Sunday, December 9, 2012

Road Trip Benefits


I want to wrap up the experience of the last road trip in a practical way. What's in for you?

First, your job may have you trap in a vicious circle. The cycle takes your time and gives you money. With that money you buy things that consume the rest of your day and, sometimes, they demand even more money. A road trip not only cuts that process but also shows you that:
  • The world is big.
  • There is thousands of ways to make money, some of them more profitable and less stressful than the path you have chosen.
  • People are really happy with very little IF their social capital is big enough.
  • None of the adversities you have encountered compares with the misfortunes of the people that founded the cities you will see.
  • You will feel the obligation to match the beauty and the majesty of the landscape.
  • You will fall in love again… several times.
  • You’ll feel the urge of handwriting.
  • You'll lose weight, especially in cold weather.
  • For some reason you never get sick.
  • You’ll not want to be anybody else on Earth.
  • You'll feel (not just understand) that life can be lived in many ways other than the half dozen you ever considered. 
  • You'll realize how useless pictures are to grasp experience.   
  • You'll feel the distance.
  • You'll feel the silence.
  • You won't feel time.
"Feeling" is the missed piece of this Google generation. It’s not enough to see the numbers and say wow!

I circled the whole country, and the distance I covered was less than the one I used to drive from home to the office in one year. So I was already making the mileage but in an uneventful path.

Ok, yes, I’m single. But having a family makes the trip even more enduring. Remember this: a relationship is a collection of shared experiences. So don’t use your family as a pretext for inaction, use it on behalf of the action.

If you are happy, ignore me. You are there. But most of the people I have met know deep inside that there is something else in life. They are just afraid to lose the little piece of bread they have if they go to the oven. If you are in that state I have good news for your heart and bad news for your guts: you are wrong. Yes, life is a miracle, one that is worth to be repeated and propagated.

You know that you are really happy when you don't want to have sex, you want to impregnate. It’s an urge for giving. Is this assurance that the source of your happiness can never be exhausted because it falls all over like rain.

Cities are not another choice for living. They are the wrong choice. They generate humans alienated from their own nature, cynic as Scrooge, sarcastic as teenagers, indifferent as portraits, and bitter as bus drivers. 

We can confidently demolish all the existing cities and start from scratch. There is so much arid space that it’s unnecessary to knock down a single tree. A healthy city should expose the inhabitants to light, water, plants and animals. Public transportation should not be crowded by losers. Affordable facilities should be the reward for good character, not lame performance.

So, if you suffer from chronic depression, you may be reflecting the mood of the city. You can’t attain health from an unhealthy baseline.

But you don’t need to wait for the creation of the perfect town. You can give yourself a healthy dose of city life at some point and then move to a different environment. That requires a disposition for change that is rare in city rats. Road trips are just a mild exercise to build that state; to remind you over and over again that your world is not THE world.

You don’t have to wait until sixty-five to retire. You can retire from your past life and start a new one every 7 years or so. Don’t commit the sin of getting stuck in the same routine. That would be like living in Paris and having lunch every day at McDonald's. Don’t pass on the stimulating adventure of being in this world.



Friday, December 7, 2012

What Can A Mountain Do For You?


I’m back to the starting point; back in South Florida.

12,871 miles and 583.49 gallons of gas later, I’m here to evaluate the products of my journey.

The first thing that happens to you after a long trip like this is that you can’t see home the same way. This place looks different. It hasn’t changed much; it was me who changed.

After traveling through the best and the worst of US, I have to admit that Pompano Beach is ghetto. I walk with ease here just because I come from Central America, but for USA standards, South Florida is not one of the best places.

I saw that they are making pathetic robberies like grabbing your cell phone and running away. That’s revolting. It’s even better to have a gang of Colombians storming a bank with high caliber weapons; at least you need to be organized and have ambition. These criminals are just picking the wrong venue. With two more ounces of a brain, they may get into politics and steal in order of magnitude thousands of times bigger, all while attending social events and been applauded in the red carpet. But that you get with courage and organization. The kid that runs frenetically with that purse will never get there because he is already thinking too small.

And you may tell me: well, the damage is small too. No, it’s not. A raving dog can be located, vaccinated, trained, caged or ultimately killed. Small bugs instead are everywhere and infest the whole place beyond repair. If the mayor of Evergreen City makes headlines because he was caught cutting red tape for his fellow contractors, does that keep you from buying a house in there? But if the windshields of the cars are regularly crashed by bandits looking to steal CDs in your neighborhood, can you sleep well?

