Some photos from Madrid

July 10, 2010 1 comment

Twilight has hit big here. Though the name “La Saga Crepusculo” is way cooler.

Even Neptune is getting into the spirit of things. Here he is showing his Passion Rojo.

I know what you’re thinking. But this is not, in fact, a museum dedicated to ham. That would be the most delicious museum ever, and would only last about five minutes before the place was devoured.

I dunno who this guy is (the inscription reads “Julio Hernandez, Pintor del Prado”) but he has a certain Vagabond style.

This is the view from the balcony of my apartment. It’s okay, I’d hate me too.

Same thing, just a close up of the church at the Palacio Real. I swear, it’s like living in a Turner painting.

This is a newspaper clipping that was hanging on the wall of my new apartment, and is half the reason I decided to move in. Seriously, it looks like the ‘Before’ picture of the weirdest bachelor party ever. Like Berlusconi took them all out to some weird strip club in Bangkok for a donkey show, and Medvedev was kinda into it, but was trying to play cool, Obama was in the corner somewhere texting Michele and Hu was just sitting there looking mildly uncomfortable the whole time.

Airport Security, You Never Cease to Amuse

July 3, 2010 Leave a comment

The girl standing next to me as I put my shoes back on has to give up her Body Shop bottle.

“But I just bought it,” she complains, and points to the Body Shop store no more than fifteen yards from the security checkpoint.

The TSA guard shrugs. “If you give me your receipt I can get your money back for you. But you can’t take it through security.”

She frowns, disheartened. “I figured because they sold it in the airport it would be okay.”

I try not to smile too much at her distress. I’m not smiling because she has to give up her lotion, or shampoo, or whatever it was. I’m smiling because the security guards were able to detect her completely innocuous moisturizing product while once again completely failing to notice either the knife or screwdriver I’m bringing on-board.

I tell myself I have a good reason for doing this, that I really do need to take the screwdriver with me in order to disassemble my camera while in Madrid (new LCD screen still not working right before I left), that the knife was the most useful traveling tool I’ve ever had. But, really, I probably wouldn’t even think about trying to sneak this stuff on a plane until someone told me I couldn’t. Telling me not to do something inherently underhanded is like telling Casanova he can’t sleep with the Doge’s daughter. We’re both just going to interpret those orders as challenges.

The flight is delayed an hour, which is probably a good thing, since the line to check in at the Air Europa counter took about an hour. I was actually afraid I was going to miss boarding. I rush through the concourse only to find I have all the time I could ask for. With nothing else to do in B concourse, I drink, of course, unable to keep my mind on any of the several work-related documents I brought with me about things such as high-yield debt in Brazil and risk appetite among Canadian banks.

The flight is again delayed. It’s 10 o’clock now, and we were supposed to board at 8. All the snack food places are closed, leaving only one solitary sports bar open. I’m beginning to think the delays are a conspiracy to get me to drop money on freakishly overpriced beer.

When the plane does finally get ready to board, I realize to my horror there’s a gaggle of high school students on my plane. American high school students. And my seat is in the middle of them. I listen with mild horror as one of them reads something aloud very slowly, and I realize he’s trying to translate something into English.

Just as he puts his book away, an incredibly bad light jazz cover of Guys & Dolls comes on over the intercom. Desperately, I jam my headphones in my ear to escape the nightmare, but the stewardess informs me “I WILL NOT BE LISTENING TO MUSIC” until we reach cruising attitude.

I’ve been in this nightmare before. Once, on an Iberair flight from Barcelona to Madrid, I had to listen to about 32 bars of a bad cover of the Cure’s “Close to Me.” Imagine listening to that same marimba line over and over AND OVER again while flying over the Iberian Peninsula. Nobody made it off that flight with their mind intact: we were all changed, changed utterly by the experience.

Fortunately, the music doesn’t keep repeating the first 32 bars and does cut out once we’re off the ground.

It’s raining when we land in Madrid, a contingency I’m not prepared for. As a matter of fact, I’m not prepared for any contingency by design. I packed only a small carry-on for my seven week stay, and most of that consisted of a laptop and some books. My clothing choices are limited to a pair of shorts, underwear, t-shirts, and running gear. Hopefully, this will force me into some delightfully comic situations wherein I try to translate the names of items like “Mach 3 Razor Blades,” “Blackberry Power Cord” and “Weapons Grade Viagra” into Spanish for the benefit of bemused store clerks.

