Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Open Letter to One Story

Dear One Story,

I have been a subscriber of your literary journal for the past two years. I will not be renewing my subscription. Please stop sending me renewal notices, and please remove me from all of your mailing lists.

The reason I will not be renewing my subscription is due to the absolute dearth of diversity represented by your journal. Below is a list of all the issues and authors you have published during this two-year period:

#167 Michael Byers
#168 Emma Donoghue
#169 Susan Straight
#170 Erin McGraw
#171 Jason Ockert
#172 E.B. Lyndon
#173 Amity Gaige
#174 Kindall Gray
#175 Emma Duffy-Comparone
#176 Halimah Marcus
#177 Douglas Watson
#178 Susan Perabo
#179 Jodi Angel
#180 Michelle Seaton
#181 Chelsey Johnson
#182 Matt Madden
#183 Elizabeth Gilbert
#184 Amy Brill
#185 Tom Paine
#186 Jen Fawkes
#187 B.J. Novak
#188 Laura Spence-Ash
#189 Maggie Shipstead
#190 Emily Ruskovich
#191 Jonathan Durbin
#192 Katie Coyle
#193 James Winter
#194 Whitney Groves
#195 Chuck Augello
#196 Diane Cook

If an extraterrestrial life-form visited our planet, and if One Story was the sole literary publication they stumbled upon, I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that they would assume that: 1) white people are the only humans who inhabit Planet Earth, and/or, 2) white people are the only humans capable of crafting story narratives, and/or, 3) white people and their stories are the only significant ones.  Judging from this list, your journal looks like a KKK-sponsored publication.  Do you not see that?  Of these writers published in your journal, the closest you get to publishing a writer of color is Susan Straight!

I earned an MFA in Creative Writing. I’ve participated in several writing workshops which were far more diverse than this list of recent publications. I know, firsthand, that there are writers of color penning stories in this country. I know their work is just as worthy of publication as this all-white list of writers. To boot, your journal is headquartered out of Brooklyn, NY, one of the most diverse metropolises in the United States. You should be ashamed of yourselves for stifling literary diversity.

Juan Alvarado Valdivia

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My Top Ten Favorite Bars in the Whole Wide World

Though I don’t drink as much as I used to—and thank god for that—I do continue to appreciate a good watering hole; I think I always will. After all, over the years, I’ve been accused of being a “gregarious” person, which is mostly true. I’ll be the first to admit that being at home and watching sports games by my lonesome in my chonies can get boring after a while.

But anywho, my homeboy and top-10-list buddy, Justin “I Left My Heart in Vesuvio” Goldman and I are at it again, drawing up a list of some of our favorite shit in life. This time: bars. Cantinas. Lounges. Taverns (Moe's!) Watering holes—call them what you wish.

A few common threads presented themselves as I drew up this list. Ever since I was a young colt (FYI, I laughed as I typed that) I’ve always been drawn to bars where people can let it hang, so to say. I’ve always been fond of bars with an unpretentious crowd. I don’t like going to places simply because they’re deemed hip and popular or because they make amazing cocktails. I don’t give a shit about that. I'm far too simple and unsophisticated for that. I like my bars to be socially functional. That—to me—is their overriding purpose. And so, I prefer places where 1) I can converse with a friend or two or few without having to yell in their ears, 2) places that are physically and aesthetic relaxing. And my favorite bars are places where I created mostly good memories.

That said, a few of the bars on my list are primarily here because of pure nostalgia. I am a sentimental fucker.

And with that said, here’s my list (and here's a link to Justin's list):

King’s Inn (In Memoriam)
Fremont, CA

The King’s Inn was a fucking dive. It used to be hidden in the corner of a nondescript strip mall where Kragen and Bay Street Coffee patrons used to park. (I refuse to call Bay Street Coffee—a Fremont institution—by its new and absolutely stupid name.) An Indian grocery store now occupies the ground that used to be home to a sticky, years-old-beer-smelling carpet.

Once I reached legal drinking age, the King’s Inn was the hole where my old buddy JJ and I used to go. What I liked about it: the long shuffleboard table pinned at the back of the wall; the joint was never crowded; we usually always had the shuffleboard table to ourselves (and our various pitchers of beer); an older, scrappier crowd frequented the bar; it was an absolutely unpretentious bar; it was the kind of place where I could be as loud as I wanted and no one was going to give me shit about it.

The King’s Inn was a quintessential dive bar. Although I never saw a scuffle break out on its premises, it was a place that seemed to attract troublemakers, misfits, and people who simply couldn’t play life straight. The people who frequented the bar seemed like wild animals that needed a large, dark space teeming with booze and pool tables to graze and be themselves away from all of life’s relentless bullshit. I liked this element of danger about it. Even though I was College Boy, I felt like I fit in.

When I talk about The King’s Inn to people who knew Fremont’s old dive bars (RIP Roamer’s; RIP Shelley’s; RIP The Shoestring Saloon), I try to sum the bar up with one anecdote: the time me and JJ walked into King’s Inn, ordered our first pitcher of beer and saw the buxom, big-breasted, trashy bartender pound a shot with two dudes who seemed like they had Biker Gang written all over them. After they guffawed a bit, she leaned forward so one of the gentlemen could stuff his tip money between her tits. This seemed like a perfectly regular occurrence.

That’s when I truly fell in love with the place.

The Pig & Whistle
San Francisco, CA

If the King’s Inn was me and JJ’s place growing up, The Pig & Whistle—though we didn’t go there often—is the pub I will always associate with my sister, Mariana, and my brother-in-law, Rick. Like the King’s Inn, this bar has beaucoup nostalgic goodness propelling it onto this list. However, there are other reasons why I am listing it here.

In general, I am fond of the idea of pubs (except ones that have clearly been created for tourists in places such as Ipanema, Brussels, or Santiago). Pubs have food (oftentimes solid to good); tend to be chillaxing; tend to have nerdy-fun happenings like trivia night; tend to have jukeboxes with music I dig (i.e. music for old farts) and their staff tend to be a bit kinder than your typical bar staffs.

