Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Take me home, country roads

To a place I belong

West Virginia, mountain momma

Take me home, country roads

I kicked off my week in Belize the right way by partying in Hoboken with good friends and hot women. I stumbled out of the Green Rock around 2:15 to grab my things and hop in a cab to Newark Airport at 3:30. The 5am flight was sneaking up quicker than I anticipated.

We all met in Belize City and headed to the little airport bar in hopes of throwing a few back to soften up the puddle jumper we were about to get in to take us to Placencia. I flew shot gun –an experience made much more bearable by the two nasty rum punches I drank before we took off. As the plane lifted Learning To Fly started playing in my head.

Into the distance, a ribbon of black

Stretched to the point of no turning back.

It was pretty sick. The short runway ended at the water with the plane lifting at the last second. No computers, no fancy screens – just a bunch of odometer looking things. And I'm positive that none of them worked. Lucky for us it started pouring…

The house was awesome and just as pictured. Two kitchens, four bedrooms, two decks, a great pool and a private beach. The empty crates of Lighthouse Lager stacked up faster than we could empty them into the cooler.

What I appreciated the most was the freedom to wake to the crashing sounds of the clear waters just feet from our deck. Each day I walked into the ocean, even if just for a splash, just because I could. When you've run into some things as I have in life you tend to do more stuff just because you can.

Take me home, Banana Lance

To a place where I can swim

Take a shower and drink a beer

Take me home, Banana Lance

Veronik and Lance were fantastic. They were a cross between travel agent and tour guide. If we needed info, they'd have it for us. If we needed a ride, they'd find one. Beer, no problem. The best was the ride home from zip lining and cave tubing when Lance decided to run some errands.

The drive to the caves was about 2-2.5 hours long with what seemed like 75% bumpy dirt roads – and I stress bumpy. Once there they gave us a miner's light for our head, an old school black rubber tube and lead us to fresh waters and dark caves where we'd float carelessly through changing depths of light rapids…butts up!

Zip lining was much more of a challenge for everyone mainly because of our innate fear of heights. We stood on manmade platforms drilled into GIANT trees in the rainforest. Two cables, one above the other, connected the platforms and provided the path for us to glide on. We wore jacked up tool belts that strapped around our legs and waste. Three hooks, one for each cable and a safety, were the only things securing us from the forest floor below. Six platforms, six zips, and we ended by repelling down from the last of the giant trees we'd land on.

Back in the car for the two hour ride when Lance decided to stop off for some fruit, which wasn't so bad seeing that he came back with fresh pineapple and mangerines for everyone. Mangerines – you're thinking a mango tangerine, right? Nope – it's a mix of orange and tangerine…yeah, I know. Basically it was a giant sized thick skinned orange with a tangerine taste…or would it just be a giant tangerine? Refreshing, thanks Lance, now take me home please.

Suddenly we're pulling up to a banana factory where guys are standing in a line cleaning and boxing bananas as Lance explains how the factory runs. This is great but why the hell are we here? Minutes later he appears carrying bright green bananas still on their stem. They must've beeen four feet long and heavy enough for two people to carry. It turns out these were defects (which looked perfectly fine) but would be thrown out instead of boxed and shipped to England.

Take me home, Banana Lance

You get the idea.

The one downfall of the trip was the bugs. Sand bugs, air bugs, day bugs, night bugs – it didn't matter. By the end of the week my arms and legs looked like an eight year old with chicken pox. It wasn't pretty.

Potato Tom

That's What Michael Vick Said



And the week fell to an intense game of West Cast versus East Coast Flip the Cup which ended with talking burps, belling rubbing, and a tremendous amount of trash talking…a perfect way to end the trip.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Movie Review: Stranger Than Fiction

Now let me say right off the bat that I like movies like this. It was quirky, convoluted and a little unusual. I also love writing and the process of writing, so watching the author go through the agony of her craft was a lot of fun.

