Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Do It in Dubai

Warren Buffett is among the richest men in the world. But besides playing the ukelele, he doesn't appear to be having much fun. We in Nebraska love him for that. Midwesterners are known for helping you up if you suffer misfortune, and if you suffer too much fortune, we'll chip you back down. We put great value on being average.

The fun of being rich is doing things other people can't afford to do. That's hard when everyone else around you is rich too. Los Angeles is among the toughest places to be rich. Look what Michael Jackson had to go through to stand out.

The hardest place of all to look rich? Dubai—everybody there is rich. So how can you look richer than rich? One guy built a ski resort.

First he built a full-size mountain, then put a building over it, and made it cold enough inside that it snowed every day. This is in a land otherwise made of sand, because it's too hot and dry for dirt to survive. In Nebraska we don't cherish snow so much—indeed, we'd be happy to export it to any of the Arab Emirates—but it's not about the snow. It's about snow in Dubai, a land so hot and dry that you brush your teeth with steam.

Outer space was supposed to be the next frontier. The rich guys at Virgin are already taking reservations for regular commercial trips to space. But the crazy rich are not sold yet on building vacation homes out there, because there are no poor people nearby to watch them in awe and mow their astroturf. That spoils the fun of blowing money. Until someone builds really cheap, really powerful telescopes so the rest of us can watch the rich float and tumble and try to go swimming in weightless wonder, they'll have to be ostentatious a little closer to home.

My friend Skye skidded up to us, arms waving, as we sat at the bar. "Ohmygod-ohmygod-ohmygod! The next big thing: underwater." We've learned not to interrupt Skye when she gets like this. "People are going to start building fancy houses underwater. Oceans are the new suburbs!"

She's right. It's hard to resist watching underwater films of dolphins and octopuses and other sea magic. We proletariat can't afford to live underwater, but our imaginations would whirl as we watched some rich Hefner dude throw an underwater dinner party in his underwater house, everyone fitted with black velvet oxygen tanks. We'd oooh and aaah as a romantic couple drifts away from the dinner crowd to enjoy alone the balcony view and a martini, extra dry, as their hair wafts dramatically in the current. Later, someone could strum an underwater guitar as they gather around the underwater fireplace. Perhaps a midnight dip in the underwater swimming pool.

Skye points out all the little things that will impress us. "Imagine how much it would cost to get a FedEx delivery to your underwater house?" She thinks like this. "You'd have to buy a new everything. An underwater pet. Underwater furniture. An underwater hair dryer that blows really hot water."

The rich would never again swim in the regular ocean—heck, any any schmo can do that.

To look rich in Nebraska, all you have to do is hire a housekeeper and a lawn service. Your neighbors will gasp! But for the poor rich people in Dubai, the only impressive step left will to build a giant artificial ocean above ground, right on the desert sand, so passers-by can be dazzled by your underwater extravagance as they walk on their way to the plain old ski lift.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Space Age Technology

I can't remember the last time I was bored.

I used to get bored every day. Eventually I would dream up something to amuse myself, after my mind had idled so long that it hallucinated itself into a creative frenzy. I'd go outside and build dirt roads for my Tonka trucks, construct a stray-cat hotel, or assign names to the ants. Maybe just dig a hole, in case someday I need one.

The first computer I ever saw was a Commodore 64: a tiny, inexpensive unit that had to be programmed by hand every time you turned it on, because floppies hadn't been invented yet. Once you took the time to learn the computer's language, you could fire it up and, with only about twenty minutes of coding, teach it to display in luminous green letters:

"Hi, my name is Michael.
Run again? (Y)es, (N)o."


All this computer programming saved me the time of having to type, "Hi, my name is Michael," although actually I did have to type it because it was part of the programming. With a tweak, you could create an endless loop so it would print your name line after line, so fast you could barely see it scroll across the screen. That would definitely save time over me hand-typing it over and over indefinitely. So there's that.

