The Passenger Seat of a Stranger’s Car


NEW YEARS FIREWORKS OVER LAS VEGAS STRIPThe fireworks have just ended and I’m standing by the side of the road with my hand out. It’s only fifteen minutes into the new year and already I feel hopeless. Cabs zip past me without stopping, people slumped over drunk in their back seats. I’m on the Vegas Strip with literally thousands of other people, all of us trying to flee for our homes. Apparently as soon as the clock struck midnight the Strip stopped being the place to be, and everybody just wanted to go to bed.

A black truck pulls up in front of me. The window rolls down and the dude driving it sticks his head out.

“Where you going, man?”

“Twain and Arville.”

“Twain and Arville?” he repeats, as though he’s asking himself if he wants to drive there. “Okay, I’ll take you there. Forty dollars.”

nye2012-07I look around the place. There are so many people and the streets are mostly empty, only a few cabs around. My phone (Samsung G4, a total piece of shit) is dead and it wouldn’t even matter if it wasn’t, because the guy at the Uber tent (yes, there’s an Uber tent, with a bar and loud dance music and a bunch of Uber drivers parked outside) told me that T-Mobile (my carrier, totally shitty) isn’t connecting to Uber for some reason. And since they won’t drive you if you don’t request on the app, I’m out of luck. But I do have exactly forty-two dollars in my wallet, which means I can afford a ride from this random stranger.

“Forty bucks?” I say to him. “Let’s do it.”

He motions towards the passenger seat and I get in. We make a quick u-turn and almost immediately get stuck in traffic.

“Fucking New Year,” the guy says. “Everything is gonna be like this. Let’s see if we get around it.”

He drives the truck into the lane next to us – you know, the one for oncoming traffic – and bypasses about fifty cars stuck at a red light. We reach the light and he butts his way in, cuts off the car in front, and now we’re leading the pack. After a minute or two, we get stuck again.

“Forty bucks,” he says. “I should charge you two hundred.”

We start to talk. His name is Isaac and he’s from Eritrea, a small country located in Northern Africa. His hair is black and puffy; he looks middle-eastern, wears glasses and has stubble all over his face. He tells me that he’s lived in Vegas for almost twenty years. Has a wife and a three-year-old kid. He constantly mentions how English is his second language and he doesn’t speak it well, even though I think he sounds perfectly fluent.

“What about you?” he asks. “Where are you from?”

Oh, where to begin. I tell him I’ve lived in Asia the last six years. First South Korea, then in China. I tell him that I’ve just moved to Vegas to start a new life. It sounds corny, and I worry that he might see this as an opportunity – I’m new and I don’t know anybody and he could easily kill me without anyone figuring it out for at least a few days. But that doesn’t seem to occur to him. He asks me why I came back to the States.

“I don’t know, man,” I tell him. “Just felt like it was time to come back.”

web1_photoeditor-1483288501023-1-_7700234Isaac drives like a madman. He weaves in and out of traffic, cuts down back alleys, honks his horn at any cars in his way. It’s a lot like being back in China, actually. It takes a half-an-hour to get onto the highway, and from there we’re set. The drive from the Strip to my place is actually only ten minutes or so, but most of the roads are closed for the holiday, which means we have to circle around. And so Isaac and I end up taking a little tour of Vegas, talking about language and culture and what it’s like to live in a country that isn’t your own.

“Do you think you’ll ever go back to Eritrea?” I ask him.

“No, no, no,” he says. “This is where I want to be.”

He drops me off at the apartment complex where I’ve been living the past three months. I open my wallet and give him the forty-two bucks. We shake hands. It’s after one in the morning and my apartment complex is dark and quiet. Isaac turns the truck around, gets onto the road and takes off. Maybe he goes home, maybe he goes back to the Strip to make more money. I just walk through the buildings until I reach mine, and after I get inside, I go out onto the balcony and smoke a cigarette.

It turned out okay. This is what I tell myself. I’m home and I’m safe, and it’s 2017 and everything is going to be fine. I realize that a lot has worked out so far, a lot has gone right, and that’s why I’m standing here on this balcony in Vegas. Looking at the bright lights in the distance, ready to start the brand new year.

I can see the Palms Casino, the neon glow of its colorful sign. I wonder if the lights ever go out there? Something tells me they never do.

An Audience of One Too Many


right back at chaThe Courteous Intro

Happy New Year! Wow, it’s 2016 – time for fresh starts and new beginnings. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday! 2016! TWO THOUSAND SIXTEEN!

The Acknowledgement of the Obvious

So, I haven’t posted anything on here since November 3, 2014. Yeah, that’s a long time. In fact, it’s a year and three months ago. That’s not last week. That’s awhile ago.

The Sad Ending to 2014 and How It Changed My Life

Well, here’s the thing: 2014 turned out to be, perhaps, the worst year of my life. Nothing too drastic happened, but still, it wasn’t good. I’m still alive and relatively healthy and there are no major injuries to report. I still live in China. I am not in prison there (although sometimes it feels like I am). I have not killed anybody and I am not on the run. I have not been kidnapped by ISIS and I have not perished on a Malaysian plane.

So in that respect, things are good. But 2014 wasn’t so good. Let’s talk about it. First, my grandfather died. That was depressing, but it wasn’t that depressing, because he was really old and everyone could see it coming. I mean, I’m not sure if something qualifies as being tragic if you can easily predict it. Still, it put a bit of a melancholy spin on things. He was a good guy and it’s always sad when someone like that passes.

Secondly, my mother got cancer. That really hit home. I never wrote much about my family, but we are not close at all and I haven’t seen my parents since 2009. It’s one thing when the mother you see all the time gets sick, and I’m sure the pain and confusion that stems from that is enormous. But when your estranged mother who you haven’t even spoken to in ages gets really sick, well, it’s pretty heavy. You start to wonder if you’ll ever see or speak to her again. Like, if she’s going to die without saying goodbye because, you know, that’s what she wants. It’s tough. And even if your mother is essentially a stranger to you, thinking that a day could come when she’s not on this earth…it’s a tough pill to swallow. All that’s to say, when I found out my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, my life kind of ground to a halt.

