sunday night, deciding that we'd had enough of the restaurant at our hotel, we wandered down the beach a hundred yards or so to the neighboring hotel where they were having their weekly Sunday barbecue. We got steak and ribs, plus some very good side dishes. Plus Margaritas. The bar filled up relatively quickly with a group of drunk-but-still-drinking twenty-something mainlanders who had come for what turned out to be karaoke night. The barwench told me later that they were almost the entire crew of a small cruise ship that operated from St. Thomas. I was not previously aware of the fact, but it turns out that there are few things that I enjoy more than watching drunken people sing karaoke badly. And the worse they were, the more I loved it. I have sung karaoke no more than a handful of times in my life, but I figured that I should give it a go, so I got one of the books and decided to sing "Crazy," forgetting, as I have done before, that the Patsy Cline version is pitched a step or two too low for me. Not that it matters. Apparently, if you sing on pitch, you're already doing better than about eighty-five percent of karaoke singers, or ninety percent of drunken karaoke singers. (Not that I wasn't drunk as well, mind.) Also, apparently, drunken twenty-somethings love Patsy Cline songs, so the audience was very receptive. We stayed for another hour or so, during which time I heard several songs that I have never heard before but which, apparently, are well known to drunken twenty-something, karaoke-loving expats. That was a fun night.

The next day was Monday, and it was our last full day in the Virgin Islands. We had been told -- by people as well as guidebooks -- that no trip to St. Thomas is complete without a trip to Magens Bay, so we took a cab across the island. St. Thomas, like, I suppose, all the Virgin Islands, is very steep, so a cab across the island is something like a slow roller coaster ride. It was a lot of fun, and we had a lot of good views on the way.

Magens Bay beach is very pretty, and it's very long, but otherwise it didn't seem better than any of the other beaches we'd been to. We'd gone late in the day, so there weren't very many people there, and I get the impression that a lot of people go for the people watching rather than the water, but chacun à son goût, I reckon. It was still a pretty beach. And the water, as everywhere, was pleasant to be in.

I think probably the best parts of the trip to Magens Bay were the cab rides there and back. Both drivers were extremely well versed in local history and geography, so we had what amounted to a guided tour. The driver on the way back took a different (scarier, more fun) route and stopped at the overlook to point out the various British Virgin Islands in the distance as well as the St. Thomas home of Michael Jordan and where Bill Clinton stays when he's on the island.

After a very steep ride across the island, we made it back in time for happy hour at the hotel bar next door. No karaoke, but cheap margaritas, followed by dinner. Excellent fried chicken, forgettable side dishes.

Our flight home on Tuesday left just before 3 pm, but we had to check out by noon, so we planned to have a morning swim, pack, check out, and take a leisurely lunch in the hotel restaurant (they do a decent burger). As good a time as we had there, I wasn't particularly sad about leaving. My mood had improved so dramatically from the awfulness that is tax season that I couldn't help feeling hopeful. Still, I hesitated before walking into the water that morning. I was thinking to myself that it was the last time that I'd have to get used to the water the first time in a day, and I wanted to savor the experience.

It was special. I swam and floated for a while, and I found a rather large spiny starfish, which I held for a while before returning to the water. Then we packed, had lunch, and walked to the airport.

Now we're home, and I'll confess that it's a bit more difficult than I'd anticipated returning from paradise and late breakfasts to rising at 6:15 to make sure YFU gets to school on time. I understand why people who go to the Virgin Islands for vacation sometimes never leave. I don't think I'd want to live there (maybe, though, on a secluded island somewhere nearby), but I think we'll probably be going there again, most likely after next tax season.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Little Beach Reading

One of the joys of having a partner is that there are certain duties you can delegate, particularly when you're very busy. The annual post-busy season recuperative vacation is a prime example. I was involved, some months back, in the initial destination selection (where "involved" means b&c's saying, "I thought maybe this year instead of going to New York City, we'd go to the Virgin Islands and just relax," was followed by my saying, "Good idea"), but after that, he took care of all the details, and when -- at various times between late February and mid-April, he'd inform me of one of those details, I'd give my input, usually in the form of "Huh?" or, if I was actually not completely exhausted that particular evening, "Oh. Whatever."

But there are certain things you can't delegate. Packing, for instance. And, more to the point: reading material. Well, I suppose that you could say, "Pick me out something good to read while we're on vacation," but that's a lot like saying to a friend "Can you bring me home a partner from the bar?" Who you're going to spend the next several years of your life with is arguably a bigger deal than what you're going to read on vacation, but it's an argument you'd lose. Besides, if your friend is a reasonable person, he'd probably do a lot better job of picking a partner for you than you'd do for yourself. I mean, judging from the available evidence.

