Saturday, December 27, 2008

Merry Christmas to all...

It's a dark, dark time in our country's history. Everyone woke up this Christmas, walked past the tree they cut down from their neighbor's yard instead of bought and the presents re-gifted from the heady days of spending in '07, and picked up the paper or flicked on the news. The Grinches/anchors gleefully reported cheery headlines like these:

"'Worst is yet to come for retailers,' analysts say."
"Retailers' holiday sales plummet 4 percent"
"Retail sales down, even online"
"US holiday retail sales plunge amid recession"

So what if retailer's stocks are up and Amazon rocked it this year? The apocalypse is upon us. Americans stopped spending willy-nilly, Billy didn't get his Xbox 360, Suzy didn't get the entire 4-dozen collection of American Girl dolls, Dad didn't get his new S-Class and instead had to lease an Aveo. This season's hottest gift? A water purifier and a shotgun both purchased at Wal-Mart, so you can protect your things once droves of unemployed rioters start roaming the streets like packs of wild dogs (over-under of that happening is January 16th... and if you're in Detroit, it started in November).

In the immortal words of John Stossel's mustache, "Give me a break!"

Let's not let the Christmas season get ruined by dour predictions of doom and gloom in the stock markets. Don't feel guilty when you use your holiday bonus to pay of a credit card or pop it into a just-in-case savings account. This is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year—an opportunity to celebrate with family and friends—so don't ruin Christmas just because your 401k took a hit. Take the time off from work (if you're lucky enough to have it) and enjoy life for a second.

Hope your Christmas, New Year's, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Festivus all rocked. Merry Christmas!

(This public service announcement has been brought to you jointly by Prozac, United Auto Workers, and Lehman Bros.)

(Kidding... it's actually brought to you by my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree—pictured above—that Sonja and I cut down during last weekend's snow storm. Merry Christmas!)

Monday, December 22, 2008

MichaelandSonja.com

Just a heads up... I've started to build a website for our upcoming wedding. It's up now at MichaelandSonja.com.

Right now, it's nothing fantastic. But it's a website and I put it up all by myself (which is an accomplishment even though I used iWeb and "Made it on a Mac"). Let me know what you think and if you have any ideas for what else I can do with it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Quotes for writers...

Both of these were taken from a coming New York Times Book Review piece called "Bail out the Writers!" Definitely read that, if you're interested.

"But instead it got me thinking that there was a real problem here. Not just a small problem involving issues of respect between one writer and one teenager, but rather a national problem of respect where being a writer has become so widely associated with being a loser that we have become the stuff of common jokes." - Paul Greenberg

"Are you prepared for the years of effort, ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well’? As the years pass writing will not become any easier, the daily effort will grow harder to endure, those ‘powers of observation’ will become enfeebled; you will be judged, when you reach your 40s, by performance and not by promise." - Graham Greene

And, yet, we still plug away... some just do it better than others.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Christmas Reading...

My company held its annual holiday party last night, and the organizers asked me and a co-worker to do a reading at the end of the night. It actually was my first-ever reading and a ton of fun.

Each of wrote the "12 Days of Christmas" from their genders perspective. Here's what I came up with...

Sunday, December 14th –
12 days to go. I don’t have a gift. Probably should get one. But it’s a Sunday. They play football on Sundays. And, on Sundays, I eat pizza, chips and drink beer until I can’t bring another crust to my lips or raise the bottle in my hand. Since it’s a triple-header today, there will be no shopping for me.

Monday, December 15th – I know she wants something. And, if history is any proof, she probably dropped hints. But they’re never good enough! She mentioned something about a sweater and her size, I tried to remember it, but then I started thinking about meatball subs. Mmm… I love meatball subs. This other time, we were driving and I’m pretty sure she gazed longingly at a spa, but I forgot about it because I was trying to figure out my miles per gallon ratio. It’s so much better on the highways—I can do almost 31 versus 27 in the cities. Do you know how much money that saves? Let’s see… carry the four… It’s like 7.3 cents per mile!

Tuesday, December 16th– I’d go shopping, but ESPN’s showing a re-run of the 2008 World Series of Poker. I’m going to watch it because there’s nothing quite so awesome as a bunch of fat guys wearing sunglasses, struggling to breathe while they grunt bets and eat French fries in between hands. Nine shopping days left.

Wednesday, December 17th – I went to the mall today on my lunch break. No, really. I walked past stores and everything. It was exhausting and I built up an appetite, so I got lunch at Panda Express. Mmmm… orange chicken. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

Thursday, December 18th – Spent the evening examining the gifts under our tree, hoping that I’d put one underneath and completely forgot about buying it. It’s happened before. Hmm… let’s see… None of the gifts are wrapped in grocery bags and they all have coordinated bows. No way are those aren’t from me. I’m still on the hook. Wait a second—here’s one that looks just like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. My January just got completely booked up.

Friday, December 19th– That package indeed was the new Call of Duty. I opened it, took the disc out, rewrapped it and played the game all night. She’ll never know. Yawn. Now I'm too tired to shop. Six days to go; I’ve got time, right? Right?

Saturday, December 20th – Went to Home Depot to look for gifts. Tried to imagine the look on her face when I show her the sparkling-new snowblower parked in our driveway. Then, I thought better of it. Went to look at the circular saws instead and I found a sweet, red, 7 1/4-inch one that’ll always remind her of Christmas. Bought that instead of the snowblower. I am awesome.

Sunday, December 21st – Returned the saw. Called a work buddy of mine and said he bought the same model last year. She used it to slash his tires before threatening to take his jingle bells, too. Red must be a bad color or something.

Monday, December 22nd – Today’s the first day of Hanukkah. I put the menorah too close to the curtains and set them on fire. As the poly-cotton melted and black smoke filled the air, she berated me, “Eagle Scout, my butt!” I diplomatically reminded her that it was her idea to put the candles in the freaking window. Found myself locked out. Did you know it’s cold in the middle of December? Went back to Home Depot for a new fire extinguisher. Briefly thought about putting a green bow on the red tank and giving it to her, but I didn’t think she’d see the humor. Bought a set of lock picks, too.

Tuesday, December 23rd – Still no gift, but there’s time. I was all set to go shopping, but then I saw that TBS was running A Christmas Story marathon. Haha—he put the leg lamp in the window! Frah-gee-le is a city in Italy! A Red Rider BB-gun! This never gets old, no matter if I’ve seen it a dozen times. That day. In a row.

Wednesday, December 24th – It’s 7:30. The mall closes at 8 and it's an all-male crowd. We’re milling through the halls, like a group of elf-zombies. Winding in circles, looking at carts full of cheese and sausage, furry Crocs, 365-day cartoon calendars and over-sized novelty slippers, I got too close to the Dead Sea Beauty Products and the salesperson attacked me. Now my right-hand has been violently exfoliated and I’ve been talked into buying the bulk gift set—the one with the foot scrubber and some sort of imported mud in a jar. If I’d know I could’ve made my own beauty kit with a wire brush and a jar of dirt, I’d have done it. But it’s too late to get the brush—Home Depot closed at seven. I’m worried that the dirt I bought won’t be good enough, so I keep looking…

That’s Jared!

I go up to the glass counter, whip out a credit card and tell the guy to give me the best he’s got. He tells me the price. I swallow hard, pull out another card… and ask, "What’s on clearance?"

Thursday, December 25th – She’s crying. It’s the good kind, not the “you-got-me-a-crockpot-for-our-anniversary-kind.” Man, I’m good

Merry Christmas!

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Perfect Space for Writing...

I can't write. I don't have a desk. I have a great new place and there's a ton of space in my room, but a big empty spot that should hold a desk. In the hole where the desk should go, there's a laptop stand that's really not cutting it. It has an edge, designed to hold a computer in place, that slices into my wrists were I ever to sit there. So I don't. I need a desk to be a writer.

At this desk I don't have, there needs to be a chair. Oh, I have one now, but I don't like it. It's a "rescued piece." Not "rescued" like this-is-from-an-18th-century-New-England-barn "rescued," but someone-was-going-to-throw-this-in-the-dumpster-and-I-took-it "rescued." It's not particularly comfy and it smells of moth balls, which is probably why someone left it in front of the dumpster in the first place.

No desk, no chair, I cannot write. I need a muse--and to be unencumbered from wires. You see, I need music to provide background noise when I write. But in order to have music, I have to have my external hard drive plugged into my laptop, and that just causes wires to go in all directions. I have a cable coming in one side of the computer from the hard drive and another on the other side, which runs through the power pack to the wall. Two cords are far too many. I only have a 12-inch laptop. That cords-to-inches ratio is far too high. I cannot write in these conditions.