Right off the bat the movie hooked me with the weird visual cues that revealed Harold's mind working. I was laughing right from the start, and I thought Will Ferrell really nailed the essence of that poor, sad tax man. And Emma Thompson as the agonized author was fantastic. She had me convinced with one look that this was a woman so twisted up inside that it was no wonder the only job in the world she could have was 'Author'.

Clearly, though, once you get into the heart of the movie, it falls apart a little. You have to very willingly suspend your disbelief that anything like this could ever happen. Most of the time I was able to do it, but now and then a moment would pull me out of my forced acceptance and tickle my skeptical heart. And it was a little trite at times. A little too-good-to-be-true. A little over the top. A little cliched. But then again, in a weird way, that all kinda worked, too. Because of the nature of the plot, you knew it had to be a bit contrived.

The ending left me a little sour though. If it had gone the way she wrote it the first time, it would have been awesome. But the Hollywood sugar at the end really undermined everything the Author was about, and I just didn't quite buy it.

I also wanted another layer to the movie. I wanted some interesting switcheroo, or some deeper revelation to really wow me right at the end. Unfortunately it just coasted to a cute end and left me feeling just the tiniest bit manipulated.

7.5 I'd say, but it was perfect for what Lu and I both wanted last night (she called for 'Freedom Writers, I called 'V for Vendetta'. 'Stranger Than Fiction' was something we could both enjoy, and we did!)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Mile 19

Evelyn and I were exhausted. We had stopped running a long while ago and were trying to walk the rest of the marathon. We had trained for six months together and were too delirious to remember to keep our places. This was typical for us. Her glass eye was on the left but somehow we always managed to fall into place so that I was on her left, so that when I called her name she had to spin around to see me panting and gasping at her.

“Evelyn! Which way?” She pointed at the arch. “Chinatown. We’re here.”

Going under the arch was cool. Our Chinatown in Chicago is only a few blocks long but the arch is pretty dope. We huffed and puffed for a few yards before realizing that we were competing with some serious foot traffic. Little old ladies were pushing their carts around the sidewalk trying to get their errands done and they were getting in our way.

Our poor heart monitors probably got confused when we had to pause with our backs up against the storefront with bleeding fowl hanging from hooks in the windows. I’d roll my eyes at Ev, and she’d roll her right eye at me. It occurred to me that maybe we were the ones who were in the way.

“Maybe we should call an AMbulANce,” Evelyn said. “STOP IT,” I told her again, “we are not calling any ambulance. My family is wearing matching purple t-shirts with my name on it and they have a cooler full of squeeze-top Gatorades, just like we asked for, about three miles up the road. If anything we’re taking a cab and then I’m pretty sure my parents will drive us to the finish line.”

When we got to the end of Chinatown, the end of the block, all we saw was the highway with a slope of gravel underneath. We were lost. So we tried to play it cool and started doing some light stretches when a police officer rounded the corner. “Hey! Um, do you know where the marathon goes?” I mean, we couldn’t tell from there, and I just figured she’d know.

“Are you serious?” she asked. I looked at Evelyn and she looked back at me with that sad look in her right eye. That “let’s call an ambulance” look. I scowled at her briefly and turned back to the cop and said, “Okay. Which way is north?”

She looked us up and down. Poor lady was probably only trying to get some take-out for dinner because her working day was done, being that the marathon was over and all.

But once she saw the desperation in our three eyes, the Team in Training temporary tattoos on our faces, and the bib numbers carefully pinned through single hole punches on our puffy-painted shirts, she could clearly see that, despite our obesity, we were indeed trying to finish a marathon.

“You’re gonna wanna go South,” she said. “You still have to go all the way to Comisky and back.”

We didn’t make it very far before stopping again. There was a set of port-o-potties in the gravel underneath the highway and Evelyn had to go, so I decided to sit down on the curb and take of my shoes and socks to change my band-aids. We had seven miles to go, and about four until The Penguin came to rescue us.