But wait! Things got worse! My girlfriend of over two years – the lovely Korean girl I wrote about so very often on this blog – broke up with me. Although it may sound as though I’m a petty person who lacks perspective (which is likely true), the end of our relationship was by far the most devastating of all. I really, truly believed beyond a shadow of doubt that I was going to marry this person and spend the rest of my life with her. That was the vision I had of the future. And then that all got shut off, like a sitcom that gets cancelled after the first season because of bad ratings.

It’s weird. You have this idea of what things will look like, and then the other person comes along and tells you that your idea is all wrong. It’s almost they she said, “Hey, you know all that stuff you think about? About the home together and the family and everything? Well, you need to stop thinking that. I don’t know what you’re going to think now, but think about something else. Think about, I don’t know, basketball. Put more thought into your hairstyle. Just stop thinking about us. Got it?”

So What the Hell, Man? You Were in Pain – You Should’ve Written!

After all this stuff happened, I realized how odd a forum a blog is. I mean, I enjoy writing about myself on this blog, obviously, and I’ve rarely held back from being open and honest. But suddenly after the break up, I just didn’t want to ever write anything on here again. I felt like the break up wasn’t only an end of the relationship – it was an end to Topiclessbar as well.

I looked over the last year or two of this blog. It really became sort of a love letter to her. So many of the posts are about her or at least feature her. It seemed wrong. To suddenly start writing about dates and being single and trying to find someone new. All wrong. Especially since I knew she’d be there, reading it. I had strangely gotten an audience of one too many, and I imagined in anguish my new ex reading everything and feeling hurt by it. True, she had ended our relationship, but there were still a lot of deep emotions involved. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt her. It’s still the last thing I want to do.

I told myself it was more important to not hurt her than it was to keep on writing a blog. And so I stopped.

But You Didn’t Stop! You’re a Liar!

Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that.

Please Wrap This Up, Buddy, It’s Going on a Bit Long

Okay. Updates. My mother had a mastectomy and, after a couple other operations, I’m thankful to say that she is currently cancer free. We still have not seen each other, but we communicate via email regularly. It’s not great but at least we’re talking again.

I couldn’t make it a year without writing anything, so I started up a new blog and have been occasionally posting on there. It’s called “Parking Space 37,” and absolutely nobody reads it. I’m not kidding – it literally gets 0 hits a day. Which is actually kind of good and what I needed. It’s somewhat freeing to just write and know that there’s no audience whatsoever to judge you. Here’s a link to it, in case anyone wants to start judging:

Parking Space 37

I’m quite a bit better now, recovered from the evil 2014. My ex is doing okay, I think, and we talk from time to time. I miss her a lot still but things don’t hurt as bad as they did. At first it’s all regret and you sit around wondering what you could’ve done differently that might have made everything turn out better. Then as the months go on, that regret starts to change into acceptance. Not all the time – there are still spells of sadness and wishes that I could’ve fixed things – but when those down times happen, the acceptance eventually comes back in and things feel okay again. You start to realize it will probably always be like this. The regret will never really go away, and you’ll have to live with that in your heart forever. It becomes a part of you, and you try not to be bitter about it.

I have a new girlfriend and life is happy. Going forward, with the new year upon us, I plan to write here sometimes and sometimes write on Parking Space 37. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I want to put a book out and do so much more. It’s going to be a good year, I think, or at least an interesting one.

So there it is. My heart on a platter. A little bruised, but still pumping.

The Black Elephant of Death


blog black elephant of deathIt was well after two in the morning and the pain in my stomach was only getting worse. The room was completely dark and I clung to the blankets, felt the sweat dripping down my forehead. Hours had passed since the nausea and the pain set in. I’d spent most of that time in the bathroom, where I’d gone through an entire roll of toilet paper like it was Halloween and I’d just covered a house.

I would later discover that I was suffering from what is known as “Bali Belly.” It’s a common condition in which the food in Bali, Indonesia, causes a person, typically a tourist, to empty out their insides through any and all willing orifices. ‘Bali Belly’ got me my second night in Ubud, after I’d eaten some mahi-mahi and washed it down with several Bintang bears. This seemed enjoyable at the time. Little did I know I’d just mixed a lethal cocktail, a more expensive and exotic version of ipecac.

blog bali bellyBut all these epiphanies didn’t come to light until later. All I knew at the time, or prognosticated I should say, was that I’d been food poisoned and I couldn’t stop going to the bathroom. Internally, I wished it would stop and that this had happened to the Julia Roberts character in Eat. Pray. Love. during one of those romantic nights with Javier Bardem. Because that would’ve been amusing. As with the the title of that book, I myself had in fact eaten and now I was praying, although I did not believe there would be any love taking place, especially since I was out of tp.

Externally, I wished that someone would help me. My girlfriend sat up in bed and asked me if I needed to see a doctor.

“No,” I said. “I just have to stay hydrated. That’s how food poisoning kills you, you know? Dehydration. As long as I’m drinking water, I won’t drop dead.”

“Stop it,” she said. “You’re not going to die. You’re being dramatic.”

That was quite an accusation and, after protesting briefly, I ran to the bathroom again. When I returned, my stomach felt much better (that’s how the cycle works) and I curled up in the bed to try and get some sleep. This would prove futile. Ten minutes went by and I was back in hell again, sweating and shaking, bent over in torturous pain in our darkened room.

