Saturday, August 30, 2003

Oil vs. antimatter in a no-holds-barred grudge match

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It’s late summer in New England, and everywhere little children are turning to crime and deceit.

You can smell its delicate fragrance in the air every morning, now that school is nearly back in session — the chemical odor of thermometers being pressed against night-lights, the stink of lies told to mothers about intestinal bugs and 24-hour chicken pox. Take a walk early in the morning and you can taste its tang in the air, like cherry-flavored Robitussin swallowed around an imaginary whooping cough.

Hundreds of other children with healthier consciences will hoist their 90-pound backpacks onto their shoulders and head back to school, some kicking, others screaming, most simply trudging through and counting the days until Christmas break.

I was one of those big dorks who anticipated the beginning of school with hope. Officially, I could never be totally happy, because school also meant more work and daily doses of humiliation at the hands of bigger boys, smaller boys and girls of all sizes. But as I’ve aged, I’ve realized that, second to Christmas, back-to-school time was my favorite time of the year.

I never liked summer, for one thing. I picked up that bad habit from many early summers at my hypochondriac grandmother’s house, where fresh air and playing outside was strictly forbidden — because, you see, there’s wind outside. Wind leads to chilly air, which leads to a cold, which leads to the grave. Also, I got these painful migraine headaches whenever I came in the presence of what regular people call “fun.”

I’m improving — thanks for asking.

I also looked forward to school because it was the only thing I was any good at. Sports and I are like oil and water. Worse than oil and water — oil and antimatter. Being a big dork, I know what antimatter is. See what I mean?

So when I was a kid, and CVS would move the beach balls and Slip‘n Slides out of the middle aisle and replace them with notebook filler paper and pencils of every variety, my heart would swell.

It still does. I’m currently a graduate student at a college in Boston, earning a master’s degree in creative writing. For all intents and purposes, I’m an 18th-grader.

Back-to-school shopping is practically one of the reasons why I’m getting another degree. And no back-to-school season would be complete without my fawning over the Trapper Keepers.

For those too old or too young, a Trapper Keeper is a binder that has an assortment of pockets and folders to protect your homework. They come in plain colors for boys — for girls they usually come pre-decorated with unicorns or pandas. They are very complicated, with zippers and three-ring binders and plastic mesh and Velcro and built-in calculators. They presume a level of sophistication that no school-age kid possesses.

I always want to buy a Trapper Keeper every September, even now that I’m in the 18th grade. I’m never as organized as a Trapper Keeper demands you be, but it’s nice to try.

Also, I’ll probably buy a new pair of jeans. I may wait until I start classes first — so I can see what kind the cool 18th graders are wearing.

I even get a kick out of buying books I can’t afford. I’m somewhat lucky in my choice of majors. There aren’t many textbooks that will teach you how to write stories, and those that do exist are worthless, so we don’t need them.

In case you need more proof that I’m a big dork: someday very soon, before school begins, I will spend most of two hours at an office supply store, checking out pens. Think about it.

What aids my enthusiasm is that I’m studying a subject I love, and every September is like learning it all over again. I’d feel differently if somebody forced me to take geometry again. When I see kids schlumping away to school like they’re off to the gas chamber, I remember that I had a few of those days myself. I went to public school in Fall River — I know it’s no picnic.

I want to sidle up to one of these kids on the street — maybe a chubby boy with a mop of dark hair who’s lousy at sports — and tell him how it works.

“It may stink now,” I want to tell him, “but eventually you’re going to realize that all this stuff you’re learning can be unlearned. Your teachers aren’t filling your head with everything they can because they want to be mean — except for the mean ones. They’re doing it so you have all these different choices to decide what you want to do with your life.”

I want to look around to make sure no one else is listening, and reveal to him the biggest secret. “You’re going to figure out your real calling. And then, confidentially, you’re going to forget some stuff you don’t need or want anymore, whether that’s geometry or the principles of antimatter or whatever. You’re going to shove that stuff aside in your brain, like pushing old boxes around in the attic, to make room. That room will become full with all sorts of information that you love.

“And if you’re lucky, and work very hard, you will do this at a magical place they call college. You’ll enter grades so high they don’t have a number for them. It’ll be so nice there, you’ll never again understand why you ever dreaded Septembers.”