Monday, April 30, 2007

My favorite furball

2 fridays ago, I learned that my favorite dog in the whole world, *my* dog Lomu, the big black Newfoundland I had named after the legendary All-Black rugby player, had passed away. Fucking cancer. It broke him in a barely a week.

He would have turned 12 this week. Pretty remarkable for a dog that size, although he had been looking pretty rough for the last 2 years, plagued as he was by various begnign ailments . He hardly looked the splendid bear-like dog he was in his youth, robust, with shiny fur, a big head with both intimidating and yet harmless shiny black eyes. No matter how much he hurt in his last couple years though, he couldnt resist running and barking after the delivery cars when they came up to the house. Bright yellow postal vans were his favorites. The mailman never delivered the mail any other way than through his car window, barely opened more than a crack. He was harmless to those he knew though. A big deep booming bark and intimidating size, but nothing more. Of course, when you have a 130 pounds all-black unidentified furball running at you, you dont take too many chances.

I remember he almost succombed to a bad stomach virus his second summer. That August, I spent most of my days lying besides him in the kitchen, feeding him cookies and helping him drink when he couldn't move his rear-end. That young bear manage to pull through back then though. This time, he was too weak, too old to resist.

3 years ago, the housekeeper, who loves to hunt (he spends most fall days perched in a tree-house he built himself, camouflaged, waiting for the migratory birds to fly by) bought himself a young white retriever called Tina to help him bring back the birds he shoots down. Since the first day, we made her sleep in the kennel with Lomu, so she wouldnt be alone and so she would quickly get used to sleeping outdoors. She immediately adopted Lomu as a surrogate dad, and the old nut discovered in himself a fatherly instinct we never even suspected he had. From a wild, stubborn, slightly thick, barely trained bear, he morphed into a protective, patient, borederline caring role model and play-partner. An amazing transformation. I often wonder if that's what'll eventually happen to me.

For the last week, Lomu could barely move and seemed in a lot of pain, but the usually frantic and energetic Tina kept sticking by him, and seemed to know something was wrong. Instead of running laps around him and tugging at tail or the remains of his mane, she'd lie by his side licking his nose. Dogs know.

When they took him to the vet, she came along and the vet had her lie on top of him on the table so she wouldnt be looking for him after it was all said and done. The vet was unequivocal. He had to be put to sleep. Even he was shaken by the news, since Lomu had been his only Newfie "customer" for the past 12 years. My parents got the call and were heartbroken because they couldnt fly back in time to say goodbye. The housekeeper came back from the vet in tears; that dog had been his everyday companion for 10 years.

I'd been dreading an email like this for a year now. Last time i saw him back in September, i made my goodbyes knowing it could be the last time I saw him. It doesnt make it any easier to take in though.
He's in a better place I think. I imagine puppy heaven is made of a big fields of tall grass in which he can run around wildly, chasing insects and rabbits (or his own shadow), giant t-bones and cheese crusts everywhere, sticks and postal mopeds to chase at will, and a giant beach-style pool he can swim in like an otter.

Rest in peace buddy.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Things I see wrong with America...

Drive-thrus that don't give you ketchup
Peter Gammons was never president
Chinese-owned Mexican restaurants
Bars with cover charges
Old balls
Uncomfortably nice receptionists
Girls that don't go down
Pizza with toppings
#3 Pencils
Keanu Reeves
Subway grates
Shortbread Girl Scout cookies

They'll be more but that's all for now. Please feel free to add on to the list...


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Film Review: A Scanner Darkly

I'm not the Keanu hater that some are, but I do recognize that he can suck. There's a time and a place for his face and acting style, and A Scanner Darkly is one of those. This was a great film. One of those films that makes me applaud at the end alone on my couch as I chortle and shout at the credits, psyched that I got to be a part of that world for nearly two hours. The cast in general is just impeccable for the topic of the movie. The five main characters are played by Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Rory Cochrane and Woody Harrelson. Talk about a dream-team of druggie actors! And that's perfect because this movie is all about drugs. Or so it seems at first.

