From Bass to Bong Hits

The drive from Dothan, Alabama to Charlottesville passes through Georgia and the sisters Carolina before nestling into the home of several founding fathers. More on that later, though.  If you’ve been following my earlier travels, Imelda and I had a turbulent ending. When I returned home the other night, my sixty-plus bar soap sculpture – courtesy of my chambermaid Imelda – had tumbled to the ground. Slightly disappointed, I scraped the pieces from the vanity and shifted them into the trash can. At some point, I found the note. “Looks like I lost the Jenga. Sorry. —Imelda” I can only imagine what she was doing with my sculpture. Perhaps placing a groom and bride figurine atop it, or maybe cleaning out a bedroom for an illicit tryst. Whatever the reason, Imelda wrecked my architecture. So, now I am stuck with a range of emotional upheaval. There is anger at a person who would destroy another person’s art. Too, there is sadness for the irony of a woman, who spends much of her life cleaning up, knocking down sixty bars of soap to make a mess. And finally, there is dismay, at the idea of poor Imelda, feeling the guilt and shame of wrecking the home she’d seen me build for us. Had I known it would come to this, I would never have asked for more soap. Live and learn.

As for the drive, various small towns pave the path from the lower south to Virginia.
Eufala is home of the big mouth bass, deer processing centers (I know!) and intellectual restaurant names like Pete’s Uh (guess what they serve?) Moving Northeast, old plantation houses transform into southern colonials and I get to row the recollective oar for my collegiate architecture class. There’s a municipal airport with a guy named Bill who holds up his sandwich to direct a plane’s approach. When you ask Bill if a certain type of sandwich is more effective, he doesn’t laugh. Beacon-bacon, tomayto-tomahto, I guess.

Several rivers snake their way through the landscape and hundreds of small boats sit upon placid lakes, which host dinner if you wait long enough. One lake appears to serve double duty as a Chevy dealership. At least four hundred pick-up trucks fill its bank, although there is one poor little Toyota set in near the end of the line
and you get the sense this car feels like the kid in the locker room who wants to wait ’til everyone else leaves before taking his shower for, let’s call them comparative reasons.

The tickle-belly roads offer a sense of liberty, restrained only by the intermittent speed limit signs which place a prohibitive shackle upon your freedom and provide a reminder that your government will never leave you unbridled. Eventually, the music changes from pick-up trucks and bass fishin’ to shady trees and couples kissin’ and you know you’ve entered a State with fewer gun racks.

This is Charlottesville, Virginia now. Monticello sits twenty minutes from my hotel and UVA’s rotunda and green lawn require only one-thousand uphill strides. As I leave my car to cross the campus, graduates and parents cover the quad. With an ear toward history, I eavesdrop upon the next generation’s political leanings. The conversations are not what I expected.

………“Dude, I’m gonna start a weed farm.”

………“You going to law school?” “No, the future is pot.”

………“If I did this again, I’d have gotten a degree in agriculture. Haha.”

It is a brave new world. I wonder what Thomas Jefferson would think.

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By ccxander

When Travel Blogs go Awry

The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is over 450 holes of world-class golf sprawled out across the State of Alabama. Locals got so disgusted with folks flying through their state on the way to Florida, they built thirty plus courses to tempt travelers. Today on these courses, in a State where using the Lord’s name in vain is still considered blasphemy, you’ll hear more “Goddammits” than anywhere else in the country. Apparently, irony begins with irons.

Because of the limited tourist attractions in Dothan, Alabama, the Golf Trail is quite popular here. Players come from around the globe to participate in what has to be the world’s longest “good walk spoiled.” Factor in the multitude of barbecue joints pasted along highways adjacent to the courses and you have the makings of some pretty primitive circumstances. Picture this: Man swings club, curses twice and hurls club skyward, then meanders across the grass to the local food shack to consume a mouth -bloodying rack of ribs before he returns back across the fairway and grabs his club to grunt his way toward double bogey. Makes you wonder whether Kubrick was a fan of the links. Presumably, golf is the evolved gentleman’s game, but based on the setup here in ‘Bama, Geico should be shooting daily ads claiming, “so easy, even a Caveman could do it.”

