Monday, January 18, 2010

Tomato On a Stick

One of the most off-putting questions I ever get as a dad is when someone, upon seeing my daughter, says to me, "Where did she get her red hair?" The question in and of itself is a fair one, and not off-putting at all, on the face of it. But to me it is, personally, because, as long as I've been alive, I have always identified myself as a redhead. So every time I hear the question, part of me can't understand where it's coming from. Until I look in the mirror, and am reminded that the current reality no longer matches what my brain perceives as "the truth."

Hair color is on my mind today for two reasons: One because I just finished Malcolm Gladwell's great essay in What the Dog Saw called "True Colors," which discusses the changing Madison Avenue slogans of women's hair color products as reflective of and contributing to the attitudes and psyches of 20th century women (from "does she or doesn't she?" to "because I'm worth it"). The other reason is because my kid, the flaming redhead, had a bunch of her friends over for a study group today, and three out of five of them were also redheads, which, given the statistics, is just kinda crazy.

But what's on my mind in particular is my own hair color, and how it has changed, and changed my own psyche, over the course of my 40+ years. Because when you have flaming red hair, as I did all the way up until my early 20s, when it mysteriously started to turn brown, it is an identifier (some might call it a stigma, others might call it a blessing) that you are stuck with, that defines, to some extent, who you are. I had the added fun, too, of having a last name that was also a color, so "Red Green" or "Jeff Red" and so on was my particular stoopid cross to bear.

Though I recall getting compliments on it from adult females at the time ("Oh my god I'd pay to have hair that color!"), that didn't really do much to appease my young and adolescent self when all I really wanted to do was fit in and not feel like a freak. I imagine it is probably worse for redheaded boys than girls. Or it was, anyway. I get the feeling now, in the more enlightened 21st century, where kids have all sorts of ever-changing hair color, that maybe it doesn't matter as much now. Or at least here in Berkeley it doesn't. All I know is at the time I hated it. It didn't help, either that I grew up in Los Angeles, where the pale skin that goes with the red hair further separated me from the Tan and Beautiful. "A tomato on a stick" is one of my asshole adolescent "friends" called me at the time--referring to my red hair on my rail-thin body. And the thing is that, whether positive or negative, you hear about it all the time. Daily. It's the way people identify you.

See what I'm talkin' about? This guy is a REDHEAD.

It was only as it started to go away, of course, that I finally began to appreciate it. Even before I had my kid, when I was 32, it had long been turning brown, and so when folks would see my driver's license, which said "red" under hair, or heard me refer to myself as a redhead, they would look oddly at me, or question it to my face. But of course I was a redhead, I'd reply. That was who I was. And when that point was disputed, I realized that I was actually bummed by the new truth. I dunno if it was Stockholm Syndrome or what, but after actually being a redhead for so long, I really didn't want to be anything else. I'd grown into it. I think I actually didn't change the "red" to "brown" on my driver's license until about 8 years ago---right about the time that it really, maybe, should have started to say "grey," simply because I didn't want to believe I wasn't a redhead anymore. Both my dad and my grandmother and my first cousin and now my daughter: all redheads. Redheads in the media and popular fiction, like Ron Weasley: my brethren. This was the club I belonged to. And I wanted it to stay that way.

The brown hair I never really enjoyed too much. It was what it was, to use the past tense of a phrase I hate. Now I'm in a whole different ballgame. Happily, though, I'm already over denying the gray. Hey, it is what it is. I'll admit that it bugged the crap out of me at first, of course, but my period of denial was much shorter this time around. It didn't help that the signals were coming in stronger: The number of times I was being called "sir" multiplied exponentially. I somehow found myself cruising past lines--like airport security lines--that used to seem to take longer. I was in the old white male club! Just like in that classic Eddie Murphy sketch! The turning point, at least in terms of my own denial/awareness, came back at, when my friend Dana, after returning from a trip with the 1up gang to the sports bar outside our office, said that the bartender had said to her, "Where's the silver-haired guy who's usually with you guys?" I took it badly at first. "Silver haired guy? Huh?"