The face value of the damage is not the only variable in the equation. Big conglomerates of anything can be identified, controlled or eliminated; while small amounts spread like viruses and demand many times more resources to be eradicated. The big fish can be articulated within the system and even contribute for a while. The virus has nothing but the small goal of surviving.

If you change the goals of a bold criminal, you get a brave entrepreneur. That’s easier and more rewarding than trying to infuse ambition in a coward. Even when the coward changes his ways, he lacks the drive to accomplish anything, no matter how noble the goal.

And that’s what mountains will do for you. They will call the giant within. There's an endemic testosterone deficit. Too many people trembling for a salary: “Yes sir, no sir…” what kind of man is that? You give that level of submission on a battle, no at the office. If you are right, you are right and bleed all the way through. If the corporation can’t share your principles you make a move; you convince others of your ideas. If they don’t get it, go where others bright like you, or bright for your own. 

Oh, morality; you will find those questions on the road. Just be sure to make it big. Don’t be like the petty theft that runs with the lady’s purse. It’s never wrong when you win, just after you die and your enemies tell the story. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Saint Augustine - The Joy of Created History



I’m finally back in Florida, but instead of driving all the way south I decided to stay a couple of days in Saint Augustine. I visited this town a couple of years ago, so I was not expecting to be impressed, but I was. The place is even better, or maybe I’m carrying with me a new standard that makes me appreciate it that way. The weather was the one you would expect in paradise. Those narrow streets with charming shops make you feel like in a doll house. And the dolls were walking around too.

Now, I don’t fall for the historical claims of the city. Yes, it’s the oldest continuously populated settlement in the US from the time it was founded, but that doesn’t imply that you are going to find anything that old. I mean, the place was burned to the ground by pirates… twice. So when they point out things like “the oldest school in the country” what they really mean is the place where the oldest school has been rebuilt over and over again. 

But that’s ok. This town had no the intention to be a touristic attraction when it was created, and none of the buildings would have survived anyway. The last time I came, they were holding one single storehouse with the original material, and the place was clearly collapsing. This time I saw construction workers putting it together again and replacing 80% of the wood. After all, history is our present fantasy of the past.

In “Castillo de San Marcos”, a really impressive fortress, they have actors in Spaniard uniforms making tours and demos on how the artillery was used. They try to mimic Spanish, but you can’t understand a single world even if that is your first language. It’s a cute caricature, but tourists from Spain roll their eyes in indignation.

The scripts are written for kids, and they try to portrait pirates as something very Disney and funny, no as the scum they really were. Every time I visit a city surrounded by walls I try to imagine the nightmare of having to go to bed without knowing if, in the middle of the night, a group of bandits will come along, stole your goods, kill your children, rape your wife and burn your house. Certainly, lawyers are a drag, but I prefer that over the law of steel that even now rules some countries. I just think that by ignoring the misery of the past we lost the opportunity to stimulate gratitude for the present.

If you have a chance to visit this fortress, you will never regret it. The second level has walls at the high of the hip, so it’s a matter of time for an idiot to fall and make the city spoil the architecture with plastic panels or something like that. So go now that it’s pristine.

Ok, but the fact that history is used to put up a show doesn’t diminish my experience, the same way that knowing the real name of the actors doesn’t ruin a movie. The place glows at night, especially now with all the Christmas lights and the horses making rides in shiny carriages. The alleys are so lovely that people in trolleys practically high-five those sitting at the bars along the street. The beauty in the architecture of the surrounding neighborhoods makes it worthy to walk every block from one corner to another.   

There is no place for “clubbing” and that’s a good thing because the atmosphere is more for dining, walking and having drinks with live music. I found a couple of lovely red-neck places where I spent the nights. People always look at me strangely when I get in, first when they notice my accent and second when I order vodka instead of beer. But I always end up shaking hands and sharing interesting conversations. I prefer to target old people because I always learn something and also because I don’t have to compete with annoying smartphones. The last night I had a conversation with a seventy years old woman that lives a block away from the bar. She seems to be in the ideal retirement: a couple of hours from the house of her daughter, living in a nice safe neighborhood and making new friends every day. The muscles on her face show a resting smile.

The hostel I used was ok, but I got a rash for bedbugs. This hostel thing has its charm, but after a while, you can grow tired of the drawbacks. It’s lovely to wake up surrounded by twenty-year-old European girls in pink t-shirts, but you may also get a group of snoring bikers.

