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A sharp exhalation of thunder brings to a definitive halt whatever L- has been saying. She is three years old and she has been saying a lot. This faux summer storm is emanating from hidden speakers in the vicinity of the vegetable case. It is a convincing facsimile, but caught sound is inevitably tame, and in this case, small and localized. L- runs over to the vegetables to look for the source of the noise and pauses as a hissing mist descends upon the neatly partitioned and groomed fields of watercress, broccoli, and cilantro. She moves closer, little plump legs cantering, arms akimbo. But the peal dies away as she approaches and it does not return.
“It stopped, daddy.”
These “daddy’s” are a sweet and delicate barrage, a glorious refrain on our outing today. Mommy and L-‘s two sisters are back at home. But despite the fact that L- is not addressing a panel, a clarifying “daddy” precedes and punctuates every statement of fact, every question, every pause. And today the statements and questions are legion.
“It did stop.” The large store clerk attending the oranges says this with nearly as much wonder as my daughter. ”It’s not supposed to. It should be going still.” He looks genuinely puzzled, but goes back to corralling citrus.
“Daddy . . .?”
“I am here for oranges,” I remind myself as we continue to meander amongst the produce displays. Having gone slack for a moment, the rhetorical leash tugs again. “Daddy”, now louder and more insistent, is followed by a string of syllables smooshed and stretched like play-doh. I look down at her.
“Pardon me?”
L- informs me that she, “wikes dese ones” (pineapples), but not for eating. She smells strawberries. She smells apples. She tells me a scale is a clock, a “kwock”. She is wrong. Unless she means it tells you what time the watermelon is. “Daddy. . .?”
We circle the fruit stands and our steps make almost no sound on the laminate floor. There are few shoppers here today. L- gives up trying to keep my sunglasses perched on her head and she hands them back to me. I hand her a bag of particularly small clementines which she is barely able to keep off the floor. She is happy to bear the burden and insists on doing it herself all the way to the checkout counter.
We leave the hinterland of produce and make our way to the front of the store, past the in-store coffee shop with its steam and industry and the sound of espresso being tortured. And “daddy”, still an introduction and coda to her every vocalized thought, forms a curious melody. It expunges the music that has begun to yawn from the upper strata of the store, trailing a tendril of audible wonder as we make our way outside.

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Ouch Shirt from Zazzle.com.

Back in ’91, my best friend, J- and I had the privilege of being One-Inch Punched à la Bruce Lee by a returning Gulf War veteran. He was visiting a friend, a girl he had the hots for who trained at our dojo. The guy was a student of ninjitsu and a few other less cinematic but impressive martial arts. Someone broached the idea of demonstrating the One-Inch Punch and he was only too happy to oblige. Actually, I believe I simply asked if he had heard of it. I remember he smiled.

When the time came, we assembled in the locker room, my friend and I, our attacker and his love interest. The room was long and narrow and more to the point, notably free of the wall-length mirrors that adorned the dojo. Next, he staged us. He directed J- to stand on the ready a good 15 or 20 feet behind me. Then, he lined me up in front of him and told me to relax. Yep. I experienced a sharp drop in credulity upon hearing these words, not unlike a the kind a patient has when the doctor gives his assurances just before sticking something obtrusive into something unwelcoming. And then there was the fact that he didn’t count down or otherwise give any cues as to when it would come. I remember debating in my head (where I do most of my debating) which was worse, the “T minus 5″ method or the “tah-daaah!” method. While I was mulling over this he punched the…air out of me, his fist landing, per his intention, in the area of the brachial plexus. (Look it up.) There was little pain, but in its place, a profound sense of force. And then crazed, uncontrolled flight. J- “caught” me the way an unsuspecting hockey player “catches” the opposing team’s player’s full-bore body check. Neither of us had expected that kind of velocity.

Right before he hit me, I had the inclination to look away, like when I’m getting a shot. But then I remembered I had to see this and make sure he didn’t haul back with a John Wayne Cowboy Punch©. He didn’t. His whole arm simply moved the fabled inch and I flew backwards across the room, arms pinwheeling, legs kicking like a Cossack.

Back in 2002, while I was living in Spain, I had to travel to Northern Italy for work for several days. My wife drove me to the train station where I would meet my colleagues and take the morning train to Madrid. There we would meet our Spanish counterparts and fly on to Pordenone, Italy. The boss was already at the train station with his wife and kids. The others arrived shortly after. My wife and I had our café con leche and I said goodbye and boarded the train. I spent much of the ride to Madrid reading a biography C.S. Lewis. The train car smelled of stale cigarette smoke, something very unpleasant for me. But, it was an appropriate ambiance for reading about such a prodigious smoker as Lewis. I had no idea just how much recycled smoke I was going to ingest over the next several days as I worked with our Iberian counterparts. To this day,  when I think of this trip, I get a reflexive spike in my memory’s olfactory geiger counter, a sort of phantom smoke alarm. I’ll sniff my clothes and ask my wife I smell like an ash tray by any chance.