By way of example, if b&c weren't already my partner, he could probably do a halfway decent job of selecting one for me. By contrast, when I complained earlier today that I'd done a poor job of selecting my beach reading, his response was, "I would have loaned you one of my Gordon Merrick novels." Dude. But I'm on vacation, and we're having far too good a time for me to experience anything like pique, so I just said, "Your faith in my intellectual prowess is truly touching." Then he tried to backpedal, but I had already moved on. On the other hand, less than an hour later, we were sitting at a beachfront bar, nearing the end of our first Margarita of the evening, and we had the following conversation:
B&c: So do you want to go see Siegfried with me, or should I find someone else?
TED: Siegfried?
B&c: Yeah.
TED: The opera?
B&c: Yes.
TED: By Wagner?
B&c: Right.
TED: Part of the ring cycle?
B&c: Yup.
TED: How many questions am I going to have to ask before you know the answer to your question? You should have known before you ever asked. When have I ever wanted to see anything by Wagner?
B&c: Well, that one time we saw the first act of Siegfried in concert at the NSO, you said you liked it.
TED: I said it was tolerable.
B&c: Well...
TED: And it was an hour and a half. One act. How many acts are there?
B&c: Three.
TED: Three acts plus two intermissions equals not tolerable. Do the math.
B&c: Maybe you're just not old enough to appreciate Wagner yet.
TED: Fine. You can take me to the entire ring cycle when I'm dead.

And at that moment, it probably should have occurred to me thinking I might be willing to endure Siegfried was not entirely consistent with suggesting a Gordon Merrick novel, but it didn't, not because I was in too good a mood (which is why, now that it has occurred me, I only find it amusing), but because I was fairly drunk and well on my way to very drunk. The variety in the alcoholic content of Margaritas in different Virgin Island bars is quite large, but none of them were nearly as strong as tonight's. When I remarked -- appreciatively, of course -- that the Margaritas were on the powerful side, the barwench replied, "Really? They're only half Tequila and half mixers." I have no idea whether half Tequila is usually considered strong, but these particular Margaritas were practically devoid of ice, and I believe they were served in a ten-ounce glass, so each of them had, I'd estimate, about 4.5 ounces of Tequila in them. I didn't notice until I was starting on my second one, and by then it was too late to un-order it (Not that I would have, anyway, because "Margaritas" is plural, and who goes out "to have Margarita"? Well, maybe straight guys if Margarita happens to be the local bawd, but she isn't, and I'm not.). B&c didn't notice until he stood up from the table, which turned out to be considerably more difficult than he'd anticipated. The barwench explained that she'd only been brought in as a back up and that "I usually work on the front desk." I told her that I was sure she had now found her true calling.

Andre Aciman was the editor of The Proust Project, and, boy howdy, does it show. It is impossible, if you've read even as little as a long excerpt of In Search of Lost Times, to get more than twenty or so pages into Call Me by Your Name without being reminded of Proust. I have nothing against Proust, but I wouldn't bring A la Recherche to the beach, and I would probably go so far as to say that if it's your idea of beach reading, you and I are very likely not ever going to be soul mates. As with Proust (Another good example would be Faulkner, whose writing I adore: I would not bring Absolom, Absolom!, or even Light in August to the beach.), Call Me by Your Name is the sort of work that requires attention, even immersion. You cannot read a few pages of it and then rise up and towel it off so that you can go immerse yourself instead in the Caribbean.

While on some levels the book is brilliantly written -- and deeply affecting: I would almost certainly have wept at the end had I not been experiencing such fine times and weather -- on other levels, it's just a bit too much. The topic is desire (more specifically desire in the context of a first true love), and while thinking at length about desire is something that many of us, myself included, have indulged in, there is a point where examination, however enlightened begins to lessen, rather than add to, the experience being examined. And I'm pretty sure that this novel would have passed that point even if I hadn't been reading it on the beach and in a hotel room. If you haven't already, you should read Call Me by Your Name and notice how many of the paragraphs begin with "or." It is, of course, the nature of intelligent young men wading for the first time into the turbid waters of love and desire to obsess over the possible meanings of each minute detail, and that obsession is well captured here. But anyone who hasn't already lived through it won't get it no matter how long you go on about it, and anyone who's been through it will surely have recaptured the feeling by the third or fourth "or perhaps." Some abridgment, or perhaps editing, would have been helpful. Or at least I sometimes found myself getting more impatient with the author than the narrator was impatient with himself.

