Sunday, August 24, 2008

My Olympic hangover

21 things I will miss most about the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

1. I will miss not caring about global warming or Tibetan monks;

2. I will miss falsely believing that oil prices are falling because the dollar is growing stronger and not because China sharply curbed its energy use to cut Beijing's suffocating smog;

3. I will miss Shawn Johnson and that toothy grin;

4. I will miss that for one week the world's biggest controversy was whether or not China's gymnasts were really 16-years-old (when even a blind person could tell they were not);

5. I will miss Bela Karoli;

6. And Bob Costas;

7. I will miss switching between international athletic competition on NBC and real life Red Dawn in the Republic of Georgia on CNN;

8. I will miss not caring about Iraq;

9. I will miss being able to ignore both John McCain and Barack Obama;

10. I will miss watching the Jamaican runners and wondering when the International Olympic Committee will strip them of their medals due to all the marijuana in their systems;

11. I will miss Michael Phelps not fading into obscurity after he takes a job as a salesman;

12. I will miss the constant images of Mark Spitz's moustache;

13. I will miss reading about the Olympians and their
condom supply;

14. I will miss forgetting that Kobe Bryant is a piece of shit who (allegedly) raped a woman;

15. I will miss marveling at the architecture of the Olympic facilities;

16. I will miss seeing the president make an ass of himself;

17. I will miss the moments before horror gripped me when I realized our president is an even bigger ass than I thought he was after seven years of miserable failures and fuckups;

18. I will miss the images of Chairman Mao and the recognition, but ultimate dismal of, his butcherous "cultural revolution;

19. I will miss the sneaking suspicion that Beijing 2008 is Berlin 1936;

20. I will miss blaming the judges;

21. I will miss thinking I understand syncronized diving or the scoring system in boxing or the deductions on the beam or hand ball or ...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The most terrifying thing you will ever read

The very existence of The Bulgarian terrifies me.

I have never met this man, this man from Bulgaria—The Bulgarian; but he’s out there, waiting for me, waiting to tell me when I will die.

The Bulgarian is a doctor, an MD licensed in homeopathic Eastern medicines. I don't know what he looks like, though I imagine The Bulgarian is an inch or two shorter than he probably should be. Slightly hunched. Facial hair that clings loosely to his face. Big nose. A 42-year-old who looks 55. He probably smells foreign and medicinal.

If you are dying he will know simply by taking your pulse.

My friend Zora, a Serb, told me about The Bulgarian. Her Serbian friends, all gypsies at heart—although she'd curse me for saying so because Serbians are a kind of people who still fear the mystic wiles of gypsies—go to The Bulgarian.

He discovered a heart problem in one young woman. He told another young woman that she has done irreversible damage to herself. The Bulgarian told Zora her insides were infected by a virus; one traditional MDs claimed they'd cured with antibiotics.

These diagnoses were made without invasive probing, but merely a superficial check of the pulse or pupils, or with what I'm told is his specialty, an ultrasound of the liver.

"The first time I saw him," Zora told me, "he immediately took my pulse and then, after a minute or two, slowly shook his head. He looked disappointed and said to me, ‘You've had coffee today,' and I did have coffee that day, but here's the thing,” she continued, “like three-and-a-half hours before I saw him.”

The Bulgarian looked at her pupils, took an ultrasound of her liver and then ordered her to stop taking the few remaining antibiotic pills her doctors said cured the virus inside her. Instead, he prescribed a barrage of herbs and odd-tasting pills and told her no caffeine or alcohol.

She hasn't had a drop of coffee—not even a Diet Coke—or ingested any alcohol.

I’ve imagined my appointment with The Bulgarian. Thinking about it keeps me up at night. He takes my pulse, stares into my eyes for a minute or so and casually turns around and walks to his desk. He removes his glasses, leans over my chart and casually writes something.

Then The Bulgarian turns around and says, “You are dying.”

Perhaps he then reassures me, says something enigmatic like, "Then again, we are all dying, aren't we?"

Or, more likely, he says something cold—“But life is meaningless, no?”—or something Eastern Bloc-ish: “Your life belongs to the state anyway.”

He is out there. And that terrifies.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Why we need a hero--and another Mad Max movie

I am the Nightrider. I'm a fuel injected suicide machine. I am the rocker, I am the roller, I am the out-of-controller!
--from the 1980 classic, Mad Max

What do the 1980 classic Mad Max and Afghanistan have in common? That country, like the lawless Australian countryside in Mad Max, is apparently infested with blood thirsty motorcycle gangs.

The other night 30 men on motorcycles raided a prison in Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar, destroying the prison's mud walls, killing guards and freeing 1,200 prisoners. Set loose in the brazen attack were at least 350 Taliban members.

Do you remember Mad Max? It's a brilliant film. Shot in late 1970s Australia on a budget of $100,000 Australian Dollars, the movie went on to gross over $100 million internationally.

It also spawned one decent sequel, Road Warrior, and an awful followup, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The latter perhaps best known for its soundtrack that included Tina Turner's "I Need a Hero."

