Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Greece: BBQ Bliss

The day after the blessing ceremony was set aside for rest and rehabilitation. After all, we were to be dancing Greek and breaking plates into the morning hours... So we slept in, hung out by the pool a bit, and explored the area.

We took a cab ride around a bit as well. Our cab driver was a real character. Coke bottle glasses, he looked to be googly-eyed, like a squid. He drove a brown Mercedes sedan-- I think it was a diesel-- and it appeared that the horn was broken, because he drove with the windows down and yelled "Beep Beep!" in a high pitched voice when traffic needed to pay him some attention. We thought him quite entertaining. He knew a limited amount of English-- "George Bush!" he said, making conversation, with a thumbs up. Remember, this was before 9/11 and opinions about political leaders weren't quite so polarized. So we had a kindly exchange of limited communication. He was cheerful and smiling, very friendly, despite the difficulties communicating.

Later we would take another cab ride with him-- to a small village where Armand's uncle lives. In the sedan were Mr. Beep-beep (driving), Armand (navigating), and in the backseat there was me, Suzy, Melissa, and Maria. So it was cozy, to say the least. And Mr. Beep-beep led us on a long, arduous drive through the country, without street lights, without street signs, and with fading, dim headlights.

Adventure makes experience more vivid, and soon we would reach our destination and be treated to a meal most exquisite.

We pulled up to what looked to be a vacated gas station. Several tables were arranged together to form a long banquet table, and tablecloths were spread across. We were told to sit back, relax, and have some wine. Several carafes of table wine were ushered in, and socializing commenced.

Soon, food was brought to the table. It just seemed to appear out of nowhere. I never saw a kitchen. Yet here come tomatoes, tzatsiki, and-- fresh french fries, not frozen, that were so delectable the memory of them makes me salivate. Crunchy and crispy, yet moist and a little gooey in the middle... yummy, to put it one way.

I don't remember all that we were served that night, not because it wasn't good enough to be remembered, but because everything-- just about everything-- was outshined by the BBQ lamb. It had a similar consistency to the french fries-- crunchy, moist, and gooey goodness. But it was meaty, salty, tangy. Just downright good.

We took turns linking arms and toasting each other. First it was two people, then three, then the groups got big. Armand and Kiki got us started, displaying the proper technique. We toasted the dinner, the wedded couple, the lamb, the hosts and hostesses, George Bush, those little round things, the tablecloths, the ocean, and life itself. We toasted to wine, and to toasting. We drank a toast to innocence, we drank a toast to now... Well, you get the idea.

We piled all the empties around Dave and made it look like he was the one who had partaken of it all. I'm not sure if this was the incident that earned him the moniker "Captain Morgan", but it was nonetheless his nickname for the latter part of the trip. This all may have given birth to the Captain Morgan advertising campaign of around 2007 or so. But we're not sniveling.

The cab drivers stayed and ate (and drank) with us, and then we made the long trip back to the hotel in Eretria. Armand again navigated through the dark and at one point identified some areas where some significant battles had been waged by the Spartan Army. I'd love to learn more about what he spoke about so eloquently. He's got an ability for doing that-- assessing a situation and poignantly painting a verbal picture that not only pleases, but endures.

After I had had thoughts of eternal wandering in the backlands of Greece, of being lost forever in a brown sedan-- the same color of the dirt and brush that surrounded us-- we made it back to our destination. Those who hadn't fallen asleep in the cab woke those who had and we all headed back to our hotel rooms. We promptly got some rest in anticipation of another taxing day in paradise.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Greece: Blessing Ceremony

The blessing ceremony was to be held at sundown in the town where Armand’s mother had grown up. It was a humble, but beautiful place. And it was a very warm evening.

There was a lot of talk among the group of travelers about what was expected of us at the ceremony. This was a strict, classic, Greek Orthodox Church, and there were rules that needed to be respected. We needed to dress appropriately. There were to be no photographs inside the church. And we were to be respectful and proper at all times. You know, as if we were in church.

Some of these provisions proved to be assumptions, if not unfounded rumors, once we arrived and filed into the church. There was joking, laughter, people passing cameras all around, posing for pictures… It was a downright farce compared to what image I had in my mind, what I had been prepared for. Even during the ceremony, photographers (the professionals) were frantically jockeying for position, placing light standards amongst the church artifacts and priests. Sacred garments and chandeliers were shuffled and rattled by these fastidious photographers, foraging for the right shot. It wasn’t long before everyone in our party felt comfortable with taking whatever picture they wanted.