Back on the tennis courts at Westgate Tennis Club, the tournament’s main draw continues today. With players ranked between 80 and 250 in the world, the competition is close. Fierce-faced ladies rip forehands and backhands in long rallies as the green clay transforms from a blank canvas into a Monet painting. The margins here are small, with less than a handful of points deciding most matches. This implies a twenty-second concentration lapse can cost you a match and that implication is true. At the elite level, the importance of mental skills is on par with physical ones. A random annoying fan in the stands, a car horn, a crow’s squawk. These are a few of the things which can alter focus. These external distractions can cause a player to lose thousands of dollars if they allow themselves to stray off task. As I sit here watching them perform, the facial ticks and body language often tell a far more intriguing story than the strokes.

Now on the home front. The soap construction has reached forty bars. Like a house of cards, it now stands sink-adjacent and is, frankly, pretty impressive. As I placed the finishing touches on this, I wondered if Imelda might get the wrong impression – that perhaps I am showing her the home we could have together, the sanitized house where we might raise our children. For Imelda’s sake, I hope not. After long days on the courts, sometimes we coaches just need a way to cleanse ourselves of the day, to focus our energy on something greater than our game. The soap sculpture offers that. I’m sure she will understand.

By ccxander

Alpha-Dogs and Chambermaids

The final round of Dothan’s 80K women’s tournament took place today. At this point in the event, 28 main draw players wander the grounds Alpha-dogging the rest of the playing field. Top seeds walk with a my-ranking-is-higher strut, while lesser-ranked players step right or left to let the seeds pass. At some point, they all hit the practice courts to feel the speed of the courts, to test the weight of the balls, the direction of the sun, the flow of the wind. During practice, they play from both sides of the court and note any elemental variations. The local stringer has strung many of the racquets and the players test their equipment before returning it to the stringer tonite for any requisite adjustments. The goal? To fine-tune the game for tomorrow’s competition. These players want to feel the ball on the center of the strings, to hit their best shots successfully and to get their feet flowing after long travel days – some have come from thousands of miles away.

The screaming and ranting now making its way across the facility is the first edge of a hurricane about to make landfall. Imagine knowing you are “off” your game and about to compete. Imagine knowing you’ve paid a thousand dollar plane fare, another thousand dollars in hotel fees, and traveled for fifteen hours to come to this American club where the local hotspots are Cracker Barrel and Walmart. Imagine your competitor is on the adjacent court repetitively ripping fantastic shots and fist-pumping faster than Floyd Mayweather on a training bender. You can understand the frustration.

As the qualies close, the screams continue. For three days, these ladies have played seven or more sets beneath a scorching Alabama sun. They are fatiguing, frustrated and furiously fighting. Four of them will enter the main draw. Four of them will compete tomorrow. Four of them will consider this week a success. The rest will be on planes again, looking back out over the wing to wonder “what if.” Those two words, “what if” are the toughest ones in this business. Regret, after all, has a long blade.

On another note, for those who’ve followed my previous escapades, you know I have a thing for chambermaids (see the towel fiasco in Mexico). It’s not sexual, but rather, more of an arm’s length flirtation to ensure my room stays upkept. Here in Dothan, her name is Imelda. With black hair tucked into a bun and a bend in her back, which suggests she may have a few decades on this job, Imelda wields a thick Guatemalan accent and one predatory eyebrow. Each morning, she places several tiny bars of soap on my sink. With them, I’ve begun constructing a soap house. Whether Imelda finds joy in this little homage to home will likely determine the level of my room service this week. We’ll know more this evening.

Note: Back in my room, Imelda has left me a gift. Twenty tiny soap bars now rest on my vanity. Clearly, she supports my architectural ambitions. Tonight I set my plans – a strong foundation with little risk of collapse, minor adjustments if things are not working as planned, and perhaps a few aesthetically pleasing additions. I’m assuming most of the main draw players will be doing the same.

By ccxander

On Peanuts and Players

Day Two:
Dothan, Alabama is the peanut capital of the world. I am not certain the world needs a peanut capital, but the 10-foot tall peanut which stands outside of the National Peanut Festival grounds and the helicopter rides which fly over the peanut festival grounds, and the twenty acres dedicated to peanut farmers and harvest season suggest otherwise. There are boiled peanuts, salted peanuts, plain peanuts, brittled peanuts, Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, peanut butters, Peanut the Puppet, odd peanut shells which hold three, four and even five nuts, and a thousand other varieties, which you imagine could bring anaphylactic shock to a whole host of schoolchildren. Unfortunately, Southwest Airlines’ peanuts are unavailable here as the size of your nut bag is apparently pretty important. It has been very difficult for me to walk around here without laughing.