The good thing is that our minds work like history: over time I’ll start to forget the struggle, and I’ll gradually romanticize the beautiful details. In the end, we finish up with memories of little historical accuracy but huge entertainment value.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Savannah



Last Tuesday I arrived in Savannah, Georgia. You never hear about this place, but I was curious to check it out. One of the road trip books I reviewed was recommending it as the most beautiful city in the US. The editor was quoting a European source, and once I drove in, I understood immediately why. Savannah is old, but not artificially so as other tourist destinations. The neighborhoods are authentically in disarray since the 18th century. But the level of chaos is just enough to make the view romantic. People have real lives in those two store Victorian homes with balconies covered by vines. 

The hotel I picked looked like an abandoned house. I got closer, looking for the “no trespassing” sign and opened a thin wood door leaf. On the other side, there was an office in the place of the original living room. A shy guy with shifting personality told me to come back at business hours (twenty minutes later). I wanted to see that house from inside, so I came back, and he showed me upstairs. Inside it looks like another house, perfectly well maintained and with this characteristic smell of old wood that transports you in time. All the secretive doors and cabinets were there. There was a cover fireplace, big closets embedded into the walls and a door to a creepy dark attic. I loved it. I was the only one asking for a room that night, so the whole place was mine.

The rooms are separated by glass windows, and just darkness can be seen on the other side. The rooms are secured with big metallic keys, so heavy that they can be used as weapons. You need to close two windows before going to the restroom, one of them facing an old white bathtub. To complement all this, a dark fluffy cat was walking through the cornices and glazing inside now and then.

I stood there two nights, but unfortunately, I didn’t see any old lady holding a candle or something like that. All the creepiness belonged to this world.

The downtown itself is full of small impractical parks, some of them with the remains of political figures underground. It was very usual to fertilize public parks with the flesh of local celebrities. Again, the disarray is just enough to make the place attractive. The trees where people were hanged are still there to tell the story, but those killed by law were left to rot for several days and then tossed away. That was the fate of an Irish immigrant woman. Her sentence was postponed eight months to allow her to deliver a baby. She was with child when she assassinated her master by drowning.

I also visited the Bonaventure cemetery, and it’s lovely. Crypts dated at the mid 18th century completely abandoned, eroded and gray, with terrifying virgins rolling their eyes to the heavens, covered by a thick layer of smog; a paradise for photographers.

But Savannah is more than an American Transylvania. The River Side offers a mile of bars, restaurants and candy shops in front of a rocky street that nevertheless is open to regular traffic, but you have to be careful in this speed reducer road. The brick buildings follow the standard of old looking alleys and intentionally unattended painting.

I loved the place. I'll definitely come back, maybe after passing away. Ghosts must have fun in here pulling people's blankets at night.


Small towns



On this trip, I have to stop in several small towns when it gets dark. Some of those places are so isolated and boring that I don’t even mention them. Like Mount Airy, North Carolina. That was the town where Andy Griffith was born, so there is a road with his name and even a museum of memorabilia. But nothing else ever happened there. For me, it was too much rurality. 

Before that, I ended in Charlottesville, Virginia, after tossing a coin at the end of Skyline Drive. That place has a perfect balance between rural landscapes and city facilities. The University of Virginia is there and I always love what colleges do to the city plan. Open spaces, plenty of walking friendly miles and just enough commerce.

I also visited Monticello, the iconic house of Thomas Jefferson that appears in the nickel coin. The place is certainly a peaceful spot on Earth, and Jefferson made the best of it by architecting and designing his own home. You can tell he may have done better with a second chance but is admirable taking into account this was just a hobby. He inherited this land and bought much more acres directly from the crown of England, including the place where the Natural Bridge is located.

It’s also remarkable how many slaves lived in Monticello. Only two were granted freedom, and that was because they were sons of Jefferson himself. That may sound standard for the times, but this comes from the man who printed the phrase “all man are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. 

History, where it actually exists, is certainly enlightening.

Even three miles from Monticello, the Court Square is so beautiful, simple and peaceful that just sitting down on a bench is a relaxing experience. I’ve never seen the light falling as it does in Virginia. There are places that have a peaceful atmosphere that invites thoughts, and this small town has it. The little boulevard on Main Street will give you that dining and walk experience, not as hectic as a city but not as dull as a town. Jefferson knew it better, and that is why he’s still resting on his back at this place.  