And before I sidle away, I want to take him to CVS and buy him a notebook, its pages empty and new.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Just like the musical "Rent," but without all the singing and AIDS references

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Nothing could be simpler and more envigorating than assembling all of the material possessions inside your domicile, packing those objects into boxes, suitcases, garbage bags and stray pillow cases, carrying as many of those objects as you can lift to your new domicile, returning to your previous domicile, carrying more objects to your new domicile, repeating the process until all the objects are in your new domicile, and unpacking all of them there.

My wife, my dog and I recently undertook this charming endeavor. Our old apartment was just way too dusty. Also, we had recently emerged from that rainy spring, so everything smelled like wet dog.

There were other reasons to move. The old place had broken windows that refused to stay open, so if we wanted any fresh air we had to fill a duffel bag with it from outside, rush it up three flights of stairs and empty it into the apartment.

Worst of all, a streetlight shone directly inside our bedroom and onto my face every night for nearly five years. In my sleep I would constantly crawl away from it, to my wife’s side of the bed, pushing her nearer and nearer her edge until we were forced to buy a bigger mattress. That was a temporary and woefully inadequate solution.

We had been looking at houses for a while. We wanted a spacious house with hardwood floors and a porch near a park in a good neighborhood. For months, we made colossal idiots of ourselves in front of several real estate agents. We saw houses without porches, some without parks, without space, without floors at all. We saw houses with none of the above that were still priced well over our budget.

By contrast, we found our new apartment and closed the deal all in less than 24 hours. It’s spacious, in a great neighborhood near a park, has hardwood floors and a porch. The only thing it doesn’t have is a mortgage.

Within minutes, I started packing. The weather was warming up by then, so our old place started to smell like wet, humid dog. Ice cream trucks parked directly outside my door and played their bloody jingles nonstop from 3 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. And I swear the city changed the bulbs in the streetlights to a higher wattage.

When you pack, you often gain a new perspective on yourself. For instance, I learned that most of my hobbies and interests weigh a great deal.

I have a collection of about 450 records — for kids, those heavy, black, circular, vinyl discs that music used to be stored on. Each one weighs a little less than a pound, but somehow combined they weigh several thousand pounds. Music-loving scientists replaced records with cassettes, which are much lighter; cassettes were replaced by CDs, which are lighter still; and CDs are being replaced by MP3 computer files, which technically don’t weigh jack shit.

We also own several hundred books. I’ve never counted how many we have — it may be millions. And I don’t mean only namby-pamby paperbacks. I’m talking hardcovers, man. I’m talking dictionaries. I’m talking a 20-volume literary anthology and a set of World Book encyclopedias.

My wife is a painter, so she discovered that most of her possessions are glass jars containing deadly, corrosive chemicals.

We both discovered that I own more clothes than my wife owns. This makes no sense. I dress like a pig.

With the help of my parents and a cousin, we moved all our records, books, clothes and poisonous fluids into the new place. Did I mention my new apartment has hardwood floors that don’t capture wet-dog smell the way carpet does? It was so shiny and clean that I felt embarrassed to dump our junk in there. We still use plastic milk crates as shelves, for God’s sake.

After settling in and testing everything in the house (“Honey, look! The water in the sink actually runs down the drain!”), we set about making our new apartment more homey. We bought a dining room table that we couldn’t have afforded if we were paying a mortgage. We got a spice rack — if we were paying a mortgage, we would be eating peanut butter and jelly for all three meals, so we wouldn’t have needed spices. We bought — I’m quoting the package here — an “Elite Series luxury toilet seat,” which makes my john the most comfortable chair I have. With the way water rates are increasing, if we’d bought a house, we would have had to dig a latrine in the yard.

I’m sure owning a house is nice, building equity (read: “imaginary money”) and all that. I bet mowing a lawn and cleaning your gutters in this weather is a treat. Paying property taxes is a million laughs. And watching your 30-year investment sink once this real estate market tanks — I’m sure that’s nice.

Drop me a line and tell me all about it. I’ll be napping on the porch.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

A Canada-do attitude

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The other night, during a typically placid evening before the television set, I tore clumps of hair out of my head while watching President Bush lead his train wreck of an administration into ever-deeper levels of ruin. The president — who despite appearances is a grown man — had just told Iraqi guerillas killing American soldiers to “bring it on.”