But I’m surprised at how well my Spanish holds up the first day. Enough that, for the first time, when I launch into conversations in Spanish, clerks don’t immediately switch to English with an impatient hand wave. I manage to hail a cab, give directions, ask how long the metro transit strike will continue, and, in a truly amazing linguistic feat, explain to a Mobilstar employee that I’ll be staying in Madrid two months and will need a local SIM card for my Blackberry.

This level of foreign language comprehension is something of a new experience for me, and is deeply weird. But I find myself falling into the familiar rhythms both of Madrid, and of life in a foreign country, where the experience of every action is slightly amplified by its alien nature, its novelty, its difficulty. Unable to walk down the familiar streets of New York in a half-somnolent state, I’m forced to actually pay attention to my surroundings, and find that I enjoy them.

Of course, I’m still without lodgings. I’ve got a hotel room through the weekend, at which point I’ll have to find new digs where I can reliably communicate with my editors via internet. If I can’t manage that by the start of work Tuesday, this trip is going to get cut off prematurely, or life will get extremely interesting. I’m having visions of living in a hostel for the next few weeks while sneaking out to McDonald’s hot spots for hours worth of environmental reporting.

In the meantime, I haven’t had a sit-down meal since lunch Friday. I’m off to find a bocadillo.

Safety First

July 2, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m surprised, and more than a little touched, by the number of people wishing me a safe return from my trip. Bastards are unaccustomed to expressions of compassion and concern, as we normally only do so ourselves when we’re trying to manipulate people. So it’s with real pleasure that I hear people tell me to be careful while I’m in Madrid.

In all sincerity though, I must answer: no.

I have no desire to be careful. I have no desire for things to go according to plan. I have no desire to not be robbed at knife point, have my wallet stolen, get knifed in spleen and have to crawl my way to a Spanish hospital one moonlit night in Sevilla. If you survive, it’s a fantastic story, and if you don’t, what an awesome fucking eulogy you’re buddies will give you:

Eulogy Giver: This sunuvabitch died in a KNIFE FIGHT in Sevilla. Probably took down two of his attackers with his bare hands too, the bastard. I’m going to die wearing a diaper in a nursing home while sadistic nurses take advantage of my gradual slide into dementia. Fuck you, Vagabond.

If I do somehow manage to make it to 60, I hope I’ve got a least a few interesting scars, and possibly an eye-patch to show for it. I’ll trade body parts for thrilling memories anyday.

I’m not advocating this life choice. If you’re reading this: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Don’t go looking for trouble, there’s way more than enough of it in this world. Trouble will come to you in its own time.

I’m not going to be stupid, and I’m not going to poke angry bears with sticks. But I hope that neither will I take the safe option. Ever. If I wanted to be safe I’d stay home in New York, the safest city in the country, where I’m never more than a hundred feet from an ATM, reliable food supply, and shelter. To travel is to sacrifice a portion of security for experience.

I read once that danger is like salt. Too much will kill you, but if you give it up altogether, life tastes pretty bland.

Also I mean…c’mon. This is Spain we’re talking about. They’re going on strike to protest a 5% cut in government wages. These guys are way more risk averse than we are.

Vagabond Rides Again!

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment

My initial idea for this post was to have a comic of me, on a vespa, looking cool.

Sadly, I cannot draw comics. And I couldn’t find a good image on the internets that wasn’t either some over-dramatic comic book character on an overly-tough looking Harley, or porn.

Anyway.

I’m going to Spain.

I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about this decision recently. Questions like:

A: Where will you live?

B: Don’t you have a job?

C: Why on earth…?

The answers, in short, are A: dunno, will find a place when I get there, B: Yeah, but it should actually be easier to make my 10am deadline when I’m six hours ahead (thanks to the magic of global living, my deadline suddenly becomes the much more manageable 4pm), and C:….uh, because I can?