I haven’t been to The Pig in many, many years, but it exemplified all these aforementioned traits. In fact, the food was really good. (Their Shepherds Pie was yummers, as were their curry fries.) A solid beer selection, good jukebox, and a totally cozy environment. The Pig scores extra points since it is mentioned in a story from Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories.

When I think of my ideal English pub, I think of The Pig—and that’s why it cracked this list.

500 Club
San Francisco, CA

Back when I lived in San Francisco’s Mission District, The 500 Club was my favorite bar. (It’s in my memoir!) I liked it because:

• it has always had an outstanding jukebox (not one of those stupid Internet ones that charge you a buck for two songs)
• was kind of divey (I still consider a true dive bar to be one where you kind of fear for your well-being when you step in.)
• the crowd was often an eclectic, unpretentious bunch (not so much anymore, I think), and
• the tatted-up bartenders gave good pours on shots.

One minute a classic Stones could be playing, the next an old school Metallica thrasher followed by James Brown or Bob Seger, and—somehow or another—it all fit the scene. The bar scores extra points for its super-cushy vinyl booths—if you’re fortunate enough to snag one.

Room 389
Oakland, CA

Since migrating across the bay to Oakland in 2011, I’ve found plenty of watering holes that I dig: The Legionnaire Saloon, Luka’s Taproom, Cato’s Ale House, Geo Kaye’s, and the Kona Club, but Room 389 is easily my favorite one. The first thing that grabs my attention is its décor; it’s a stylish, swanky place—not usually my kind of joint. If you looked at its décor alone—the walls covered in pages torn from books; the posh overhead lighting; the warm wood paneling—you’d think it was one of the trendy bars that have sprouted in downtown San Francisco and the Mission in the past ten years. For me, what makes the bar is the crowd; that’s where it undoubtedly differentiates itself from your typical hip San Francisco lounge because you will always find more than one black person or token Latino in the entire bar. The crowd’s always diverse—and everyone there seems to be fucking cool. Sure, it’s the kind of place to be seen but Room 389 has always felt like a place where young and middle-aged folks go to mingle with friends and kick back some drinks, or to watch some hoops on the TVs. Despite its sleek look, the lounge is an inviting, comfy place, especially the chillaxing chairs and sofas near the back. It has always had a humming energy to it without getting obnoxiously loud. In other words: it’s my kind of place now that I’m a grizzled thirty-year-old.

San Francisco, CA

What can I say about Vesuvio that hasn’t already been said? It’s a landmark establishment, a certifiable tourist destination in the 415. Kerouac, Neal Cassady and the Beats used to hang out here and now tourists from all corners of this world pull up a chair or sit at one of the tables to breathe in its charm (oftentimes, bless their hearts, with a paperback they just procured from City Lights). I have always loved Vesuvio because it is one of those rare places in San Francisco that feels like it has history. Because of its literary importance, Vesuvio is able to get away with party fouls such as that uneven fourth or fifth step down to the men’s bathroom. If anything, quirks like that help to give the bar its charm.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Vesuvio is a gorgeous place. It feels like a European café: its second-floor tier, the railing circling the bar below; its artwork and photographs; its highly-prized booths or tables lining the windows that look out over bustling Columbus Avenue.

Its historic significance and aesthetic pleasurefulness alone could put it on this list, but Vesuvio has a few other endearing elements for me. First, it’s a place where I’ve never had a bad time. And two, it’s a joint Justin and I used to frequent before our Sunday evening shifts at a legal translation firm. An afternoon of watching football games and bullshitting with my boy may not have been good for our renal systems or wallets but it made me feel less alone in this world, and that counts for something.

Club 93
San Francisco, CA

Life is oftentimes about timing and Club 93 found a niche in my life for a 4-5 month period of my life when I was 29. I’m glad it’s been over for some time now.

Club 93 makes its home on an unsavory part of the SOMA district. Back in 2008-2009, when I worked at a nonprofit that used to be a few blocks from this place, it was a dive. A penultimate dive bar, in my humble opinion. The bathrooms told the story: the men’s bathroom had a urinal on the far wall that was always running; the faucet teetered off to the side. They never had hand soap or paper towels. (Neither did the women’s bathroom, according to my past source; once we became regulars, we often washed and dried our hands behind the bar.) The men’s bathroom had one toilet that didn’t flush. I think they kept it so people could bump lines in the stall.

I liked how nasty the bar was. People barely came into the bar so my coworker and I often hogged the jukebox, which used to be an excellent one teeming with oldies like Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, and The Temptations. Plus, they had a shuffleboard table near the back of the bar. The bartenders gave generous pours, which scored points for me since I was a hard drinker then.

I dropped into the bar about two years ago. It had changed. It was brightly lit. Neon lights peppered the walls. An internet jukebox replaced the old one. The place was a lot cleaner. More respectable. I didn’t even bother going into the bathroom. It had all changed. It didn’t seem like a place that attracted cockroaches anymore, and this made me sad.

Cactus Bar
Haad Rin Beach on Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

I almost feel embarrassed to put this beachside bar on my list since Koh Pha Ngan is basically a playground for foreigners, but I had a damn good time partying on Haad Rin Beach when I was 29. (And I managed this while I had lymphoma, though I didn’t know it then; this is still a strange thing for my mind to reconcile.) One night, I returned to my bungalow barefoot as the morning sun rose above the lush hills teeming with palm trees. An early night for me on that island was turning in at 4 a.m.. It is what it was.

And what was it? Well, for one, the bartender had the most outstanding ability to use a beer bottle to pop open another one, sending the bottle cap flying over your head and off into the sand. Other than the toy buckets of whiskey and Red Bull that they served (an extremely dangerous combination, might I add), the alcohol selection was forgettable. Tourists, obviously, did not frequent the beachside bar for their selection. Instead, we came for the never-ending pulsing electronic dance music. We came for the games, like attempting to kick a soccer ball through holes on a large wooden panel to win drinks, or jumping over a HUGE rope alit in flames (!!!), or limboing beneath a rope of fire when you’re too drunk to distinguish women from ladyboys. (At least I had this problem.) It was a crazy, crazy, crazy-fun time. I will never party like that again—and thank god for that.