It got me thinking about our peaceful Canadian neighbors. Canada isn’t involved in the recent unpleasantness in the Middle East. That must be nice.

So, just out of curiosity, I wandered over to the Web site of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Hey, it never hurts to keep your options open, right?

It turns out that, according to their promotional literature, “Canadian citizenship is one of the most prized in the world.” I believe it. I’ve been to Canada many times. I have relatives there, like a lot of Portuguese people in Fall River. You can eat off Canadian streets, they’re so clean. And because the population is small — about a tenth of the U.S. population — you really can eat off their streets without pesky traffic getting in the way.

There’s more to recommend. In a page called “A Look at Canada,” the Web site includes a description of how the Canadians have managed to create the closest place to Paradise in the Western Hemisphere. Listen to this: “In Canada, we also believe in the importance of working together and helping one another.” Doesn’t that sound fucking awesome? And in case you don’t have your dictionary handy, the site helpfully adds, “People who help others without being paid are called volunteers.” That’s good to know.

I’m sure this stuff is also in the U.S. Constitution, but I don’t want to wade through all that stuffy 18th century English. And most of the Constitution is ignored or not enforced anyway, except for the Second Amendment and a few references to God.

My wife is all set to move to Canada, too. She’s hoping that, if we do move up there, we settle in Prince Edward Island so we can live like Anne of Green Gables. I want to live in Toronto, so we can visit that spinning restaurant at the top of the CN Tower. We’ll end up flipping a coin for it.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited my Canadian relatives, who live in Ontario around the Toronto area. I demonstrated all the strange customs for which Canadians are known. For instance, at no time will a Canadian enter a house with his shoes on. The citizenship Web site I found does not mention this on its “Responsibilities of Citizenship” page, but it’s true nonetheless. The front halls of Canadian homes are lined with neatly arranged pairs of shoes, and laundry detergent commercials on TV specifically boast how they can “get your socks their whitest.”

Milk in Canada comes in bags, not cartons, like those IV drips you see in hospitals. That would be an adjustment if we moved up there. My wife and I thought it seemed somehow unsanitary — as if a box of waxed paper is somehow cleaner than a sterile plastic bag — but I’m lactose-intolerant, anyway, so that will be her problem.

Products in Canada have to be twice as big, to fit both the English and French languages on the packaging. Thus, when my wife and I ordered KFC we also ordered PFK, or “Poulet Frite Kentucky.” Every visit to the supermarket is like a little trip to a newer, friendlier Paris.

Politically, my wife and I have more in common with Canada’s liberal style than we do with President Bush’s regime. Canadians believe, like we do, that “war is not good,” and “sick people deserve to get healthy,” and “politicians who don’t do their job should be hit with cream pies.”

Instead of slandering or murdering a politician, as we do in America, Canadians often throw pies at them to show their disapproval. On July 7, Alberta Premier (that’s “governor” to you Yanks) Ralph Klein was hit in the face with a banana cream pie before he hosted a political breakfast, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. “He said the pie hurt and he will be pressing charges,” the newspaper wrote. See? The protester makes his point, the politico learns a valuable lesson, and everyone laughs about it afterward.

The Toronto Star reported July 7 on the grand old tradition of civil disobedience via pastry: “Jean Charest was pied in April, two days before his Liberals ousted the Parti Quebecois and he was elected premier of Quebec. He was also struck in the face and head with a cream pie before he was to address supporters in the Laurentians north of Montreal. He blocked a second pie thrown by others, but it splattered on his wife, Michele Dionne.” Collateral damage is, in times of war, unavoidable.

“Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay and former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau have all been pied,” the report continued. Forget the silly slogans and protest marches — nothing says, “of the people, for the people and by the people,” like custard in your face.

While my plan to move to Canada may not work out — the commute to The Herald News every day would be inconvenient — perhaps we can bring a little bit of Canada down here. Unless we find out soon that his war on Iraq was truly justified, let’s give President Bush his just desserts.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Just call Roseanna—it's a hell of a show...

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When rock crooner Eddie Money sings about his two tickets to paradise, do you suppose those are plane tickets or train tickets?

There’s nothing in the lyrics to suggest either one or the other — but for some strange reason, I’ve always pictured them as two train tickets to paradise. Curiously, this implies that, of any place on the globe paradise could be, it’s reachable by rail.