And as far as that muse goes, I feel it's departed. I've left traveling behind (for the time being), so I can't entertain you about eating in strange places and pooping in stranger. Nope. I eat in a kitchen now. It's sterile, with just enough small bits of rust and minuscule food stains that it's not worth writing about the sterility and it's definitely not dirty enough to note.

But perhaps my muse is exhausted--I do have two Twitter accounts, after all, and that's a whole lot of brilliance shoveled out there on a daily basis. I now think in 140-character spans. That definitely doesn't lend to full paragraphs. Or sentences, for that matter.

There are many things I have to do, in writing's stead. The weekends, for example, are full of adult-type chores. I needed to frame artwork, clean the bathroom, work out, organize my recycling, clean the dust off of my television cables, change the batteries in the remote, wash a dish, ponder buying a beta fish, watch the Florida A&M football game while simultaneously watching a MadTV re-run, change socks, remove lint from my toenails, kill a spider, stare a hole into the wall, charge my laptop since I plugged it in to write and then didn't touch it and its battery died while I was staring (unsuccessful) holes into the wall. I'm a busy man.

You see? It's impossible to be a writer. People say that all you have to do is write. Well, they're wrong. You need a desk. You need a chair. You need the perfect amount of noise and the perfect lack of wires. You need a muse, but you don't need social media. And you definitely, definitely can't be cleaning the lint out of your toes.

How do those people who write for three hours a day do it?

They must have linty feet.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Urinal Etiquette...

There's a Boston expression that goes like this, "Wicked pissah, dude!"

It has nothing to do with actual urination or any sort of bowel movement, evil or not. Rather, it's something you say when you like something. Perhaps a friend's shirt is "wicked pissah." One's mode of transportation, a movie or an extra-large burrito can all qualify. Papi hitting a homah ovah da Monstah is always "wicked pissah." Whatever you determine to be "wicked pissah," it's always a good thing—a moment for celebration and camaraderie among friends.

It is important to note the pronunciation. Although the phrase is, literally, "wicked pisser," you can't just go around saying it that way. The harsh R sound at the end is dropped and replaced with an elongated, breathy "ahhhh" sound. It's not unlike the involuntary noise you make after sipping a much-needed, cold drink on a hot day. I like it. It makes the phrase sound satisyfying.

"Wicked pissahhhh."

While I've known about the phrase for a while (being from New England and all), I had no idea that there were also wicked pissers in Boston until this past week. Standing apart from the jolly, colloquial expression, wicked pissers are most certainly not "wicked pissah."

There is a certain unwritten and unspoken etiquette when it comes to the men's restroom. Guys, you already know what I'm talking about. Girls, in case you haven't been filled in, the major rules are, as follows:
  • Do not make eye contact.
  • Do not look down.
  • Do not smile.
  • Do not say a stall is disgusting. Quietly back out and move to another one.
  • When waiting in line, keep your hands in plain view.
  • Above all, never use a urinal directly next to another urinal that's currently in use unless all other empty spaces are taken.
There are other regulations, too, such as "washing your hands requires water, but not always soap" and "no smiling," but those tend to be subjective. The ones bulleted are the bathroom's cardinal law and every man who values his manhood holds to them truly.

So it was a dark, dark night when I found myself in violation this week.

I went to see the Kings of Leon at the Orpheum Theater this past Thursday. On the way to our seats, I decided to take a pre-show leak (no sense in getting up during a set, right?).

The Orpheum's bathrooms are old, just like the building. I'm not sure how old, but it had to built during an era where the man's average height was 4'6" and shoes came with brass buckles. Like all old rooms, it was small. The toilet fixtures had, thankfully, been updated. But due to a lack of space constraints, they were crammed tightly together.

When I say tight, I mean to say there were four urinals in a section of wall that was five feet across. When the Orpheum's owners redid the restrooms, they found the slimmest models on the market. Then, they positioned them shoulder to porcelain shoulder along the wall. It looked like john paneling—there wasn't so much as a crack in between each urinal.

When I got into the bathroom, there was a guy on either end of the row of four. They had done their duty and chosen the urinals furthest from each other. No matter that there was only two feet (and two urinals) separating them. They'd made the correct call.

It was my turn to chose. I had the option of picking the left-center or right-center one. I always favor the right-hand sides of things, mostly due to some slight form of OCD I've nurtured over the past 25 years, so I picked that side.

It wasn't until I'd gotten right up to the urinal that I realized just how close I was to my new neighbor. I could smell his cologne. I could feel his itchy sweater. His stubble of a beard was prickly. It was like we were crossing swords in the same toilet. We may have well been sharing pants, too. My right side completely pushed up against his left. I tried maneuvering myself to come at the urinal at an angle that minimized any contact but also shielded my unmentionables from sight, in accordance with common decorum, but it was no use. We stood shoulder to shoulder, both of us shifting weight in opposite directions and making every effort to appear nonchalant and unaware of any sort of inconvenience.

Just as I'd unbuckled my belt and opened my fly, the gentleman at the far, left-hand station zipped his and backed away. Now, not only were my compadre and I rubbing elbows (and no more, thanks to some nifty side-lean work), but we were the only two at the row of urinals.

And I couldn't go. The pressure of the situation was too great. All I wanted to do was to quickly fasten my pants and get the heck out of there, but I knew I couldn't do that. For if there's another, greater rule of the restroom than the ones I haven't listed—one that trumps all others—it's to act tougher than you actually are at all times. Soap must be applied violently. Noisy bodily functions are not to be giggled at. Hands should be slapped on pants and not just wiped. You get the point. And in this situation, a tough man had to tough it out. I couldn't back down from this pissing contest.

So, I stood there. Right arm abutting my neighbor, hand on the hose, and I waited. And I waited. And I waited some more. There was a drip. Then nothing but a white flag. But still I stood, weight shifted to the left, staring straight ahead and pretending like everything was fine. In my head, I made trickling noises.

Finally, my neighbor left. I waited an obligatory eight seconds, then left, too. I washed my hands, keeping up the having peed illusion, then left the bathroom and the wicked pissers behind as quickly as I could.

Definitely not "wicked pissah."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gone Rambling...


Who determined that four hours is the danger threshold for an erection? And if you had one last that long, are you really going to make your first call be to your doctor?

While we're talking about erectile dysfunction, I'm currently teaching my two-year-old niece the "Viva Viagra!" jingle. I know this is just setting me up for Brian to give me some big time payback once my own seeds are sown (as they say), but I don't care. It's worth it. "Viva! Viva! Viagraaaaaaaa!"

The four movies I've cried at: "Braveheart," "Big Fish," "Passion of the Christ" and "The Incredible Journey."

One move I did not laugh at (or finish): "Melinda and Melinda"

Will Ferrel's only re-watchable movie is Anchorman. And even though I know every line, I still watch.

Milk was a good choice. The last bottle I bought was an old-school, glass one. I had to pay an extra dollar deposit to help encourage me to return it. But I think I'm going to keep it and drink G&Ts out of it in the summertime. How awesome would that be?

Went to Walmart tonight to get a few things for the apartment... They sell a camouflaged crock pot. So the next time you think the meat you're eating has a gamey flavor, now you know why.

I can never remember how you're supposed to spell the color gray/grey in American.

Anyone else notice that packets of Eclipse Gum are no longer perforated? The 12-pack tinfoil tray used to tear in the middle, giving you two, pocket-sized packets of gum. Now, if I buy Eclipse, I have to use scissors to snip the package into two six-packs. Unacceptable.

How do indy rock bands stay so skinny? If they're on the road touring all the time, they must go house on fast-food constantly. I thought the heroin era was over.

While we're on the subject of grown men pouring themselves into girls' jeans, Kings of Leon is now in my top 10 favorite bands. Maybe top five. I'll let you know after I go see them tomorrow.

I got those tickets for free. I won tickets to two different concerts this week via radio call-in. I've never won anything before.

I never realized how much I missed having a real kitchen until I got one back again. I am now using pots and pans that haven't been touched in six months.

This summer, I spent two months in China. And I will still eat at Panda Express.

Scotch makes me fart in my sleep. I'm serious. I went to a wedding last month, drank scotch at the reception (Johnny Black) and woke up the next morning with a green haze enveloping the entire room. The room which, by the way, I was sharing with the groom's cousin. Sorry, Jesse. I hope your singed nose hairs have recovered.