But still. Could be worse, right? There's the whole "bald" thing, which, knock on wood, looks like I'm likely to avoid (not that there'd be anything wrong with that). My hair is bozoid thick. Second, if one has to go gray, there are worse ways for it to happen then getting these "wings" I have sprouted. I mean, who doesn't mind looking like these guys:



I get asked all the time now if I'm going to dye my hair. Almost every time I get my hair cut I get asked. But the answer is always the same for me: Why? Who would I be kidding? Anyone who already knows me would know what I did, so that'd just be embarrassing. And anyone who doesn't know me, well, who cares? What do I care what they think? And what would they think, anyway--if they thought about it at all, which is unlikely since they have their own lives to lead and probably aren't wasting a whole lot of brainpower on me, no matter how solipsistic I want to be? "There goes a gray-haired guy!" what?

That's what I am now. I'm a gray-haired guy. Just like I was a redhead before. Only this time, decades later, I'm going to embrace the hand (or head) I've been dealt. If it's good enough for Paulie Walnuts, it's good enough for me.

Bada Bing!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2010: The Year of Film

One of the many things I'm grateful to my parents for is a love of and appreciation for movies, which they instilled in me early on. Now I know everyone loves movies, so it's not like some big secret club they invited me to, but, still, what I'm grateful for is that they had good taste, and made sure that I saw not just the obvious popular crap, which, for reasons all its own, I *also* enjoy. I can slum as well as anyone, most of the time, and have a great time doing it. (However, I'm still trying to muster up the energy and conviction to go see Avatar, only because so many people have said, "the effects are amazing but the story is shit" to make me feel that I'm going to a tech demo rather than a movie. And ya know, I kinda *like* good stories with my movies. But, yes yes, I will go. I know it is my Nerd Duty to so, so you don't need to berate me about it.)

My first movie memory (and I'm talking about movie theaters here, as my childhood took place in the Caveman Era before VCRs) is going to Yellow Submarine with my mom--and that's a pretty cool first movie! I don't know (and I kinda doubt) it's the first movie I ever went to, but it's the first one I remember. I would have been about 6 years old at the time. And while I obviously missed a good, what, 3/4 of the references, the crazy pop art and (of course) the soundtrack stayed with me. Years later, when the movie appeared on TV--I was watching on the portable black-and-white set in my room--I sat in bed with my audio tape recorder and taped the whole movie onto a couple cassettes, and then replayed it endlessly. My second movie memory is Patton, believe it or not, also with my mom, for which I must have been about 9 years old. All I can remember about that one is my mom telling my brother and I that one did not clap and cheer when the lights went down like we did in kids movies, and then the big opening scene with George C. Scott in front of American flag using really bad words. I was probably too young for that one.

Most of my best memories as an adolescent (and, okay, there's not much to compete with as far as good memories of that time go) are my dad turning me on to a lot of his faves: The Marx Brothers, Woody Allen (this is pre-sex scandal, and also back when he was funny), the great Ernie Kovacs, and more. Recall, again, that this was pre-VCR, pre rentals, pre NetFlix, pretty much pre-fuckin'-everything: You either went to the movies at the theater, or you waited for stuff to show up on TV, where, unless it was on PBS, it was butchered with commercials. So, ya know, the whole universe of movies was NOT available at your fingertips, like now. Netflix Watch Instantly still blows me away. I mean, you all can stop reading this blog right this second, and within less than a minute can be watching any one of a number of Akira Kurosawa's classic movies. In MY day, once I was old enough to drive, I'd have to watch the repertory movie theater calendars--like the Nuart in Los Angeles--like a hawk, circling the movies I needed to see and planning my evenings in advance to make sure I didn't miss them. Because if you missed The Seven Samurai once, you might not have another chance for a year. And that's a movie that you simply cannot miss. My best memory of watching stuff with my dad came a little later--right about the time I started college--when PBS showed, over a series of nights, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's incredible 15.5-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, a gargantuan, depressing, hilarious, monster of a movie that totally opened up my mind to movies outside the American mainstream.

Anyhoo, the point of all this, beyond babbly nostalgia, is to report that my kid and I decided, while over in Spain this holiday, that 2010 was going to be our Year of Film. (We thought about calling it Year of Movies, at first, but realized that it sounded more appropriately pretentious as "film.") The decision was made after about the third time that I asked her if she'd seen such-and-such movie, and she declared that she hadn't. I can't remember what the movie in question was--it might have been Casablanca, or possibly The Big Lebowski--but in any case we realized that, despite a pretty damn good start, she had too many holes in her movie education still. And with the clock (gulp) ticking until she herself will be off to college (OH MY GOD), I realized I had to ramp up my brainwashing here.