When cell phones began growing in popularity, I became a Luddite. I resisted the idea of callers reaching me wherever I was. I preferred my answering machine, which solved the quandary of avoiding people while not missing out on anything. But I eventually got a cell phone, convincing myself that I'd use it only to call out, sharing my number only with a chosen few. I stored the numbers of all my favorite fast-food restaurants so I could drunk-dial them, then swing by to pick up food on my way home from the bar. A time saving device, to be sure.

I also convinced myself that a cell phone would be useful in an emergency. My first phone was a Nokia, black and as big as a candy bar. (A candy bar in 1995, that is. Candy bars have shrunk over time in proportion to cell phones.) It had a teeny little screen and the sound was scratchy, but I could conduct a conversation without the other person saying, "Huh? I'm sorry, what? You're breaking up." The first emergency my new phone experienced was when I dropped it at a music festival and it was run over by a hearse.

My current cell phone is the size of a candy bar now, which is to say, unsatisfying. It looks like a candy bar too, a bite-sized black rectangle with rounded corners, and just as slippery. It even calls itself a Chocolate. I try to wedge it between my ear and shoulder when I need to use my hands, and it squirts out like a pumpkin seed.

Cell phones save time by keeping us constantly connected. Driving time can now be used to chat with friends, and we get home sooner because while we were checking our text messages we drove through all the red lights.

My computer checks for e-mail messages every fifteen minutes. In between, I usually push the "Mail" button to make it check again, because e-mail is way more fun than working, and besides, it's so much more efficient than regular mail. Think of all the time I'm saving by not using regular mail to forward jokes to all my friends.

Today, rather than going to all the trouble of dialing seven whole digits and actually speaking to someone, we hand-type messages using only our opposable thumbs. I'm beginning to suspect this is why monkeys got rid of theirs. Evolution might have occurred, but we probably have the direction wrong. Monkeys live happily in the tropics, eat fresh food for free, don't need jobs, talk face to face without a cell phone. and instead of forwarding each other jokes and YouTube videos, they take naps and have sex. The next generation of phone will probably require us to communicate by pounding it in Morse Code against a rock.

The latest portable device: cell toilets. "Look! They're so small and light you can take one with you wherever you go! Relieve yourself while you walk—even while you drive! You can get rid of your old land toilet. These are so cheap you won't even care if it quits working. Just throw it away and buy another!"

"It's a paper cup."

"That's the beauty of it—it'll even reduce your water bill! Think of the time you'll save!"

What I really want is a big, sturdy, comfortable phone that gets great reception, one with luxuriously big speakers that fit my ear, and a mouthpiece that reaches my mouth. Something indestructible, heavy enough that you can slam it down nice and hard when you hang up on a telemarketer or ex-girlfriend. One that doesn't require recharging, yet lasts for years. I want a real Space Age kind of phone—which is to say, one from the 1960s. Back then, I could talk for hours.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pink Week

It’s early, but Pink Week is upon us. Pink Week is that first string of warm days when the snow melts and the ground dries, grass threatens with a hint of green, tree branches boast swollen, horny buds, and people start walking around with their shirts off, offering their pink skin to the pagan gods of Spring. It’s only fifty degrees out, but in spring, fifty feels like eighty.

If you have pale pink skin in July, you’re pasty. In February, you’re intrepid. Not pretty, quite, but Pink Week has its own kind of beauty, much the same as a mother robin does when she pukes worms into her babies’ wide-open mouths.

I took my lunch outside on the patio today. (Fully clothed. You’re welcome.) The air was still cool but the sun felt warm. I drew a deep breath of fresh spring air, forgetting as I do every year that the early spring doesn’t smell like daffodils, but rather like three months’ worth of newly melted dog doo.

My lawn guy uses organic fertilizer. It smells like wet corn flakes. He says it’s made from chickens, and I don’t ask if he means chicken droppings, or chicken feed, or, well, you know…chickens. “This fertilizer is so safe that if your dog ate it, she’d just get fat!” he boasts. Yes, and she’d recycle it in her little Pla-Doh factory way, and that’s taking the whole “green” thing too far.