The Roundup Saloon
Lafayette, CA

I don’t miss being a graduate student at Saint Mary’s but I do miss going to the Roundup with my classmates. While we were students at our word-wizard camp, the saloon was our post-reading default hangout. To our fortune, Wednesday was also karaoke night at the bar—and their music selection was surprisingly decent. Without fail, karaoke night was always a good time.

I also dig the Roundup because it attracts an unusual crowd during the week. (I have no idea about weekends.) On any night you could see young suits playing pool, wannabe-rebel rich kids sitting in the corners, probably already daydreaming of getting the fuck out of that Stepford town, and middle-aged rundown has-beens slouching over the bar. It was a tolerant joint. Although it loses points for not having any beer on tap (at least back in 2010) and for mediocre to crappy bartenders (the ones I saw seemed to disdain tending at a blue-collar bar in Lafayette), the Roundup gets bonus points in my book for: the slightly gross bathroom; the arcade games in the corner; and for being a few blocks away from Taco Bell, which is glorious when you’re hungry and copping a buzz. But let’s be verdadero: sweet nostalgia got this otherwise forgettable bar on my list.

San Francisco, CA

Since I left the Mission for good three and a half years ago, the city continues to change. All of my recent visits to el barrio Mission—I shit you not—inevitably has a moment when I discover that a long-time restaurant, café, bar, or store is no longer in business. (Two months ago it was Café Que Tal. Last week it was Café Petra on Guerrero Street, and I also saw Esta Noche’s interior being gutted and remade to become whatever hipster-gentrification-monstrosity it will become.) I am grateful this quiet bar has survived neighborhood—so far.

Dalva has beaucoup nostalgic power fueling it onto this list. My good friend, Tagi and I made this our place when she worked in the Mission (and I will never be able to disassociate my friend from that bar). I just had a heart-to-heart at Dalva with my sister to add another fabric of memory. There are also some not-so-great moments that happened at Dalva for me; I went to the bar right after my first CT scan in June 2008, ten months before I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. I remember drinking a pint of beer and walking to the bathroom to puke and spit out the acidic contrast liquid they had pumped into my veins to facilitate the procedure. I remember leaning over the men’s toilet and thinking, ha, now isn’t this symbolic?

Over the years, Dalva hasn’t changed much. The bar is still a dimly lit place. Their counter is still lined with warm red candlelights that are magically conducive for conversations that nourish the spirit. They still play bizarre films on the screen hanging high up on the back wall. Dalva’s never been a trendy place. Never been a place that gets too loud. The happy hour is generous as always and it continues to be a respite from the people inhabiting the neighborhood.

Alley Cantina
Taos, New Mexico

Back in the winter of 2011 I spent five weeks in Taos, New Mexico. In a town with a population less than 6,000, there aren’t many bars to choose from but the historic Alley Cantina was my go-to. Being a sucker for places that have been around a long time, I dug the 400-year-old cantina for that reason; it feels like a place that generations of Taosenos have frequented. It’s modest, welcoming and deceptively large. Though I rarely ate there the food’s decent, and the bar staff were always kind. The cantina was also a nightlife locus with live music on many nights. Although I often sought trouble and women at the bar during my nights in town, I found neither, which was probably for the best. Ever since I left Taos (a.k.a. God’s Country) I sometimes long to leave the urban jungle life behind for a simpler, more quiet existence in the mountain town. I will probably always wish I can grow old in a small town like Taos, at a place like Alley Cantina.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Observations & Thoughts from Our Recent Trip to Western Europe

My wifey and I recently returned from our two-week honeymoon in Amsterdam, Bruxelles (a.k.a. Brussels), and Paris (a.k.a. “the city of love!” as a jovial bartender in Bruxelles named Junior referred to it). Here’s some observations and thoughts I generated from our trip.

Wanna Have a Good Time at Customs in Holland?
Donning our backpacking packs, two sets of greasy hair from a transcontinental day of travel, a red carry-on suitcase and passports in hand, Mari and I must have appeared like two studious nerds ready to embark on a studious touristic visit of Europe. When it was our turn to approach the customs agent at Schiphol Airport, ten kilometers outside of Amsterdam, I took out the trip itineraries from our suitcase. They were tucked into a sheet protector. Before long, the agent gave us a 90-mph fastball over the plate: what was the purpose of our visit?

“We’re on our honeymoon,” Mari said.

It was ever so slight, but the agent crinkled an eyebrow.

“Honeymoon in Amsterdam?” he said in a classic European accent.

Throughout our entire trip—including an unplanned, eyeball-popping stroll through Amsterdam’s Red Light District—I would imitate the customs agent’s thick accent and say to Mari: “Honeymoon in Amsterdam?”

So there you go: if you ever find yourself flying into Schiphol Airport with your partner, just tell ‘em you’re on your honeymoon. They’ll think you’re freaks.

I encountered my first toilet seat sanitizer at the Schiphol Airport. I’d never seen one before; didn’t see one during my previous trip to Europe in 2003.

Throughout our vacation, here and there, I came across these sanitizers in the bathroom stalls. I found them refreshing to use. (To be transparent—perhaps a bit TMI—I’ve always been rather comfortable taking a crap in a public restroom.) I’m not a health scientist, or a versed germaphobe, but I’m willing to bet that they’re more sanitary than toilet seat covers. But more importantly—as far as I’m concerned—they negated the need for toilet seat covers; that means less paper and resources are being expended. Less waste is subsequently created, and this restroom practice is inevitably gentler on the sewage system with less waste to filter through it. I wish we used toilet seat sanitizers in the U.S.

On a related note, it was hard not to notice that the European restrooms I visited were more likely to have dual-flush toilets than public restrooms in the United States. I thought this was wise and practical as well. It was hard not to think of California when I used those dual-flush toilets. We’re currently suffering our worst drought on record. After reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed this past spring, I learned that two environmental calamities tend to lead to a society’s collapse: deforestation and severe drought. It is key, on both the societal and individual level, to react appropriately to an environmental crisis. I think it’s great that water-free urinals seem to be more prevalent in California in recent years but why don’t we advocate the usage of dual-flush toilets to lessen our water usage? Why doesn’t our state government become more proactive about providing incentives for dual-flush toilets? (After doing some online research, I found that municipalities such as EBMUD have begun providing rebates to encourage consumers into purchasing high-efficiency toilets). No one knows how long this drought will continue but I think it’s imperative that our state and local governments mandate or incentivize the usage of toilet products that can significantly cut down our usage of water. This would be a reactive and preventative measure. (There will inevitably be more droughts.) From a historical standpoint, these are the kind of high-level government decisions that make or break their societies.