Turning onto my back, I looked across the room and I thought I could see – damn it, I really do believe I saw it – an enormous elephant standing there. I know how that sounds but bear with me. It was huge and black and had tusks the color of coal. The elephant hovered over the bed, its colossal head filling the air above me, its trunk dangling by the luggage that sat at the foot of the bed.

“Oh my God,” I said. “It’s here. The Black Elephant of Death. It’s come to take me.”

“What?” my girlfriend mumbled, half-asleep.

The size of the animal was terrifying. I sprang out of bed and flipped the lights on, my heart pounding. To my relief, the elephant disappeared with the darkness. I fell back on the bed, my head spinning and my body woozy.

I grabbed my cell phone and quickly Googled food poisoning in Bali. The first headline jumped out at me and grabbed me by my upset stomach linings.


blog food poisoingEating fish? I’d eaten fish! I shook my girlfriend awake and told her that this was it, the end for me. Coolly and calmly, she got dressed and walked to the nearest convenience store, where she purchased some pills to help my stomach. I was still panicking when she returned; she gave me the pills with some water and twenty minutes later I was fine and fell asleep and dreamt about the Indonesian transvestite show we’d seen earlier in the night.

In the morning I began to understand things. I thought about the Internet and the Australian mother and daughter and I thought about paranoia and how I’d searched out something to legitimize my worst fears and I’d found it. Rather easily too. Maybe that’s one of the dangerous things about the Internet. That one can search for something, trying to locate support for whatever argument they have, and they can probably find it. Whatever terrifying thing that you’ve imagined, someone else has likely imagined it too, and has written about it online. There are people in the world that live in states of permanent paranoia, terrified that the world is evil and out to get them, and for those people, the Internet will always tell them that they’re right.

blog elephant number twoTake the Black Elephant of Death, for instance. Of course there isn’t such a thing. It’s ridiculous and totally moronic. But now, as soon as I publish this, it will go into the cyber world, where it will be real. Witnessed. Maybe in another year someone else will do a search for it, some other idiot that thinks an elephant god in Bali has come to claim his soul.

And to that person, I only have this to say:

The Black Elephant of Death is real. Don’t try to fight him. You’re screwed.


Generation Glue Stick


Title: Generation Glue Stick

Main Idea: How the invention of the glue stick has changed an entire generation of young people.

Introduction: If Laura wasn’t so adorable, she might be mistaken for a brat. It would be an understandable mistake. Laura is nine years old, wears nice little dresses and bursts into laughter a lot. She could be the poster child for cute children. She could also be the poster child for COCD – Childhood Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Give Laura the colored pencils to color with and she will have a fit (she prefers the markers). Hand Laura the scissors with the red handle and she will refuse to use them (she will only use the scissors with the blue handle). Grade her paper by putting a smile face next to the right answers, and she will remove them with White Out (correct answers, obviously, are scored with hearts). The thing is, Laura isn’t the only one with COCD. Most of the kids I work with have it to some degree. It’s not a new phenomenon – kids have always been stubborn – but it’s getting worse. Why, you ask? Perhaps it began with but one small invention, the glue stick.

Body Paragraph #1: Way back in 1969, a German company named Henkel had a bright idea. They studied lipstick and noted how remarkably easy the ‘twist-up’ applicator was to use. What if, they asked themselves, other items could be created in lipstick’s image? Henkel decided that glue would be an ideal candidate and soon after introduced “The Pritt Stick,” the first incarnation of the modern glue stick. Only three years later, Pritt Sticks were being sold in 38 countries. By 2001, that number climbed to 121. But while the bright idea of creating a glue applicator modeled after lipstick came originally from Henkel, another company piggy-backed it with a bright idea of its own. The Elmer’s Company, who used a cartoon figure named Elmer the Bull as their mascot, had the brilliant notion of sticking the word ‘school’ in the name of their products. This worked wonders. Schools always needed cheap crafting products, and Elmer’s jumped all over that. Elmer’s products such ‘School Glue,’ ‘Krazy Glue,’ and the ‘X-Acto Knife’ became ubiquitous in schools all over America. The focus of Elmer’s advertising is still squarely placed on educators and students; go to their website today, and you will find a feature entitled ‘The 1st Day of School’ filling their homepage, with side links for parents and teachers.

Body Paragraph #2: So what does any of this mean? I argue that through the advancement in the quality of products (The Pritt Stick, for instance) and their widespread usage in schools (thanks to companies like Elmer’s), we have spawned Generation Glue Stick, a explosion of young people who have grown to understand the world through a prism of order, convenience, and tidiness. Let me explain. For a long time, students in younger grades had to make do with what they had. Want to glue two papers together for an art project? A student used a bottle of glue for that. This was, by its nature, an imperfect device. One had to be rather careful when using the glue bottle, making sure not to overdo it. Personally, I liked to employ the ‘glue dotting technique,’ where a person places a small dot of glue on each corner of the paper and sticks it to something that way. It required patience. The glue took awhile to dry. Also, classrooms weren’t always that well stocked with glue bottles. Sometimes there was only one big bottle and you waited your turn to use it. That said, I never considered a bottle of glue to be particularly hard to use until recently. My kids, it seems, are very glue stick reliant. Give them a bottle of glue, and it’s a disaster. There’s glue everywhere and lots of children crying. While convenience is the major draw of the glue stick, independence is a benefit as well. Schools have tons of little glue sticks so that each student can glue his or her own stuff in solitude. There is very little waiting or sharing. It’s a fact that having only four glue sticks will turn an otherwise normal class of ten kids into Lord of the Flies.

This is an awarding winning piece of art created by an elementary school student. I didn’t have much time for abstract art in elementary school, as I was too busy drawing dragons.