I'm planning a wedding of my own. Did you know that it costs $300 an hour for someone to stand in a tux with their thumb on the wheel of an iPod? Me and the Missus are getting screwed - and it's not the good kind.

To anyone with a Nextel. Just stop. For the love of all that's good, learn how to text. And turn your phone to vibrate.

Did you know it's cheaper to own a trailer than it is to rent an apartment? By 30%? Then again, you'd actually have to live in the trailer. I have heard possum is delicious.

I have two closets in my bedroom. They are both full AND I just donated four trash bags of clothes to Planet Aid and Goodwill. Not manly.

Santa came to my local mall on November 6th this year. The turkeys weren't even dead yet.

I love Ikea. It's the only place in the world where you have to assemble your own cardboard box. I bought two.

Friday, November 7, 2008

50 Years of Music, 1 Sentence about Sex



(This was just too good not to post. I know it's not original, but it rocked. And maybe I should start subscribing to McSweeney's? I already get The Believer.)

See the original here.


FIFTY YEARS OF POPULAR SONGS CONDENSED INTO SINGLE SENTENCES.
BY MARC HAYNES

The Beatles, "I Want to Hold Your Hand"
I want to do it with you.

Marvin Gaye, "Let's Get It On"
I want to do it with you.

Led Zeppelin, "Whole Lotta Love"
I want to do it with you.

James Blunt, "You're Beautiful"
I want to do it with you.

Sir Mix-a-Lot, "Baby Got Back"
I want to do it.

Elvis Presley, "Hound Dog"
You're doing it with everyone.

R. Kelly, "I Believe I Can Fly"
I believe I want to do it with you.

Patsy Cline, "Crazy"
I want to do it with you so much I'm going fucking nuts.

Frank Sinatra, "Strangers in the Night"
I'm drunk and I want to do it with you.

The White Stripes, "My Doorbell"
Using metaphor, I want to do it with you.

Little Richard, "Good Golly Miss Molly"
I'm doing it with Miss Molly, and she's totally into it.

Duran Duran, "Rio"
I'd love to do that chick dancing on the sand.

The Beatles, "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"
I'd like to do it with you right now.

Carly Simon, "You're So Vain"
We used to do it, but then you did it with someone else, and now I'm not going to do it with you, although I wish we were still doing it.

Pulp, "Common People"
I once met a stuck-up European who wanted to do it with me.

Radiohead, "Creep"
I'm filled with self-loathing, and, though outwardly I hate everything you represent, I want to do it with you.

Kate Bush, "Wuthering Heights"
I'm an 18th-century fictional character and I want to do it with another 18th-century fictional character.

Bob Dylan, "Blowin' in the Wind"
The Man is currently doing it to you.

Elvis Presley, "Jailhouse Rock"
Incarcerated men will on occasion do it with each other.

Meat Loaf, "I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)"
Hey! You won't believe what this one chick said while I was doing it with her!

Kings of Leon, "Sex on Fire"
I did it with you, and now it hurts when I pee.

CĂ©line Dion, "My Heart Will Go On"
Even your death has not stopped me wanting to do it with you.

AC/DC, "You Shook Me All Night Long"
We did it yesterday.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Get Paid to Vote (and it'll be more than ACORN will put up)

In case you've been hiding under a rock, back in a cave, in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, with your hands over your ears while screaming every word to "Don't Stop Believin'" over and over and over, you'll know that today's Election Day.

I hope you're going to your civic duty (hehe, duty!) and cast a vote for Obama, McCain or yours truly. Hey, just because I don't have an on-camera SNL appearance to my credit doesn't mean I'm not qualified.

Oh, wait, yeah it does.

I wanted to take the time to point out that a fine sense of self-satisfaction isn't the only thing you can get out of participating in the electoral process this November 4th. For those of us who are more greedy, there are a whole lot of freebies out there if you're willing to flaunt your "I Voted" sticker.

For instance, Starbucks is giving away free coffee.

Krispy Kreme is giving away free donuts.

Ben & Jerry's is giving away free ice cream.

Chick-Fil-A is giving away free sandwiches.

Babeland—the adult store chain—is giving away unmentionables (and unlinkables). But at least you'll be able to work off the donuts, fast food and ice cream.

MTV is giving away free music with Rock the Vote.

And, my personal favorite, if you got a misspelled "Country First" tattoo on your lower back, New Look Tattoo Removal will take it off for free. Wa-hoo!

---------
Update:
There's a tie for first place... get your free Doggie Poop Sacks here!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mike in Cartoon Form...

Big news (and, if you'll pardon me, some horn tooting)...

Today, for the first time ever, a piece by me ran in the Boston Globe. Check out this Coupling column about my virginity. For those who don't know, Coupling is a column about all things love that runs on the back page of the Sunday Magazine each week.

I'm pretty excited about it. So, if you missed it on the news stands (because my Mom bought 150 copies), check it out in digital form.

Here's the first two paragraphs to when your appetite for non-sexual action!

I have my own apartment and do not live in my parents' basement. I own zero collectible figurines but do have a growing collection of handcrafts gathered from a fair amount of world travel. I do not attend Star Wars conventions but will frequent Sox bars when I'm outside New England. I prefer designer jeans and Chuck Taylors to short-sleeved shirts and pocket protectors. While I can introduce myself in several languages, I cannot spell my name in binary code.

I am a virgin. Wholly wholesome and always abstinent, my life is sans sex. I'm 25 years old, a healthy male in the prime of life, and yet I'm completely OK with this lifelong state of sexual inactivity. No, really.

Movin' on Up (and Out)

"To every thing, there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plan, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down and time to build up..." - Chronicles 3:1-3

And a time to move...

I've been found out, discovered and now, evicted. For those of you that read this previous post on my living situation, you'll know that I'm basically squatting. I rent a one-bedroom apartment that's zoned as a commercial property. The place has a shower and a kitchen area, a bedroom and a living room. It's a pretty sweet deal and I pay way below market rate.

But there are drawbacks. For one, I don't have an oven, so I've been cooking on a pair of practically useless, plug-in, electric burners and in a small toaster oven for 8 months now. Do you have any idea how hard it is to saw a frozen pizza in half? I've sliced my thumbs more than one time and that is NOT cool.

The other main drawback is that I have to pretend like I don't live here. Shades are drawn at sundown, I sneak out to pick up my paper and my landlord doesn't like me parking right in front of my door (I have to park on the other side of the lot, where the "real" residents park). It's a bit annoying. But, hey, it's cheap!

As annoying as it is to have to move, I'm ready. There's been enough sneaking around and enough crappy meals cooked because I don't have the right things to work with.

So, if anyone's free next Sunday, want to lift some boxes? Ha...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Death by Chinese Food...

Today's words of wisdom: don't steal from China.

This story appeared in today's NY Times. Liu Zhihua, Beijing's former vice mayor and director of the city's agency that supervised the Olympic-related construction projects, faces execution for skimming about $1 million. Through an assortment of bribes and down-right, hand-in-the-cookie-jar theft, Liu took enough money to pay for a whole lot of nice vacations that he and his mistress enjoyed.

Corruption was fairly widespread while I was in Beijing. This was most apparent when it came to the food at Olympic venues. The organizing committee had alloted about $5 per person, per meal for venue organizers to spend on its volunteers. That amount, in China, is a fortune - some of the best meals I had there (in nice restaurants) didn't even cost that much.

So, did we eat like kings while working?

Nope.

The food was, for the most part, inedible and indistinguishable. We were served plastic trays of food, which has been microwaved in order for the flavors of the plastic to mix with the the flavors of the gray, unidentifiable chunks of meat and veggies to create the perfect blend of gag-inducing crap. The only thing that was consistently digestible on a daily basis was the block of white rice they served up - and even that tasted like I'd rolled up a newspaper and started chewing on the end of it.

Someone, somewhere along the chain of command, was skimming a ton of money off the top from the food budget. I'm guessing he (or she) was funding several mistresses at several chateaus and I can only hope that he'll be caught. Then again, I think the death penalty is too strong a punishment for embezzlement. Maybe they should just make him eat the food.

He'd probably die anyway.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day - Feed the Needy...

Today is Blog Action Day. Now that I'm getting into blogging a bit more (if you were here, you could watch me growing nerdier as I type - I just added the Zippo and Lightsaber apps to my iPhone yesterday, as proof), I thought it would be good to participate in some more blogger-type activities. The ones that don't involve anime conventions or LAN-parties.