I guess that rules out Fall River. But Eddie Money is coming here anyway to close out the annual Fall River Celebrates America waterfront festival tomorrow.

Working at a newspaper means my few days off are precious. As it turns out, this year I had two days off during Fall River Celebrates.

One was on Portuguese Night. No thanks. If I want heartburn, I’ll cook Portuguese food myself.

The other was on Country Music Night. Every time I hear music by country twangers or Portuguese oom-pah bands, I feel shooting pains up my spine.

By some unlucky quirk, I was stuck with the two unhip days of Fall River Celebrates. I’m sorry, but it’s true. The naturalization ceremony on Friday was interesting to the people being naturalized. Tall ships are boring unless swashes are being buckled on them. All the singing and fireworks and la-la-happy-fun will happen when I’m not there.

If there’s anything I wouldn’t have minded seeing this summer, it would have been Eddie Money sing “Shakin’” to a crowd of families. That song is all about a hotsie-totsie named Roseanna and Mr. Money fumbling with each other in her dad’s car with the radio speakers blown out. It’ll be an PG-13-rated moment in a decidedly G-rated festival.

This isn’t the first time I’ve missed the good parts of FRCA. It happens every year. So I have some ideas how we can jazz up next year’s event.

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Jonesy, is a public relations man for a city tourism board in Michigan. Every summer, Jonesy is in charge of wrangling dozens of Elvis impersonators—collectively known as Elvi—for ElvisFest. Follow me?

A whole day of Elvis impersonators performing and seeing the sights? Perhaps a clandestine visit from The King himself? That has to be a good time. Imagine the Fall River air redolent with fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, fake sideburns taped to everyone’s face, and everywhere you turn there are rhinestones, rhinestones, rhinestones. Me and Jonesy can set this up—just say the word.

By the way, this year Jonesy said ElvisFest included a segment hosted by a Massachusetts guy named Daniel Klein who writes detective novels starring Elvis as the crime-solver. He’s got book titles like “Kill Me Tender” and “Viva Las Vengeance.” So ElvisFest is fun and literary.

The real Elvis sang some country songs, but our Elvi won’t be allowed to.

So maybe next year we can set aside one night of FRCA just for Elvis. Possibly get rid of country music night, eh? Eh?

Another of Jonesy’s big tourist draws that has piqued my interest — see if you can guess why — is the Beer Festival. Local micro-breweries and amateur zymurgy enthusiasts (look it up) use it to show off their brews. And what would a beer festival be without a beer-tasting, yes? The Beer Festival is the place to drink, drink, and be merry.

Why, for the sake of the sweet lord, is there not a Beer Day at Fall River Celebrates? I used to work in a liquor store — believe me, people here enjoy a beer now and then. We have a microbrewery right in Westport that makes an excellent brew. And exposing Fall Riverites to any beer besides Natural Ice can only have a positive effect on our city’s physical and spiritual health.

Lots of other towns put on beer festivals, so we’ll trump them by making ours a beer and wine festival. Wine classes up the whole deal, and it also would give every Portuguese father with a couple of bootleg barrels in the basement a chance to share his art with the city at large.

I’ve already asked Jonesy the obvious question: how do we make sure festival-goers aren’t staggering around the streets, three or even four sheets to the wind?

“It’s something like $25 to get in,” Jonesy said. “Keeps the hardcore riff-raff out.”

Ingenious! And it turns out we’ll have a slot open for Beer Day at Fall River Celebrates ... if we get rid of the country music. Please?

But it’s a pipe dream. Many of the people holding the purse-strings for these events are probably too square for beer and Elvis impersonators.

Witness the plight of Matt French, a Tiverton 17-year-old who’s trying to pull off a Battle of the Bands fund-raiser on Grinnell’s Beach. The concert would raise money for the YMCA. One town councilor called his proposal for a five-hour rock concert “cruel and unusual punishment.” Others clutched their heads in panic, horrified at the thought of rock and roll music.

Would the council have complained if French wanted to host a Battle of the Bands with country singers instead of rock musicians? Would they have complained if it were a five-hour Eddie Money concert? Are they just being nasty because his last name is “French”?