Really, the film is about modern culture, dissatisfaction, deception, addiction, denial and the way that society places demands on the individual that sometimes even the individual being victimized doesn't even realize. Some of this movie has brilliant, bizarre dialogue, some of is it inane drug-fueled banter, other parts are pseudo-scientific jargon-filled babble, but together it creates a true picture of how people really talk when they don't know what they are saying, what they are feeling, or what is going on. Yet, despite the inherent confusion of this story Linklater manages to pull the viewer along with superb bits of true-life amid the desolation of these disturbed individuals.

The cartoon-like rotoscoping of the cinematography fits perfectly with themes of the movie. Using that technique in fact improves the entire movie, allowing the director to play with perception, subtlety and smoothly. To try and achieve the altered states present in the movie with regular film and special effects would have made it campy and obvious. With the rotoscoping the slight alterations in color and motion are conveyed quietly, delicately and you 'get' the changed state without being bashed over the head by it.

That the story was written by Philip K. Dick means you are in for a ride. He writes about identity, about self-delusion, about deception and despair. But despite all of that, Dick still manages to believe and convey that somehow, someway, we humans will fight against the darkness even as it destroys us.

Watch this film. Let it wash over you. Look for the weird, hilarious moments and accept, for a moment, the ideas Dick is writing about and Linklater is transmitting. Don't sweat the Keanu-ness of the film. He's the perfect vehicle for the lost, earnest soul that fills this story with all of its truth.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Row Sancocho Row


I splash some cool water on my face one last time, and adjust my hat, nodding to our captain’s last words of encouragement.


Right hand firmly gripping the T-shaped extremity of the paddle, left hand down low at the crux between the handle and the paddle itself, twisting the paddle in my hands to make sure my gloves aren’t slippery. Butt cheeks nicely squared in my seat, legs stretched out with knees touching in the center.


Both arms outstretched now, ready to dig into the water on the signal, paddle hovering inches over water, eyes firmly set on the first buoy up ahead, all muscles tense.

“…DOS, UNO…”

The pistol shot rings out amidst the jungle air and chaos ensues. The start is intense, with quick strong short paddling to pick up as much speed and momentum as possible. After 12 or so strokes, Lucie, our rhythm-setter, sitting in front at the #1 spot, belts out her customary “READY??” and on the next stroke, we each swing our paddles to the other side in a smooth scissor ballet of hands and paddles, without breaking rhythm. With the second set of strokes, Lucie lengthens the rhythm a little as we have built up enough momentum to let the boat glide by itself on each stroke. Lucie and I, at the #1 and #3 spots respectively are now rowing on the right-hand side – my strong side – while Nico and Oriol at the #2 and #4 spots, are rowing on the left side. With each stroke, we reach well forward tp plant the paddle in the water almost at the level of the person sitting in front of us. Using both arms, one pushing down on the paddle, the other pulling the paddle backwards, as well as our shoulders and upper body, we push the Sancocho along the no-longer-tranquil waters of the Melia Panama Canal race course with all our strength.

The setting is gorgeous: a wide canal with curving coasts smothered in jungle foliage, with small islands scattered about, making for an ideal setting for a boat race. The waterline is as still as we’ll ever see it, with barely a hint of a wave breaking the surface. The sky is completely clear and at noon, the sun is beating down mercilessly onto us. Were this a mere practice, surely we’d take the time to peer at the jungle to spot countless species of birds, and animals, but at this point, the only animals we’re vaguely preoccupied with are crocodiles (rare but you never know) and water-snakes. As long as we don’t capsize, there’s nothing to be worried about. But even those thoughts have quickly been dispelled with the start of the race.

Approaching the first set of buoys, we settle into a regular race rhythm (after all, there are 2 complete laps to be completed, no way we can sprint through the whole thing). A quick cursory look around us tells me most boats are still within a length or two of each other, except for the usual 2 crews of pros who have already distanced the rest of the pack. The first corner is going to be quite a mess.