Body Paragraph #3: The glue stick isn’t the only culprit. Everything, for today’s young student, is constructed on a platform of order and visual aesthetic. At the risk of sounding really old, when I was a kid, White Out was a delicacy, something used only in special cases where the scribble out technique just wasn’t acceptable. Today, all my kids carry around white out tape. Before, kids wrote with little nub pencils that had shrunk down to a half an inch from lots of usage. Today’s kids have immortal mechanical pencils that they fill with pristinely thin pieces of lead in a delicate procedure, done with the care of a surgeon making an incision. Very little is handwritten today. Final drafts are almost always typed. Crayons are Stone Age-level old fashioned. With copy machines in all schools, kids can always screw up their worksheet and ask the teacher for a clean new one. Class speeches have a PowerPoint presentation to back them. Instruction has become more visual and structured as well. Take a writing assignment, for instance. I can remember jotting down a crappy outline on a sheet of loose leaf paper. Now, reading and writing assignments involve a giant variety of mental maps, graphic organizers, brain storming diagrams, and the like. There is a real sense of perfection in the work of today’s students. It’s no wonder that Laura will only use the blue scissors or accept hearts for her correct answers. For her, everything in education has been done by design, been crafted and molded to fit. It’s not a negative thing. Call it a new outlook. With the glue stick and its cohorts, our children today are being encouraged not only to be creative, but to be professional about it.

Conclusion: Generation Glue Stick, in many ways, is more advanced than previous generations were. They will grow to become people who file things well, who document, who know how to plate food in a visually pleasing way, and who will hand in reports that are spaced properly and don’t have mustard spilled on them. True, they can’t use a glue bottle, they don’t work particularly well with others, and they have difficulty dealing with mistakes and adversity. It doesn’t matter. They know how to fix things. Whatever mistakes they’ve made will safely be confined to the outline, and, I’m pretty sure, no parents hang outlines up on the refrigerator door.


Carrying a Piano Through a Store That Sells Glassware – Part Two: Life is Better as a Comedy, Even if You Don’t Find it Funny


Physics has always worked against me. For years, no matter how I arrange the items in my cupboard, something is bound to tumble out at my face when I open the door. If I stand a book upright on a shelf, it will fall over. Say I pick up a bottle by the cap, the cap will absolutely not be screwed on right and the bottle will fall and spill its contents (likely beer) on my bed or on my friends. Yes, physics hates me. The other day, I tried to put a tuna sandwich in the work fridge and proceeded to cause an avalanche of about 80 little bottles of energy drink. I figure I must be doing something wrong with understanding centers of gravity, or inertia, or maybe I just bring out the entropy in things. Try to tie a shoe, the lace breaks; try to hang a shirt in the closet, it wiggles its way off the hook; try to open a package of tofu, I end up spraying myself in the eye with a jet stream of tofu juice.

Perhaps it’s all a bad case of bad luck. My father used to say our family was cursed with it. He called it “The Panara Curse,” and it was responsible for a whole bunch of stuff, including bad Internet connections, Blockbuster not having the movie we wanted, and the Buffalo Bills losing four straight Super Bowls. Some say they chocked. It’s a little known fact that they really lost due to our fandom.

Back when I was in art school, I took a literature course called “Tragedy.” It was all about the Gods and Fate and Destiny and our fatal flaws and that good stuff. The professor was some middle-aged white man with a beard who would sit at a table and talk in a monotone about The Oresteia and King Lear and things like that. I’d typically listen intently for about 20 minutes and then tune him out completely. The other students loved him, though, and called him ‘brilliant.’ I’d sit there hopelessly bored and damning myself for not taking a class taught by a dumbass instead of someone brilliant. At least that would’ve been entertaining.

One class, the professor started rambling on and on about the differences between the ‘tragic hero’ and the ‘comic hero.’ The biggest difference, according to him, was the way Fate interacted with each. Fate totally shit all over the tragic hero, often striping him of pride and then killing him. The comic hero, on the other hand, was plucky and that caused Fate to lose its mean streak. In the end, the comic hero would succeed, while the poor tragic hero was utterly doomed.

“I don’t agree with that,” a student who was smarter than me said. “I don’t think Fate is kind to the comic hero either.”

The professor fell out of his chair, alarmed from hearing a voice other than his own. After the kids in the front row helped him up, he asked the bright guy who had spoken up to proceed.

“Well,” the guy said, “it seems to me like Fate sets up the comic hero for failure too. I mean, think of, like, old Laurel and Hardy comedies. They always end up in some ridiculous situation where everything is bound to go wrong. Like they’ll have to carry a piano through a store that sells glassware or something. You watch it, and you know they’re going to break everything in the place, and they know it too, but they try anyways. I guess the difference is, for them, being doomed is funny.”

The student was totally right. Fate is an evil jerk both ways, causing Oedipus to marry his mom and at the same time manipulating the comic hero into doing all sorts of hopeless things. It’s the reason Harold Lloyd has to climb a skyscraper (Safety Last), Buster Keaton ends up taking the helm of an unmanned train (The General) or a sinking ship (The Navigator), and Fate causes the money to fall out of a hole in Charlie Chaplin’s pocket when he takes a girl out to a nice restaurant to impress her (The Immigrant). Modern comedy is no different. Fate has the liquor store get robbed right when McLovin is trying to buy booze, it has the tiger wake up in the back seat of the car in The Hangover, and stupid Fate causes pitiful Greg Focker to set a wedding altar on fire and have to spray paint a cat. Tell these guys that Fate is on their side. Something tells me they wouldn’t quite see it that way.

There are a lot of days when I’ll wake up, think of the day I have ahead of me, and say to myself, “Wow, I don’t think I can do this.” Life is hard like that. It’s not just limited to problems with physics, either. There’s the job, trying to make relationships work, money, and all sorts of things that make a plate falling off the counter and breaking on the floor seem trivial. Really, there are a ton of things that feel sort of like carrying a piano through a store that sells glassware. Impossible. Bound for failure.