Friday, November 30, 2012

Atlanta



I spent a couple of nights in an empty hostel in downtown Atlanta. It’s a strange city with two mayor highways cutting it by the middle. The distribution of businesses is odd too. You may have to walk ten blocks of administrative buildings and vacant lots to find a single convenient store. But the driving is not a nightmare as in other cities. I actually parked for free in front of my room. Locals complain about how unfriendly the city is for walkers. But it’s possible to walk. Even with the homeless infestation, it’s not as bad as it is in the West. The problem is that the walking is not that appealing unless you go to the suburbs or the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.

The most fascinating thing of the city turned out to be a couple of acquaintances I made in the hostel. One was a brilliant TV producer, book writer and human rights advocate that were alternating residences between Washington DC and Atlanta. After a brief introduction in the hostel's living room, we got engaged in an interesting conversation about socio-politics that extended up to one in the morning. We stopped because a lady upstairs complained about the noise. This guy has an almost encyclopedic knowledge on every topic he touches, and quickly I resolved to make questions instead of arguments since I was getting beaten. The fact of having to do actual research for journalistic work gave him the proficiency of a History professor.  I checked one of his books and he has reasons to suspect the FBI is not very happy with his inquiries.

The other character was actually the manager of the hostel, a Jewish-American that claimed to have had a Nazi armband stained with the very blood of Adolf Hitler. The whole story was fascinating, and he claims to have been burglarized by neo-Nazis searching for the item. He actually changed his name as per his own account. I have no way to know if that’s real or fiction, but how many times you have a guy across the table telling such stories without drinks?

Those two characters and the attractive mature redhead upstairs where the only humans in the building; a Victorian wood house one hundred fifty years old that cracked at every step. You have no idea what conversations are taking place in the air if your only source of information is the Internet.

So, close this page and go to your local bar. Find a veteran, a journalist, a Holocaust survivor descendant, a priest reject...  You may buy or not their stories, that’s not the point. It’s not a quest for information, it's a search for human contact.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dignitas



As I mentioned in my last blog, my personal life became more interesting than the landscapes I was driving trough. But respecting the people involved implies not been able to tell the whole story. I’m not longer just looking at the window and meditating, I’m taking action. That was the whole purpose of “DoingIsKing”: shake the analytical phase and force some pragmatic adventures.

My thesis at the beginning of the trip was like this: If I think too much, I’ll be overwhelmed by the options and discouraged by existential conclusions. If I just act, I’ll create habits and get into a comfort zone and stop growing. I was trapped in the “thinking” phase for so long that I needed an ‘action shot’.

After four months traveling, parking in completely unknown neighborhoods, drinking beer with road workers, dating woman with phosphorescent hair, dancing in gay bars, sleeping in the same room with people hiding from the mafia, talking politics with BBC producers, furnishing with Netherlands carpenters, chatting about photography with Japanese students and babysitting with old friends grown older; I realized that “action” also has its burn out.

After Washington DC in Maryland, and Arlington in Virginia, I needed some space and silence to invite meditation again. So I took a long route at the top of the Appalachians. The Skyline Drive is so generous in views that you don’t have to be worried to miss one particular spot. I drove two days with perfectly clear skies and stop at creeks, meadows and valleys. The silence is so perfect that when you get out, the only thing you hear is the cracking sound of the car while getting cold. Then I went to the Luray Cavers. There the silent is so deep that you just hear yourself. It’s always an intimidating experience to hear your heartbeats, mostly because you don’t know the final number they are decrementing. In those cavers, there is a series of hammers electronically activated that hit certain stalactites in such a way that whole tunes can be played. The tour guide was careless enough to let me alone in that chamber and kept walking with the rest of the group. I sat down, press the button to initiate the sequence and closed my eyes. That was the sound of cones of calcium carbonate formed over millions of years talking to the calcium of my vestibular system just some decades old. I’m this minuscule instant of conscience through whish Nature enjoys herself.

Nature always humiliate me, makes me feel like I’m not gaining my place. Dignity is the only word that comes to the rescue. Pity is the enemy.   

Nothing in Nature inspires me compassion. It’s all a constant source of admiration. This craving thirst for glory calls our bones with the weight of the giant rock it once belonged.

Following my route south, I stopped at the Natural Bridge, an arc more than five hundred millions years old carved with water trough granite formations. I won't start listing numbers in feet and tons. The point is that we belong, atom per atom, to the realm of majestic things. Only our mind can contradict that physic fact. A brain that talks too much, ignoring the natural impulses of the heart, degrades a man into a couch and a speech into a bark.