She *has* been off to a fine start. (And I really should lump in music and books with this, too. The day she came in and told me how awesome the Velvet Underground were was one of those great parental triumphs for me--I think I was doing the Rocky theme in my head for like three days following.) She's got a healthy intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness, as well as a budding English (or film!) major's appreciation for subtext and directorial intent (and manipulation). At almost-16, she can sit in pretty much any movie and I know she's going to probably get as much out of it, if not more so, as any adult. Which means that the entire world of movies is now open to us.

So I think I've decided that I will chronicle, or at least list, the Year of Film in this space. I'm going to include both movies at the theater and movies we watch at home. It's not all gonna be the hifalutin' stuff. You'll see. And also, because I'm anal this way, I'm going to include movies that I watch just on my own, or with my wife. Just as kind of a small sub-project on this site. I may just start a separate sidebar list on the site here, so I don't clutter up the posts. Or maybe I'll include them in blog entries with mini-review/writeups. I dunno. Whaddya guys think?
But to start, here's how the year has begun:

1/2 The Dark Knight. Saw it in Spain w/friends--them for the first time, us for the second. Liked it even more this time around.

1/4 The Informant! - on plane back to the U.S., and I liked it so much I went out and bought the book the very next day. Soderbergh took maybe too goofy of a tone with it, I think, but Matt Damon was great, and Scott Bakula was a freakin' revelation. His facial expressions alone nearly stole the movie.

1/4 State of Play Ugh. I wanted to like this. And with Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, and a subdued Ben Affleck all trying hard, you'd think it'd be good. And it was, for about 2 hours or so. But the movie utterly collapses in the last 15 minutes, with a twist so ludicrous it basically destroys the rest of the movie. The more you think about it, the less it makes sense.

1/5 Oldboy - Netflix Watch Instantly - hyperviolent 2003 South Korean movie that I saw cuz I noticed it was on a bunch of "Best of the Decade" lists. I think I was still too jetlagged to appreciate it all, but the story (guy is imprisoned for 15 years without knowing why or by whom, gets out and seeks revenge) is fantastic, and the one set piece I remember--an extended, long, one-take fight scene that keeps scrolling horizontally like a sidescroller game--was freakin' amazing. Need to watch this again when more awake.

1/6 Pickpocket Netflix Watch Instantly - 1959 Robert Bresson movie is probably too dated for some, but very cool in that it is a clear, obvious influence on Scorcese's Taxi Driver, and some neat choreography of the crimes themselves.

1/7 The Marriage of Maria Braun - Netflix Watch Instantly - 1979 Fassbinder film starts with a poster of Hitler getting blown up, and then tells the tale of a German woman whose husband doesn't come home from WW2 and has to pick up her life from there. Unpredictable, crazy and decadent as always with Fassbinder. Also, completely "adult"--by which I mean that adults actually act like adults. You watch a movie like this (and so many made in the 1970s, even in the US) and you realize just how many movies now have such an infantile emotional range and tone for the adults they portray, and how easily we've come to accept it.

And if all that sounds too pretentious, let me assure you that the movie I enjoyed the most in the past couple weeks, which didn't make this list only cuz I saw it at the end of '09, was The Hangover. Nothing like a few good dick jokes to trump art house ennui!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Black Out in Madrid!

Well that was different.

If you are a frequent traveler, like me, you might long, at times, for an "authentic experience" when in a foreign country--something off the beaten path of the normal tourist route. You might even hope to pass as a native, rather than just another slack-jawed, mouth-breathing, Fodor-toting American. This is understandable. But now that I have paved the way on at least one authentic experience in a foreign country, let me publicly state that it's really not all it's cracked up to be. Yes, two days ago I got to take a ride in an ambulance in Madrid and check in to a hospital, after passing out on the floor of the Prado museum, and after enduring all of that, I'm going to go ahead and strongly recommend that you just stick with the tourist tour. Trust me on this one.