But back to more observations from our trip:

The Urban Cycling Capital of the World
Amsterdam is the urban cycling capital of the world! It was astounding to behold. Our third-floor apartment outside Amsterdam’s centre provided a superb view of a three-way major intersection. Every 5-10 minutes the #1 tram rolled by through the middle of the street. Two lanes of vehicular traffic flanked it along with accompanying bicycle lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. (I like to call them “peds.”)

From what we observed during our four days in Amsterdam, it didn’t really seem to matter what time of day it was—morning, afternoon, or night, or what day of the week it was—but we almost always saw more cyclists than motorists and pedestrians COMBINED. Being a long-time urban cyclist, this was a monumentally fucking beautiful reality to witness. (Perhaps needless to say—and for various other reasons—I was quickly smitten with Amsterdam.)

No Monster Trucks Here!
The largest single-user vehicle we saw during our trip: a black Range Rover in Amsterdam. And it was a small one compared to the SUVs you typically see in ‘Murica.

Food in Amsterdam
File this under “Welcome Surprise,” but Mari and I ate some damn good food in Amsterdam. We had one so-so meal, and that was eating a doner kebab and frites from what looked like a fast-food chain restaurant.

“Don’t Mess with a Dutchman’s Dairy” (Our bike tour guide in Amsterdam said almost these exact words in recounting the hippie camp-out days in Vondelpark back in the 1970s.)

Speaking of food—holy shit! (or heilig stront!)—I had the yummiest yogurt and soymilk ever in Amsterdam. Mari concurred. I don’t know what they feed their cows, or where that soymilk came from, but sweet baby Jesus it was glorious. (And if you’re already thinking, no, it wasn’t the Amsterdam pot that skewed this subjective assessment.)

Bike Helmets in Europe
Hardly anyone wears a bike helmet in Europe—at least the three cities we visited. I can count on two hands the amount of people we saw wearing helmets. (In Amsterdam, where I often found myself staring out our window to watch street traffic flowing by, I saw a woman in her mid-late thirties wearing a helmet; two kiddos donning helmets rode behind her so clearly she was being a Proper Mama Cyclist. Other than those three, I think I saw two other cyclists wearing helmets in Amsterdam.) When I pointed out the lack of cycling helmets to Har, our kind host in Amsterdam, he smiled and said, “Yes, we’re free here.”

Never Saw a Used Rubber on the Sidewalk in Sodom (or Amsterdam’s cleanliness)
Amsterdam is famously known for its legalized prostitution and tolerance of marijuana usage but I wish it were renowned for its cleanliness. Sure, we saw a few empty beer bottles standing on the curb on Saturday morning, and some trash floating in the canals, but the city was surprisingly clean.

On a related note, Mari and I didn’t see any homeless people in or around the city’s center. It was a remarkable contrast to San Francisco. I’m not sure why this was the case; they do have homeless people in Amsterdam, but they weren’t visible during the daytime or off of Overtoom—the street we stayed on—during the night. Are they better cared for in Amsterdam? Je ne sais pas, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. The Dutch seem far more practical and humanitarian than your typical American.

Parks and Biergartens
Amsterdam’s largest park, the beauteous Vondelpark, has seven biergartens according to our guide at Mike’s Bikes. When I visited Munich back in 2003 I drank a stein at one of the lovely biergartens in the Englischer Garten. Why can’t we have beer gardens in parks in the United States? People are gonna brown-bag it at a park anyway, so why not civilize the whole act for everyone involved? Is it mentally impossible for Americans to think of a large civic park as a place for childrens’ recreation and a place for adult leisure? Although Mari and I didn’t indulge, a stop at the beer garden for a break from a stroll or cruise through the park can assuredly be chillaxing.

Domino’s Pizza

Domino’s in Amsterdam sold pizzas with hot-dog-stuffed crust. During our time in Amsterdam, Mari and I occasionally joked about going down the street to pick one up. But really, we thought it looked gross. ( Pizza Hut UK first began to sell hot-dog-stuffed pizzas in 2012. Thailand and Japan sold such pizzas before.) I can’t even picture it as stoner grub, man.

Coffeeshops (You know which ones I’m talking about)
Speaking of sweet mother green, it is difficult to find a regular coffeeshop in Amsterdam that, you know, serves coffee and croissants.

Marijuana in Amsterdam: Was it like the Outro of Jimi Hendrix’s “House Burning Down”?

In my humble opinion, marijuana in Amsterdam was as potent as the medical marijuana I have smoked in California. (It certainly inspired us to buy some sweets!) Maybe it was a smidge stronger? According to the Amsterdam.info webpage, “Dutch Nederweed contains about 15-18% THC, while foreign weed only contains about 7.5% THC.” Pure Analytics, a cannabis-testing laboratory states: “The Nor Cal cannabis market is characterized overall by THC-dominant cannabis with an average THC potency level between 16-17%.”

The Dude Abides

If Amsterdam wasn’t cool enough, their beer scene is superb. A pair of locals named The Cinema Brewers have a Lebowski Ale! It was pretty good, too. I may be fickle, but that pretty much made Amsterdam the coolest city on Planet Earth for me.

Before we embarked on our trip, Mari and I wondered if Europeans would be as absorbed with their smartphones as people in California. Our prediction: we would see slightly less smartphone usage in public areas; we figured this since Europeans tend to be more community-oriented whereas our hyper-individualism is a hallmark of Americana.