Also on Dothan’s list of do-not-miss tourist sites, is the world’s smallest city block. It consists of a small gravel triangle with a stop sign, a yield sign, a street sign and a headstone which designates its title. I’ve considered remarking on this landmark but one of the Yelp comments summed it up better than I ever could, “The memory of this place will last a lifetime, or at least until you get back to your car.”

After taking the twelve requisite minutes to cover Dothan’s tourist attractions, I returned to the tennis tournament. Today’s second round of qualifying exhibited more error-prone power than a James Comey interview. This is an $80,000 event held at a public facility which boasts green clay the color of Kermit the Frog after a bender. An upper deck looks out over the courts and several cocktail-toting locals watch the tennis and make enough “oohing and aahing” sounds that you start to wonder whether something inappropriate is happening up there. Television camera crews stalk the grounds in search of good vantage points and if you happen to stray into their camera shot, they resemble those blow-up things outside the car dealerships.

In this tournament, 32 women will battle for four qualifying spots to join the other 28 competitors in the Main Draw. Getting through qualies is a bit like driving LA’s 405 toward the airport. If you can stay mentally tough and avoid accidents, it’s possible to navigate your way there. Even if you make it though, you’ll be exhausted and sore and annoyed with the journey. Your reward is the main draw, which is akin to getting through four hours of traffic to find out you have a 19-hour flight to Brisbane.

Today’s matches had women from Israel, France, Russia, Italy, Canada, Brazil, Chinese Taipei, and the US. Tomorrow, the survivors will battle in the final round before the Main. I imagine the rest of them will go home thinking Dothan is the quintessential American experience. That should terrify all of us, but if so, I hope they take some peanuts for the ride.

 

By ccxander

The Beginning of a Three-Week Journey

 

For the next three weeks, I’m traversing several states on a journey across America’s south. Along the way, I’ll provide obnoxious and cynical observations about local culture, relate humorous tales of human interaction and enlighten you on the world of professional tennis. Caveat emptor on the writing through. I’ve been known to deviate from the normal journalistic form and digress into rants about history and psychology and other types of literary mischief. If you are inclined, hoist and tilt that morning cuppa while I lift the window shade unto a strange world.

Day One:
The drive from St. Petersburg, Florida to Dothan, Alabama passes through the panhandle. There are cows and fruit farms and a sleek transition from palm trees to coniferous ones. As you leave the tropics, humidity turns into something cooler, dustier, as though the back woods are offering a welcoming breath, one which resonates with the stink of beached fish and tractor fumes. Too, advertisements change. Northern Florida trends conservative, with giant roadside rectangles shouting guilting religious phrases like “Abortion Breaks God’s Heart” and ‘Children are Not Meat.” That an Arby’s sign followed the latter billboard must be the world’s most disconcerting commercial irony. Entering ‘Bama, trees host crosses nailed to their trunks and Garth Brooks billboards join the ubiquitous auto racing signs.

As you travel through East Alabama, a waging of two contests appears. Whether the United States flag is more prevalent than the one supporting the University of Alabama is too close to call. The second battle takes place between cows and churches. Almost every home here hosts herded cows – some are pets, some are livestock, and some are dinner – and the smell is one of those wintry day smells when Papa lights the fireplace and the smoky scent permeates the entire city, only, more fertilized. The churches don’t smell, but the herding is similar.

In what has to approach a record for the nation’s most diverse sales kiosk, one roadside tent offers fudge ice cream, gator jerky and cow tongue. While the gator jerky was tempting, the cow tongue caught my attention because it answers one of my most profound childhood inquiries – Why do cows say Moo? The absence of a tongue means they are mute and, with the “moo,” I’m fairly certain they are trying to let us know that cutting out their tongues make them this way, but without being able to put the tongue on the roof of their mouth, they just can’t get there. That that took a seven-hour drive to discover, makes it all the more satisfying.

About twenty minutes before arrival, I pulled into a back road Alabama gas station. Smitty came out to greet me. I know this because the oval patch and cursive script which adorned his grey jumpsuit said so. The tobacco stains on his collar suggested potential dental issues, which were confirmed when he grinned. Smitty scrubbed my windows with a Miyagi-ish circular motion and then filled my tank by straddling and holding the hose as though taking a leak. Though he was very friendly, I think this was Smitty’s way of pissing on a world which had pissed him off. I was hoping I’d see a hound laying across a hose outside the service station, but fortune granted me no favor today.