Blog Action Day
is a set date each year where bloggers worldwide write about a particular topic in order to spawn discussion or bring attention to an overlooked issue. This year, the topic is poverty.

I don't want to beat you over the head or anything, but I do want to encourage you to take some time/money to think about others the next time you go grocery shopping. It sounds weird, but it's actually possible to have a positive impact on the world while you're picking up life's staples like eggs, bread, beer and Annie's Organic Mac & Cheese.

As our economy heads into the tanks (on paper, anyway - I'm still not convinced we're going into recession next week), people are starting to freak about about their finances. In a way, it's a good thing - it's better to live on a budget. But it's bad in the sense that the first section people hack off their money pie is the section labeled "charitable donations." As budgets tighten in the home, they dwindle and die at the different charities and non-profits.

Since we're heading into the cold-weather, holiday season, that especially affects local soup kitchens and food pantries, which mostly rely on small donations of food or money to stock their shelves. Their demand (with Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets to make) is going up at the same time that supply is going down. Take a look at this article about the needs of local food pantries here in New Hampshire.

So, the next time you're at the grocery store, why not spend an extra $20 and fill a bag with canned goods or non-perishable items? It'll only hit your wallet slightly and won't cost you extra time, since you can usually leave them at the checkout line for the non-profits to collect later. Filling the stomachs of a family in need, especially over the holidays, can make you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside.

So, in the spirit of Blog Action Day, I encourage you all to think what you can do for those in need. I'm Mike Nagel, and I approve this message.


A Nagel News Sighting...

My mom called me the other day to let me know that the Foster's Daily Democrat (a local paper here on the Seacoast) ran a story about me. Um, weird... but I can at least add "guest lecturer" to my resume. Nevermind that it was for my mom's high school rhetoric class.

I'll pop the first paragraph down below, so you can get the gist. If you're interested, you can read the full article about my visit here.

Local writer shares stories about Olympic coverage with Good Shepherd students

BARRINGTON — Freelance writer and journalist, Mike Nagel, of Newmarket, recently shared stories with Good Shepherd School students about experiences covering the Olympics in Beijing this summer.

This might be the first-ever article featuring me that my last name is spelled right. It's Nagel-like-bagel-with-an-N, folks!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Once Upon a Time, I was a Page...

I had to post this, if only to point out that I could've been featured in the NY Times, too, if I had waited four years to apply to the Page Program.

Thankfully, though, I didn’t. I don’t think I could stand making $10 an hour again. Once you hit $11.25 per hour, there is no turning back.

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned it before, but my first job out of college was with NBC Universal's Page Program. For those of you that know the show 30 Rock, you know about the program through Kenneth the Page. It was about the same experience for me, only I got to interact with Tina Fey much, much less. Tina - call me, I miss you.

The program was a great way to get a taste of TV. It was also a great way to experience the humility of being a tour guide to the unwashed masses, the sting of punches as you fight for position with hobos in the bread line (you can’t even wipe yourself for $10 bucks an hour in NYC – and the diaper rash is terrible) and the stank that only an unwashed uniform kept closeted in a metal locker for six months brings to the table.

In all seriousness, though, being a Page was a terrific experience. I made terrific friends and had some amazing experiences:
  • Saw U2 perform live, in-studio at SNL
  • Rode elevators with Tim Russert, Conan O'Brien, Matt Lauer and other famous people glued to BlackBerries
  • Stood on the ice rink for the Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center
  • Posed for dozens of pictures with happy tourists who always thought my jokes were funny, even though I’d told them literally hundreds of times
  • Crashed stories with Dateline
  • Found the cheapest beers in the city. And the cheapest slices of pizza. And the cheapest crack.
Check out this article on the Page Program in today's NY Times. Not much has changed about the program – except for the small fact that the uniforms are now provided by Brooks Brothers as opposed to the Goodwill on Staten Island.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mike's Case for Manliness...

We've all heard the expression "a man's man" before. Perhaps not in everyday usage (unless you like to pepper your conversations with phrases like "square," "boogie-woogie" or "the bee's knees"), but it's out there. No one knows for sure what it means, exactly. But we can definitely spot what it's not. In that sense, it's a little like the Supreme Court's ruling on porn - "I'll know it when I see it."

For an example, just take a look at my snapshot atop this post. That's me. And yes, I'm wearing a v-neck t-shirt, capris, a messenger bag and am sitting on top of a girl's bicycle (that has fenders and a bell) with my pet stuffed duck. Not manly.

Not in the least.

Not even close.

My China roomie Marc shared with me a story about how he and his roommates used to make cases for their own manliness and against the others'. Just a way for a bunch of guys to bust each others' balls and have a little fun with it. He gave me some examples - "Eating spicy food, manly; 'Does this have rosemary in it?' not manly."

Every now and then, while we were bumming around Beijing, we'd have the "manly" conversation. Eating things like donkey and scorpion or opening a beer on a desk were definitely manly things. Pretty much everything else that I did on a daily basis was not.

The conversation came to a climax one day with the following exchange:

Me - "Marc, do you think this shirt is too close in town to the capris?" (Said while wearing the same bottoms in the picture and a golf shirt).

Marc (laughing) - "Man, if we wrote down a case against your manliness, it would be six feet long and that question would be right at the top."

*Sigh* Like Pinocchio longed to no longer be a wooden puppet, I sometimes wish that true manhood would come my way... Typically, this happens when I'm staring perplexedly at a rack of free weights or someone nearby starts a conversation about motorcycle engines while I gaze off into space wondering when the last time I plucked my eyebrows was.

But for the most part, I'm totally fine with my "not manly" status. I prefer to think of it as being "in touch with my softer side." Or "thinking outside the gender box." Or "being totally awesome."

There are, however, a few "definitely manly" things I need to know more about, so I've set up a few bullet points on Mike's Chest Hairs' (both of them) Checklist to Machismo. Without further ado, here they are:
  • Learn stuff about cars - I'm currently in the market for a used car. Sonja's Jeep is basically one pothole away from spontaneously combustion, so we're shopping around for a replacement. I can spot different car models, but that's the extent of my knowledge. If you asked me what "twin cam," meant, I'd probably say it was the Olson Twins on CCTV.
  • Learn to drive stick - Along the same lines, I don't drive manual transmissions. This lapse is unacceptable. You may now call me Nancy. But just once.
  • Mix good martinis - I can mix martinis. They taste like lighter fluid, but I can mix them. Next step... do it well.
  • Get on my dancing shoes - Okay, I'm going to have to make an argument on this one here, but when a guy knows how to ballroom dance well, he's manly. He's graceful and athletic, suave and sexy. I'm a ball to dance with on the floor, but I'm more in the "flail" category than "foxtrot."
  • Figure out weights - Once I get around to joining a gym around here, the next move is to hire a personal trainer to teach me how to properly lift free weights. When I do work out, I avoid that section like the plauge - mainly because I don't want roid raged meatheads poking fun at my technique and the fact I'm struggling to lift 15 pounds. If I at least know what I'm doing, I only have to worry about Dr. Jaggerbombs laughing at the 15 pounds.
That's it. Five easy steps to manhood. Or at least a semi-manhood state that falls somewhere between Jamie Lee Curtis' on one end and Chuck Norris on the other. Wherever I wind up falling, it'll be the bee's knees! That, I promise you.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hey Mike - where have you been?

I've been AWOL for the last few weeks, so I thought I'd give you a little update and catch you up onto my life's developments over the past weeks. It'll probably be boring, but it's better than logging into your 401k to see how much money you're losing or listening to talking heads discuss bailout plans that no one understands, right?

-The Big News: I'm employed.-

Yup, that's right. I have a job (started on Monday). And I'm officially a salaried, professional writer. A cool, second-year startup hired me to be an "online producer," which means I'm ghostwriting blogs, generating site content and trying to appear as artsy as possible at all times around the office. I've only been there three days, but it's already a blast. It's nice to be able to put my degree to more use than as a decorated placemat (which is hasn't been performing well... kind of thin and it allowed spaghetti sauce to leak through).

I haven't been posting here because I spent most of my days scouring Monster, CareerBuilder and Craigslist to find jobs to apply for that I didn't even want and logging in to my bank accounts in the hope that I'd gotten a Monopoly "Bank Error in Your Favor" card dropped into my checking. That never happened.