I’ve adopted the answer to ‘C’ as a significant part of my philosophy these days, and try to put it into practice as often as possible. Specifically, anytime the idea of something awesome pops into my head, I immediately ask: “Can I actually pull that off?” If the answer is anything close to even odds or better, I start implementing it.

This usually leads to women in bars telling me that no, they will not go home with me tonight. Which is disappointing, but you lose absolutely nothing by asking.

And, sometimes, the philosophy leads to rather awesome outcomes. I now have my motorcycle permit after answering the question “Gee, I wonder if I could walk into the DMV and ask for a motorcycle permit today?” That was unexpectedly easy.

Some potential downsides: the guy I’ve sublet my apartment to could decide to steal all my stuff. I rate this as a 1 in 20 possibility, since writing me a check for $3000 seems like a hell of a long way to go to steal a Playstation 2 and an HP desktop from 2004. And I’ve got renters insurance.

I might not be able to do my job effectively. Could be I can’t get a reliable internet connection. Could be my boss wants to start having lots of phone conversations I can’t really afford. Could be I get distracted by lots of AWESOME in Madrid and find I can’t really convince myself to buckle down and work for six hours a day. All very possible. One in three chance, in fact, I think. Worse case scenario: I get fired. No problem. I’ve been fired and/or quit jobs before. None of these potential downsides seem to be even remotely deal breakers to me.

What’s really been scaring me lately, and I suspect is the reason I randomly decided to go back to Spain on a whim, is the thought of stagnation.

When I came back to NYC last year, the world felt full of possibility. It was as if my eyes had been opened to the potential for a more adventurous, more fun, more dangerous life than I’d ever realized existed. Little things had ceased to bother me. Deadlines. The job market. Bills. None of it. There was nothing in my life so important that it tied me permanently to one spot. I could do anything. I could go anywhere.

But six months later, I found myself in the same apartment, having watched far too much television when I should have been out in the world looking for trouble. I’d allowed myself to get comfortable, allowed patterns to set in, developed that most horrible of all medical conditions: a routine.

A routine. Beware these things. They are the most powerful, deceptive and dangerous creatures you will every encounter. They look innocuous: the same coffee vendor every morning. The same route to work. The same dinner every night. The same drinks at the same bar with the same friends every night.

Oh, but be careful. Once this seductive creature has you in its tentacles, you start to feel sleepy. So sleepy. Your eyelids flutter, you yawn, and if you do regain consciousness for a few seconds, you might suddenly find that 14 years have passed, that you’ve gotten fatter and sleepier since then, that you just want to stay in the grip of routine, comfortable and numb, until you pass painlessly into death.

And, fundamentally, if that’s your choice, there really is nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of people in the world who are surrounded by loved ones, work fulfilling jobs, and have no desire to go gallivanting about creation.

It just ain’t no life for Vagabonds. And it makes for remarkably dull blogs.

I’ve got a brand new, unstamped passport that I can’t bare to let sit in my desk drawer gathering dust when it screams to be used. I’m off on another Walkabout, just because I can, because every now and then I think we may all need to, just to remind ourselves that we’re alive, that the world is bigger than we might think, that there exist other possibilities we haven’t yet explored.

I leave you with Melville.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

Where the Streets Have No Name

June 28, 2010 Leave a comment

People ask me why I like to run. Why would any human being, unless being chased by a chainsaw-wielding assailant, voluntarily set out to run a mile. Or two? Five? Ten? You’re crazy.

I could talk about the health benefits, that our bodies were designed by the evolutionary pressures caused by the centrality of distance running to stalking prey in the Serengeti, that it wakes you up in the morning and helps you sleep at night.

But all of these are besides the point, and make me sound like it’s some altruistic thing I do out of a sense of self-improvement and general enlightenment. That’s bullshit.

Like alcohol and sex, people run because if you do it long enough, the pain and the anger and the everything else just…fades away.
I run to excess. I run until I hurt. I once ran so hard I fractured an ankle, which sucked mostly because it kept me from running more. I’ve run in the rain. I’ve run in the snow. I’ve run in dangerously hot temperatures. I’ve run along the Danube, the Seine, the wine-dark Aegean and the broad streets of Berlin. I’ve run at midnight. I’ve run at five o’clock in the morning, before work, locked myself out of the house, and had to beg the MTA to let me take the subway to work so I could get my house keys. I’ve run at 5400 feet, in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains, with the mountaintops beheaded by a morning mist that made everything look like a fairy tale.