At those times, I try my best to tell myself that I’m the comic hero, not the tragic one. It’s a bit inspiring. My father never saw things that way. He seemed to peg himself as the tragic hero, doomed by a curse. My poor old man – he never could laugh when things went wrong. I fall into that trap a lot of the time too. The comic hero, though, can adapt, can brush things off, can keep his emotions in check, and is content just by getting to the end of the day. I find a lot of value in that. Forget the President – Larry David should be promoted as a role model for today’s youth.

Yesterday afternoon I was thinking about these things as I sat down on the toilet to fulfill my digestive needs. A drop of water hit me on the head. I looked up. The roof was leaking, and what it was leaking was disturbingly off-white. I shifted my body to avoid the next inevitable drop. In doing so, I somehow caused the toilet seat to break free, sending me crashing down into the toilet bowl like I was falling into a tragically un-bottomless pit. Or, perhaps, falling into a pit, bottomless. I grabbed at the toilet paper roll to try and save myself.

Another drop of brown liquid fell on my head. “Am I really supposed to find this funny?” I thought. Then I figured I might as well. If there are Gods that control our fate, they were probably laughing, so I might as well join them.


Carrying a Piano Through a Store That Sells Glassware – Part One: Anger, Peppers, Wet Sleeves, and Curse Words


Fate never seems to set things up kindly for me. All I wanted to do this afternoon was cut up a green pepper to put in my salad for lunch. That was all, a minor wish. It seemed so simple, but given the lack of counter space in my relatively tiny apartment, cutting that pepper turned out to require a Herculean effort, as though it was one of his labors, like when he had to kidnap the dog from Hell or clean the poopy stables in a day. Cutting the pepper on my microscopic kitchen counter space was going to be difficult to that extent. Besides, how hard is it to kidnap a dog? Ain’t you heard of Snausages, Hercules?

Let’s get back to the pepper. First, Fate had the plate slide off the counter and into the sink. The bottom of my sink is no place any food should visit; it’s a foul netherworld coated in bacteria, the e-coli virus, and the slug-like alien parasites from the movie “Slither.” Luckily, no parts of the pepper made contact with any of that. As I brought the plate back to the counter, Fate caused me to accidentally nudge the knife, sending it falling, point down, towards my foot. I danced out the way, nimble as I am. However, moving away from the knife caused the plate to somehow descend from the countertop itself, exploding upon impact with the floor like an egg or a cell phone. Glass and pepper flew everywhere.

“Motherfucker!!!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “God Damn fucking bastard!”

I suppose I was referring to Fate, though I’m not sure. Maybe I was randomly talking about my father. Who can say? The point is, I was, for 15 seconds, insanely mad about this. My mind was overtaken by absolute rage, all because a stupid plate with a pepper on it fell and broke on the floor. I took a deep breath and tried to settle myself. My face was red and I felt embarrassed, wondering if anyone had heard me. I was thankful that I don’t have any kids. I could imagine them shaking with fear in the corners of the bedroom.

“What happened to Daddy?” they’d cry, cowering. “It must be something serious.”

“Well,” their mother would say, “he dropped a plate on the floor.”

“He dropped a plate on the floor? Is that it?”

“Yes. Bear in mind, it had the pepper for his salad on it.”

My kids would exchange glances. “If there’s nothing else, it would be safe for us to come out of the corner now, right?”

“Absolutely, darlings. Just be sure to stay close by it later when Daddy starts making dinner.”

They would think their father was a madman. Why had I gone so berserk over something so insignificant? It reminded me of an incident that happened to my friend Mary. I was standing in the hallway at school one day when she came out of the bathroom looking shaken.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said. “I rolled my sleeves up to wash my hands, but when I put my hands in the water, my sleeve came down and it got all wet.” She showed me the wet sleeve. “I blew up. I did. I don’t know why. I totally went off. I screamed. I went ‘Aggghhhhh!!!!’”

“Perfectly understandable reaction,” I said earnestly.

She shook her head. “I was so furious I could’ve killed somebody. Seriously. If there was somebody in there with me, I would’ve killed that person.”

I thought of Mary’s wet-sleeve incident as I swept up the plate and threw it away. The anger and frustration she felt over getting her sleeve wet was something I could completely empathize with. I gathered the pieces of cut up pepper from off the floor too, but decided I’d be damned if I was going to throw that away as well.

If I did, the World would win.

“Fuck the World,” I said. “I’m washing off this pepper and eating it. I don’t give a shit if there’s bits of glass in it. I will eat that glass. Fuck Fate in its face.”

And eat the glassy pepper I did. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was good, but it was worth it. Feeling the crunch of glass in my teeth as I chewed, I couldn’t help but smile.

I had, for that little moment, conquered Fate. The Greek Gods would’ve been proud, I think.

(This is the first part of a deeper two-part piece. It is to be continued, unless a few bits of glass cut my throat and I die in my sleep. In that case, I suppose the obit would complete this epic saga.)


Off the Beaten Path: The Bizarre Shrine by Ferdinand Magellan’s Death Spot


Ferdinand Magellan and I go way back. For years, whenever I watched Jeopardy and Alex Trebek asked an impossibly difficult question, “Magellan” was always my default answer.

Trebek:  What explorer, born in 1728, discovered Newfoundland?

Me: Um…Magellan?

It was almost always wrong, and yet it seemed so right. According to my responses to an uncountable number of Jeopardy questions, Magellan had discovered basically every place on earth, mostly because I couldn’t name any other explorers. I’d also stick Magellan into World Wars if I was clueless, or send him into space if I felt like it. Magellan, Magellan, Magellan. It’s fun to say. And on the rare occasion it was actually the correct answer, a wonderful feeling would come over me like I had caught the holy ghost or won a few bucks on a scratch off ticket.