Finally, I arrived to Atlanta, Georgia, where the body of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife have been kept in a crypt just one blog away from where he was born. Over and over again we keep placing big stones on the burial place of big men as if by doing so we release them from their misleading coil and make them wear one that weights as much as their actions.     

We use our mind to respond to the question “how to get there”, no “why not to bother”. The smarter we are, the smaller we get when choosing the wrong questions.




Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Scatological Paradox


I’ve gone through some very interesting experiences lately. This has been the most transforming sequence of perceptions and actions that I have been through since I came to the USA. This blog forces me to digest every town before moving to the next; a healthy process that I recommend to everyone.

But the problem with blogs is that they're public in nature, so I can’t expose every single detail here. One Costa Rican writer, Max Jimenez, used to say that we could be better writers if we just get over the fear of being known. But that’s not the only obstacle. Any number of people will also tie their personal life with mine (even inadvertently) and I can’t go on to make it public without their consent. I have strong reasons to believe I’ll never get that authorization.

So, let’s use the power of analogy and generalization.

I went to Washington. The capital always makes me think of sex. Not just for that monument but for the image of Arlington. Sex and death are great analogies: they are both natural hence people try to keep their references to them brief in normal conversation. We are scared of both but inevitably attracted to their symbols. We don’t like to be harassed or frightened, yet we pay to go to places where we are targets for both.

I call this the scatological paradox: Something that we reject and move towards at the same time. Our attraction to food and our repulsion of its byproducts represents many of the dilemmas we confront in life. How to be in love and not get dispirited by all the mundane details of sharing space? How to want a baby and not the diapers? How to tell the truth and not been alone?

It’s not just the disgusting things that we hide. We hide extremely positive things: unjustified optimism, ambitious goals, free hugs, kiss greetings and inopportune love. We city people are so diligent on been proper that we miss on the opportunity to live. None of the monuments I have visited was erected on behalf of a man with such an attitude. None of them were wary or lacked opposition. None of those creators made sarcastic remarks against their enemies; instead, they directly raised a sword and ran toward them.

I don’t think that loneliness is a price too high to pay. The company of cowards is sterile anyway.

The pursuit of affection is similar to the stock market: do you like to win very little very often or do you prefer to lose most of the time and one day hit it big? Common wisdom says that the first strategy is better. Mathematics favors the second choice if you have the guts to embrace it.

Some of us have no option but to develop bravery since the smell of routine and safety turns our stomachs. There can’t be such a thing as a shy dreamer.

Can you read the deeply personal history between lines? If not, I have become a good literary codifier. If you can, then you are personally involved.




Monday, November 19, 2012

Race of Dreamers




I went north and stopped in Princeton. A cousin of mine is studying engineering there. He was granted a scholarship and is now living in one of the most privileged university environments in the world. This campus is extraordinary. I can’t think of a better place to drive your mind into abstract subjects. There is nothing to distract you, and every square foot is a good place to sit and read. The architecture is delightful; sober and peaceful.  

I love the arrogant attitude of young people as they walk up and down. They want to change the world, and that’s the state of mind every human should hold in their twenties. They are reading the numbers, looking the facts and measuring the elements. The problems of the world seem pretty obvious at this stage, and they are going to fix it. Later on, they are going to experience a phase of humiliating reality. This humbling period, that comes on in your late twenties and early thirties, has the unintended effect of killing dreams. Losers celebrate that and use that lapse to confirm their bias. They will try to defend the thesis that “reality” is about routine, hard work and taxes. They'll love that confirmation since they are only capable of surviving in an aseptic world, where nothing is magic.  

Surpassing that phase is vital. After years of beatings and failures, you can decide to learn the rules but keep your dreams. The pieces on the chessboard don’t work the way books tell us, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work at all. The real rules are natural and beautiful and, as every natural and beautiful thing on Earth, they have nothing to do with justice.

Our dreams, then, get reborn, not as an innocent hope but as an aggressive project.

That evening in Princeton I walked into a sub shop. The owner in his smock was serving fruit juices behind the counter. The place was called “Tico” which is a nickname for Costa Rican used in Central America. So I started to speak Spanish with the man at the cash register – and it turns out that he was my boss when I was working as a Black Jack dealer to pay for my college. Now he is the owner of this business.