In retrospect, it's funny how much the body and brain try to warn you in advance. Why we don't listen, I do not know. But consider it a New Year's Resolution that I will be doing that more in 2010.

New Year's Day in San Lorenzo de El Escorial was spent in much the same way as New Year's Eve was: Eating (a LOT) and drinking (alcohol). On the eating part, there's no two ways around it: I pigged out. As did everyone. The food here is phenomenal--especially if you are a carnivore. So even though I was still full from our New Year's Eve feast, on New Year's Day we had yet another feast, which went on, in true European style, for hours.

This was accompanied, as of course it should be, by booze. I am not a very good drinker. I'm a lightweight, and I honestly don't really enjoy it all that much, other than beer---and even then, if I order a second pint it's a somewhat rare occasion (needing to get on a motorcycle afterwards contributes to this, but even at home, not driving or riding, I'll only ever have one.) I do enjoy wine quite a bit, which is a requisite if you are going to marry a French person, but, I don't know my 50 year old vintage Cabernets from my 2009 Boone's Farm. That's one of those Life Projects I have yet to attend to. And hard liquor? Forget it. It sure looks great in the movies when tough guys pound down shots of whiskey, but, sadly, that is not the lifestyle for me. And yet, it was New Years Day. And we were eating a ton. So, really, the red wine, white wine, champagne, and whatever that hard liquor was at the end did not make any of us actually "drunk". And I poured less, and stopped earlier, than any of the other adults anyway, knowing my limits. Still, there was way more alcohol than usual in my body, and guess how much water it was all accompanied by? Zero. Not one glass, not one drop, either during the meal, or the rest of the night before falling asleep (sober) hours later.

The next morning, we got up to go to the Prado. Whether the subsequent incident was entirely alcohol related is, in fact, not entirely clear. Two other people--our friend Belen, who has been hosting us and cooked the fabulous feast, and her 8-year-old son David---both were feeling queasy, and it's certain that David did not have any booze, at least that we saw. So there's the possibility that there was some kind of virus floating around.

In any event, by the time we were in the car, I clearly was not 100 percent. As we had been doing the entire trip, our party was divided into two cars: The Woman Wagon and The Manmobile (or Der Mensch Machine, in deference to both my and Eric's love of Kraftwerk), due to the large size of our group. The great thing about Der Mensch Machine is that we had the iPod with us, piping through the car stereo speakers. On most drives, this is cranked to something appropriately loud and rockin: Mastodon, Aerosmith, and Primus all were prominent soundtracks to our Spanish voyages. On this morning, however, I asked for something mellow, because I was not feeling too good. Andres Segovia was the music of choice. And because I had woken up feeling a bit queasy, I passed not only on coffee (a true sign that something was wrong with me), but also on any food whatsoever--until The Wife force-fed one lone piece of bread on me.

But we were no more than a few kilometers from home when my brain/body began sending out an urgent message. As we drove out of El Escorial on the highway, I announced to Eric, "Ya know, I'd like to buy a bottle of water before we go to the museum." I personally felt no particular urgency about it--yet--but it definitely was on my mind that I wanted water. Nothing else. Just water. We drove along into Madrid with no further incident, but after parking in the garage near the Prado, I got out of the car and immediately felt lightheaded. I gripped, for a moment, on one of the cement columns in the garage, just to regain my balance. No one noticed, and I didn't comment on it, but at this point I knew something was up and that I needed to do something.

The Woman Wagon arrived moments later, and we walked the two short blocks to the museum, amidst the New Years Day crowd. A gigantic line awaited us at the museum, but being the resourceful, modern humans we are, we had smartly purchased tickets online earlier, and were thus able to go immediately to the Smarter People's Entrance, where there was no waiting. But my situation was rapidly worsening.

It turned out there was a snafu with the online tickets, and so The Wife and I were allowed to enter, while the rest remained outside for a couple minutes while the problem was being cleared up. But no sooner had The Wife and I set foot in the museum (we had been told to "go ahead and get started") than I said I needed to sit down, and that I needed her to find me some water. I sat on a bench, next to some other tourists, and, remembering multiple movie scenes, put my head down almost between my legs, because I vaguely recalled that might help me in some way. It didn't, but it didn't make things worse either.