In the image to the right, you can see the elaborate chandeliers, as well as the temporary light standards glaring through the place, unceremoniously.

The ceremony was undaunted, however, by the paparazzi and Hollywood media. The couple circled the gifts that had been assembled and placed at the altar– the most prominent a large ring of bread, with lots of symbolism baked right in. As they circled, the congregation threw rice, showering them in good luck. The rice symbolized fertility, someone said. A grain of rice slid across Melissa’s face and got stuck in her lipstick. She started to motion with her hand to knock it free, but Armand, schooled in the traditions, caught her arm and eased it back down.

After the ceremony, most of us filed out into the night outside the church and waited as the wedding party took pictures. For some reason, as I watched them pose, the whole Hollywood scenario got a bit more play in my mind. Maybe a bit of jealousy, with a touch of envy, and just a pinch of disgust. Not at the bridal party, per se, but at the image of Hollywood in my mind; a superficial, plastic, overindulged bastard in my head.

When I learned that the family friend, Susie Buffet, was in the church, being photographed, my mind and its haughty bastard idea got more justification. Susie was the estranged wife of Warren Buffet, and was a billionaire herself. She had befriended Armand’s mother, Kiki, when Kiki was a hairstylist. The families were longtime friends, and Susie had been involved with Armand’s schooling and looked after him, especially when he did his residency in San Francisco. In fact, my college roommate and best buddy Tom and me visited the city and actually met up with Susie at her townhouse, had a delightful conversation and then went to see a friend of hers who was performing– Vice Grip. I shared a cab with Susie Buffet. Armand met up with us at Susie’s and went down to the show with us. We had a great time. Anyway.

One other thing– inside the church, after the ceremony (before the paparazzi and full fledged “Eat the Rich” tirade in my head) there was a typical procession of congratulatory guests by the family and married couple. As I made it around, I met with Kiki. She apparently didn’t recognize me at first because she started holding my face and speaking Greek to me. I’m sure she was still rattled and sleep deprived and worried about Milt. Next I congratulated Melissa, and then I went to give Armand the traditional European left cheek, right cheek kiss, as everyone else was doing. But I zigged and so did Armand and so we accidentally met in the middle, full-on lips kiss.

“Oh ho!” exclaimed Armand. “You’ve been wanting to do that for a long time, haven’t you!”

I laughed it off, but I did feel a bit embarrassed. Just because I hadn’t intended to do that. But whatever, right? No harm, no foul.

Later I would feel some guilt, because I had a cold, and wouldn’t you know it– Armand caught it too. And it wasn’t even an open-mouthed kiss…

After a bit of a wait (the paparazzi had a lot of equipment to pack up) we finally loaded up the bus and went to the reception. They had traditional dancers and line dancing, lots of traditional Greek foods, and more dancing. This was where the “plate breaking” used to occur, but in this world full of lawyers and litigation, that was no longer a good idea.

I got a chance to go up to Susie Buffet’s table and talk with her for awhile. I reminisced about Vice Grip’s show, and she lamented his current day struggles. She seemed distressed a bit, and she mentioned that she was mourning the death of a friend in the previous couple weeks or so (I say it that way because I don’t remember how recently it had been. She certainly remembered when her friend had died.) I later felt like I hadn’t been consoling enough, like I hadn’t expressed enough sympathy, and for that I am still regretful. But there’s nothing I can do about it now. I’ll never see her again– she passed away a few years ago. Strange, the things this mind will hold onto and work like a crossword puzzle with faded clues.

Susie Buffet, Me, Carole Coulter, and Eliyana Garcia

We partied into the night. I had quite a few beers and was feeling good. When the reception party had been described to me, it was to last into the morning. ‘Til the sun comes up. I did a fair amount of schmoozing, drinking, dancing, and laughing. It was a really nice party– plenty to eat, too. And no thoughts about Hollywood disgusting bastards.

I was feeling good, but I wasn’t rip-roaring drunk. We started to file back on the bus because some of the guests were ready to head back to the hotel. As usually happens in these situations, certain people are identified as party-poopers, while others are called die-hard overdoers, and others try to smooth the rough edges and find some sort of consensus. So even though the sun of the morning had yet to shine, we packed it in and headed for the hotel. We sang a couple songs, but that petered out because nobody could remember the words of a whole song. So the evening kind of fizzled and went out like a wet campfire.