So, now here I am in Dothan, Alabama, population 70K, most of whom appear to be related. There is a Subway, a Walmart, and a few BBQ places with names like Chuck’s or Slim’s or Bubba’s. This afternoon I intend to explore the local attractions. Based on first impressions, I’ll be cow-tippin’, finger-lickin’ and fishin’. Tomorrow, the tennis tournament begins.

By ccxander

Brisbane’s Beautiful but…

The river winding through Brisbane is tidal, meaning bull sharks lurk beneath your boat as you pass under lighted bridges and Queensland culture. Along the way, half-naked rock-climbers scale the Kangaroo Cliffs, skinny cyclists speed by on the right (wrong) side of the road, and groups of well-tanned runners thunder through the streets in herds, which call up images of America’s buffalo. When I heard about Australia’s dangerous wilderness, this was not what I anticipated. Still, though Brisbane is rife with its own velocity, the real danger here is about twenty minutes outside the city in a tiny animal sanctuary. There are pythons and crocodiles, dingos and Tasmanian devils, but even these pale in comparison to the real threat, which hides in Eucalyptus trees and appears cuddly and lovable until you know their little secret, which my transport person (I’ll withhold her name for fear of retaliation from the marsupial army) revealed to me while on our way to the “Sanctuary.”

You ready for this? Almost 90% of Koalas have Chlamydia, which interestingly, also happens to be the most commonly reported STI in young people in Australia – kinda makes you wonder what the hell is going on out here on Saturday nights.

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Since it’s transmitted sexually, you’d probably think there wouldn’t be too many incidents of humans suffering from the passage of this disease. After all, how much infidelity can there be when you have to shimmy up a tree and part the fur just to get at the little suckers. However, you’d be wrong.

This from Wikipedia: Koalas are struck by a different strain of the disease from that which affects humans – although it seems humans can catch the koala version through exposure to an infected animal’s urine.

Let that sink in.

…humans can catch the koala version through exposure to an infected animal’s urine.

Here’s the best part. When you arrive at the sanctuary, there’s an almost un-refusable offer. For $15, you can hold one of these cute little furballs in your hand, have it wrap its tiny claws around your shoulder, and you’ll get one of those photos where social media types will spout hearts and envy ’til you tear up with pride. $15 is cheaper than crack or cocaine or any other dopamine strike and there’s just no way you’re gonna say “no” to an opportunity for a lifetime of memories and joy.

I am now inside the sanctuary. I have passed all of the other animals and I’m striding slowly toward the Chlamydia, I mean Koala cage. To my horror, there is no cage. These animals are free to roam, to pee more recklessly than a drunk man in Hollywood, to relieve themselves upon small children’s shoulders and heads, to turn, aim, and fire at any curious onlooker. Worse yet, there is a line of ticket holders who are giddy with anticipation as they await an opportunity to have the koala-keeper place one of these furry tramps upon their shoulder.

Around the site, I’ve seen oodles of hand-cleansing dispensers and I’ve almost come to tears watching these folks walk right by them after the photo shoot. Imagine hugging Keith Richards and not showering afterward and I think you’re getting close. And now I pause, click the zoom on my camera, snap a few photos from outside urinating range, and get on my way. I don’t want to have that story. I can’t imagine a life where conversations about my sexual history begin with, “Well there was this Koala, see….”

As I leave, I pass through the gift shop. It is pretty clear to me there’s a massive market for Koala condoms and someone should be making a fortune. Instead, there are photos of these furry creatures and they are smiling. When I look closer, it’s the same koala in every picture. I think he’s in that marsupial minority. He’s one of the un-infected, climbing into the eucalyptus sack with the arrogance of a sexual soothsayer. He knows the lady koalas see him as prime fodder and his picturesque smile suggests a satisfaction only really good-looking people can understand. He is Neo, the Highlander, a veritable Gold Coast Superman. I exit without making a purchase. My transport person is waiting for me in the parking lot. She is smiling. I open the door and get in.
“Well?” she says.
“Get me to the clinic,” I respond. “And step on it!”

 

 

By ccxander

Newtown Dogma

Newtown Dream Dog Park is located towards the front entrance of Newtown Park, about a long jacuzzi’s drive from downtown Atlanta. It is a fenced, one-acre area featuring artificial turf, sprinklers, various bridges, tunnels and hoops, plus water fountains for people and pets. On any given morning, there are tens of canine crusaders traipsing around the grounds in search of a proper smelling anal gland.
The park was built in 2015 when some Atlanta native spun around three times before entering the Beneful Wagworld Dream Dog Park Contest with a $500,000 award. Since then, most of the neighborhood’s felines have existed in a state of forehead-slapping envy.