Although we only visited three major cities in three Western European countries—from what we observed—it seemed like Europeans were noticeably less entranced and beholden to their mobile contraptions. (For what it’s worth, I found that smartphone penetration—the litmus for smartphone usage—is a bit lower in most of Western Europe in comparison to the United States.) On the subways and trams we rode people didn’t get sucked a smartphone vortex for prolonged periods of time like many riders I’ve seen on BART. At the restaurants and cafes we ate at we never saw a pair of people convene only to thumb away on their phones for the majority of their meal. Instead, we rarely saw people on their phones in restaurants, let alone clicking away picture after picture of their food—or themselves—before devouring their meals. That’s not exactly standard behavior at all restaurants here in California but it is hardly an unusual occurrence nowadays. (A few months back, Mari and I sat next to a pair of Asian girls at Fentons Ice Creamery who hardly exchanged words during their meal. For the entirety of their meeting, each one clicked and navigated away on their smartphones. When their food was brought out, they were prodded into physical action, taking picture after picture of their ice cream, selfies of themselves with their food, pictures of their friend with their food, and in between, a few words were exchanged. Months before, we saw about three groups of young people doing the same thing at a trendy restaurant in Santa Monica.) We never once saw such antisocial behavior in Europe. Instead, people who met at terraces and cafes and restaurants convened to utilize their mouths, ears, and vocal cords to converse like human beings.

The Usage of Mobile Devices in Museums
Speaking of the usage of mobile devices, Mari and I had a difficult time viewing paintings on the main floor of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum without standing next to someone snapping a picture of the artwork with their cell phones. I saw a guy standing in front of a painting while he took his sweet time taking a self-portrait with his iPad. This behavior soured our experience. The museum seemed like a place where these cell-phone-totting idiots could take picture after picture of artwork they—in all likelihood—didn’t know jack shit about yet still felt compelled to document.

YouTube Ads
And speaking of iPads, Mari and I couldn’t help but notice that we hardly got any ads before playing YouTube videos in Paris. Ditto for Bruxelles and Amsterdam. Not that I kept count, but I’d say one ad played for every ten video clips I opened. (Wasn’t YouTube viewing in America once this delectable?)

Parisian Footwear
Podiatrists must make a killing in Paris. The City of Lights is truly obsessed with style and outward appearances. Thusly, women often wear heels and shoes that can’t be kind to their feet—like an older woman we saw in Le Marais with a huge bunion on the side of her right foot. (Pobrecita.)

I Love [Insert Name of City] shirts
On one of our last days in Paris, I saw a pudgy dude on the metro wearing a baseball hat that said “Paris.” That made me realize that I never once saw any Parisian wearing a “Je t'aime, Paris” or “I Love Paris” t-shirt, or similar paraphernalia. I find such shirts to be stupid. Apparently Parisians do too. Or, at the very least, they’re too chic to wear a shirt that their mere physical existence in Paris validates.

Best Time to Visit Paris
In my humble opinion, I believe fall is the best time to visit Paris. Here’s my supporting evidence:

1. The Jardin du Luxembourg was absolutely magnifique to see with the colors of autumn dotting the park’s foliage. (I had to summon energy to not take pictures of the park with all its fallen leaves of brown, crimson, and gold.) I don’t remember it being so exquisitely beautiful when I visited Paris during the hot summer of 2003.

2. French author Michel Houellebecq’s narrator in The Map and the Territory—a resident of Paris—says, “It is only in autumn that Paris is truly a pleasant city, offering short sunny days where the dry and clear air leaves an invigorating sensation of freshness.” See, there!

Le Cinema
Parisian filmgoers are a serious breed. At least that’s my hypothesis. Here’s what I wrote about my experience watching a film in Paris back in 2003: “The audience was perfectly quiet during the screening. Before, they were chitchattering loudly.”

On our last night in Paris, Mari and I watched Wim Wenders documentary about Sebastião Salgado. The audience chitchatted quietly before the trailers started, but they were quiet throughout the film. It was a reverent silence. The documentary had some horrific, disturbing, slit-your-wrists-depressing pictures. With the exception of one young man who left halfway through the film, the audience unflinching stared back at the celluloid images without leaving. I was impressed. The theater, with a capacity of about one hundred, was nearly sold out on a weeknight. I’ve been to my share of art house film screenings in the Bay Area for many, many years and I doubt I would ever see such a turnout during a weeknight. Who else but the French—and myself (and subsequently Mari)—would willingly spend a lovely evening watching a documentary with such depressing imagery?

Cops a la France
The French version of Cops is mighty different than the American version—and their law enforcement methods are far different than our brute, gun-totting ways. Mari saw an episode of Cops which centered on (drum roll please): a middle-aged man keying another person’s car. When a police van—which sort of resembled a family minivan—rolled up to the residence of the accused party, an officer and the car-keying Frenchy got into a shouting match; ultimately, that was the most violent moment of their encounter. Before long, another patrol unit rolled up for back-up. (This is a worthwhile place to remind you that the alleged crimes are: 1) keying a car, and 2) possible drunk driving.) The shouting match ended. The suspect was not bludgeoned, slammed to the ground, or even handcuffed. Instead, he confessed to keying the car and a Breathalyzer demonstrated that he was indeed driving drunk before he rolled up to his residence. From there he willingly walked into the backseat of the police van, which did not have a divider between the driver. A police officer took a seat beside the man. Shortly after, the van drove off to the precinct where he was fingerprinted, officially booked, then released after an officer gave him a stern lecture.

Can you imagine? This counts for a heated encounter between police officers and a law-breaking citizen in France. (Crazy fucking Frenchies!)

Seating Guidelines on the Paris Metro
The Paris Metro has seats by the doors. (Best metro I’ve ridden! Though we never stayed out late at night, we never had to wait more than five minutes for a train.) A sign above them states the seats are reserved, in order of priority for disabled war veterans, the handicapped, the elderly, and pregnant women. In practice, it’s probably a largely symbolic listing; I doubt there are many disabled war veterans riding the Paris metro nowadays, but I think it says something about their society that they are listed first. I respect that quite a bit.

Europe and the United States
The last observation I will note from our trip concerns three separate cycling accidents I witnessed. One was in Amsterdam during the bike tour Mari and I participated in; the second was in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, and the third one I saw (and heard) in Paris while I sat at an Internet café. In each instance, in each locale—ranging from a canal crossing, popular urban park, and a side street in a super-posh part of Paris—a small flock of people stopped what they were doing to attend to the person who fell off their bike. Each time, passersby gasped and expressed concern before helping the fallen.