I would later self consciously recount that evening, thinking I had been out of control, drunk, loud, and that I had blacked out. Even though I didn’t have any evidence as to such. Such self-deprecating thinking patterns would start to build massive theoretical matrices that would crystallize into mystical delusions once I was manic. These delusions would have no differentiating qualities from reality in my mind.

But that would come later.

NEXT: BBQ Lamb and Toasting Wine

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Greece: Theatre of the Mind

There have been a lot of starts and stops, a lot of attempts, a lot of notes taken, a lot of outlines made. And it has all added up to something, but that something is far short of the definitive meaning or the whole story. So I shall attempt again. I shall keep trying.

The near death experience of Armand’s dad rattled me.

One moment I’m just starting to re-connect with my college “brother” Armand (not to be construed as a “frat” reference– no such organizations exist at Grinnell), just starting to let my hair down, so to speak, and really enjoy myself… And we go out on the ocean on a “Banana Boat”- this inflated tube with handles for a group of about 6 people to straddle and try to stay on top of as it is towed behind a motorboat. We find that all it takes is one good bump over a slight wake, and if one person falls off, the rest are sure to follow, because the banana just goes bonkers… Anyway, so my wife Suzy, Armand, his wife Melissa, and me along with a couple others enjoy the first round, then are returned to the pier and we hang out as another group takes on the Banana. Armand, Suzy, and I are joking, catching up, and what not– conversing, reacquainting… and then the unthinkable happens. Armand’s father, while out with the second group on the Banana, falls off the ride, along with the others, and hits his head on something or someone– I mean, one second, we’re laughing, joking, living it up, and the next second, one of Armand’s friends comes walking slowly by, assisting Milt (Armand’s Dad), and says,” Armand, I think your Dad might have fractured his skull.”

This initiated a sequence of events that led to Armand and his dad being stuffed into a car and driven to the hospital. The rest of us were left to worry and wait. Armand would later recount how he realized that his dad would probably be alright as more time passed. Because the situation became less dire as minutes went by and his dad’s symptoms didn’t worsen. We, however, were left to a wider range of speculation.

We had been hanging out at the beach. They had those stackable white resin chairs at the beach, and people would walk them down into a couple feet of water and plop down on them, lounging in the cool water.

We watched others try to navigate the banana boat for a while, then decided to go for it ourselves. And we had fun. Suzy lost her shoe. But it was a load of laughs.

And then we stood on the pier, Armand, Suzy, Melissa and I, talking, joking, getting to know one another—really just starting to relax into the idea of actually really being on vacation. And then Milt has his accident.

Armand’s mother Kiki was back at the hotel when all of this went down. After Armand and Milt were shuttled away by the banana boat owner in his personal vehicle, we felt lost. What were we supposed to do now? Go to the hospital?

We ended up going back to the hotel and we ran into Kiki in the stairwell. We had to tell her what had happened. We tried to reassure her that everything was being taken care of and that it was going to be okay, but she was shaken and a bit panicked. I think somebody offered to drive her to the hospital and they ended up going from there. Two of the other couples, Mark and Julie and Dave and Laurie, went to the hospital to check on Armand, Melissa, Milt and Kiki. Those who stayed behind changed and went to dinner because it was the only thing we could think to do. We went to the restaurant at the hotel and worried. We chatted and tried to comfort one another. Although we didn’t know each other it was somehow comforting to have this connection. Anyone from the group that came in would wonder how Milt was doing and if anyone had heard anything.

It wasn’t until the next morning when word finally did get back to us. It was good news. Milt was going to be fine. The fracture had occurred in a spot such that it hadn’t put pressure on his brain, so there was no brain swelling. He had missed a severe and dire injury by mere centimeters. So Milt would be ok but would have to remain in the hospital overnight and would miss the blessing ceremony. Being relieved that he was going to be all right we carried on and spent the day at the pool, then got ready for the ceremony. We had a set time to meet at the bus, and it would take us to the church.

Armand, Marc, and the others that had been on the banana boat at the time of the incident spent the next day being deposed by the authorities. The Greek Tourism Bureau doesn’t take too kindly to accidents, and they wanted to get to the bottom of this one.

NEXT: The Blessing Ceremony and the Media

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Engine Is Found

The calling has connected. The stones have been turned. There exists the trail, one for the sleuthing, discerning nostrils of a true detective. And over time and space, as remembrance faded and sank deeper into the imagination, he would question the very existence of what he’d seen. What he’d thought he’d seen.

There shall be no doubt, now, that it exists. For it is again found.