Once we had arrived in Italy, we were all put on a bus and ferried out to our hotel. Our group actually stayed in a bed and breakfast a few kilometers down the street from the Spanish group. That went over well. Most things in Western Europe are just familiar enough to convince you that maybe you’ve fallen into a special colorized episode of The Twilight Zone. Trying to figure out how to open the windows was an exercise in emotional regression. I was toddler trying to master a simple tool in physics but the leverage, the fulcrum and the other whirligigs bested me. I did figure it out later. A few years later. In another country. In winter. Meanwhile, during this trip, I discovered that Italian TV was like American TV, only with more bountiful cleavage and more Italian words.

On our first night in town, I left our group to retrieve my camera. As I made my way back along the quiet streets, there was no traffic, virtually no pedestrians. But then, just as I was about to cross a street, a guy stopped his car in the middle of the intersection. He called out “scuzzi…” followed by a medley of syllables so musical that my head was drawn into a slow perimeter sweep in search of movie cameras. Obviously I had inadvertently walked on to the set of some lighthearted romantic comedy. He seemed so friendly that he surely must be the protagonist. I looked around for his love interest. She was nowhere in sight. In fact, the street was entirely empty. It occurred to me that I might be the antagonist or at least rival in this movie and so I ran into the street screaming nothing particularly decipherable (but I believe my face communicated volumes) and threw my camera toward his open window. It seemed that on film this would get an easy laugh. It is not a particularly demanding  genre after all.

That’s not true. I didn’t attack him. What happened was a bit more pedestrian. He was leaning out of his car, a car so small it couldn’t have been street legal in 1970’s Yugoslavia, and he was gesticulating with his one free arm, clearly asking for directions. I gave him the universally intelligible shrug and projected my voice with stage-worthy diction and volume, in hopes of overcoming my acute lack of Italian verbs and nouns. His response was a gracious and similarly exaggerated laugh and terminated his laughter with a shrug that rivaled mine in amplification and perhaps even wandered into the realm of pantomime. He drove off just as abruptly as he had arrived on the scene, leaving me in alone in the intersection. I crossed the road, jogged past the cordoned off construction site and darkened shop windows in search of my group’s agreed upon rendezvous.

I found the appointed café and walked into a forest of singing trees, tall northern Europeans chattering and swaying to what must surely be the musical accompaniment to the next fall of western civilization. Techno as an update on Nero’s fiddle playing. Amazingly, the girl behind the bar managed to see me and greeted me with the kind of ciao that makes insecure guys think they have a chance with Aphrodite. I was married and yet it was clear that, if given half a chance, this bar maiden would raise my children and work my fields. Killer greeting or no, she would not get that chance. I returned her ciao, feeling every bit the Euro-poser and made my way back to my colleagues’ table. I wanted to order an espresso in spite of the micro-table lined with beers. I am constitutionally more of a caffeine man than an alcohol man. Once again, I found myself in a familiar cultural conundrum. Do I order at the bar, wait here at the table patiently or flag someone down. It seems it’s different everywhere you go. I don’t remember what I ended up doing. Surely there was some stilted exchange that resulted in me getting both a coffee and a complex for violating some obscure Italian social contract between patron and employee.

I did not know any of my colleagues all that well. It tuned out we had little in common. But, we e made a go of it and got along fine. The evening concluded quietly. I walked farther down the main street of Pordenone passing more shop fronts, several old stone churches, a few bars and restaurants and finally came to a bridge, a river, a full moon, some boisterous guys and I think a black cat. I can’t remember, it’s been several years. At any rate, nothing came of it as I had an early morning ahead of me. I walked back to the bed and breakfast, a little bummed I didn’t have more interesting travel companions. At least work would be interesting…

The train rocked back and forth, lulling its passengers into a cozy child-like slumber, one that trusts implicitly. And they, each of them, knew that the conductor, a faceless man charged with their safe passage, would operate per routine that unfathomable machine through the night. The constant sound, the vibration insulated and protected them from the unknown. The window panes were cold to the touch and seemed to young minds to be of dubious thickness to provide protection against the wild. These windows were vulnerable spots in the dividing wall.