The Wife came back a few minutes later, with a 7Up, all she could find, and just as the rest of our party was arriving inside. Happy that I had some kind of liquid, at least, I chugged half the can immediately, and got up to join them as we all beelined to Heironymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, not only one of the most famous masterpieces at the Prado, but also, conveniently, one of the paintings located closest to the entrance. As expected, there was a huge mass of humanity clustered around the painting, and I only survived about 30 seconds in that dogpile before having to bail out, without really getting a look at it, because the heat and crush of people was about the last thing my body could take at that point. Instead, I went solo to a couple paintings that had no one around them, and was trying to enjoy them but was now feeling worse than ever.

So I made a quick decision: I needed to sit down. Or even lie down. I needed to tell everyone else to go ahead. I'd catch up. After the rest of our group emerged from the Boschpile, I announced said plan, but, because they were all heading up one floor and they didn't want me to get lost, they said to come up with them and find a bathroom and/or place to sit down up there. I was feeling like this was a mistake. I wanted to sit down RIGHT NOW and not take another step. But I was outnumbered and was rapidly losing energy.

So we walked to the elevator. It felt, to me, like it was taking hours to arrive. I said to The Wife I need to sit down now, I can't wait for this. The doors opened. A mass of people were already inside. We inched our way in. I put my hand on The Wife's shoulder. My head was swimming. I felt myself leaving the scene, rising somewhere above the elevator. The last thing I remember was hearing her call my name. And that was that.

My next conscious moment was right out a movie or TV show. Now I know why they have scenes like that. From a totally black screen, the camera opens on a shot of a whole mass of faces looking down on me, looking concerned. I had no idea where I was. I had been dreaming. I thought I was back home in bed. I only recognize my wife's face. All the others are unfamiliar to me. I feel someone holding my legs up. I can't keep my eyes open. People are talking to me but it sounds as if I'm underwater. I can't really understand what anyone is saying to me. Then it starts coming through: "Can you hear me Jeff?" my wife is asking. I can. I tell her. Yes. I can hear you. I feel the cold on my back now. I'm on the floor. The mass of faces looking down at me: Oh jeez, I'm at the museum. I'm on the floor at the museum, and there is a crowd around me. I can't keep my eyes open and I am freezing. I'm hearing various English phrases "He's American", "he fell on me in the elevator" accompanied by lots of Spanish I can't understand. I'm trying to talk and keep my eyes open but it's a struggle. I realize that everything is completely blurry out of my right eye, and only find out later that my contact lens had popped out when I fell.

As I start to come to, I feel terrible. I mean, emotionally. It's the first conscious thing I really remember: I've ruined the trip to the museum. I've turned this big outing for two families into a personal emergency. I start telling them to go ahead, I'll be fine. I start apologizing. I keep trying to get up, but I'm being held down, gently, by two women now, both doctors who have arrived on the scene--one employed by the museum, another an Italian tourist who stumbled upon the scene of the collapsed American. Her husband handed me a water bottle. I am alternating between feeling better and wanting to sleep. My hands and feet are freezing. The museum doctor has taken my pulse and blood pressure, and my blood pressure is low, but not alarmingly so. I'm feeling like it's starting to pass. Which it kind of is.
The worst of it is all over.

Sensing no further drama--I'm not going to die, or cough up blood, or go into some sort of raving spasm--the attendees begin to disperse. I'm no longer experiencing life as a second-by-second alienated befuddlement. I can start to joke about it. Even though I'm still feeling pretty crappy.

It's just a few more minutes before a wheelchair arrives for me, and I'm taken down a couple floors to the museum's little medical room. It makes you wonder how many public buildings like this have secret built-in medical facilities, filled with all sorts of equipment and beds and stuff. How did they know? I'm glad, in any case, and lay down with my wife at my side, my daughter (who has been crying and scared to death, though I've already begun to reassure her that I'm fine) and friends right outside the room. The doctor says I can stay here for awhile and rest up. They bring me water. It's at this point that the diagnoses begin, and we start going through what might have happened, and why. And among all the adults, it's the first time we really realize that no water has been drunk, combined with the previous night's alcohol, combined with the possibility of a virus, combined with the crush of people at the Bosch painting. Not a particularly promising combination, ya think?