The Homeric hymns might not seem like the ideal reading material for situations where time and attention spans are likely to be brief, but they actually have much to recommend them for beach reading. The subject matter is familiar and engaging, and the format (The edition I'm reading takes about one hundred fifty pages to get through the thirty-three hymns, and while the lengths are highly variable, none of them is very long, and each can be read independently of the others.) lends itself to short periods of reading interrupted by long stretches of bathing or debating the comparative merits and shortcomings of the trip's various Margaritas. But there are two problems. First, the translation. It is, I recognize, impossible to translate Classical poetry into English without sacrificing either the meter (the hymns were written in a sort of hexameter where the individual feet, I believe, were a flexible mixture of dactyls and spondees) or the meaning (It's possible that it's better not to try. It may make more sense to take the overall story and start afresh. Shelley wrote some good hymns that way.), but if you accept, as I do, that the meter won't survive translation, then at least you can try not to make the English leaden. There is nothing either playful, emotional, or moving about this translation. I find that I can keep reading for several stanzas before I realize that I've gotten so bored that I've begun thinking about something entirely different even while my lips have continued reading the hymn.

And that brings up the second problem. They're hymns, and they really have to be read aloud. Fortunately, the hotel beach here is large and uncrowded enough for me to put my beach chair far enough away from anyone else so that I can read aloud, as long as I do so softly. If that means I stumble over some of the pronunciations (No! Please don't make me try to say "Eileithyia" again. Oh, hell, I'll just call her "Fred." I'm sure that's what the goddesses did.) then so be it. But I'm flying back tomorrow, and I'm only about a third of the way through the hymns, and there's no way in hell that I'm going to read them aloud on the plane. They also wouldn't work on a more crowded beach. And even on a relatively uncrowded beach, people will look at you and think that you're too dumb to read without moving your lips. The shame.

Fortunately, b&c finished at least one of the books he brought along to read, so on the airplane back home tomorrow afternoon, I'll be reading Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva, which, I believe, has little in common with any part of the oeuvre of Gordon Merrick. It seems the most likely of the three books he brought to be entertaining. I am pretty sure that I would not pick up a book titled The Cellist of Sarajevo unless I were looking for a gift for b&c. And, truly, I don't know whether pity or terror is the appropriate response to a man who thinks that something called Wittgenstein's Poker has any place in a vacation.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Paradise Found

Extreme fatigue, like almost everything else, is a two-edged sword. By the last days of tax season, it didn't take much to bruise my usual unflappability. I was so worn out when I slouched out of the office at 4:30 on April 15th that I forgot to turn on my out of office autoresponse on Outlook, and I forgot to change to my alternate greeting on my voicemail. If that's not one step away from a nervous breakdown, I don't know what is. Actually, I don't know whether people even have nervous breakdowns any more. It seems like such a vague diagnosis that surely it must have ended with the 20th century. I reckon (though I don't know and of course can't be bothered to research) that nowadays people must have psychotic breaks or manic episodes or periods of severe depression. Or something. Back in the day, I occasionally felt like a nervous breakdown would be a good path for me, but I could never figure out what the first step was. It was like I'm ready for my nervous breakdown, but now what? Do I just find a corner, sit there, and drool? That seemed a bit too distasteful to me, so I always just continued to fake sanity.

Anyway, sometime around 8:53 on the morning of April 16th, I experienced the other edge of the sword when I was sitting at one of the United gates in Dulles airport, eating my breakfast burrito from one of the fast food establishments there, when b&c approached and told me that his request to use 30,000 of his frequent flyer miles to acquire an upgrade to first class for the two of us on our flight to St. Thomas.

It was as if the Buddha were smiling just for me.

I imagine that upgrades to first class are relatively common for people who travel more often than I do, but it was a first for me, and I really can't explain just how pleased my tired self was. Suddenly I was one of the elect, and neither the fact that I'd be back in coach five days hence nor my entire belief system kept me from feeling smugly superior to the poor slobs who didn't have the sense to end up with a partner who flies a lot.