We talked for a long time about the big opportunities that this country has to offer. I told him one of my oldest observations: that this place has a permanent affluence of immigrants that are filtered for their bravery. Good or bad, people that come here have the guts to leave everything behind and start from scratch, even while learning a new language. That is a permanent infusion of dreamers. No other country has that advantage.  

I don’t mind seeing people with limitations. What I can’t stand is people who settle for something.

We don't have the option of quitting our dreams; that's like quitting being humans. A man without dreams does not amount to more than a dog. The fact of walking upright is just misleading.

The next day I went to Manhattan. I have been there several times before, but I needed another dose.

This is a city that I’d like to hug and kiss. I LOVE it! The vibrant rain of colors from those gigantic ads in Times Square, the crowd crossing the streets, the women in long coats with furry necks, the men in black suits, the teens skating in Bryant Park and the loud howl of ambulances: all was there. I’d never guessed that a hurricane had just crossed Manhattan. 

I went to Walt Street from the Empire State using the subway and, even with some routes floated, this city has no intention to stop. They are building a beautiful skyscraper in the place of the old World Trade Center. That night I saw the red lights on the cranes at the top of that construction flashing above the clouds.

That’s why I love New York. My soul gets reloaded just by walking 42nd street. This place reminds me that this is not just the land of the free, but also, and above all, the home of the brave. With so many cultures, races and religions, the only real identity is this: those who choose to keep dreaming.




Saturday, November 17, 2012

Philadelphia



Philadelphia remained me how small are the places where big things happened. The first continental congress gathered together in a beautiful little hall that is smaller than some of my friend’s houses. The whole historic district can be walked through in ten minutes.

It’s more about the meaning we give to things. The broken bell that was hanging in the city hall is now a trademark for liberty, and now it has its own building for display. 

Another crowded venue is The Independence Hall, the place where the declaration of independence was signed. The portrait of John Trumbull is so iconic that people buy tickets and form in line to see it. The reality is that such meeting never happened; the delegates signed the document at different times, but that is not romantic enough, so the artist rewrote history for himself and now is his vision the one that inspires. 

The more museums I visit, the scarier I get by realizing how much we rely on imagination. We are so dependent that we need to imagine independence.

The separation of the colonies from England was nothing but a matter of common sense, as Paine put it. The real miracle for this country was to survive to itself. The fight against England proved to be politically shorter, militarily easier and less bloody than the fight that followed between the North and the South. But that story is harder to tell because there can’t be “bad guys” at the end. That is closer to reality as you can get, and no artist can represent the Union smashing the Confederates and been politically correct at the same time. The real heroism, in this case, was diplomatic: We are talking about legions of men butchering each other face to face during four years and then coming together to form the strongest federation in the world. Scenes of war are easier to paint since they can be delimited on time. The fight for tolerance is permanent and intern. No bell has toll yet for that victory.  




Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Best in Her League


The bad weather in the East held me on Pittsburgh for a while. One morning I opened a newspaper and found that Madonna was giving a concert the next day at the CONSOL Energy Center. You may think it should be sold out, but there are always tickets for last minute buyers.  

First, you get to enjoy the show that the fans themselves put on. A collection of women in their forties wearing wedding dresses or having big hair ties with short shirts, as in Lucky Star. The crowd was full of nostalgia, which is ironic because Madonna itself is all about innovation.

The live show was the best I have seen, second only by The Wall. Madonna itself is a case study. Her legs have the strength of a thoroughbred horse and her energy makes any twenty years old pale. 

The usual sarcasm in these circumstances is to attribute all these to full-time trainers, surgery and money. But there are thousands of people with more resources and millions with more time which fitness doesn’t even approach this marvel. 

Underestimate the merits of virtue is one of the oldest tricks we use to avoid the responsibility of embracing it. This woman is a human delight and an industrial miracle. Even Elvis was heading down at his forties. Madonna packs stadiums around the world and arouses teenagers in her 50’s. This is the point when fans turn into devotees and brands become cults.

Seen her is a souvenir for pop culture and show business history.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Pittsburgh and the voice from the steel.



I drove through Cleveland, but I didn’t stay too long. The downtown was nice, but Google kept saying that it was an insecure city, and nowadays we pay attention to Al, the computer. That’s why I was surprised to find such a beautiful arrangement of parks and sculptures around Public Square. There is nothing more effective for a good first impression than lower expectations.