I want my family and friends to now move on and try to enjoy the museum. I'm going to be fine. My wife dutifully insists that she wants to stay to me, for which I am reminded once again why I married her. And just at the point where we think I can probably get up and move on, I have a small relapse: My head begins swimming again, I tell my wife I need to throw up, we hurry me over to a sink, with the doctor, and I kind of almost do. This actually makes me feel a little better, but the doctor has now seen enough. Her prognosis: It's time for me to go to the hospital.

I really don't want to do this. It feels like overkill to me. And I know it's suddenly going to turn a relatively small incident into an ordeal. But, we understand where she's coming from. She's not being Nurse Ratchet here. She's just doing her job. An ambulance is called, the paramedics come, ask me questions that I am helpless to answer, thanks to craptactular public high school Spanish from which I've only retained one single phrase ("Donde esta la casa de Pepe?") that does me no good here, and then soon I am being wheeled through the museum and into the ambulance, once again a cool new exhibit for the tourists to observe. It's The Collapsed American! Today Only! Take your pictures now!

We cruise through the streets of Madrid. There's no windows in the ambulance, so I can't see any sights. I hear the siren going occasionally, which is cool and makes me feel important. I remember I have my Flip videocamera in my pocket, and instantly realize that filming this might make for a cool YouTube video, but I only get about a minute in before The Wife yanks it away with a kind of "are you kidding me?" remark. But, hey, I was a journalist! It's what we're trained to do!

By the time we get to the hospital, the feeling shared by me, The Wife, and Belen, who has accompanied us in the ambulance to help with translation, is that we are approaching overkill. And Belen's worry, shared by the ambulance driver, is that because we are now entering the largest public hospital in Madrid (socialized medicine--it's free! HEY MAYBE WE SHOULD TRY THAT TOO, AMERICA), it's going to take hours to get me settled in, and that this is liable to only make me feel worse, when what I really outta do is just go lie down somewhere. Unfortunately, the paramedics' hands were tied: They can't defy the museum doctor's orders. And, like I said, we understood why she ordered it. But now we just kinda want to get out of here and get me home.

It only takes about 3 minutes before a doctor approaches me in the wheelchair and looks at my chart, takes my pulse and blood pressure, and says that I seem to be okay now, if a bit cold. Belen explains the situation. The doctor looks around the waiting room, which is full, and then down at me, a clearly recovering dumb American, and pretty much agrees. Get this moron home and into bed. She does, graciously, say she wants to do one thing first before actually releasing me: An electrocardiogram, just to be sure. If anything is up with my heart, I'm staying. But otherwise, I'm free to go, and they'll just not type up anything and forget I ever walked in here. No paperwork for them, no day in the hospital for me. Win win.
I pass the electrocardiogram. Hallelujah. We cab back to the museum. I joke that maybe now we can go back inside and I can see the damn museum at last. But, yeah, no. They drive me home. I fall asleep in the car. We get home, they put me in bed, and other than one 1/2 hour revival, in which I stumbled downstairs to watch a game of Risk begin, I proceed to sleep for the next 16 hours, straight.

And that's pretty much The End! Yesterday, the day after this fun event, I was back up, and we had a completely normal, touristy day in the wonderful, walled town of Avila. The only difference for me? I was now carrying around a humongous bottle of Aquarius, which I believe is the Spanish equivalent of Gatorade. I had chugged two full bottles of it before leaving the house, and will drink this entire tank of it before the day ends.

I could have done with that out-of-body experience. More important, I could have done without scaring my loved ones, who got it worse than me. They had to watch me lose consciousness with my eyes open, talking to me and getting no response, my contact lens flopping out of my eye, my face going bloodless. No one should have to experience that.

So listen to me when I tell you, gang: Drink water. Drink it a lot. Keep your dang selves hydrated, for cryin' out loud. It's just basic survival we're talking about here.

But if you do have to collapse in a foreign country, I can say, as an experienced traveler now, that you may not get any finer care than in the Museo Del Prado in Madrid. Museum experience: Unknown. Medical facilities: 5 stars! Highly recommended!

I'll see y'all back in the US real soon.

Hasta luego,

Editor's Note: Two late edits, one for political correctness by my kid, the other for accuracy. "Girl Wagon" is now "Woman Wagon", and Spanish drink now correctly identified as "Aquarius."