A couple years ago, I had the occasion to ride on the Altamont Commuter Express train from Great America (Santa Clara) to Manteca/Lathrop with my mother. My Dad met us at the train station and took us back to Escalon, my default home town (we moved a lot when I was young, but settled longest in Escalon, and my parents still live there now, although they’ve had stints in other parts of California. They retained ownership of the same house, so it seems like home).

A curious thing happened while we were on the train. Well, several curious things happened, actually. Maybe this isn’t where I should start– you see, I had recently had a manic episode (I am bipolar) and was still in treatment, albeit on outpatient status. I’d calmed considerably since my violent rampage that injured one bowl of guacamole, a television set, one wooden chair, and my dignity. The latter was the most seriously injured. See my previous blog entries “Mania Part One” and “Mania, Continued ” for more details.

Engine That May

Engine That Shall

As my Mom and I rode along the rails, seeing parts of the Bay Area that we’d never really seen before, I chatted at her rapidly, making more points about this and that subject than a schizophrenic librarian playing basketball. But it was entertaining. At least to me. I was charismatic, eloquent, and melodic in tone. I sang like a soprano philosopher, rhythmically trotting out thesis and antithesis, melding a synthesis that shone so true that even a categorical imperative would avert its eyes.

But I digress. It’s easy to fall back into the motoring of the mouth. Please forgive me.

We saw the salt plant, and wildlife, and many things that fluffed my curiosity. But the most prevailing, enduring image that I encountered that day was of a rusted old locomotive, sitting idle about twenty feet from the train we were on, being overtaken by weeds and erosion. I remarked to my mom how interesting it looked, and wondered how old it was.

This led to several reconnaissance missions to Livermore and Pleasanton in an attempt to find the engine and photograph it. I ended up stumbling on the staging area for the Niles Canyon Railroad and took several compelling photos that were exciting and adventurous to secure. But my engine went undiscovered. It seemed that I had mistaken its existence.

Several months passed, and I continued to wonder if I could ever again find the thing that I had thought I had seen while riding on a train between Santa Clara and Lathrop while somewhat hypomanic and of elevated mood. My mom had an occasion to ride the A.C.E. train again and she promised that she would look for the old and rusty locomotive.

She didn’t see it.

So about a week ago, I got another chance to ride the rails, repeating my trip of more than a couple years ago. I was excited at the opportunity to see for myself what and where that rusty aberration could be.

Although I almost missed it, suddenly, there it was. The train was still moving, so I only caught a glance, but it was there, as I remembered it. Even more overgrown that before, but still there. So I wasn’t able to get a picture of it, but I saw it long enough and well enough to confirm– a second source, if you will– that it does indeed exist.

And then tonight, with the assistance of Google Earth, I pinpointed its location. And I have directions so that I might go and get close enough to photograph it. I’m quite excited to think that I could have photos to share of this engine– my own personal Sasquatch– within a few days, if all goes well.

But I know there are risks. Will there be parking? Is it private property that it’s situated on? Are there people around who would agree to me photographing the artifact? Who is the owner/landlord, and who owns the engine? Why isn’t it being renovated? So many questions… But I only wish to capture a few shots of its glory– a grand machine from a time gone by. Surely the Niles Canyon Railroad folks would enjoy seeing such a thing in existence? And perhaps it would begin the process of its reclamation. Or perhaps there’s a museum that would be interested in preserving it.

Or maybe it’s somebody’s sculpture and it’s fooled me into thinking all of this. I don’t know. But I’m prepared to try and find some answers. Whatever they may be.
So venture with me. Stay tuned for the next update. The Engine, she is found!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Whatever Principle

I tell myself that I don't care. That whatever happens happens and I'll live with it.

But the worry doesn't stop there. It continues like a perpetual motion machine. Powered by what ifs and what abouts. There's an endless stream of tumult and incubation, ideas and footprints, fostering and nurturing. I feel my mind swirling out of control and become dizzy with probability.


Like Poe's "Nevermore" it repeats its significance. Whatever.

It's the pile driver that breaks down the gate of stagnant thought. That pulls the plug and spirally drains the river of wrought thought.


When I write, I do so half way from reason, half way from inspiration. I mean I try to pair up wordings and meanings that aren't cliche, haven't been rattled about ad nauseum, like the overkill of the modern mass media. And sometimes, I just have to say it anyway.


Because in the right perspective, it matters not. None of any of this matters. We're specs of space dust in the measure of time, hurtling along at the speed of life. And when we're gone, the earth will go on. Perhaps new life will miraculously spring from the polluted oceans. Or maybe it will visit via visiting asteroid. Even when the sun burns out, the earth burns up and is sucked into the sun, or the sun collapses and sucks the entire galaxy into a black hole. Even then.