I’ve run up to the acropolis at Bergama, under the eyes of bemused Turks who wondered who the hell this American tourist was wearing only shorts and wanted to be let in to see the ruins at seven in the morning. I’ve jogged in the footprints of Alexander.

I’ve jogged over the Brooklyn Bridge, screaming at thoughtless tourists who crowd the bike lane. I’ve jogged it as morning dawns over New York Harbor, golden light reflecting off the windows of the skyscrapers of the financial district, the giant Watchtower sign proclaiming God’s kingdom disappearing behind me, ketches and garbage haulers and schooners and yachts and water taxis sailing down the East River below me and I’ve thought: there is no other place on the planet I would rather be than here, in this moment, doing this, doing nothing else.

My doctor gave me some good advice once, after I recovered from my ankle injury. “You should stop when you start to feel pain.” I nodded like a dutiful patient but, really, no jogger would ever take that advice.

If you stopped when you first felt pain you’d never get to the end of the block. The pain’s the point. Distance running is, fundamentally, not about avoiding pain but embracing it, confronting it, welcoming it, and ultimately transcending it.

Because you reach those points when your lungs are screaming, when your muscles are aching, when you’re dying of dehydration and you curse every extra ounce of fat you’re carrying. You start thinking strange, ludicrous thoughts. You start to negotiate with your body. For me, the conversation sounds a little like Luke Skywalker talking to R2-D2.

Luke: I know the right knee is failing. R2, see if you can’t lock it down.

Sometimes I picture little failure messages popping up in my field of vision, like I’m a robot and my brain is getting little danger signals.

Warning! Heart Rate Exceeding Maximum Safety Levels!

Warning! Body Heat Reaching Critical! Shutting down higher brain functions!

Warning! Structural Integrity of left shin failing! Failure imminent!

I watch a lot of sci-fi.

But the thing is…after awhile you stop fighting the pain. You let it permeate you, fill you, become you. You find there is no you left at all. There’s just the physical sensations you’re experiencing. Your thoughts, your ego, shut down. You have no job. You have no future. You have no fear. You’re free.

Then the strangest thing happens. You start running faster. Because the pain is gone. Because everything’s gone. Because it’s just you out there. You and pavement and the rhythm of your feet striking the ground matching your breath and the world stops. There’s euphoria. You come face to face with that most elusive of all creatures: yourself. If you’re of a religious background, you see, perhaps, God. You know in that moment, that brief, wonderful moment, exactly who you are and what you’re doing, and what’s important.

What’s important is the next step. What’s important is the next breath. And the next. And the next.

Breathe.

And then you fly.

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I’ve Already Done One Today

June 25, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m really only good at three things in life.

Two of these are illegal to charge money for outside of the great state of Nevada. So I try to earn my living by writing. I’ve been doing this more or less for the last seven years. It’s not always interesting writing, I’ll grant you. In fact, sometimes it’s mind-numbingly boring. But it beats having to work for a living, sit in a meeting, sell a product, or have an actual skill set. It’s still writing and, like pizza and sex, even when it’s not great, it’s still pretty good.

The experience, I mean. Not the end result.

Oof. Yeah, there’s some bad writing out there, no doubt.

Anyway. If you’re a writer, you tend to write all the time. I write every day. Usually for work, occasionally for the blog, often on a novel, screenplay, poem, script, television concept, bit of witty dialogue, or idea for a puppet show. When I don’t write, I start to get twitchy. Really twitchy. Glancing-around-the-room-furtively, I-know-I-should-be-doing something-but-I-don’t-know-what, knee-bouncing twitchy.

Which leads me to my question: do people in other professions have this same compulsion? Do surgeons get weird when they haven’t cut someone open in awhile? Do guitarists find themselves fingering arpeggios on their mousepad without realizing it? Will accountants spend their off hours tabulating sums?

Or do I just have a compulsive personality? Is writing, like sex, alcohol, and distance running, just another one of my addictions? Will there every come a day when I can sit quietly in a room by myself without worrying if that last line of dialogue came out quite right, if that character is behaving consistently, if the joke landed?