All that is to say, I was pretty pumped when I realized I would be able to stand on the exact spot where Ferdinand Magellan, my most favorite explorer, died almost 500 years ago. Most people don’t know this, but Magellan – whose claim to fame is that he sailed around the world – didn’t in fact make it to the end of his voyage. Actually, of his crew of 270 men, only 18 made it from beginning to end. Magellan himself died during a battle in the Philippines, killed by a local tribal leader named Lapu Lapu. Why was he fighting Lapu Lapu? Imperialism, Christianity, and because Magellan had a lot of men and was a big show off.

About a twenty minute cab ride from Cebu Airport, one can easily swing by the “Mactan Shrine” and check out the mural painting of Lapu Lapu killing Magellan, as well as the goofy statue erected in honor of Lapu Lapu, where he looks poised to star in the next hit Hollywood blockbuster.


I have no idea what Magellan was thinking. Come on, look at that guy! Lapu Lapu’s a beast! The flippin’ Avengers would decide to steer clear of that dude. Magellan suffered from overconfidence, though, and as a result, he was struck with a spear and beaten to death. Lapu Lapu was supposed to return the body, but when he went to get it, it was gone. To this day, it is unknown what happened to Magellan. It seems that the body just somehow disappeared into the ocean.

And that’s pretty cool.

The real treat, though, when visiting the Mactan Shrine, is the incredibly weird…um…thing located a short walk from the statue. Right by the ocean, there is a bizarre semi-circle of totem poles and skulls on sticks. I have no idea what it is. It looks pretty recent, as though it was erected to ward off tourists or something. I don’t know what purpose it serves, nor do I know who made it. All I know is that it was damn scary.

Yes, that last picture features me mugging for the camera. The thing was pretty unnerving. My pose is the actualization of what I was feeling on the inside.

Whatever this second little ‘shrine’ on the island is, it was a gem and I was extremely excited to have stumbled upon it. I was also proud to say that I’d set foot on Magellan’s death spot. It seems so random to be able to say that. Despite being dead, the great Magellan continues to live on famously, having a strait and a GPS system and a spacecraft named after him. And, in addition to all that, he’s also sometimes the answer to Jeopardy questions, and when you’re the answer to a Jeopardy question, gosh dangit, that’s when you know you’ve made it.


The Legend of Santiago, Who Either Lost or Found Something Somewhere Beyond the Horizon


On certain summer nights in Hanoi, the rain forces people to take cover. Some slink off into bars, ushered in by watchful doormen ready to yank the metal drop-door shut should any police pass by (in Hanoi, bars stay open long after curfew, hiding their patrons inside clumsily like kids kicking toys under the bed). Other people find refuge under the canopy at the bar by the Water Puppet Theatre, drinking beers as the motor-scooters speed through the drenched Old Quarter streets. Then there are the folks who dart into the overpriced coffee shop that sits on the lip of the Hoan Kiem Lake, where they nurse every sip out of a Café Latte and watch the rain beat down on the water outside. The city loses its signal right before your eyes, drifting in and out of a warm fuzz like a television channel disappearing into static, and on nights such as this, the local people of Hanoi huddle together in their homes, safe from the rain, and talk in whispers about a tall Spaniard named Santiago who set foot there just over a year ago.

Actually, they don’t do anything like that. I’m sure nobody there knows who the heck Santiago was. I spent a decent amount of time with the guy, and even I can barely remember him. I’d like to think of him as something of a legend, though, a mythical figure that appeared out of nowhere and then vanished again. He’s really my own celebrated apparition, but since I met him in Hanoi, I’d like to pretend that he’s theirs too.

It was a rainy night in August. Perkins and I found ourselves eating pho at a little restaurant in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. We’d vowed to eat pho every day we spent in Vietnam, and we were hell bent on sticking to that. Off to our left, a guy sat by himself, eating his own bowl of pho. He obviously wasn’t Vietnamese. Since I don’t talk to people, it must’ve been Perkins who invited him over to join us. His name was Santiago, and he had just arrived from Spain earlier that day.

“I’m so happy to be here,” he said, glowing, taking the spring roll I offered him (I had also eaten spring rolls every day too). “This place is amazing. It’s been one of my dreams to come here.”

From out of his pocket, he brought a folded piece of paper. There, he had handwritten a plan for the two weeks he’d be spending in Indochina. I liked the look of it. By that, I don’t mean I had any idea as to what his plan was, exactly, but I liked the visual aesthetic of a two week agenda scrawled down in pencil on a lone sheet of loose leaf paper. We all finished our pho and Santiago invited us to join him for a beer, and since he seemed like an interesting character, we went.

After a few drinks, Santiago started talking non-stop. This was fine with me, because it meant I only had to nod and pretend I was listening. “This is freedom!” he shouted. “Look at us all! We’re young and free. Other people have houses and kids, and here we are, having drinks together in Asia.”

In truth, you have to be kind of a selfish person to travel a lot. You make plans with only yourself in mind, spend all your money on yourself, and congratulate yourself for doing it. Santiago was celebrating that selfishness. He’d broken up with his girlfriend of several years in order to come. “She wanted me there,” he said. “She said I had to be there. I wanted to go see the world and she said I couldn’t…so I broke up with her…and two days later I jumped on a plane and here I am.”

“Does she know you came to Vietnam?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “She doesn’t know. Maybe she tries to contact me. I don’t know.”

I’m not the type to try and psychoanalyze people, but Santiago seemed a little sad. I could relate. In 2009, I made my first trip outside of the USA. It was with my wife. We had made plans to live in South Korea for two months, together, to share the experience. When those two months were over, I wanted to see so much more. She couldn’t wait to get back to our house in the States, our two cats, and all that jazz. I couldn’t do it. We separated. I think she still has the two cats.

Santiago drank more and the more he did the more he pulled out his piece of paper with the pencil-written agenda on it, looking over it and remarking about how remarkable it all was. The freedom of it. But with each beer, he also seemed a little more bummed out. Maybe that’s why he kept yanking that piece of paper out of his pocket.