Because there will be something else. There will always be something else.

And it won't matter. It won't mean anything more than what it is, and even that is insignificant. Immortality awaits all light and energy, but change is the only constant. Putrid or fair, just or delinquent, it all exists in the flow of the ever morphing infinity.


I'm left with little time to continue this endeavor. Whatever. Life riles the patience and draws bile from the spleen, haunting and taunting as you try to prioritize. Whatever. You can do it now, or do it later. But it must be done.


Just try and enjoy yourself.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How can I stir up some more interest in my blog?

When I started this, I thought I'd gain a humble, small following after a few months. Word of mouth, chance, whatever-- I'd meet a few personalities.

Didn't happen.

Then I went over to WordPress and started posting in both places. I've been advertising on Facebook every time I write a new blog. And still, there isn't the following I was expecting.

Maybe I'm not the writer that I think I am. But I think I am. If anything, I'm better than I think. Because I'm usually really hard on myself.

There is so much in this world to command one's attention, and so many distractions. Right now the television in my hotel room is spitting on about NBA basketball-- and I keep getting sucked in. But Dad is watching the playoff basketball, in between the commercial breaks that are so annoying and the annoying in and out of the satellite connection...

That's right. I'm on location in South Lake Tahoe. And as I try to complete a sentence, I notice a mosquito hovering around my arm...

I float all over the place. I have ideas about what I should write, but I get distracted. Such is life. Such is writing.

There is so much to write about. I'm in a second-story room at this hotel on Pioneer Trail. Dad is sitting on the queen size bed watching basketball. I'm sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed-- a hide-away air bed in a sofa contraption that I can't seem to inflate very well. But what the hey, I'm sleeping okay.

We went to the lake today and got our feet wet. Water was too cold for swimming.

There's gotta be something in my head worth writing about.

Nah. I don't think so.

Not tonight.

I'm giving up trying.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Dream of Life

It's all real.

The first kiss. The radial tear on the cheek of your consciousness. Scents of remembrance.

I check the scar near my tailbone. Still there.

When I was in high school, I had a dream. In the dream, there were a number of compelling images and concepts that were tantalizing, but the one that was most lasting was the experience of not being able to wake up.

I fought with this recurringly. Much like I fight with my editor over and over, within each sentence. But I eventually turned the experience into a story. I did so with the help of my high school English teacher.

It's interesting how as you wake up and get farther and farther away from a dream, even one so memorable and life changing as the one I had then and the one I had last night, or just minutes ago, the glossy, inspiring truth of it all sifts lightly away.

I reworked that story several times, adding plot details and moral dilemmas. My teacher, Mrs. Collup, challenged me to go farther and do more. The parts of the story added up in the end to make a very intense, powerful work. The part that I had captured from the dream was essential to the success of the story, and provided the suspense engine to drive the reader through the plot.

I had a dream mere minutes ago that spanned a lifetime. It dealt with my life; it dealt with my death. The message seemed to be "Live your life." Simple, yet complicated.

I awoke reluctantly, as if wanting more. As if all the answers I needed wrapped up in a colorful tale complete with intrigue and fanfare was not enough.

I'm a changed man. I feel different. After I awoke, I walked quietly through the darkened house, to the back door. I unlocked it and stepped outside. It was quiet, although I lightly sensed in the distance the sound of singing. There was an orange glow to the night. Not much rustling but a rat at 2:45 am. I stood and breathed it in; digested it. Felt the flourish of the nutrients in the air and in time.

What an amazing dream. Fear and loathing with balloons and applause from the back of a sedan.

I remember less and less as time creeps by, but my life is changed. This is a purposeful life. This is a good life. This is my only life. One life to live.

In the final part of the dream, I'm facing sure death, as the others in the car have assembled my treatment, but it isn't working. My doctor is there, as well as another woman and one of my best friends in the world. They're all sitting in the front bench seat of the sedan or taxi cab, I'm not sure which. Then I remember that I'm supposed to administer the medicine through my tracheotomy instead of my mouth. The percentages of chemicals that I need to keep living are reached, and the smoke that I'm breathing changes color from a dull gray to a festive green. Jon Miller of the San Francisco Giants and ESPN provides play-by-play, ending with "...and the ball game is over!" There are balloons and a stadium's worth of applause. Smiles abound.

Fade to black.