Part of me hopes not. Part of me doesn’t really mind staying awake until two in the morning just because an idea’s grabbed me by the lapels and thrown me toward the laptop.

But part of me just wants to have a beer and watch the game without the voices of my characters talking to me.

And part of me really wishes it were legal to charge for those other two things. They’re great stress relievers.

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Some Awesome Things I’ll Likely Never Say

June 24, 2010 Leave a comment

I spend a lot of time writing screenplays. They’re relatively easy for me to write. Hollywood screenplays adhere to strict structural rules which, like the rules for haiku, gives you just enough room to play around while suggesting specific story types.

There are, for example, certain narrative set pieces that only work in a screenplay. The chase scene, for example. You’ll never write a chase scene in a novel. Or, forgive me, you will, but it’ll usually suck. Because nothing makes the action stop dead in its tracks faster than having to take a few sentences to try to diagram exactly how far away the chase and pursuit cars are from each other, how close they are to the old lady cross the intersection, and how fast they’re going. You can do all that with much greater effect in a movie.

Likewise, few movies are about the internal emotional landscapes of damaged individuals who have trouble connecting with the outside world. Those that are are usually dreadfully boring and win Academy Awards for Acting.

Anyway. So screenplays. I write a bunch. Take some ridiculous premise (extra-terrestrial lands in boys backyard) throw in some well-written lines (phone home) shake well, and let sit. It’s kinda like doing Sudoku. I’m unlikely to write anything really good, but there’s a crossword puzzle aspect to trying to write a plot so that the whole thing hangs together in a way that’s at least vaguely coherent.

Which means I spend a lot of time trying to get in the heads of characters in completely ridiculous situations. Unlike writing a novel, where I’m trying to get inside the head of someone in a situation that is, hopefully, completely relateable, with screenplays I’m trying to get in the head of someone who’s trying to, say, diffuse a nuclear bomb before space monkeys can break into the fusion reaction chamber and complete their matter transference device that will allow their space monkey invasion force to teleport to earth.

At a certain point, you try to relate to your own life, try to figure out what *you* would say in this situation. And really, you have no idea. Because…c’mon, space monkeys? You’d be curled in a ball under your bed crying and wetting yourself. And you realize that there’s an entire list of awesome things you’ve heard thousands of times in action movies that you will never, ever, get the chance to say in real life. You know that, in most cases, this is probably for the best, but nonetheless, like Anthony LaPaglia in “So I Married An Axe-Murderer” we really wish *just once* we could hang on to that part of the helicopter…you know that part, that action heroes are always holding onto as the helicopter takes off? Or at lease we wish we knew what that part was called.

So here’s  a list of things that, at age 31, I’m realizing I’m never, ever going to have the opportunity to say in real life. I invite you to add your own in the comments section.

Awesome things I’ll probably never say at this point:

Brace for impact.

Where’s that mutiny you promised me?

The landing zone’s too hot.

We’ll have about ten seconds of useful consciousness before hypoxia sets in.

What does the Geiger counter say?

I don’t care if it’s two million, I still say the job’s too dangerous.

How good is your Morse code?

And to think: you had the jewels the whole time.

Target that explosion and fire.

Man I wish one of us spoke Swahili right now.

It’s a pleasure to see you again, Your Excellency.

Where do we rendezvous with the fleet?

Take as much ammo as you can carry.

No time for anesthetic, doctor, you’ll have to strap me down.

Anyone know how to deactivate the self-destruct sequence?

I doubt that would make it go nuclear.

This is my favorite time of year to see Kathmandu.

They nearly got the drop on me in Cairo

Where’s my evac?

Can you think of anyone who might want to kill you?

You’ll never make it to Marrakesh in time.

Strap yourself in, I’m gonna try to land her with the wheels up.

How long do we have before it blows?

That ought to hold them for a little while.

Unless we get these documents to Andre in two hours, there isn’t going to be a next time.

Toss me the detonators.

That artifact’s more powerful than you can imagine.

You can take the money, but the girl comes with me.

Heave to and prepare to be boarded.

This is even worse than the Slovakian prison.