-I've been giving wedding toasts-

Longtime buddy/partner in crime, Rob, got married to a lovely girl who's way out of his league down in Newport, RI last weekend. Sonja and I went down there for three days and it was a lot of fun. Rob's family generously invited us to stay at their rented beach house and, although it rained most of the time, we really enjoyed ourselves. If anyone's looking to do a long weekend getaway somewhere on the East Coast, you could do a lot worse than staying in the historic town of Newport. There are beaches, a cool cliff walk through mansion-ridden neighborhoods, a fun downtown area with bars and shops and loads of restaurants. Being there made me want to buy plaid pants, cardigans and boat shoes, but I settled on a t-shirt instead.

-Discovering old youth pastors that have gone on to become professional gamblers.-

Brian, my brother, called me the other night and told me to switch over to ESPN. I did and there, sitting atop the chip leader board after day 3 of the World Series of Poker, was none other than Jeremiah Smith. Since I last saw him, Miah has left being a pastor, moved to Vegas and now works for Full Tilt poker and plays professionally. Rock on. He wound up finishing 45th in this year's WSOP.



I still remember the time he called me a "little turd." He's always been inspirational that way.

-Reliving the College Years-

WICB, my alma mater's main radio station, is up for a mtvU Woodie Award as the nation's top radio station. For anyone that's a former Bomber or just likes great music, you can go vote for them. Competition is going to be tough, as they're up against Emerson's WERS, which is also an awesome station with a much larger listener base. Check out either site for some great music while you're at work - they both stream worldwide.

That's all that's up with me. What's up with you?

The lesson, as always... Mike's an idiot.

Just a little anecdote from the VP debate last night. Sonja and I were hanging out on the couch, watching Gov. Palin and Sen. Biden go back-and-forth, critiquing their answers and making judgments on their presentation. It was fun - a little adult break from the SportsCenter/Red Sox/Football that usually permeates the airwaves in my apartment.

So there we were, snuggled up on the couch. There was a break in conversation as we watched Palin answer a question and then, quietly, Sonja says, "Are you oogling her?"

(I was a dead man and didn't even know it.)

Without thinking (which is how I usually do things), I said, "No, I'm not oogling her. I think she's hot, but I'm not oogling."

Wrong. Answer. Idiot. Mike.

Let's just say that we didn't watch a single sentence more of the debate.

So, my advice to any of you guys who are watching or involved with any part of the political realm this fall. Do not mention that you find any candidate from either side remotely attractive. I don't care who's got a new hairdo or whether Barak looks yummy in khaki, just shut up about it. Cast your vote only on the politics and do not weigh in on any other debatable topics; you won't win.

In the spirit of the political season, I would now like to post a retraction from my press secretary:

Mike was under mental duress during last night's debate and therefore may have made vocal a lapse in judgment. He respects both parties and both candidates and thinks all of them are handsome all around, even if he can appreciate the quaint accent of a certain Alaskan governor (but that is mostly due to Tina Fey's dead-on inpersonation and not an actual taste for midwestern oooh, ahhhs and aaaais, dooncha knooow?). Governor Palin, although a handsome, older woman, is by no means "hot." Additionally, Rachel McAdams, Jessica Simpson, Natalie Portman, et al are also not "hot." Going forward, Mike will try to pause to give thought before voicing opinions while always respecting the feelings of other females who may be in the vicinity, earshot or within range of SMS text messaging.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Snapped back to reality...

I'm back. I'm home. I'm poor.

Somewhere amid the four overloaded bags I brought back from Asia, I left my checking account behind. Now, when I open my wallet, all I get is a puff a dust and a wasp or two flying out. I'd say there were flies, but the nest-building stingers have taken up residence my absence and chased away all other insect pests.

The first order of business, after kissing Sonja, unpacking and recovering from jet lag, was to find a job. Thus far, that order has yet to be filled. Not that I haven't been trying - I've got a resume up on Monster and I surf there, CareerBuilder and Craigslist like it's my job (because, since I'm not getting paid, it kind of is). I have emails out to contacts and begging for money phone speeches prepared if it comes to that. My goal is to get a job by the end of the month. Or find out which soup kitchen in the area serves the best corned beef and cabbage. It's good to have goals in life.

With the presidential election coming up in November, you're going to hear a whole lot of speechifying about how both sides of the coin are going to create jobs in the economy. All that's well and good. We need it, right? With the decline of the manufacturing sector, fiancial firms folding left and right and the overall downturn, it'd be nice to see a few more openings coming our way and a some extra bucks in the bank at the end of the month. My challenge to both McCain/Palin and Obama/Biden campaigns is this: Sure, anyone with an Oval Office and executive order can create a few hundred thousand jobs or so, but can you create one high-paying, conveniently located gig with manageable hours and great benefits for one really nice guy with a great education, varied experience who's coming out of grad school with a completely non-marketable degree and just moved out of a job hub? Do that and you've got my vote.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Yes, I'm still in Junior High...

My roommate Marc helped me out on this one. It's a little comparison of squat toilets and their western cousins for you to pooh-pooh, ha.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Starting to See China...

(Note: I'd written this and pitched it to local papers, but no one picked it up. So, um, you get to read it! Yay!)

Until eight weeks ago, the word “China” evoked images in my mind of something huge, shrouded in mystery and looming eerily on the horizon. Before I flew into Beijing to report for the Olympic News Service, I knew only the barest of facts about the country and its people. They are the world’s most populous country. They have the world’s largest army. They export more goods than anyone else. They are Communist. Their pollution clouds our skies. They are our main competition as the top superpower. They are a threat to our economy, our environment and our standing.

“They, they, they”—that’s how I thought. It was all about how we do things in the United States (say, free market society) versus how they do it in China (now, a strange meld of socialist capitalism). I had an “us versus them” mentality with a clearly defined list running down opposites sides of the page.

I easily maintained that sort of black-and-white thinking when I was 7,000 miles away from China. Back home, the Chinese were an intimidating mass of over a billion blurred faces. They weren’t real.

But here on the streets of Beijing, as I’ve lived, worked and struggled through this urban sprawl of 17 million residents, I’ve started to get a clearer picture of the Chinese and their country—one that’s much different than I expected.

There’s Yang Guanjun, an artist from Xi’an, who moved to Beijing with his wife and daughter in hope of a better life. His shop is little bigger than a walk-in closet and tucked away in one of the thousands of hutong (alleyways) that spider anonymously through the city. The deep lines in his tanned skin betray the hardships that his wide, toothy smile tries to hide as I buy his watercolors.

Cindy (many Chinese use Western names when conversing with foreigners) is a graduate student who looks far too youthful to be 25 years old. She loves playing ping-pong with her friends and even teaches me how to hold a paddle correctly, giggling lightly every time I swing and miss at another return from her nasty backhand. Cindy hasn’t seen her boyfriend in more than a year. He lives and works in another city and they don’t often speak because he doesn’t like cell phones or SMS; her messages often go unanswered.

“Men and women are different, I think,” she says, “For him, the job is very important. More important than me.”

Still, she loves him and she will wait with the hope that one day they might be together.

I met Zheng Wei at a cafeteria. He helped me, unasked, to recharge a pre-paid meal card. We ate breakfast together afterward and he asked many questions about the United States, what kind of place I was from and what the universities were like. Then he asked me about faith.

“I believe in Jesus. I believe in God,” I said, trying to condense an entire worldview into two sentences.

“Many Chinese believe only in science,” he said, trying to do the same.

“You know, they can work together.”

“Yes,” he smiled and clasped his fingers together. “Work together.”

To me, China is still big and scary—I speak only the most basic Mandarin and have just seen a small slice of the country here in Beijing. But my experience over these two months has begun to chip away at the preconceptions I carried with me like too much checked luggage.

China, by successfully hosting the Olympic Games, announced its presence among the world’s powers in dramatic fashion. Yang Guanjun, Cindy, Zheng Wei and many more Chinese citizens showed me, personally and powerfully, what it meant to be welcomed here. They reminded me that the people of China are just like the people of the United States. We are all individuals who hold feelings, emotions and dreams. None of us are mere blurred faces in a crowd.

So as the world leaves Beijing, ponders what to do next about China and tries to make sense of it all, I will leave with hope. For I’ve learned here that it’s possible to co-exist if you strip away all of the politics, all of the misconceptions, all of the good and all of the bad and just look into the eyes of friend you never knew you had.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Closing...