I have been a regular urban cyclist since 2005. I’ve had some spills—some minor, a few nasty ones. I had one in Golden Gate Park which was far, far worst than the one I saw of a middle-aged woman falling on a side street in Le Marais. When I fell, a man standing nearby hesitated a few seconds before asking me if I was okay. Although I was physically shaking from the hard fall (I was cycling over 22 mph when I hit an unmarked speed bump that sent me sailing sideways through the air), I told him I was all right as I took a seat to hunch over on the curb.

In Paris, a group of at least five pedestrians came to the woman’s aid. The sound of her bicycle clanging against the sidewalk had been loud. They helped her stand. I saw a few people put their hands on her back. The owner of the fashion shop/Internet café were I sat at sped over to the fallen woman with a chair; she placed the chair on the left side of the street, the part designated for cyclists so the woman could sit. It was humbling to see this communal reaction for a woman who merely lost control of her bike and fell on the sidewalk. From my experiences, I found it hard to imagine Americans ever reacting in this manner, let alone in a fast-paced metropolis like, say, New York City (which is the only American city that can hold a candle to Europe’s great cities).

On a related note, I observed, on a daily basis for one week that Parisians would go out of their way to hold the exit door open at the St. Paul metro station for the stream of people walking behind them. I pointed this out to Mari as symptomatic of a culture which is more community-oriented than our own in California. Maybe it’s different in small towns in California but I have never witnessed such considerateness anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area or in the Southern California cities I have visited over the years. I have a hard time picturing New Yorkers doing the same at a subway station.

In all, I couldn’t help but feel that Europeans, in a wholly general sense, seem more considerate and compassionate toward one another. (Call me crazy, but maybe that’s partly why they don’t have nearly as many mass shootings as the United States?) Their police don’t kill people of color—and get away with it. Their governments provide universal healthcare for their citizens; I don’t think this is debated like it is in the United States; it’s simply a right their citizens have. Most European countries have far more generous laws when it comes to time off from work, especially for paternal leaves. With all this in mind—and there’s so much more that could be said—it’s hard not to juxtapose the United States and the European Union and come away believing that Europeans revere life more than Americans. By comparison, the United States is a wild, barbaric frontier where people are apparently only valuable if they’re working. (This is reflected in the fact that one of the first questions American strangers typically ask one another is what their vocation is.)

Though it was only two weeks, our visit to Western Europe gave me, for the first time in my life, the earnest desire to leave this country someday. Wouldn’t it be good to live in a country where my taxes aren’t being spent to maim and kill brown people on other sides of our planet? Wouldn’t it be a reprieve to live in a country that is not at constant war? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to live in a country where people understand and support policies to serve the social good? Wouldn’t it be a rejoice to live in a country where people—and their governments—do more to try to live within their means? Wouldn’t it be great to live in a country with a saner government?

I know I am simplifying this—even fetishizing these differences. But still. Still. A society's priorities are inevitably reflected in their laws, and the United States is fucking cuckoo-town, man.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Are you ready for some football?: my 2014 NFL Preview

Well, well, well; it’s that time of the year again when pigskins go zinging through the air, its every movement followed by 22 superhuman beings and packed stadiums all across ‘Merica. Last year, the Seahawks annihilated the statistically greatest offense of all time (though it clearly wasn’t in actuality; give me the 1994 San Francisco 49ers any day over a Peyton Manning regular season juggernaut) to bring the Lombardi Trophy to the Emerald City for the first time. Can they repeat again? Can the Seahawks cash in on the final season of Russell Wilson’s rookie contract before that loaded roster is imploded due to budget constraints?

Like everyone and their football-watching mother, I couldn’t stop myself from making predictions about how this season will shake out. How piss-poor will my predictions be this season? And could I luck out and correctly pick this year’s Super Bowl champion?

So, without further ado, I humbly offer my predictions for this year’s division champions and Wild Cards.

AFC East:
New England
Judging from ESPN’s listing of NFL predictions for this year , I don’t think any sports writer is picking anyone other than the Patriots to win this division. Even if Brady were injured and lost for the season, they would probably still squeak out a division title. That said, I think one of the Wild Cards will go to either the Dolphins or Jets.

AFC North:
As far as I’m concerned, this is the most intriguing division in the AFC. Although I don’t think the Browns have a legitimate chance of winning the division, I think all four teams can contend for it. At home, none of these teams will be a pushover. In terms of organizational pedigree both Baltimore and Pittsburgh have what it takes to win the division; Cincinnati certainly has the talent—except they have an average quarterback getting paid like a franchise QB.

So why do I think Baltimore is going to win it? In terms of offseason moves I think the Bengals are in for a moderate to serious let down; I think losing both of their coordinators—especially Zimmer on the defensive end—is going to hurt them. Plus, I have a feeling the offensive line isn’t going to be as strong as they have been in recent years, which means good defenses are going to expose Dalton for the poor pocket passer he is when under pressure. (Read Bill Barnwell’s excellent article about The Red Rifle .) By the end of this year, a more appropriate nickname for Dalton will be The Red BB Gun. (I predict that after this season the Bengals are going to pursue another franchise quarterback through the draft.) In fact, I predict that the Bengals are going to implode; this might be Marvin Lewis’ last season at the coaching helm if they fall to a 6-10 record, which I think is plausible.

Pittsburgh still looks so-so; you can’t count them out with a mostly healthy Roethlisberger, the best quarterback in the division. However, I think Baltimore is going to improve on both sides of the ball; best case scenario, their defense can resemble the mighty Ravens defenses of the recent past, and I think their running game is going to be significantly improved with Gary Kubiak as their offensive coordinator, which means Flacco is due for a comeback year.

In sum, I think Baltimore has the best mixture of talent and good coaching to win this division, which is why I’m picking them.

AFC South:
This division resembles the AFC North in that I don’t think any team—including Gus Bradley’s Jacksonville Jaguars—will be an easy team to defeat. Like the Browns, I don’t think the Jaguars are quite ready to contend for the division title, but they’re not too far off.