The porters traipsed along the narrow corridors with surefooted ease. Some of them tipped their porter’s cap and some doffed it. All executed a ball room dance-like side step when encountering a passenger in those constricted passage ways. Passengers smiled with pursed lips in return. Meanwhile, there were a few bleary eyed wraiths that hovered in the lounge car, not speaking at that hour. They read newspapers, raised and lowered clear glasses, and stared at their altered reflections in darkened panes. The bar tender was a wraith too. But he belonged here more than the others and maintained a disciplined silence, guarding the sanctity of that space according to his custom.

Foothills undulated in darkness past the train. The facing slopes wore a patchy cloak of evergreens and hulking, bald trees. The darkness also hid solitary homes, dozing cows which dotted pastured valleys and clusters of deer, necks bent, huge eyes staring out of the woods. The darkness obscured the rock walls which would, of a sudden, close in on the train as it was driven along its predetermined course through the network of hills and valleys. And in the warmth and thrum of the train, hundreds slept and scores kept pace with the night as it crossed that invisible equator into morning.

Spain’s Guardia Civil serves as that country’s federal police, paramilitary force, bomb squad, counter-narcotics agency, arbiter of PTA disputes, counter-terrorism unit and traffic patrol. It was in this last capacity that my wife and I, back in earlier part of the decade, had our first and only run-in with Spain’s elite-ish unit of all trades. All we knew at the time was that the Guardia Civil wore green uniforms, were not to be trifled with and drove small, boxy green cars.  Prior to the fungal growth of the “green” movement in the west, these boxy euro cars called to mind, the American mind, a more primitive, Flintstones-inspired vehicle, rather than an enviro-status symbol. Cartoonish either way.

It was late at night and we were returning home from Granada via largely unlit pastoral highways. We exited the highway a bit early and accidentally ran a stop sign that was located, regarding space and time respectively, off in some bushes skirting the exit ramp in the center unfathomable darkness at the event horizon. Once back on the highway, we were greeted by the kind of light show that is rarely associated with entertainment. The guardian of Iberian civility approached our driver’s side window with a speed unequal to his shape. His paunch was a doomsday pendulum keeping an ominous if sort of polyrhythmic time and meting out the seconds as he drew closer in the darkness.

As I sat in the passenger seat, I gisted his surprisingly animated diatribe as best I could and managed about every eighth or ninth word, none of my random sample including ‘¿Cómo estás?‘ or ‘¿quieres queso?‘. So in lieu of comprehension, I settled for imagination as my wife nodded and looked up into the maglite, suitably stricken. Given his apparent agitation, I imagined we were suspected of something worthy of the prison in Papillion or the Château d’If fortress from the Count of Monte Cristo (I don’t know of any famous Spanish hoosegows). As the night wore on I began to wonder if our officer had that not unfamiliar soft-but-flinty socialist chip on his shoulder and was now lecturing us on U.S. imperialism and hegemony and such. At some point, I switched gears and began plotting our future prison break as my wife continued to struggle though the lingual obstacle course of Castillian Spanish. She speaks “colonial” Spanish with near-native fluency but was having trouble keeping up with the speed, the spite and the spittle of our Spanish inquisitor’s delivery.

As it turns out, the bulk of his speech was concerned not with the stop sign but with finding out why we would flaunt the traffic laws and civil codes of a sovereign nation by using our fog lights sans fog, in the clear of a starry starry night. Running designated stop signs is a fairly universal faux pas. Speeding similarly has an applicability that transcends most borders. But this fog light prohibition seemed a bit random and at the time I considered that it was maybe endemic to the Iberian peninsula. Turned out this wasn’t the case; we have the same deal in the U.S. You just won’t find the Federal B.I pulling you over and lecturing you with near-parental disappointment for inappropriate fog light usage. That said, you can’t pay the fine for an out-of-town municipal ticket at your local bank in the U.S.

Ill-defined purpose.  Just kidding.  It’s Venice from our airplane.Where this blog is concerned, I have not put finger to keyboard in quite a while. There are probably a few reasons for this. Primarily, I don’t know who I am writing this for. I mean, I really don’t have the vanity to suppose this forum for my cautiously delivered catharsis, creative doodling and quasi-anonymous journaling should interest a broad swath of Internet readership. So, I’ve decided to do this thing for the thing itself. I shouldn’t let my hang-ups, ill-defined purpose* and lack of targeted demographic freeze me up. So here goes. Let the thoughts trickle…

*Not to be confused with an ill-defined porpoise, which would be a watery gray thing that eats stuff and swims around some.

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