Every four years, history repeats itself. A city that spent seven years preparing for two weeks in the world's spotlight comes down from its Olympic high.

Beijing is like that now. The Birds Nest, the Water Cube and the dozens of other sparkling, new venues are empty. The flame has been put out (and passed on to London) and all of the nations' flags are folded and put away. The vendors' tents have been collapsed, carts hauled away and leftover merchandise boxed up. Around town, the streets seem emptier. The Silk Market salespeople sit idle on stools instead of grabbing at hordes of tourists. The bars at Sanlitun close at 2 instead of 6 a.m. The two huge warehouse-cum-nightclubs (the Heineken House and the Bud Club) where gold-medal winners, journalists, coaches and hangers-on partied nightly have vacated their property for good. All the train stations, highways and airports were packed as tens of thousands of visitors tried to get back home or get to their next destination as quickly as possible.

It's too early to tell if the $43 billion the Chinese government spent to host the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games paid off. Certainly, they're going to take a monetary loss (not surprising, considering they spent more than the five previous Games combined), but that's not necessarily what marks a host city's success. Time will tell if these past 16 days will remembered as a huge triumph (Sydney) or a monumental failure (Montreal).

Watching the torch go out from the bar at the St. Regis - yes, I roll like that - made me a little sad to see the Olympics end. I've had a fabulous experience here at the Games. I've gotten to sit ringside and watch the best amateur boxers pound the crap out of each other. I saw ping-pong in the country that calls it its national sport. I watched gold-medal judo matches, beach volleyball and USA basketball live. My commute to work involved walking through the Olympic Green twice daily, hearing the hum of the the masses and seeing the smiles all around. And I got to work in the Birds Nest, standing at the finish line and interviewing athletes. The top experience for me had to be watching all three of Usain Bolt's world records (the men's 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay) live, in person, and then talking to the guy after. Yes, I'm bragging, but how cool is that? I still can't get over it.

Neither can China. I think the country is in post-Olympic denial right now. They've been re-airing the highlights from all 51 of their gold medal winners and also just showed the entire Opening Ceremony, including the March of nations, unedited, this morning. The Chinese waited too long to host for it to be over in 16 days. We'll have to wait and see what happens when they come down off the collective high; will there be a national depression or a recession? The stock markets look like it - Shanghai's is the worst-peformer world wide and the recent inflation is starting to cause problems locally.

There is one success I'm proud to report, however small: I now love the Olympics. This is coming from a guy that hadn't watched any Opening Ceremony in 12 years and didn't watch a single minute of either Athens' or Torino's respective Games. But having been here and watched athletes go all-out for the mere love of the game, to break down crying as their nation's banner soared to the heavens and to chant "Jai Yo" (Let's go!) with thousands of happy Chinese has given me a new appreciation for what the Olympics mean. For two weeks, nations set aside their differences, pushed away language barriers and joined, universally, in sport. It wasn't just to see who could come away with the most medals, it was a chance to work together for something - to do something higher, faster or stronger than ever before. It was beautiful.

My favorite quote of the Games came from a Canadian 800m runner who finished fourth in the final round, just missing out on the podium.

"I'm not upset," he gasped in the mixed zone, 20 yards from the finish line. "I gave everything I had. Everything. It's all on the track."

That's what the Games are all about and I got to see that, firsthand, on a daily basis. You can't ask for more than that.

See you in Vancouver.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Price of Tea in China

According to XE.com, today's exchange rate from the US Dollar to China's Renminbi (also known as "yuan" or "kuai") is 1 to 6.82. That makes travel pretty easy and, honestly, is one of my favorite things about China. You need to spend very little to live very well here.

I don't want to run through an entire list of what I bought (that would take approximately 19,000 words), since I did have to buy a second suitcase ($15) to get everything back to the States. But I do need to go over some my better purchases and ones that you might want to make, if you ever get over to Beijing.

First off, travel is hard. Plane, train and bus rides aren't good on your back. And, if you're like me and carry a man bag everywhere, your shoulders and neck can get messed up to. A massage is the answer and one of my little guilty pleasures no matter where in the world I am. For 98 yuan ($15), I had a beautiful, hour-long massage where my little Chinese masseur took me apart and put me back together again. It was ugly, she was violent, but after the dust settled, I was a new man.

Food is ridiculously cheap. My daily breakfast usually consists of an egg sandwich on fresh-made, nan-like bread or a few dumplings and a hard-boiled egg. In either case, I pay anywhere from 1 to 1.50 yuan... that's less than 20 cents in the US. Beat that, Dunkin' Donuts! And if you're paying more than $4 for a beer (in a very nice bar), then you're paying too much. Generally, it should cost between 10-15 yuan (under $2), unless you just bought it in a hutong's local shop... then you get a 20-ounce Tsingtao for 3 yuan ($1.50). Yes!

I'm not a big taxi guy, but there are times where I really don't feel like dealing with the subway here or it's late at night and I just want to get home. Thankfully for my wallet, I'm in Beijing - city of millions, most of them cabbies. These guys are everywhere and although the base fare starts at 10 yuan, I've never paid more than 90 ($12) for a ride. And that expensive one was coming in from the airport, where there are always extra charges. By comparison, my cab ride from Boston Logan to my apartment in Cambridge cost $28 before tip and took about a third of the time.

Luxurious escapes from China are, at times, necessary. I love mingling with locals and trying to see how they live, but there is a limit to how much Chinese food I can take, how many dirty serving trays I can see or how long I can go without a napkin (you'll only be given those in Western places or, on occasion, if you ask really nicely). Beijing, being the international hub that it is, has plenty of 5-star hotel bars to relax in, sip a whiskey and smoke a cigar (all for under $20). There are also dozens of ex-pat gathering places from diners (Grandma's Kitchen) to cafes (The Bookworm) where you can drop the seemingly exhorbitant sum of 100 yuan to get fresh, Western delicacies for less than 15 dollars. Then, once your stomach's been filled with reminders of home and your mind has been refreshed, you can head back out into the city streets, recharged and ready to once again soak it all in.

The cheap shopping opportunities around Beijing are well documented. But what I didn't expect to find were several tailors around the city, offering high-quality, hand-made suits and dress shirts. Last month, I visited Lisa Tailor, which is located on the 5th floor of the 3.3 Mall in the Sanlitun area. Apparently, this particular shop is well-known and recommended by many concierges around the city. I wasn't expecting to buy anything, but was completely floored by the prices - 1,000 yuan for suits, 1,300 for tuxedos, 80-150 yuan for shirts and ties for 30 and under. Put in Chinese prices, that sounds expensive, but that meant I could be spend $150 for a suit, $180 for a tux and about $10 a shirt.

If you know me, you know I can't resist shopping and I can't fight off bargains. I walked out of there with an order for a pin-stripe suit, a black tuxedo, five shirts, two ties and four sets of cufflinks. That alone might have been worth the flight over here.

So, while travel in the UK and Europe continues to get more and more difficult as the dollar's value free-falls, it's nice to know there are still places where a 25-year-old, unemployed kid can come and live like a king.

Xiexie, Beijing!


My girl Candy, sizing me up.



Rocking the Chucks with the tux. Incidentally, I bought those shoes at the Silk Market for $10 (and probably overpaid).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On the First Olympic Week of My Life...

We're not going to win the medal count.
It's a fact, USA - our domination of the Summer Games has come to a close. China already has twice the number of golds we do and are halfway to its goal of 119 medals. We're gonna lose. And it sucks.

But at least we have someone to cheer against.
If you look on the bright side, now we have competition and someone that I can boo internally while watching from the sidelines (I won't externally because, well, I like living too much).

Athletes are machines.
Television does not do these super-human competitors justice. They have ceased to be everyday people, have become machines honed for one thing and do that one thing faster, higher, harder and better than everyone else.

The first time I stepped on the practice track in Chaoyang, I was floored. There isn't an ounce of fat anywhere to be seen. I thought spandex would tear from the strain of containing the bulging muscles. The sheer fluidity of how they move around the track is like poetry in motion. Incidentally, I was watching the Nigerian, Cuban, Honduran and Malawian teams, too - and they're probably not going to win three track & field medals combined. So you can imagine what it's like standing next to the American athletes.

Long-distance runners are skeletons.
I've run one marathon and two halfs in the past 18 months or so, so I've seen some skinny competitors (Mostly at the start, before they start jogging twice as fast as I can sprint). But I have never seen three dozen, 5-foot 3-inch, walking, talking skeletons until I covered the women's marathon. Those girls had waists the size of my thigh and the tallest of them maybe equaled my height.