As I exhale my first deep lungful of corn flakes and poopcicles, I hear the sweet, optimistic sound of a cardinal calling for his mate. He is immediately drowned out by a passing Harley. I know it’s fun to be on a noisy motorcycle—I once earned a citation for disturbing the peace—but I’m not on a motorcycle now, so I contribute a bird of my own, and loudly sing a song of spring entitled, Shut The Fuck Up You Self-Centered Arrogant Jackass. I don’t remember who wrote it. Maybe Henry Mancini.

If I finish this essay quickly I’ll knock off a little early and go for a walk in the sun. If you wear black it feels warm enough that you don’t need a coat. Too early yet to slip my tender pink feet into flip-flops, though—there’s still a whole lotta thawin’ goin’ on.

Squish.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hey There, Cowboy

What do you do when you find out your best friend has been keeping the biggest, juiciest secret ever from you for years?

Why hadn’t he ever told me? It‘s not like I’d publish it in a blog or anything.

My plan for January was to sell the bar, then take a long weekend visiting TJ in Portland, where he now lives on a secluded mountainside. It was to be a rinse retreat, to help put one life behind me and orient my heart toward a new one. The bar sale ended up delayed, and I already had my tickets so I went anyway. Instead of a philosophical retreat, we just drank margaritas all weekend.

Back in junior high, TJ and I used to hole up in his bedroom and play guitars. We’d put on an LP and sit around the alter of his fancy stereo studying what the artist was doing, trying to imitate it. TJ would sag into his squeaky beanbag chair and I’d lean back up against the side of his bed as we strummed through John Denver or Loggins & Messina. This was before they invented gangs.

TJ builds guitars now, the most beautiful instruments I’ve ever seen. While I was there I got to help work on one, and I got to play about $50,000 worth of others in between rounds of pool, margaritas and his outdoor hot tub.

At the end of my first day there, I was deliriously relaxed and sated. My bleary, tequila-tinted eyes blinked slowly.

“Did you give him the cowboy sheets?” his girlfriend asked.

“They’re already in the guest room.”

“Cowboy sheets?” I blinked. I suddenly imagined gray sheets used by another visitor smelling of leather and cattle, which sounds like the same thing but it isn’t.

“I found TJ a set of flannel sheets with cowboys on them,” she explained, as if that explained anything. She’s a master shopper. She could find weapons-grade plutonium, and she’d get it 30% off. “They’re magic. You’ll sleep great.”

“Cowboy sheets?”

“Since I was a kid I wanted cowboy sheets,” he told me. “Mom once asked me what kind of sheets I wanted, and I told her cowboy sheets. She went to Sears, but came back with the wrong sheets.”

“What did she come back with?”

He gave me a steely look. “She brought back the wrong thing. I begged her to go back and exchange them for my cowboy sheets. Begged,” he repeated, a desperate junior high boy look returned to his eyes. “She said returning them would be too much trouble. ‘But Mom, you work at Sears!’ But she wouldn’t do it. Never did.”

“Seriously—what were you stuck with?”

A pained look curtained his face. He hesitated.

“Cinderella.”

TJ makes the best margaritas ever. Having gone through junior and senior high with him, I’ve had pretty much every drink come out my nose, so this was just one more.

“Cinderella—sheets?” I choked.

“Yep. Little Cinderellas all over.”

“So what did you do? Just use plain white sheets?”

“I only had the one set. We’d take them off, wash them, put them back on.”

“You mean to tell me that when I was in your room…”

“Yes.”

“…leaning on your bed…”

“Yes.”

“…you had Cinderella sheets, at that time, on your bed?”

“I had a bedspread.”

Parents: I have just figured out how to teach your child to make his bed.

Years ago I took karate lessons. I earned a black belt, even became an instructor. TJ was my instructor. He owned the school. Because I was as big as he was, he used me for a lot of demonstrations. He would hold me over his head like a giant letter T, pausing casually to explain the technique to other students before resuming and tossing me to the floor. One night he knocked me out cold with a heel to my temple, and I am six-feet-two. I have regularly been on the receiving end of his hands and his feet. TJ gets a certain look in his eye before he pummels you, and I know that look very well.