I think this will be the most mediocre division in the AFC. A 9-7 record could be enough to win it. Indianapolis, Houston, and Tennessee figure to be around .500 teams, but I’m going to go out on a teeny limb and predict two things: 1) the Colts magical run of winning close games in the Andrew Luck era is coming to a screeching end this year; they’ll break even—or worse—in tight games, and that will be enough to knock them off the top, and 2) Houston is going to make a significant bounce-back this year. From a talent standpoint last year’s Houston Texans were not your typical 2-14 team. They weren’t the 2011 Indianapolis Colts who went 2-14 with the likes of Curtis Painter behind center; the Texans lost a lot of close games last year and essentially gave up on their coach midway through the season. With JJ Watts and Clowney lining up in their front four, they’re going to be a nightmare for many teams. Their defensive line has two of the biggest freak athletes in this league, perhaps this planet.

I think they’ll finish 9-7 and squeak out a division title over the Colts, who can’t overachieve for three years straight. There has to be some sort of law of nature against that.

AFC West:
Not much to say here: the Broncos will win this division easily. Their defense should be improved; their offense will probably have a slight drop-off, but not much. The Chiefs will come crashing back down to mediocrity and I think the Chargers will easily be the second best team in this division. Losing Whisenhunt as their offensive coordinator will hurt but I think their defense is going to continue to improve. At the end of the 2013-2014 season they found their identity as a defense, and I think Pagano is going to build his defense from that experience. With a few more playmakers, I think they’ll be a middle-of-the-pack defense with a potential top-10 offense. Since the Chiefs and Raiders are going to suck, I think the Bolts will be back in the playoffs as a Wild Card.

And since the Raiders are my team, here’s a few predictions for my beloved Silver & Black: for the second straight season—and it pains me to type this—I think we’re going to finish 4-12; the team is improved but we have one of the toughest schedules this year. McKenzie’s going to keep his job thanks to what looks like will be a solid to good to possibly really good 2014 draft class (so far no cuts! No Tyler Wilsons! And I agree with columnist Tim Kawakami: Derek Carr is the best quarterback prospect the Raiders have had since Rich Gannon’s glory years.) but Dennis Allen will have to go. And thank god because I have never had any reason to believe that he could be a good coach.

AFC Wild Cards: Dolphins, Chargers

NFC East:
Aww, yeah; Motownphilly's back again! If he stays healthy again, I think LeSean McCoy may lead the league in touchdowns this year. The Philly offense should be outstanding, and that defense has to get better at some point, right? In time, I think Jay Gruden will bring the best out of The Self-Absorbed One, RGIII, but I don’t have much reason to think he’s going to make a big comeback-splash this year when their preseason brought up the question: Has Kirk Cousins outplayed RGIII? Not a good sign. Having DeShit Jackson on their roster should be good for one victory but it won’t be enough to lift them over the Eagles. Eli should have a better season with a new West Coast offense but their defense is not like the one that recently won them two Super Bowls over the Patriots. And the Cowboys? Ha, they’re a joke, like their owner (though I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a top-5 scoring offense—but, they’re going to have one of the worst defenses in the league.)

NFC North:
Green Bay
I’m on the Cheesehead bandwagon, man; I have been for a few years since I predicted their Super Bowl winning run back in 2011. Last year I said I’d take Aaron Rodgers over Tom Brady or Peyton Manning and I’d still take him over those two this year. Despite playing half of their games in Lambeau Field, Green Bay could have the top scoring offense in the league. The question with them has always been: but what about their defense? Is it time for Dom Capers to go, or can he lead a top defense again? I have my doubts, but I think they’ll have a statistically average defense, which, coupled with a Rodgers/Eddie Lacy-led offense is going to be more than enough to top the Bears, Lions, and Vikings.

NFC South:
New Orleans
This is an interesting division. Will Mike Smith’s Falcons bounce back into the playoffs? Will Lovie Smith pull a Jon Gruden and maximize Tampa Bay’s talented roster enough to win the division? Or will Drew Brees and Sean Payton continue to do their thing and win this division?

I’m betting on the latter. The Saints defense should continue to improve, which is scary. And have you seen how accurate Drew Brees is?

NFC West:
Arguably the toughest division in football. Despite a few defections, I think Seattle has too much young talent on both sides of the ball to stumble off their perch as the kings of this division. On the other hand, I think San Francisco could decline on both sides of the ball, especially their defense. With Aldon Smith suspended for the first nine games of the season and Navarro "Bad Motherfucker" Bowman already out for a chunk of time, the Niners are a Patrick Willis or Justin Smith injury away from possibly being a mediocre defense. And then the offense: are they really going to be a vastly improved unit if they switch to being a more pass-happy-oriented offense? Barring how the new defensive holding rules pan out, will this offensive transition really help them beat their West Coast nemesis whose strength is their pass defense (especially when Seattle has lost some of their DL depth, which I think may make them more vulnerable to a good rushing attack than last year’s defense)? I think too many things have to break for the 49ers to win this division, especially when St. Louis’ defense is continuing to improve to Tennesse-Titan-Jeff-Fisher-led heights. (The Rams might be improved with former Niner, Shaun Hill as their starting quarterback.)

NFC Wild Cards: San Francisco, Tampa Bay (I could easily put Atlanta here instead.)

As of right now, I think there are four legitimate Super Bowl contenders: Seattle, Green Bay, Denver, and New England. On the cusp (and in order): New Orleans, San Francisco, and Baltimore.

Super Bowl: Green Bay over Denver (Rodgers 2-0, Peyton 1-3 in the Big Game)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Clown Without Pity's 2014 World Cup Predictions

Well, well, well, even though I hardly watch The Fútbol, only tuning in for the World Cup and World-Cup-qualifying matches every four revolutions around the sun, I’ve decided to give this whole predicting-a-winner a whirl. To give you a glimpse of my epic prowess for predicting outcomes in this World Cup, I will confess that I correctly picked a whopping 9 out of the 16 teams that advanced out of the group stage. (I knew I should’ve picked the United States over perennial underachiever, Portugal! And what the fuck was I smoking when I picked Russia and Honduras to advance out of their respective groups?) Someone get me a plane to Vegas!