Newtown actually consists of two dog parks, one for dogs and the other for what appear to be large rodents, who call themselves dogs, but clearly couldn’t hold up in a three round fight. The small dog park is sort of like the Kids table at Thanksgiving dinners, where everyone looks over and smiles but no one really wants to be there. Most small dog owners collect social security and have names like Harriet or Edgar. Let’s just say there’s not a lot of texting going on in there.
It’s a bit of an injustice that the small dog park is closer to the parking lot such that all big dogs must pass the small dogs on their way to better things, and, with the lifted legs and bared fangs, you can almost sense the mockery going on. When Chihuahua’s become envious, their upper lips quiver. There also will come a moment in every large dog’s life when they graduate from the small dog park to the big dog park and there will be guilt and an attempt at humility, akin to a Triple-A pitcher getting called up to the big show. Or, maybe dog’s just don’t really give a shit. Point being, if you’re one of life’s little dogs, the whole world knows you suck.

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Once you clank through the double gates to the big dog park, you’ll set your leash aside many other shredded hemp and drool-stained leashes, and free your dog out into Beneful’s beautiful bailiwick. Immediately, several four-legged friends will seize upon the new playground member. Some will sniff, others will paw, and eventually one will take off like a bat out of hell (for no apparent reason) and the rest of the pack will give chase until the lead dog stops and everyone else stops and looks around like “what the hell did we do that for?” Over time, the animals separate into groups of threes or fours or a random coupling with some romantically suggestive rolling. There is an uncomfortable amount of sexual activity here, the preferred position, fittingly, dog style, although there’s a German Shepard doing some things with a French Poodle that borders on felonious.

 

Wandering the grounds offers insight into the canine lifestyle. On every bench, rock, bridge and pretty much anything supra-terra, myriad pools of spit, slobber and drool provide a slimy varnish. There are torn tennis balls in various states of decomposition and hairstyles (the dogs’), which run from East Harlem to Jamaica, with a few of the smaller pups evoking something Reichstag-ish. Stolen leashes and pilfered water bottles are part of the milieu.
Moving across the park is a lot like traversing an Afghanistanian minefield, with IED shit piles lurking at every step, and if you happen to avoid all of the piles, there’s a strange sense of accomplishment. Of course, it’s a fleeting feeling as you’ll have to cross again and the chances of surviving the day without something ghastly sticking to your shoes are near nil. There are a lot of happy flies here.
As for exercise, the dogs roll and splay and you see back ends sliding out like an Indy-car coming off the high-bank. Post-run breathing patterns range from hoarse and wheezy to phone stalker-ish. Eventually, one pup gets pissed off and then there are snarls and growls primal enough to make Vin Diesel sound comparatively Soprano. Some aggressive owners shout sharp commands to “Get the fuck off him,” and more anxious ones attempt to grasp their pet’s collar like a blind man searching for a dropped cane. A few will scream bloody murder and enter the melee with little regard for flailing fangs. In a nod to city planning’s foresight, there is a fire station directly across the street from Newtown. Sirens sound often.

 

It is not a myth that many dogs resemble their owners, and vice-versa.


Jowelled-old men sport bulldog companions, while a former NBA-player cuts through the gates with his two Great Danes. There are pretty blond women with golden retrievers and small, badly-permed, elderly ladies toting Schnauzers and toy Poodles. If you were a gambler, you’d be confident the Pitbull owners have gym memberships. Every so often, there’s a mismatch – Jowelled-old men sport bulldog companions, while a former NBA-player cuts through the gates with his two Great Danes. There are pretty blond women with golden retrievers and small, badly-permed, elderly ladies toting Schnauzers and toy Poodles. If you were a gambler, you’d be confident the Pitbull owners have gym memberships. Every so often, there’s a mismatch — a old woman with a German Shepard or a Hell’s Angel with a Chihuahua and the whole park knows there’s gotta be one hell of a backstory. Conversations pop up around the park like a schizophrenic frenzy. For example:

 

“Is that your yellow lab?”
“Yes, and I’m guessing by your facial expression that the humpee is yours?”
“Yea.” (accompanied by a long sigh indicating either frustration or envy)
“Do you want me to get him off, er…take him off your dog?” 
“It’s ok. Just let them do whatever it is they need to do.”
 “You’re going to make a great parent.”