On the 100m sprint:
It will take me longer than 9.69 seconds to write this paragraph. And I didn't even slow up to celebrate at the end.

I heart my press pass.
Not only do I get free entrance to most of the attractions around town, as well as complimentary use of the city's subway and bus system, but it gets me other places, too. Like if I want to get into the press area while a spectator at an event, carrying a beer and dressed in a t-shirt. Or if I decide to skip lines and use the VIP entrance at the Olympic Green's sponors' exhibit halls. Perhaps if I wanted free beer at Club Bud or a gift every time I visited the Yashow Clothing Market, I could just whip it out. It gets me access beyond security points that require special passes, all because the Chinese are afraid of offending western press. People stare at it at the subway and kids tug on it. Oh, I'm keeping that thing.

If you're going to be a language translator, you'd better know how to speak the language.
So, the Chinese powers that be, in all their infinite wisdom, decided not to bring in official translators to work for the media at the event centers. Instead, they took on local student volunteers to do the work, most of whom have around two years of education in a language. They're all quite good speakers - for people that have studied for two years, that is.

Example: We're at a test press conference, where fake athletes will be answering questions from English-speaking journalists in Spanish and Korean. Our intrepid language staff will then translate the answers. The Spanish "athlete" delivers a three-minute answer to a question. We all wait, with baited breath, for the translation to come through our earpieces after he's finished speaking. There are 30 seconds of silence, some shuffling of papers and then a slight cough.

"Don't know."

Then more silence. We turn around and look into the translator's booth. There, looking completely befuddled, is a smiling Chinese student. Let's just say that language services here hasn't gotten better since.

When you're dressed the same as everyone else, you do what you can to stand out.
Even if that includes wearing a 1990s, Limp Bizkit-style bucket hat, with the brim flipped up and dark sunglasses. Yup, that was me yesterday. It'll be me tomorrow. And it'll be me through the rest of the competition... Oh yes, pictures will follow.

After a week of watching preliminary rounds, I want to box.
And if that fails, I can always race walk.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Censorship in China...

Despite all the horror stories you hear about China about a lack of free speech and a non-existent free press, I've encountered very little censorship during my time here.

Much of that has to do, I'm sure, with the fact that the Olympics are in town. The government has cleaned up its act for a month or two, Internet barriers have temporarily come down (all except, for me, Facebook, Wordpress and, weirdly, one of my credit cards) and the local media has continued its tradition of self-policing and China promotion. While my troubles on the 'net are an annoyance - particularly the Facebook thing, since I can sometimes get on and sometimes not - the most censorship I've experienced has been from a mulit-billion dollar American company. One I happend to work for not so long ago.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket into the Bird's Nest to see the Mens 100m Finals - arguably the marquee event of any Summer Games and, really, the only one I definitely wanted to make sure I saw. It lived up to the legends of Olympics past: Tyson Gay's injury keeping him from the finals, the current and former world record holders lining up for the finals, a pair of unsung Americans running alongside and the culmination of Usain Bolt (who, by the way, started running the 100m less than a year ago) breaking his own world record to win gold.

As the eight sprinters lined up to start, the capacity crowd of 91,000 fell to a hush and rose, as one, to its feet. We stood there, poised and ready, as if we were tensed to run the race alongside the Olympians. The entire crowd could hear the call of, "On your mark... set!" and then let out a defining roar milliseconds after the starting gun. We screamed for 9.69 seconds, took a breath, and then screamed some more - in disbelief, in joy, in celebration, in the Olympic spirit.

I had my Flashcam with me and I captured that moment live, in the stadium, just soaking it all in. But NBC, apparently, thinks it owns the rights to the very Olympics itself and keeps kicking my video of YouTube. And there's nothing I can do about it. Apparently, one of the world's ten largest companies that generates billions in revenue each year thinks that someone shooting at an event their television network covered (not even using their footage) could bring down their entire profit stream.

So, thank you GE and NBC Universal. You've just shown me what censorship is all about in China.

Dear SeeMikeWrite,

NBC Universal (Sports) has claimed some or all visual content in your video Usain Bolt World Record - live from the Birds Nest. This claim was made as part of the YouTube Content Identification program.

Your video is no longer available because NBC Universal (Sports) has chosen to block it.

Claim Details:

Copyright owner: NBC Universal (Sports)
Content claimed: Some or all of the visual content
Policy: Block this content.

Applies to these locations:
Everywhere

NBC Universal (Sports) claimed this content as a part of the YouTube Content Identification program. YouTube allows partners to review YouTube videos for content to which they own the rights. Partners may use our automated video / audio matching system to identify their content, or they may manually review videos.

For more information about this claim, visit the Video ID Matches section of your YouTube account.

Please Note: Repeat incidents of copyright infringement will result in the suspension of your account and all videos uploaded to that account. In order to avoid future strikes against your account, please delete any videos to which you do not own the rights, and refrain from uploading additional videos that infringe on the copyrights of others. For more information about YouTube's copyright policy, please read the Copyright Tips guide. If you believe that this claim was made in error, or that you are otherwise authorized to use the content at issue, you may file a counter notice. For more information on this process, please see: How do I file a counter notice?

Please note that under Section 512(f) of the Copyright Act, any person who knowingly materially misrepresents that material or activity was removed or disabled by mistake or misidentification may be subject to liability.

Sincerely,
The YouTube Content Identification Team

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Video success and the shameful sequel...

So, I've gotten 18,000 hits on YouTube from my last crappy video and am now in the top-100 travel guru type folks for the past week. Weird, eh? Well, I didn't want to rest on my laurels, so I've just put up a video that's just as crappy, but also just as timely and hopefully people will be searching me out.

Here's some footage from the Birds Nest of Usain Bolt's world record-breaking 9.69 second finish in the Men's 100m finals tonight...



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Note: NBC blocked the video about 12 minutes after I put it up, so I re-did it this morning in the hopes that they won't do it again. We'll see...

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Video B-Roll from the Opening Ceremony celebration...

Nothing too special on this one, just a collection of shots from around Beijing on 8/8/08. Hope you like it!

Musings on the Opening Ceremony...

Hello, world. Beijing is ready.

Seven years, $40 billion dollars and one fantastic show later, the Beijing Games have officially opened. I hope the Opening Ceremony made you all sit up a little straighter on the sofa and take note: the Olympics have arrived.

It was impossible not to notice. Some highlights: the 2008 drummers counting down the final few seconds; the little girl soaring above the ground, flying a kite and landing into a human recreation of the Bird's Nest; dancers painting a beautiful tapestry; hundreds of paddle-weilding rowers recreating the Yellow River; Lopez Lomong - a former Lost Boy of Sudan - carrying the U.S. flag into the arena; and the everlasting image of Li Neng running through the air to light the Olympic flame.

I'd been given the honor of seeing a dress rehearsal the week before, so I knew what to expect from the spectacle, having see everything except for the final torch lighting (which had been kept secret... Reportedly, only three people in the world knew who would be the final carrier). So, last night, what I was looking for was the reaction of the Chinese people - even more so than re-watching the brilliant ceremony.

I've been some places, I've seen some things in 25 short years on this here rock. But not many come close to the sheer exuberance and enthusiasm that 17 million people can exude all at once. The whole city seemed to be united in one, giant motion. It stood smiling with its arms spread, at once welcoming the Games and the world to its door.

My friend Anna and I started out in Tian'anmen, where, although the actual square had been cordoned off, thousands of people milled about. There wasn't anything to see (few fireworks and no TV screens) and yet people were just there because they had to be somewhere. Everywhere we looked, there were Chinese flags waving, stickers of the banner cut into heart-shapes and cameras flashing as people tried to document the historic occasion.

We wound up walking around the square for a bit, soaking in the sights, and then headed north to meet some friends. The government had shut down the 2nd Ring Road and many of the main drags, so it took some fancy driving to get us to the Houhai/Drum and Bell Tower area and he dropped us off about a 15 minute walk from where we wanted to go. It wound up being less of an aggravation and more of an adventure. Thanks to the cabbie, we spent the first few minutes of the Opening Ceremony on the streets of the city, surrounded by awestruck Beijingers.

They packed up against each other, eyes towards the skies, looking for the first explosion of fireworks that would signify the party had begun. They blocked off streets, standing in the way of buses and cars, in order to keep a clear view on the big screens and TVs that lined the sidewalk. They cheered and took pictures and smiled and hugged and we were a part of it all.