So, after a wonderful dinner nearby Terminal Tower I keep driving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Any downtown will look beautiful after been in Chicago. Pittsburgh is a paradise for a civil engineer with all those bridges crossing the river from one side to another. You make a wrong turn and end up on an island.

But that is my tactic: getting lost and see what happens. In a moment I was heading towards a hill and I knew that a good view must be ahead. I got into a prehistoric rail that was used to transport people to the top one hundred years ago. They call it Duquesne Incline, and it’s nothing but a wood cabin that goes up and down, and they have it working out of nostalgia since it’s not practical anymore. No far away there was another view from a Catholic church that lies at the highest point of the city. 

When I have these panoramic views of cities, it always strikes me the idea of how many hours of work and lives are in those bricks. For some reason, I try to imagine the exhausted worker that came back from the construction place and lay downs beside an indifferent and equally exhausted wife. I imagine the life of the prostitute that was with him an hour ago and the desk of the city clerk that was her customer before him. I fantasize about the arguments about money in the municipality, the deals under the table that never got caught and those more lucrative that were completely legal. Then I imagine all the words, the steps, the yelling, the hammering, the laughter… and I browse the landscape one again. Man, we make marvelous things while going nowhere. What would we do with a single direction?

Going West, I found a church at the top of a hill surrounded by crypts. Then I remembered: oh, yes, we do have a single direction.




Monday, November 5, 2012

Chicago: The city that shouldn't had happened.


I got to Chicago on Wednesday, the night of Halloween. Once you start driving in the downtown it’s impossible to stop; the reason being you have nowhere to park. The place is a traffic nightmare. People use their cars as skateboards and make intrepid U-turns when you less expect it.  I finally found a spot in front of a 7-ELEVEN and paid the fare for the parking machine. Then I went to explore the atmosphere in that party night. 

The hostel was at North Avenue and Damen, a six corner intersection that was under construction. The architecture of narrow facades with dark alleys seems intentionally designed to hide bodies, and the rusty structure of the train rails that runs above the open streets kills the last hope for sunlight.

The first thing that I saw was a black Honda crossing at full speed in front of a taxi cab, crashing on one of its doors while avoiding a frontal impact. The guy of the Honda and the taxi driver got off yelling as in those movies portraying decadent cities in the opening credits. I kept walking but checking at the same time if any of the men was handling guns, ready to throw my chest on the ground. I almost did it, but not because of weapons but because of a massive vomit in the sidewalk that made me slide. After three huge strides flipping my arms, I manage to stay on my feet.

There were some small clubs and bars. I have no problem with decadence, but I seriously reject nastiness, and this is the nastiest downtown I have run into so far. The whole picture is revolting. The first thought that crosses my mind was “How many suicides these people have per year?” 

All and all, I explored some bars and found that people still keep some talkative features from the west, but they check the point of the conversation really quick, just as in the East. But Halloween night always has this show-off factor that makes the crowd more extroverted. The point of walking down the streets in a custom gives us a license to engage in socially acceptable ridicule. Many take the opportunity to disguise like they really are. It’s also a good chance to know who is dressing for the mirror and how is dressing for the public. I managed to have a pleasant conversation about politics with Frosty the Snowman and the Cabbage Doll. A homeless joined us, as he was already wearing the customs of desperation. Having spoken with many homeless people, I notice a pattern in their conversation: the perception that problems come from the outside and they have no control whatsoever. They keep for themselves the role of spectators.

The next day I got out of the hostel and drove my car away before 8:00 AM when the parking rules change. The city makes it complicated like “No Turns on Red Between 9:00 AM and 4:30 PM Monday to Friday... Except for Buses and Holidays” And they write all that under the Stop sign!

I couldn’t stop until I got to a building that will charge me $30 to get out and see the Willis Tower (still known as the Sears Tower). Well, I went to the top of the building to take my pictures as any devoted tourist and then went for a coffee not far away. The parking there was $22. So my car was spending more money standing still than moving.  

I explored some of the neighborhoods to be sure that my first bad impression wasn’t biased for the wrong corner. I then had the opportunity to see places even worse.

After that, I headed to a Motel 6 (free parking) and decided to leave the city. I’m not a tourist for misery; I had enough in my days. Still, I decided to give a little chance to a small club called “Spin” the next day. 

This is the old trick: you walk into a gay bar, all girls think you are in the team and engage in conversation. They don’t want the pressure of a guy who wants their number. After a couple of hours, I was dancing with five gorgeous girls and having a great time. 