I feel that kid’s pain. If he ever manages to get that concert off the ground, I’ll go and chip in a few bucks—on three conditions, that is: I need the day off from work, somebody has to play “Shakin’,” and please, please, please, no country music.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Uncle Meat

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My dad turned 58 recently, so I bought him what every good Portuguese man wants for his birthday: a big tank that smokes meat. He got it just in time for the Fourth of July long weekend, right in the dog days of barbecue season. No, I’m not up for adoption.

Conveniently enough, this device is called “The Smoker.” It looks like a giant fire extinguisher on stilts. You put the meat inside, light some charcoal and wood, add a pan of water for steam and put in any kind of meat. In a few hours, you have smoked meat. It can make pork ribs, beef steaks, roasts, hams, chickens, turkeys, lamb, lobsters, venison, elk, beefalo—you name it.

As far as we know, it does not make vegetables.

You could try, I guess.

But what good Portuguese man would? Let’s not kid ourselves. The Portuguese aren’t known for their large vegetarian population. We’re just known for our large population, if you catch my drift.

We are the culture that invented the steak with the fried egg and unpitted olive on top, with french fries and rice on the side. We eat chourico and eggs for breakfast, chourico and chips for lunch, and chicken stuffed with chourico for dinner. On the beach, we find giant barnacles lying on the shore, use our pocketknives to pry out the creatures inside, and eat them raw.

But Azorean-Americans aren’t vegetable eaters, despite where we came from. When my parents grew up in the Azores, they were poor farmers, so their diet consisted mainly of fruit, vegetables and beans. That’s the case with many other Portuguese families, also. My family had cows, but they weren’t for making shish kebabs with. If you cut the cows into little pieces and sautéed them with Worcestershire sauce and mushrooms, you didn’t have any milk—which was bad news, as the nearest Cumberland Farms was at least 2,500 miles away.

I once asked my mom how often they had meat in the Azores. “About three times a year,” she said. “On the big holidays. We couldn’t afford it.”

My parents moved to America, found jobs and realized they could afford meat more than three times a year. By the time I came along, our meals consisted of a meat dish, some other meat dish, and our choice of beverages. Sometimes, we did have beans—and on those days I ate a sandwich with leftover steak. Our salads were usually small bowls of sliced cucumbers, salted for flavor.

In the summer, my dad fired up the barbecue whenever the sun was bright enough to cast shadows. On special days, we went to Portuguese restaurants like O’Gils, where we ate—yes—more steak or pork chops. Try this out some day: walk into a Portuguese restaurant and ask for a plate of vegetables and beans with fruit for dessert.

I loved eating Portuguese-style. A sirloin tastes better than a radish any day of the week. On the other hand, I never saw a zucchini until I was 21 years old. My wife, who is not Portuguese, brought a zucchini home one day, and I thought it was some new variation of cucumber. That can’t be healthy.

Because of my wife’s influence, I eat zucchini regularly now, but I know many Portuguese people who don’t eat any vegetables at all, except for the hot peppers that come in a grinder. I know some Portuguese people who go to the grocery store and buy 25 steaks at a time — that’s right, 25 steaks. Not coincidentally, Fall River’s rate of diabetes and heart disease is much higher than other cities in our area.

My mom recently suggested why Portuguese-American people are known for eating meat so often.

“I think it’s because we were all deprived for so long,” mom said. She told this to my wife and I over an enormous platter of ribs and steaks.

In the Azores, mom said, people were poor but they had all the fresh produce they could want. They ate more natural foods, and in greater moderation.

Over here, since they make more money, they buy the good food, the food they couldn’t have. They make every day a holiday, and they feel the hangover for years to come with higher rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

My dad filled our wine glasses — he says that if drinking a glass of wine every day is healthy, then drinking three should be fantastic. He mentioned The Smoker to me.

“I’m gonna make a pork loin in there,” he said with a grin, holding his hands apart to indicate a slab of meat two and a half feet long.

I began to wonder if buying him The Smoker was such a hot idea. He’s in the prime heart attack years, and he’s had some nasty health issues in the recent past. I imagined him being wheeled to the operating room, helpless, doctors whacking his chest to get his heart pumping again. I imagined him undergoing hours of surgery to remove much of a smoked pork loin lodged in his chest. I imagined him afterward, frail and gray, condemned by doctors to eat porridge and lukewarm chicken broth for the rest of his life.

So I came up with a plan: my dad can have some fun with The Smoker for the summer. But just so there are no surprises, he’s getting a Salad Shooter for Christmas.
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