He had clearly gone Beyond the Horizon, if you will. I read that play, written by Eugene O’Neil, back in 2009 when my wife and I were drifting apart. In brief, there are two male characters, two brothers. One goes off to sea and the other stays home. In the final act of the play they reunite. They find that each of them is filled with regret and envy, mournful, in his own way, at having chosen what he did. The one who had stayed wishes he had gone, and the one who had gone wishes he had stayed.

It’s a bit more meaningful than simply saying ‘the grass is always greener,’ because it’s about traveling, about seeing the world for yourself, and really it’s about how painful that can be. Every time I leave to go see a new place, I’m leaving somebody, some form of a home, and whatever semblance of stability I’ve made for myself. It can feel childish. I want everything. I want to have a girlfriend who loves me, and I also want to dash off at a moment’s notice to go jaunt around whatever place I feel like exploring. I want a home and a family, but only after I see Africa. I want to be an old man who has stories, and I also want to make sure I’ll have somebody to tell those stories to. Santiago knew, with every sip of beer, how rough it was. The feeling is difficult to describe. I’m sure he thought about the girl he had left, and I’m sure that when he did, those thoughts didn’t pull him back, but instead somehow propelled him forward, sadly.

At the end of the night, Santiago threw up, politely apologized, and left. We never saw him again. To me, he is a legend. He is the embodiment of the young man who can’t stop looking beyond the horizon. It’s hard to stop once you’ve looked. I suppose he isn’t really a legend back in Hanoi, where surely many other young men like him have passed through, stopping to taste the pho, talk to some strangers, and take cover from the rain when it comes down so hard the city itself gets lost.


A Man, A Dog, A Nose


Jeff was in his late 40s and lived in a group home for Jewish men with mental disabilities. He was the kind of person that everyone tries to diagnose, his weirdness being irresistible, as though just seeing him brought out the amateur psychologist in a person. The scary thing was that everyone came up with the same diagnosis – schizophrenia. If the whole world thinks you’re schizophrenic, or anything for that matter, even if you’re not, well, you might as well be. I know I thought Jeff was schizophrenic. He’d put his right hand over his ear and talk to himself; he was constantly talking, chattering, about nothing that made sense to any of us and probably not to him either. His house staff would catch him sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night to make sandwiches. Not to eat, just to make.  They’d send him back to his room. Jeff had a small amount of wispy blonde hair on his otherwise bald head and was the kind of bald man that reminded one of a baby. Thinking back, the best way I can describe him is to say that he looked like a combination of Richard Dreyfuss and a Kewpie doll.

“Tanack!  Tanack!” Jeff would shout, making up noises, pacing the hallway up and down. I met him at the non-profit agency I worked for. I’d never been around people with mental disabilities before, and Jeff frightened me a little bit. Maybe it was all the nonsense sounds he’d make, or the reports in his file about him getting physically aggressive with staff members, or how everyone said he was schizophrenic, or maybe it was the way he would scream at the top of his lungs when he’d get upset.

“Tomorrow is Saturday!” he’d holler.  He’d bite his wrist. “It’s Saturday!”

I tried taking a logical approach. “Jeff,” I’d say, “tomorrow is Thursday. It isn’t Saturday. Relax, buddy.”

“It’s Saturday! Tomorrow’s Saturday!”

My attempts were futile. He was in sheer panic mode and I wasn’t helping. Jeff normally shook with nervous energy, anxious and fidgety, but was generally able to compose himself. About once a week, though, he’d blow his lid. And when he did, he was always upset about tomorrow being Saturday, which was strange, because I thought that was a day everybody looked forward to.

As with all the people in our program, Jeff had a big file in the main office stuffed with papers written by psychiatrists, behavioral therapists, and other care givers. I pulled it off the shelf, sat down with it like I was back in a college lit course or something, and started reading, hoping that there would be some insight or nugget of wisdom. There was.

“Jeff can get upset at times,” it said. “When he does, staff should ask him, ‘Jeff, what color is the dog’s nose?’ This phrase has a calming effect on Jeff, and he will answer, ‘It’s black.’”

What color is the dog’s nose?” I thought, bewildered. I went to the room where my coworker, Billy, was.  Billy worked closely with Jeff and knew him better.

“Yo, Billy,” I said, “what color is the dog’s nose?”

He nodded. “Yeah, that’s what you got to say to Jeff to chill him out.” Then Billy reached over to a shelf and grabbed a magazine with a dog on the cover. “Sometimes, when he’s really worked up, I stick this in his face and have him touch the dog’s nose.”

“That works?”

“It works perfectly,” he said, shrugging.

In the days that followed, I waited for Jeff to get upset again. It was almost like I had my fingers crossed, hoping he would. Eventually he did, walking to the end of a hallway and screaming out the doors at the world outside.

“Tomorrow’s Saturday! Tomorrow’s Saturday!”

I approached him and got his attention. “That’s nice, Jeff,” I said, “but listen, more importantly…what color is the dog’s nose?”

He stopped, as though I’d flipped a switch on his back. He turned and looked me straight in the eye, and with a perfectly neutral voice, he said, “It’s black.”

Then he went back into one of the rooms, sat off in a corner away from the others, and looked out the window, seeming quiet and sad.

Every week, Billy took Jeff to a pound to see the dogs. Jeff was afraid of them and wouldn’t pet them, but he loved to go anyways and always anxiously volunteered to go on the dog trip. I secretly wished that I could take Jeff to see the dogs, just to observe him, to see him full of excitement and fear, watching the animals and still, just as he did with basically every person that tried to talk to him, keeping his distance.