Dumfounded, I said, “I can not believe, for all these years, that I never knew that.”

He gave me the pummel look.

I can’t believe he thinks I’d tell anybody.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Molding Opinions

Before the dawn of refrigerators, back when humans made ice cubes by banging chunks of glacier against their foreheads, leftover food storage options were simpler. You either 1) ate it, 2) it rotted, or 3) it rotted and you ate it anyway. This is how we discovered cheese.

Today milk comes in handy take-home jugs, so it’s hard to remember that at one time the jugs were made of leather and were attached to cows. The next time you are at the grocery store dairy section and you open the cooler door to the bright white array of milk options, try to imagine a row of teats instead.

It is no longer our instinct to reach between a half-ton animal’s legs, grab whatever dangles there, and with a yank squirt what comes out into our mouth. It was probably a dicey idea even then. Drinking cow milk probably started, as most things do, with a fraternity challenge. “I dare you to drink that, Og. Go on! What are you—chicken?”

“Og no chicken!” Og reply in huff. “Og show you!” Og narrowly avoid kick to flat forehead. Og win bet. Hey…Og like milk! Surprise! Og famous.

Not long after Og discovered we could drink cow’s milk, some kid squeezed himself more than he could finish. His mother yelled, “Cows don’t grow on trees, y’know,” which the kid was pretty sure he did know. He couldn’t put the leftover milk in the refrigerator because there wasn’t one yet, and it took the boy only one kick in the forehead to learn he couldn’t put milk back in the cow.

So his half-full glass of milk sat on the counter, where it fermented, festered and foamed, until vein-blue tentacles of mold grew over it. By some quirk of fate a little bit of rennet drooled into the mix. Rennet is a nice word for stomach mucus. It is beyond me to guess how stomach fluid got into his milk—one can only suppose the boy was under sixteen. The mother, to get rid of the growing stink, moved the festering blob of coagulating milk-fur into a nearby cave, where it continued cheerfully to rot.

The furry milk continued to clot in the cave, and in a fit of starvation—or upon another frat-boy dare—someone took a bite. To everyone’s astonishment, he did not die.

Any food that you could leave out for weeks and still eat was a valuable commodity—just ask the guys who make Twinkies. Nonetheless, furry, rotten food is hard to sell, something Og learned when he tried to pawn off his dead cat as a shoe.

The live mold that makes bleu cheese blue is brevibacterium livens, the same bacteria that makes your feet stink, which should come as no surprise. Og couldn’t call his new invention “toe cheese” because that name was already taken. He went with “bleu cheese” because things seem fancier when they stink in French.

Sauerkraut was discovered pretty much the same way as cheese. There was always a lot of leftover cabbage, because, well, it tasted like cabbage. Like the bleu cheese, it too sat and fermented in its own mold and bacteria until someone got so hungry—or his frat brother taunted—that he took a bite, and decided it tasted better than starvation. Because Germans name things literally—volks wagen = family car, sauer kraut = rotten cabbage—it grew popular only among the Germans. The rest of us might have tried sauerkraut sooner had they named it bleu chou.

The importance of attractive food labeling is especially evident in Korea, where traditional dim sum delicacies include “White Cloud Phoenix Talons,” which don’t sell as well when you call them by their German name, “Steamed Little Chicken Toes.” An exception is the recent rise of yogurt sales, with the fanciest brands baldly bragging about “Live, active cultures!” So far this has only worked with yogurt, a food we already expect to be bad. The beef industry, in comparison, has yet to figure out how to sell meat “crawling with live, active bacteria!

Today, Americans prefer their food mold-free, made under the most sterile conditions. Pasteurized, wrapped in tamper-proof safety foil, vacuum-sealed, boxed, shrink-wrapped and refrigerated, American Cheese is aptly named. We like the packaging of American Cheese because it keeps the mold out. The French like our packaging because it keeps the cheese in.