Eventually, we made it to the bar and met up with our friends. There were plenty of ex-pats there, but at least half of the crowd was Chinese. They atmosphere there was one part party (bar, duh) and one part movie screening, as the crowd watched the show in silence broken only by excited buzzing and spurts of applause. Watching for the second time, I was just as enraptured as the first.

As the night wore on, the March of Nations started and we began cheering for each other's nations. There was a lone Israeli there, but the entire deck cheered for the Israeli team. Hong Kong and Taiwan received vigorous applause, as did Romania, Sweden, Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Australia.

But that was nothing to the deafening, citywide roar that arose as Yao Ming's 7-foot, 6-inch frame stepped onto the floor of the Birds Nest holding the Chinese flag aloft. The place went nuts and the floorboards shook under my feet. I yelled along with everyone, caught up in the moment and just happy to see the joy across the faces of people who had waited for seven years for that moment.

That's what the Olympics are all about. It was time to forget borders, forget money, forget politics. Instead, we remembered that despite our differences, we are all the same. Now wasn't a time to fight, now was a time to cheer each other on. So cheer on, we did.

Go China, your time to shine has arrived.

The city, and the world, celebrated long into the night.

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Note: I grabbed the photo from The Big Picture, which is a blog on Boston.com's website. You should definitely be subscribing to their feed. They post about 3 times a week and have some of the most amazing, newsworthy photography out there.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Seeing your name in print...

Does it count if you see your name published but it's on the web? I dunno. But with the start of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games looming (t-minus 5 hours to the Opening Ceremony tonight and some footie matches already kicked off yesterday), STAtravlers.com has started promoting my blogs and video/photo galleries on their homepage. If you're REALLY bored, feel free to check it out. And no making fun of the horrible shot of me that they picked for the web banner, okay?

Oh, the humanity! (of the Beijing subways)

I've been on crowded trains before, don't get me wrong.

When I lived in London, my daily commute involved taking an overland train from Clapham Junction (Britain's busiest rail station) to Waterloo and then switching to the subway during rush hour. If I had enough room to hold a paperback in front of my face AND still have it far enough away to pick out individual letters without my eyes cramping, it was a light travel day. That hardly ever happened.

Coming to Beijing, a delightful city of 17 million in a country of 1.3 billion people (one-sixth of the world's population), I knew I was in for some close encounters of the Chinese kind in public transport. Every day since I've gotten here, I've been pushed, poked, prodded, piled on, pried past and probably propositioned politely on the subway. The Line 1 trains are particularly packed. Frankly, the time of day doesn't really matter... Sure, it's more backed up during the moring/evening rush hours, but I've gotten into squished cars at 2:30 in the afternoon. Whatever, it's part of life here.

The fun thing I didn't expect to find here was what I affectionately call "The Running of the Chinese Bulls." You see, I'm staying beyond the end of Line 1. That line ends at a stop (Sihui East). From there, I have to switch to the Batong Line if I want to continue eastwards from downtown. It makes no sense whatsoever - the Beijing MTA could easily just make the Line 1 trains keep going instead of pulling U-turns and heading back west, but whatever. I'll post more on that sort of commonplace Chinese efficiency later.

The Running of the Chinese Bulls is what commuters do every time they have to switch trains at Sihui East. The line up at the doors of a Line 1 train, sprint out in a mad dash from the car, up the closest flight of stairs, through corrals set up for the express purpose of preventing the weak and young from being trampled, back down a flight of stairs to a different platform and then huddle around the areas where the next train's doors will open. Once that train pulls into the station, the people cluster around the doors - literally pressing themselves against the side of the car - before sprinting for a seat as soon as they whoosh open.

It's hysterical.

I've seen full-on dives for seats, mothers tossing toddlers into an open plastic chair, bags thrown down to mark territory and more sucker punches thrown in the scrum than I could count. Within three seconds, every seat is taken and the chaos subsides into the usual sort of spacy silence you'd expect from the commuting crowd. It's rather uncanny and something you just need to see for yourself. So, I've taken it upon myself to videotape the scramble for my next YouTube project.

Here goes nothing...


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Down in the Hutong...

I love her / she loves me
But I don't fit in her society
Lord, have mercy on a boy from down in the hutong.


Hutongs are the narrow, winding alleys that spiderweb across Beijing. They are the traditional neighborhoods of often-ancient stone houses, clay-tile roofs and shared bathrooms. If Beijing's six circular highways (ring roads) are the arteries of the New City, then the hutongs are the network of capillaries that have given life to the capital for centuries.

They're everywhere, crisscrossing main streets, leading to landmarks' rear entrances and dead ends alike and twisting—often at 90-degree angles, without warning. But at the same time, they're easy to overlook, for this is where the city's underclass lives. A few hutongs here and there have been gentrified, with new walls and tea shops sprouting up. Mostly, though, stepping into one is stepping into the way of life for millions of Chinese.

It is a step, I think, that many tourists don't take. Just like it's easy to stay away from the run-down neighborhoods at home, wandering through hutongs isn't a necessity. There are main roads, taxi cabs and sparkling new subway lines to whisk foreigners from photo op to photo op, shopping centers built below high rise office buildings to peruse (mostly Western) name brands and plenty of KFCs, McDonalds and Starbucks to visit instead of getting your feet dirty trudging through back alleys. This isn't a condemnation; it's just an observation. I've had my share of iced coffees from the baristas over the past month, too.

But I've also found the hutongs to be an indispensable part of my experience here. Perhaps when this is all over, my times wandering through these neighborhoods will be my fondest memories of the city.

Stepping off the sidewalks into a hutong means you're leaving behind all of the comforts you're used to. There aren't any English menus in the restaurants and very few will have pictures. You may have to put up with the smell of open toilets as you pass by the common bathrooms the residents share. You'll be dodging delivery people and garbage collectors on bicycles and have to endure the occasional interested stare as one of the locals watches you, perhaps wondering if you're lost.

Walking through a hutong also provides you with potential for some of the best travel experiences you can have. For one, I've found the food to be incredible. Most of the restaurants will either have open-air kitchens or will only have one dish for sale, which will be on display. I can spot something I like (egg and tomato stir fry or pistachio pastries, for example), pay a couple yuan for it and either eat it there at a small stool and table or take it for later munching. While these places look ramshackle and run-down on the outside, I'd trust their food over pretty much any Westernized fast-food joint in Beijing. These restaurateurs are basing their entire livelihood on their dumplings or their steamed buns—make a couple people sick and no one's going to come to you ever again.

There are almost always children playing in the streets, whether it's kicking a ball or running around playing tag or some other chase game. Many will skid to a halt after spotting me, sidle up and whisper a nervous, "Nihao." I'll respond with the same and a smile and their faces never fail to light up as the foreigner tries to speak their language. They'll giggle and then run off to keep on playing—the joy of children is universal.

The other day, I stumbled into Yang Guanjun's art shop, attracted by the watercolors and the English "ART" sign on the front door. I found the owner to be a delightful dude, with enough knowledge of English for us to stumble through a conversation. Guanjun is from X'ian in central China and he studied art at university there. There wasn't enough work for him in his hometown, so he brought his wife and young daughter to Beijing ten years ago to open an art studio and tea house. Business has been okay, but it's hard for the tourists with money to find him, as his home/studio is a few blocks from the main road, down a narrow hutong with no signs and no other shops. He gladly showed me his wares—everything from calligraphy on antiqued scrolls to photographic prints—before inviting me upstairs to see the living space he's trying to rent out for the Olympics (a pair of twin rooms, a brand new shower he was infinitely proud of and Internet access on provided, ancient PCs). I spent 30 minutes chatting, sampling the tea he had on sale and talking about the coming Summer Games before I departed, two original paintings under my arm. Those souvenirs are nice, but their meaning will go beyond that of the trinkets I've picked up in the Silk Market or around town because I shook the same hand that painted them.

None of that would have happened, had I not gotten lost, wandering alone through a hutong. If you're ever in Beijing, I suggest you do the same. You never know what you might find.



Yang Guanjun with his work


Champion Art Gallery (owned by Yang Guanjun)


Hutong Rooftops


Bicycles Along the Wall


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Editor's Note: Yang Guanjun does not have a website, but he can be emailed at yangguanjun [at] sohu[dot]com. His shop is at 26 Men Kuang Hutong, in the Xuan Wu district (about a 20 minute walk south of Tien'anmen Square).