 

“That your lab?”
“Uh huh.”
“Did you teach him to steal wallets?”
“No, I think it comes with the breed.”
“Pardon me?”
“You know, retriever.”
“Oh…..huh?”

 

“Is the lab yours? etc.

The point is, Newtown resembles a speed dating meet-up, where half the park population walks around sniffing ass and the other half prods each other with sharp tongues.

 

It must be ignorance which encourages adult women to bring their toddler children to the dog park. Aside from the constant fingers-dipped-in-dog-shit-and-then-tastes-it, the petri-dish of diseases, the sexual proclivities of amped-up adolescent pups who see small children the way priests see them, and the ever-present threat of life-ending fang-to-throat issues, the place is pretty much a derby of canine collisions. In any given hour, there are ten to fifteen hound wind sprints, which threaten toddler spectators’ survival. In less than a week, one kid was rabbit punched through a fence, two kids were trampled rodeo-style, and another flipped skyward into a near flawless triple-with-a-half-twist when a Rottweiler put the kibosh on a quick-turning Dalmation. My therapist says I’ll be over it soon.

 

There’s also the dog names and nothing is off-limits. Just this morning, I met Yoda (seriously), Nova, Alouicious (sp), Madame Matilda P. Asuncion, and a Great Dane mischievously monikered Minnie. One kleptomaniacal puppy steals wallets, leashes, and various food items. He responds to the name Robber, which says a lot about the owner. There’s also a French Bulldog who’s yanking so hard on his leash that his aging owner has to grasp a bench to stay upright. With the dog’s choked voice and bulging eyes, Marty Feldman comes to mind.

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Over time, ubiquitous fang marks make one uncomfortable.
If you’ve ever witnessed dog play, it’s a well-choreographed parade of writhing gestures that owners hope will result in a desperately-desired dognap. Like most relationships, it begins with a handshake, or in the case of these palmless creatures, the anal-sniff. Apparently, there’s a recognition or an attraction, or something in a dog’s butt crack which shouts let’s play and then all hell breaks loose. Dog play resembles a vampire attack. There are sharp fangs driven into exposed necks and even your most intellectually aware folks tilt their skulls and wonder whether they should be doing something to stop the apparent carnage. Fortunately, the ripping and gouging rarely result in anything other than an ADD moment when both dogs pause and one walks away to pursue a hurled tennis ball. Once in a while, these playtime moments grow ugly when an Alpha male enters the fray and battles for supremacy. The corresponding growl and bark draw full-park attention and most owners mouth the same “oh shit” phrase. Imagine spotting Jack the Ripper at the fence line and you’ll get close.
Eventually, Newtown closes. Marty Feldman and one of the Great Danes exit together in what looks like a Casablanca tribute. A few folks meet at the gate to rip foreign objects from their dogs’ mouths and return them to each other. There’s a parting. Seconds later, panting hounds pull their owners to the cars. The sun sets. The moon rises. And Newtown is just an empty lawn…..preparing for tomorrow’s shit show.

By ccxander

An Independent Voter’s Anguished Cry

Blog posts seeds come from interesting places. To wit:

I am sitting in an Atlanta suburb cafe. At least thirty button-downed men and a dozen sweater-clad women surround me as they have a go at Southern-fried things. A waitress arrives with my burger and I stretch my neck across the room to inquire whether I can borrow a woman’s ketchup bottle – yes, I am that guy. While waiting for the ketchup, this blog landed upon the gray matter.

Back in the 1970’s, Heinz ran a campaign to sell their ketchup. Some excited woman stood with a ketchup bottle tipped upside down while Carly Simon crooned “Anticipation” over the airwaves and you got the sense that something great was about to happen. When the sultry red condiment finally climaxed at that ketchup bottle lip, viewers were bordering on ecstasy. Forty years later, I’m still waiting for that fucking ketchup.

Ever get the feeling you are unwanted, like you’re some Dickensian child with a toothy smile and a vote, waiting for someone to say come on in and clip that hanging chad onto our floor so we can start setting up your future? I am that child now. Unwanted, waiting, anticipating.