We are neck a neck with the Déjà Vu-Blitz cayuco, a crew of 4 Colombian women competing in the female open category. They’re on their third season and have improved their wooden cayuco accordingly. We finished the last race a minute behind them and they’re a good reference benchmark for us. However, coming up on the first corner, they hold the inside and as they drift outwards to negotiate their turn, it becomes apparent we must either slow down and let them pass in front to try and cut inside them, or let them push us off-course in trying to overtake them and risk letting the other cayucos behind us take advantage of our duel. We try and maintain our ground but the screams of the back-markers indicate they are gaining ground and we opt for the safe option, pulling back a little to let them through and conserve the inside on the other boats. BC-Net is amongst them: they are our biggest rivals, since we overtook them in the last stretch of the last race. Judging from the excited screams of their #1, they are hard bent on seeking revenge.

Following the first corner we set off on a long straight which cuts across the main basin, crossing the main path of the canal where there is the most current. This is one of the tricky spots of the course as what little waves there are come at us laterally, making the boat very unstable. The slightest half-inch move of the butt, an approximate paddle stroke or a shoulder dropping a little too much, and the cayuco starts rocking. There’s only one way to counter instability, and that’s forward movement: it’s crucial to keep paddling, extra hard, whenever we cross these slightly more choppy waters. By now we’re experienced enough to not let it ruin our chances by capsizing but it does mean that water occasionally slips inside the boat over the edges from the rocking, the waves and the hard paddling mainly. This only makes the cayuco more unstable as the water moves from side to side with each lateral movement. As the #3 in the boat, it is my duty to scoop water out if it becomes too cumbersome. This is a tricky process because a) it means I’m not paddling and thus we’re not moving at full speed, b) in order to scoop water out I need to purposely list the cayuco to one side for the water to collect there in order to be scooped out easily, and c) I need to do the scooping in rhythm with the paddling. In addition, it’s a burden on the captain and skipper at #4: while we usually row on opposite sides, when I switch to scooping, he has to switch his rowing to the same side as the Rhythm setter (#1 in the boat). This means that he goes through 2 sets of strokes without changing sides, and by the second lap, this is absolute torture on the arms and shoulders. Choosing the right moment is therefore key, as is communication.

The first lap goes relatively well, although by its end, I’m fighting off some serious cramps to my right forearm and biceps. What is usually my strong side becomes my weak side as I can’t seem to pull back on the paddle with any power. My paddling thus weakens considerably. Every switch of rowing sides is sweet relief, as it allows those muscles to vaguely relax for a few seconds. But every time I switch back to rowing on the right, I can’t seem to manage more than 2 or 3 strong strokes before the cramps set in again. At this point, I throw caution to the wind and decide to quit rationing my camelback of Gatorade/water mix, opting for maximum hydration to fight off the cramps as my skipper yells at us to pick up the pace and push stronger. Those few minutes of struggling allowed BC-Net to gain back on us. Just as we embark on the second lap, passing in front of the main hillside from which family, friends and other assorted fans are watching the race, we have to fight off a serious offensive. Unable to look back, all we can hear is the voice of their #1 calling out the switches. “CHANGE!”. It’s tough to get an idea of how far back they are behind us, until I catch the bow of their cayuco from the corner of my eye, making a pass at us on the inside, as the crowd cheers us along, horns blaring. Side-by-side, we turn the corner, but cries of “FUERTE!! FUERTE!!” from Nico at #2, the power-rower, encourage us to dig deep into the tank, and put a little extra “oomph” into each stroke. Within 100 yards, BC-Net is relegated back to about a boat’s length, their resolve temporarily broken.