Okay, without further ado, here’s my ill-informed picks for the quarterfinal matches:

France vs. Germany

After they clocked Portugal in their opening match, a lot of people—including moi—anointed Deutschland as the favorite to win it all—aaaaaaannnd, then they tied 2-2 against Ghana. Against The Stars & Stripes they seemed to play at around 70% of their capacity; they kind of seemed to toy with the U.S.—content to play hard in spurts but almost unwilling to really, really push themselves. Going to extra periods with Algeria was one of the big surprises of the tournament for me. By the end of regulation time an upset seemed plausible, which was astonishing, but then Germany scored two minutes into the first extra period.

So will The Real Deutschland please stand up? Is it the squad that blitzkrieged the overrated Portugal squad 4-0, or the one with two not-so-impressive victories in their past two games?

And lest I piss off my French homies, let us not forget that we do have a game here, which means that an oppositional force must be pitted against Germany in order to create this thing we call a match. So what can be said about the 2014 French national team? They have scored ten goals in four matches while allowing only two goals—both to Switzerland. They scored five goals against a Swiss team that shut out Argentina through 90 minutes in their final match. I don’t think much was expected of them in this World Cup after their star winger with jacked-up teeth, Franck Ribery, went down with a back injury.

I think this is as far as France goes. The U.S. won’t be able to bail them out this time. (I promise you, this is my one bad historical joke I will allow myself.) Germany’s going to the semi-finals.

Colombia vs. Brazil

Oh sweet Jesus, this is going to be the game! I can’t wait until 1 p.m. PST on the 4th of July: the two best teams in South America (sorry, Argentina) will face off. Being an unapologetic supporter of New World teams in the World Cup, a big part of me pities that this match is happening before the semi-final round. But what a game.

So Brazil barely advanced to this stage. It would have been a disaster and monumental shame if this country that has gone to such pains to host these games would not even make it to the quarterfinal round, but the unforgiving goal post spared them twice in their last game against the scrappy Chilean squad. Though I was relieved they won, I don’t think any Brazilian could’ve left that game feeling chipper about their team’s chances in advancing in the tournament with a performance like that.

Brazil clearly lacks offensive chemistry. They lack a playmaker or two in the midfield who can make goal-scoring easy for Neymar or Porn-stache Fred. There’s no fluidity, beauty, or sabor to their offensive game. They hardly resemble recent Brazilian squads with stars like Ronaldo, Kaka, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Romario (to kick it a little more old school), or my boy, Roberto Carlos (check out the .54 second mark of this clip:)

Colombia, on the other hand, has the leading goal scorer in the cup, James “Bad Motherfucker” Rodríguez (check this goal out); their defense has been stout, and they’ve played a sexy game. In terms of cohesion and precision they’ve been superior to their South American veciños. From what we’ve seen in the past three weeks, Colombia is South America’s best hope to hoist the Cup, and I think they’ll continue to prove it by advancing past Brazil on their soil.

Belgium vs. Argentina

Like most folks I’m fairly certain of the outcome of three of the quarterfinal games, but this is the one I’m struggling with the most.

Let’s start with Argentina. Only one word is needed to sum up their hopes of advancing or winning this World Cup: Messi. La Pulga has finally had the strong World Cup performance we predicted in 2010. He notched four goals in the three group games and assisted on the goal that finally broke Switzerland’s defense in their first knockout game. Their opposition has been loading up in the backfield in hopes of countering Argentina’s attack. Messi regularly sees two midfield defenders rush at him whenever he gets the ball. For the most part, this strategy has worked to stifle their offense because La Pulga lacks play-making teammates on the wings who can make teams pay for doubling him. No Carlos Tevez (that dude could kick), and the 35-year-old Maxi Rodríguez isn’t an offensive threat. Of the eight remaining teams, no team is more dependent on one player to carry them than Argentina. Though it’s not the best analogy, ask the Cleveland Cavalier version of LeBron James how that turned out for him when his team advanced to the championship level.

As for Belgium, they have a stout defense; they’ve allowed two goals through four games. And here’s an impressive stat: their six goals have come from six different players.

With Mertens, Hazard, and the 21-year-old Lukaku—the difference maker in their match against the U.S.—Belgium has a couple of offensive threats. Unlike Switzerland, I think Belgium has the offensive depth and talent that can score on Argentina in a counter-attack. I think one of them will penetrate Argentina’s defense. Against Switzerland, Argentina kept up their attack throughout the game while maintaining their composure. In their four matches they have yet to trail an opponent and I question if they can keep the same composure against a strong defensive team like Belgium if they are not the first to score. I think Belgium will pull this one off.

Netherlands vs. Costa Rica

What an interesting match: the aggressive, foul-happy Orange floppers (I’m looking at you, Arjen Robben) against the Ticos from Costa Rica. Like Germany, the Netherlands announced themselves as favorites with a devastation of defending World Cup champion, Spain in their opening World Cup match. And like Germany, their play has been not-so-astounding since. It’s been kind of downward slope, methinks. During their last match, Mexico dominated the Netherlands in the first half, took the lead with a goal a few minutes after halftime, but then the Orange Crush dominated the ball and ultimately scored two late goals to snatch victory from a timid Mexican squad that stopped playing like they had when they took the lead. Van Gogh’s brethren exalted while the world was robbed of any more material from Mexico’s Miguel Herrera.

Like Mexico, Costa Rica has been one of the big surprises of the tournament—arguably the biggest surprise. Down a man, they hung against Greece and won in shootouts to advance to the quarterfinals.

Can they pull off another surprise? Maybe. Do I think they will? No. I think their surprising run ends here though god knows I’m fucking rooting hard for them because I don’t want Robben and his flair for dramatic flopping to advance.

Typically I resist making far-reaching (and ridiculous) bracket predictions, but what the hell; I don’t want to write a separate post for the semi-finals. For what it’s worth, here’s this fool’s predictions for the rest of the Cup. It has a healthy dose of wishful thinking but I do think this outcome lies in the realm of feasibility; after all, history often teaches us the most likely outcome and a European team has never won a World Cup hosted in South America; I don't think that will be broken in this Copa Mundial:

• Colombia over Deutschland
• Netherlands over Belgium
• Colombia over the Netherlands

Is it Friday already?