The Republican party has hoisted a successful business man whose ego is larger than his considerable gut, whose vocabulary is smaller than his paltry palms, and whose knowledge of the global community would make an eleventh grade history teacher cringe. He speaks and recants, blathers and boasts, and then settles back into a frumpy glare that would dominate the conversation if it weren’t for all the head scratching he compels. Aside from the fact that he is outside the political system and in spite of the current need for someone with a financial background to resolve the 20 trillion dollar debt, he is nearly impossible to like. Then again, he may be the better choice. The Democrats have hoisted a thirty-year veteran of the political world who’s flipped and fabricated and fucked over so many people she needs a case of Alzheimers just to get through the day. Her trust factor hovers around 11%, which is slightly less than the percentage of people who believe in Bigfoot. Still, she is clearly more knowledgeable about world affairs and America’s place on the international stage.

With neither candidate presenting an attraction though, one might turn to the ideologies of their respective parties to find solace and comradeship. Here too, there are problems. On many social issues, the Republicans remain too conservative. With issues like abortion and equal pay and gay marriage still lingering in the political ether, and with the suggestion that heritage or skin color might have something to do with one’s criminal mindset, the party is at best unattractive and frequently offensive.

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Conversely, the Democrats have a bigger problem. In their marketing campaigns, you are either with them or categorized as “deplorable” and “racist” and “stupid.” With a hint of disagreement about tax policy or developing a sustainable economic model that doesn’t leave the nation with crushing debt, or fiscal responsibility so the middle class isn’t falling behind at a million dollar per minute rate, they label you “an idiot” and “heartless.” Clearly, they don’t want me. For a party which promotes tolerance and inclusion, there is, simply, none.

All of this leads me back to the ketchup. I am sitting here now, after the nice lady handed over her Heinz bottle, waiting for the ketchup, salivating for what is to come, hoping it will present me with something tasteful and satisfying and Yelpable. The point though, is I’m still fucking waiting.

By ccxander

Tilting at Windmills

 

In my youth, I used to play miniature golf. There was this whole animated course to navigate – clown’s mouths, windmills, uneven terrain – and my ability to overcome these obstacles surely meant I was on the cusp of professional success. The local putt-putt served as my Augusta, and if I could shoot better than par, I believed I was on my way to a Masters title. But childhood fantasies crack and collapse before the harsh reality of a real course. See, making a good putt once in a while is only a small piece of the greater game of golf. It is not a long leap to see how this relates to politics.

When these candidates campaign for votes, they display a very specific skill set that is quite inadequate for governing. The ability to speak, to throw down a witty quip, to walk away from a debate unscathed – are these attributes indicative of a candidate’s ability to steer the national ship?

The truth is we used to have substantive debates. A small group of anchormen/women would dissect the candidate’s positions and we as a nation of voters would be more educated. We’d analyze the logic of their arguments, their vision, the details of their plans, and we’d gather around the dinner table to discuss the future of our nation. But things are different now.

Today, in a generation where 141 characters represents the national attention span, where cynicism dominates the landscape and the ruination of professional careers is more captivating than resolving national problems, the media is content to report sound bites. We hear who launched the best barb. We fact check to see who was lying. We search for the slightest crack in these stained-glass window candidates and then answer poll questions about honesty quotients and favorability.

This re-direction of attention – from substance to subtext – has consequences. First, in order to win debates, our candidates now emphasize their retort and rhetoric skills. Second, when candidates do have a few moments to speak, they spit out a Tweetable phrase and then direct voters to their website, where some ghostwriter has crafted voter-friendly paragraphs with about as much depth as a street gutter. And third, the next generation of voters gets the sense that this is how politics has always worked, and our future leaders will begin honing their own skills to focus on presentation over platform. And thus, the cycle will continue.

The point here is the teleprompter speech and debate repartee represent the miniature golf version of politics. Once in office, these candidates will have to deal with nuclear issues, looming debt, and the economic disparity crushing the country. They’ll have to resolve half a nation paying income taxes to support half a nation which can’t. They’ll be required to incentivize hiring, to alleviate poverty, to enhance education, and to establish trade policy. In other words, they’ll have to govern.

Whether the public’s attention drives the media content, or vice versa, perhaps it is time to look at things anew. What if debates revolved around vision? What if each candidate got fifteen minutes to articulate their vision for America? What if, instead of tete-a-tetes, we placed these candidates upon the stage and put their platforms and voting records on a big screen behind them? What if rather than questions like “what would you do if North Korea got a nuclear weapon?” we asked questions like, “Please list the specific incomes and liabilities you will need to bring our national debt down from 18 trillion dollars to zero.”