But it's the purity of Mad Max that makes it a classic. Gibson's Max, a young highway patrolman dressed head-to-toe in leather, defends the Australian countryside against a marauding gang of some 30 psychotic killers on motorcycles led by an oddly feminine maniac named Nightrider (note: this predates the David Hasselhof TV show, "Night Rider").


Things turn personal and exceptionally nasty for Max when they run over his wife and newborn with their motorcycles.

And who doesn't like a good revenge movie, as Max methodically hunts down every last one of the men responsible for the killing? In the climactic scene, Max finds the remaining evildoer lying injured besides the burning wreckage of a truck. That trunk is, of course, dripping gasoline, the gasoline oozing ever closer to an open flame rigged by Max. (Read: The truck's about to explode.)

The cornered bad guy surrenders, pleads for mercy and insists he had nothing to do with the grizzly murder of Max's kin. Ignoring his pleas, Max handcuffs the guy to the wreckage, drops a hacksaw next to him and utters one of the greatest movie lines ever:

"The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It'd take you ten minutes to hack through it with this. Now, if you're lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes. Go."

Max turns his back and walks away--vindicated!

Now back to Afghanistan, where the Canadians--yes! Canadians--charged with defending Khandahar need a hero, eh? A leather clad hero no doubt, because what else do you wear when hunting down psychotics?

(Seriously, I think the head-to-toe leather thing is brilliant: tough, durable and sexy--why not?)

In the spirit of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I'm sensing a Mad Max reprisal for Gibson. Now just imagine this--it's gold--we'll forget Road Warrior and Thunderdome ever happened, what we have instead is Max, a broken down, hard-drinking chain-smoker, never able to overcome the death of his wife and child.

He drifts to Afghanistan as a mysterious aid-worker, trying desperately to repent for the sins of his past, dressed in loose khaki. And then there's the prison break led by motorcycling terrorists. Cries for help. Lucid flashbacks to his days as a young patrolman and, of course, the remembrance of his wife and child.

Amid the ashes of his personal hell arises Max, head-to-toe in black leather, ready to track down the Taliban thugs one by one.

Here's the final scene: The leader of the gang, adept at recruiting impressionable young men as suicide bombers, is nabbed by Max in the wilds of remote Afghanistan. Max straps a suicide bomber vest to the bad guy, handcuffs him to the bumper of a car and sets a timer on the vest. And here's the final line:

"There's ten pounds of dynamite strapped to your chest. The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It'd take you ten minutes to hack through it with this." Then he chucks the hacksaw a good 20 yards away. "Good luck finding it."

He walks away, vindicated ... until the next movie.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Farewell old friend

Do you remember the Diner’s Club card? It was the haute credit card—a charge card for the elite jet set.

Possession of the card afforded summers in the south of France, winters in the Alps, autumn picnics with the Kennedys and spring jaunts to places of intrigue.

Out to dinner with a spy? Put it on the Diner’s Club.

Buying candy and baseball cards at Walgreens? Charge the Diner’s Club—or so I thought.

This is what happens when a nine-year-old thinks he has a Diner’s Club card.

A victim of the American 21st century

While it’s still accepted abroad, Diner’s Club—the first modern credit card—is a relic in the States. Call it a victim of Chile’s restaurants and The Gap; call it an embattled friend of the surviving Hapsburg nephews—just don’t expect that Kohl’s clerk to know what the hell it is.

On Monday, Diner’s Club—and everything it represented—suffered a fatal blow when Discover, the McCredit Card given to every college freshman, bought it for $165 million, a mere pittance to its one-time holders.

A boy, his wallet and one obvious misunderstanding

I first used my Diner’s Club card in the late ‘80s; unfortunately, it was denied. Turns out Walgreens doesn’t accept Diner’s Club—especially when it’s a fake one used to fill imitation alligator wallets.

My dad had bought my brother and me wallets. I got the brown one (which I used until I turned 21). I’d heard of parents buying their children wallets and filling it with cash, maybe a crisp $20 bill. My wallet was empty, except for this rectangular piece of paper that said Diner’s Club.

I asked my brother about Diner’s Club and he gave me the scoop: “It’s a credit card,” he said. “You can buy things with it.”

I understood this to mean I was somehow part of an elite club and instead of cash my dad had done me one better—he gave me a credit card. It was even sweeter when I learned my brother’s wallet didn’t have one.

One day I’m at Walgreen’s buying Charleston Chews—two for 89 cents—and a pack of Donruss baseball cards. I thought two dollars would be enough.

It wasn’t. Sales tax had pushed the candy and baseball cards slightly out of my price range.

Instead of putting one of the Charleston Chews away I did what any good American would; I broke out the charge card.

“Okay, here you go,” I said handing the teenage cashier my Diner’s Club card—echoing my dad whenever he presented his Visa.

The clerk didn’t even take the card. He just stared down at me. There was clearly some mistake, I thought. He obviously didn’t know about the Diner’s Club card.

“Here you go,” I repeated. “I’ll just charge it.”

“With what? That?”

“Well sure,” I said waving the card gently. “It’s a Diner’s Club.”

“No, it’s a piece of paper,” he replied.

“Actually, it’s a credit card,” I answered.

“Listen kid, do you have the money or not?”