I’d like to think there’s an internal logic to how human beings work. There must’ve been something to Jeff, some explanation. Saturday. There had to be a reason he dreaded it so much. And the dog’s nose. That had to have significance. A memory from when he was a kid, or a phrase some person he cared for used to say to him. Or it could’ve been that he simply liked dogs, and one time a dog touched his hand and he felt its wet nose on his skin. Maybe that was the only time he’d ever been touched by anything.

Then I realized that I could invent a whole life for him. His entire history, written by me in my head. I wondered if that would make me feel better, safer. It was sort of like how people guessed he was schizophrenic. If a visitor were to ask, “What’s wrong with him,” I guess it’s more comforting to make something up than to just say “I don’t know.”


Don’t T-Shirts Mean Anything Anymore? What is this World Coming To?


The “I’m with Stupid” joke taken to the next level.

Back in 1991, when I was in the 8th grade, I remember begging my father to buy me a pair of Umbro shorts.  We were in Dick’s Sporting Goods, and my solemn father shook his head ‘no.’

“These are soccer shorts,” he said.  “Why do you want soccer shorts?  You don’t play soccer.”

“I think they’re cool,” I said, not wanting to reveal the truth (everybody’s wearing them!!!).  “Umbro is a really good brand.”

“Look at the price,” he said.  “I’m not paying that for soccer shorts when you don’t play soccer.”

I’m not sure if I promised that I would start playing soccer, or if I came up with some other brilliant argument, but he eventually relented and I became the proud owner of two pairs of Umbro shorts, one black and one blue, that I would wear to school proudly.  To me, it didn’t matter at all that they were soccer shorts.  The most important thing was that they were shorts – it wasn’t like I was asking for cleats or goalie gloves or something – and could be worn successfully in a non-soccer environment.  And, as I may have mentioned parenthetically earlier, everybody was wearing them.

“I started getting into communism a few months after I was conceived. I’m not sure if it was the work of Marx and Engels, or all the Cuban food my mom ate.”

I couldn’t help but remember that incident over this past weekend, when my girlfriend and I went to Uniqlo to pick out some summer clothes for my (now Umbro-less) wardrobe.  She went over to the t-shirt section and held up a nifty looking black and grey shirt, pressing it up to my body like she was dressing a cut-out doll.

“I can’t wear that,” I quickly said, rejecting her selection.  “It has a picture of Batman and says ‘The Dark Knight.’  I haven’t even seen ‘The Dark Knight.’”

“So?” she asked.  “It looks good on you.”

No, I insisted, I couldn’t wear the Batman shirt since I’m not that into him.  Nor could I wear the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ shirt she liked, or anything with an Andy Warhol print on it because I am decidedly opposed to artwork being on t-shirts.  In the end, I bought a yellow t-shirt with Japanese characters all over it.  Later research revealed that, in future incidents when I wear this shirt, I will be supporting some noodle restaurant in Tokyo.

“That’s fine,” I said.  “I can get behind noodles.”

Lately, I’ve been pondering the t-shirt choices of the general public.  Now I like t-shirts just as much as the next guy, girl, or mannequin, but I, unlike my stance with the Umbro shorts, have grown up believing that what’s on the front of a t-shirt matters.  I remember several instances in the last few years where I tried to ‘connect’ with my students, and ended up failing miserably:

“I love The Velvet Underground. I buy all my organic groceries there.”

“Hey!” I’d say, all excited.  “Awesome Velvet Underground shirt!  That’s a great album.”

“Huh,” the student would respond.  “What are you talking about?”

“You know,” I’d stammer, “your shirt…with the banana on it.  It’s Velvet Underground…Lou Reed…”

“Oh,” the kid would say.  “I just like the design.”

The same thing happened a bunch of times with sports jerseys, too.  “Nice, man!  I didn’t know you’re a Knicks fan!  Go Melo!”

“I hate the Knicks,” the kid would snap back.  “They suck.  I like the Heat.”

“But you have a Knicks hat and a Carmelo Anthony jersey…”

“I just like the colors.”

Where have our allegiances gone, folks?  I’m a Knicks fan, and I would never wear a Heat jersey.  Didn’t this kid know that the Knicks and the Heat hate each other?  It baffled me that this couldn’t matter.  That would be like a Crip dressing in red because it’s more his color, or Bin Laden walking around in a US flag shirt because it took attention away from his ugly beard.  Couldn’t these kids wear band and sports paraphernalia from the groups and teams they actually supported, and thus stop confusing me?

“My life sucks and is full of pain…I paid Supercuts handsomely to express this on my head.”

As steeped in modern vernacular as I am, it somehow eludes me whether or not people use the phrase ‘poser’ anymore, or if there’s a more modern equivalent.  In the ‘90s, if I showed up to school wearing skater jeans and a Rancid t-shirt, I’d likely get grilled on both the subjects of skating and punk music.  And if I failed, if I didn’t know Rancid from Ranch Dressing, I would be termed a ‘poser’ and that would be the end.  There would be no friends for my fake ass. Given that, how can someone nowadays wear a Ramones shirt, not know who the Ramones are, and not get flack about it?  I guess we don’t have any more mean teenagers out there, enforcing the sacred commandment: Thou shall only wear clothing that fits one’s tastes and overall personality.

Right before I purchased the yellow Japanese noodle shirt, my girlfriend and I came to a rack with a whole variety of David Lynch movie shirts on it.  Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, etc.  I was disgusted.  “What the hell is this?” I nearly shouted.  “Why do they have these?  They shouldn’t have these!  I love these movies!  Why are there t-shirts of them being sold at Uniqlo?”

Technically, I should’ve been excited.  If my goal was to find a shirt with something I liked on it, here it was.  My girlfriend shook her head, “Don’t buy that,” she said.  “The design is ugly.”

So that brings me to the closing question: If given the choice of a single shirt, would you rather wear an ugly shirt of something you like, or a cool shirt of something you either don’t like or are oblivious to? There is no right or wrong answer.  Unless, maybe, you’re a Crip.