Then again, maybe the public wants things in brief. Maybe I’m a dinosaur who wants to sit and read full paragraphs with well-oiled arguments. Maybe the future will take place in a world of abbreviation. If so, FML.

I hope they have a clown’s mouth at Augusta!

By ccxander

Puzzled?

It’s billed as a night of intellectual challenge, where groups of up to twelve strangers are locked in a room and given sixty minutes to solve their way out. Escape Room LA. The Detective. For those not in the know, here’s an overview:

The building is in downtown LA, somewhere on 8th street where drab brick and climbing metal stairs give the place an exoskeletal look. When you arrive, there’s an intercom which requires a three digit number to access. The intercom number sits just above the intercom but if you’re not looking for it, it’s about as visible as Bill Clinton’s morality. After three minutes of trying to figure out how to get into the building, my group and I saw the code and then realized how bad an omen it was that we couldn’t even solve the puzzle for opening the damn door.

Inside, a metal elevator takes you up three floors, and if you can avoid the idiotic jokes about whether the elevator is the room you need to get out of, you are a better person than I am. Upon exiting the elevator, a room awaits, where a single lady sits behind a plastic desk hosting $2 water bottles and a Mac laptop with your reservations. Drinking a bottle of water before being locked in a room for up to an hour has devastating consequences. I’ll not elaborate.

You sit on plastic chairs as other strangers enter and then there’s a nervous energy as you size each other up for things like IQ, body odor, and the sort of dick-swinging competitiveness that all puzzle-solving humans inevitably get when confronted with intellectual challenge, I guess. People shake hands, make jokes, and then you are led into a second room where the host rifles off the rules of the game and presents a few hints on how to succeed. The feeling is a bit like entering the Haunted House at Disneyland, just before the floor drops out and your inner child screams with terror.

You are told, “out of 1471 escape attempts, only 141 groups have gotten out.” This is meant to be informative but you and the others share an imaginary wink as you make nonverbal promises to be group number 142 and your collective ego swells as you walk through the door.

Once inside, things happen. The sixty-minute clock begins to tick. There are numbers and letters and photos and airplanes and locks and books and folders and darts and clocks and enough codes to make the NSA anxious. Your group spreads out across the small room and begins trying to piece together which things are clues and which aren’t and whether the idiots around them are bright enough to help them out of this place or just idiots who will prove sixty minutes of worthlessness. You find yourself sharing brilliant and logical deductions with perfect strangers whose intellectual equivalent are the blocks you are solving. With so many puzzles, however, the escape room requires teamwork. At some point, you give it over to the Gods of Decryption and pray like hell these strangers don’t make a mistake.

All the while, there’s a gum-chewing secretary in the room, one who begins with an attitude and grows increasingly friendly as your group fails to solve anything other than the light switch and how to pick up dropped pieces of paper. As you reach levels of frustration only seen in places like the DMV or on hold with your cable company, she drops hints – think a quick jerk of her head or a subtle finger point toward a clue. Once or twice, she speaks with a New York accent and wears slightly less than enough perfume. The ticking wall clock only adds to your frustration as pressure mounts on both your brain and your bladder.

As some point, there comes a moment when you realize you have no prayer of exiting this place before time runs out. There’s a certain sadness, an acknowledgement of your failure, followed by a harsh hour of blaming all of the rest of the people in the room for being too stupid to help you. The puzzles mock you for the final minutes, daring you to try to solve them quickly, but with the sort of arrogance that cryptography always wields when time is of the essence.

When time expires, and assuming you are still in the room (and let’s be honest, with only 10% of the people finding their way out, you probably will be), the secretary walks you through all of the puzzles and explains how each one of the clues could have been resolved. While many of the puzzles prove very solvable, some require the mind of a Dalí or a Picasso.

And then it is over. The host takes a group photo of you before you leave – evidence of your failure that they’ll likely use for promotional purposes.

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As you walk down the hallway home – feeling the adrenalin rush of a mind well-worked, of a night spent in pursuit of an unobtainable grail, of an hour with stupid strangers who really should have pulled the intellectual oar a little harder – you smile, because the damn night was just so much fun.

And then, with the door to the street closing behind you, you reach back inside and grab a brochure for The Cavern, another Escape Room that will pit you with eleven more strangers in complete darkness. Because that way, if any of those morons actually get an idea, at least you’ll be able to see the light bulb above their head.

By ccxander