First class simultaneously wasn't and was all that. My sense of giddiness quickly gave way to an acute recognition of the absence of annoyance. Yes, the flight attendant was very attentive, and yes, we got a pretty good breakfast and as much to drink as we wanted (B&c had two gin and tonics, before 11 am. What a lush.), but what really made it special was that I wasn't subjected to the tiny seats, the negligible leg room, the noise, and the general atmosphere of misery not loving company that is the inevitable experience of coach, especially now that the flights are always so full. I was even able to sleep (I almost never can in coach, even on long or overnight flights), and I arrived in the Virgin Islands feeling unstressed.

Sadly, I was also wearing black jeans and a black t-shirt, and the sun was very forceful, so by the time we'd walked the half-mile to our hotel, I was feeling tired and ragged again. But a quick shower and a trip to the beach set all that right, very quickly. The beach here is beautiful, and the water is both gorgeous and welcoming. After twenty minutes or so of various strokes alternating with floating on my back with my ears submerged and my eyes closed so that I heard nothing but my own breathing and the occasional murmur of the ocean and I saw nothing but the orange and yellow of sunlight through closed lids, I lay on my chaise longue, in the warm shade, reading and dozing, dozing and reading.

I had brought along Call Me by Your Name, which I had seen recommended somewhere by another blogger, and while I would have, in general, to pronounce it the antithesis of beach reading, it is very well written, and it does contain scenes where one of the characters lays idly in the sun, by the water, with his eyes closed, occasionally saying, "This is heaven."

I am not especially comfortable with the notion of heaven, associating it as I do with a very particularly Christian idea of the final resting place of the virtuous dead. I am much more enamored of paradise, which is infinitely customizable, and nirvana, which is also somewhat particular, but comes from a religious tradition that I don't associate with guilt and punishment. In any event, lying there next to the impossibly blue water, shaded from the sun, cooled by a lazy breeze, and almost falling asleep with my book open on my chest, I experienced something like nirvana or paradise, or the extinction, at least, of concern.

People will tell you that it is good to be alive without, necessarily, implying that existence is intrinsically good. What they usually mean by "it's good to be alive" is "it certainly beats the alternative." There are certainly ways to grasp the inherent goodness of existence without flying hundreds of mile and removing oneself to a place of great natural beauty, but it really doesn't hurt. Lying there, intermittently dozing, feeling the kind embrace of the tropics, it was easy to go beyond "it's good to be alive." It's good to be.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Spring, in Pictures

I had in mind something ponderous about spring and Easter, but boy howdy, I'm tired. So enjoy, instead, these pictures of this evening's culinary project. I regret that I didn't get pictures of some of the steps, just because I'd like to have them for myself.

Anyway, Easter. Well, last night (unless it's still tonight: it's just gone midnight here), YFU came to me and said, "What's for dinner?" And I said, "Hmmm. Dinner: interesting notion." And then I took her to one of my favorite local restaurants. She had chicken enchiladas, and I had the Pato alla Saviliana, which was not quite as tender as usual but still delicious. And we were eating, she was telling me stories from her recent trip to Boston with her Religious Education class from church, and she told me about her friend Jack, who has a fear of crosses. Her narrative went something like this:
So we're all, like, how can you be afraid of crosses, and he tells us how when he was a little kid, he saw Hellboy, and he was confused, and he thought that Hellboy was the devil, and Hellboy's the good guy, so he was talking to some friends and said "The devil's a hero!" and a priest heard him and the priest got really mad at him and started waving a cross in his face and talking about Satan and he got scared. But we still didn't understand and we were all, well, still, you should be afraid of priests instead of crosses, and then he said, "But when he waved the cross in my face, it went in my nose."

That story reminded me of this passage from Brave New World.

I guess Jack will be safe from bookspriests and botanycrosses all his life.

Easter has always struck me as the least satisfying of Christian holidays. I just never really understood why if God created everyone and then decided that they were sinful, he needed a sacrifice, of his own son yet, in order to forgive those people. It's really very difficult to reconcile the Easter story with the omniscient and omnipotent God that modern Christians would have us accept.

Anyway, I tried, truly, to think about rebirth and Easter and all that, but none of it was even half as satisfying as making a big batch of marzipan and then making edible robin eggs and a dark chocolate nest. Especially with YFU helping out.

I hope that tomorrow the weather will be a bit better, and I'll have gotten a good night's sleep (I was up until 4am Friday night/Saturday morning and then up again at 8 to go to the office.) and be able to go for a walk and enjoy the flowering trees, as well as the end of tax season: my April 15th work is essentially finished. I'm looking forward to my own annual renaissance.

Happy Easter, everyone.