The second lap thus starts, as the wind seemingly picks up a little. While it feels pretty good and cools us down, it also makes the paddling harder, rowing both against the wind AND the accompanying current. Our fiberglass cayuco is at a disadvantage in those conditions: wooden cayucos are swifter and better gliders in the water, their momentum carrying them much further along the waterline than fiberglass Cayucos. The latter create more friction against water, which, while offering more stability, also kills its forward momentum more easily. When rowing against the current, you sometimes feels as though the cayuco stops after every paddle stroke. The efforts required to maintain velocity are therefore much more important, and what little distance we managed to make up on Déjà-Vu Blitz we definitely lose in the second lap.

The second lap is also where a lot of races can be won or lost due to silly mistakes: with fatigue setting in comes lack of concentration. It may be as benign as falling out of synch whilst rowing, or a careless shift of the butt inside the cayuco, but each of those will throw off the crew’s balance, and if one isn’t properly focused, capsize can ensue. On the back stretch of the race we passed a cayuco of kids which seemed stuck in water, immobile in the middle of the course. Turns out their #1 hadn’t kept his eyes peeled enough and had failed to warn his skipper of the incoming shallow rocks ahead. The cayuco rammed right into them, piercing the hull and jamming them with no other option but to stay put and wait for the safety boat.

Alternatively, this is also the part of the race where one can fall into a “zone”, the mechanics of the body taking over and reducing the brain to a supervisory role: buckled down, solely focused on the paddle in front of me to keep up the rhythm and stay perfectly synchronized, stroke after stroke. My eyes never leave Lucie’s paddle as it enters the water, slides back along the hull with conviction, then makes a quarter turn as it retracts, to cut the breeze and return to its starting point far ahead of the rower, my own paddle mimicking those same moves as precisely as possible. Taking each stroke as it comes, I am entirely focused on the rhythm, letting my arms fall into a familiar but firm pattern, letting the movement become completely automatic, like pistons pumping. My thoughts are completely detached, my mind blank. Looking up at the horizon is only a source of misery as it reminds me of how far we still have to go.

At this point, we’re all digging deep in the tank. The grunting and panting becomes more generalized and regular. Muscles are burning, legs are tense, backs sore. As we enter the final stretch, BC-Net makes one last push, trying to match our feat from last week, looking to inflict similar punishment on us by passing us in the last quarter-mile. But it would be foolish to expect us to roll over and concede: we make one last drive, throwing ourselves with abandon into the last sprint, screaming at each stroke until finally, the Sancocho crosses the line in front of its rival cheered along by a fantastic crowd, which greets every cayuco with the same energy.

The minutes that follow the end of the race are like wading through fog: you just let your self drift, paddle in your lap, leaning back as far as you can, panting, hands drifting in the water, heart pumping stong, face blushed, trying to regain a sense of coherence. Then of course, the temptation to let yourself slide overboard into the cool waters is just too much to resist, stretching those legs, sinking below the waterline momentarily as your heart beat pulses in your ears. High fives all around, words of encouragement and congratulations are thrown to everyone in the crew, first impressions, anecdotes, and analysis are exchanged. The irony is we still have to row back a half mile to the ramp, then carry the damn boats out and onto the trailer, but at least we can take our sweet time doing it.

The overall feeling is one of satisfaction and relief: satisfaction at having completed the physical challenge once again, and relief for that very same reason, knowing that the next race isn’t for another 6 weeks. That’ll be the last race of the season, the main one, the famous Ocean-to-Ocean race, that’ll take us from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean along the Panama Canal and through its 2 sets of locks, over the course of 3 days. The first day is of similar length as today's race, about an hour and change. The second day is a grueling 4-5 hour leg through the main lake (ie choppy waters, with tankers and boats cruising alongnext to us). The last day consists of an hour-long leg up the locks, then 2 x 10 minute sprints... No small challenge, in fact, my shoulders are twitching just thinking about it, but it will no doubt be a unique experience, one we’re all looking forward to despite the pain it will bring us and the sacrifices it will require until then. Now if we could only get into a more disciplined practice mode…