The club promoted a shower contest among the customers. It was a bath shower in stage (with real water) and four people got listed to perform. It’s not the first time that I see people in underwear trying to dance in public, but it was the first time that I saw this combined with one dangerous wet stage. Three beautiful women and one guy actually risked their neck with their amateur performance. The price was $100, but it won’t cover the medical bills for a single slip, like the one I had with the vomit. In any case, it was refreshing to see a business owner willing to accept the risk for the show time.

Everybody was authentically having fun and not defensively avoiding it. One of the girls I was dancing with won the shower contest and she gave me her number. That’s the problem with this tactic. At some point you need to admit that you are not gay or keep going with the story arguing that you became lesbian.

That night saved my memories of Chicago. With the sun rising I jumped into my car and left for Cleveland.
      
I learned that the first atomic chain reaction was actually obtained in 1942 under the football field of The University of Chicago, without any warranty that the place would stand. After knowing the city, I suspect that was a calculated risk. 


Sunday, October 28, 2012

From Zion to Gomorrah



The route between Salt Lake City and Denver was snowy and flat, with the exception of some conical formations dressing white kilts. The hotels have no longer pool but skating rings. My head hurt as when you eat an ice cream very fast, and my fingers were so insensitive that I couldn’t pick up a dime.

But once I got to Denver the temperature became bearable. 

I couldn’t help but sense the big contrast between the perfection of the downtown of Salt Lake City and this square spot of the Midwest. The small details, as the undergrowth among the fissures on the bridges, reminded me that I was getting closer to the East.  

Again I found a large homeless population walking up and down, importuning the passers, as a social plague of professional losers.

The sharp edge of the buildings wasn’t telling me a lot, and I felt that my stop in Denver may be shorter than planned. The streets looked empty and boring.

Then, the night came. A myriad of festive creatures emerged. True, it was the last weekend before Halloween, and people are crazier than usual with these festivities, but my hostel was located in the epicenter of the bars and clubs that will flood the streets with this eruption of twisted humans, and I am an avid spectator of extremes.  
  
I started to walk Broadway and take one of those cheap flavored vodkas you can find nowadays. The groups were very open. In minutes I was involved in a game of dices with other three customers of the bar, one of them a beautiful young woman with blue eyes. I learned really late that she was engaged with one of the guys, but I’m not sure if that information would have made me stop. After some physical interaction with the girl that I will intentionally fail to detail, the clueless guy came back from the bathroom, hug her, and told me with his chest full of proud:  “This is the woman I’m going to marry”. Heavens, we men are so vulnerable when we fall in love.
  
Women in general were eager to propagate the species that night. A German girl started to talk to me in a corner while we were waiting for the street light. She wanted me to join her and her friends in a private party in a hotel room. The other guys in the group pulled me enthusiastically but then an angry tall woman disguised as Dracula came, reprehend her in German and grab her from the arm. I guess she was the designated driver.

Then I got into a gay bar. I didn’t know it was gay but in Halloween all bars look like gay bars. The interesting couple there was a fifty years old gay wizard with a beautiful niece out of character. I was trying to get to the nice, but it turns out to be a package that included the uncle. The girl was cute… but after a short cost-benefit analysis I decided to walk away from the deal.

Then I went to walk to the 16th Street Mall. I got to say that this is a recent and extraordinary idea. Denver transformed its centric 16th street into a boulevard with free shuttles going up and down. It really makes the city attractive. That part of the downtown escapes from the square patterns of the rest and lightens the night in an elegant way. The new architecture in Denver is aggressively breaking the edges of the old town.

When I returned to Broadway I thought the party would be over, but no. In the same block of my hostel, there was a stairway pointing underground with sparkling lights at the end. It was just $5 to get in. Here, the creatures of the night that I saw on the surface as festive students transformed themselves into basement monsters. People were dancing and brandishing green phosphorescent sticks as if it was the erotic version of Star Wars.  No clearly defined couples. Practically everybody was dancing with everybody. But it wasn’t impersonal at all. There were actually two straight couples having intercourse over the tables. But nobody was messing with them; they were working in their own hookups and creating green figures in the air.

I love extreme manifestations: sunsets, volcanic eruptions, nine-inning home runs and orgies. All those things you positively can miss from the crypt.

Talking about Halloween, is interesting to note that every time we try to celebrate death, we end up making hyperbole of life. That's way I saw the quiet streets of Denver transformed into the most vigorous Gomorrah I have seen in the US.