“No, but I have this,” I said giving the card another wave.

“Then you can’t buy it.”

By now a line of adults had formed behind me. A kindly middle-aged woman looked down at me and then turned to the clerk.

“Here you go,” she said handing the teenage cashier a five dollar bill. He took it and turned to the cash register with a grin. I could hear him chuckle.

“Thanks,” I said with a slight air of condescension. I was confused, but knew this was obviously a mistake.

Afterward, I found my brother at home and told him what happened. He suppressed a laugh and inspected the card.

“You have to call and activate the card,” he mercifully explained. “You can’t just use it.”

“Ohhhh,” I said with feigned understanding.

“I guess you better not use it,” he advised, “and don’t tell dad.”

I followed his advice and stuffed the card into a drawer where it still sits—now worthless thanks to the Discover merger.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Perpetual nausea—the Genesis of my anxiety

In the third and fourth grades I puked between 300 and 325 time. Only once did something actually come out of my mouth—a concoction of my mother’s meatloaf and TCBY chocolate yogurt. That happened during my Christmas break in the third grade. My parents were out shopping. My brother baby-sat. I watched Clue.

The other 300 or so times were imagined vomits. I was perpetually nauseous for one-and-a-half years—and that worried the hell out me. I feared vomiting in class. I feared enduring the bloated stomach ache, the creeping oral sensation as the food works its way back up your pipes and the inevitability of wet mouth.

Several years ago a doctor told me I have an anxiety disorder. He also said this nausea was an early hallmark of it.

I’m convinced that my dad’s old-school response to this nausea has prevented me from living in my parent’s basement right now.

My nausea usually began around mid-morning. I’d try to fight it off—repeating the mantra my mother assured would prevent me from throwing up. “I’m not gonna throw up. I’m not gonna throw up.” I would whisper. (I still say this when I’m genuinely nauseas, by the way.)

By early afternoon the mantra failed and full panic mode took over. Nervousness swallowed me and I sat there convinced my bologna sandwich and fruit rollup would soon spew from my mouth.

On one afternoon shortly after this condition began, I told my teacher that I felt like I was going to throw up. She sent me to the principal’s office—the school’s triage nursing station—where they promised to call my mom. She would come and pick me up. In less than an hour, I thought, I’d be sitting in front of the television—my safe place—with a bag of chips and a glass bottle of Pepsi.

While the principal’s secretary, also the school nurse, tried to reach my mom I heeded her advice and went to the bathroom. I stood over the urinal spitting and found my nausea had faded.

About 5 minutes later my dad walked into the bathroom. He loomed in his suit and overcoat—his gray hair held firmly in place by the Vitalis hair spray he constantly smelled of. He looked at once concerned and annoyed. His presence surprised me.

The nurse couldn’t reach my mom so they called my dad on his car phone—this was 1989 and my dad’s always enjoyed the best in cellular technology. He was near the school and came to pick me up.

In a concerned voice he asked what was wrong. I told him I felt like I was going to throw up. He was immediately suspicious. “Well what do you want to do?” He asked.

“I dunno. Go home, I guess.”

He paused and considered my suggestion for a moment, then accepted it.

My dad never stayed home from school. His old-school Catholic parents wouldn’t allow it. He was one of those kids who braved school despite 100+ degree fevers. Had he suffered from polio his parents would have no doubt made him limp to school.

If I were only a few years older I would’ve known to hide my excitement that he’d sprung me from school. I would have kept my mouth shut. Instead, during the car ride home I foolishly asked if we could stop at McDonald’s. Any sympathy he had immediately vanished and his half-concern turned completely to annoyance.

When we got home I hit the couch and grabbed the remote. “Oh no you don’t,” he said. “Sick people don’t watch TV, they go to bed.” But I wasn’t tired, I said. I wasn’t even sick anymore, I thought.

“Too bad,” he demurred. “I’m taking a nap and so are you.”

He led me upstairs and saw me into my bedroom. I watched him walk to his bedroom and heard him lay down.

Silence hung heavy in the afternoon air. I imagined all the TV shows I was missing. I imagined the Pepsi and chips downstairs. I imagined the joy I would’ve soon felt had I stayed in school—the joy that the school day was nearly over and I could head home and play outside or watch G.I. Joe.

None of that would happen now. I was confined to bed rest and the warden was not a forgiving man—there would be no time off for good behavior.

I never again went home sick from school and for the next year-a-half nurtured an exquisite nervousness. When the nausea and anxiety finally and inexplicably vanished in the fourth grade I never gave it a second thought, never considered what implications it might have once I reached adolescence and adulthood—that my anxiety would become so much a part of my life that at 27 I would swear it off for Lent—that this Lenten promise would remind me of a bizarre period in my childhood when I was forever nauseous—that had it not been for tough love I would only know my lovely ladyfriend Sally from the TV show Survivor and no doubt spend hours in my parents basement cropping myself into pictures of her and talking endlessly of her hot bikini body on Internet chat rooms with the other poor souls who were never sent to bed, told “sick people don’t watch TV” and showed that the alternative to anxiety was a quiet, lonely life.

All of that said, I still spend a lot of time thinking about Pepsi, chips and TV.