Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Do you want to take my picture? Because I won't remember."

About a month ago, I bought a Kodak Easysharek 8.2MP camera. If you want to check out all the technical specs that I don't understand, here's the camera's page on Best Buy's site, although I actually got it at Sam's Club for about $100 less (whoohoo!).

I don't know much about photography, except that my previous camera was a piece of crap that was closer to a Barbie toy than an actual camera. But I bought this one because it seemed to have all the right bells and whistles - 8.2 megapixels, 12x zoom, image stabilizer, nice screen, video/audio capability, etc. - at the right price ($179 - wow!).

I need it for traveling, as I'm planning on video blogging as well as posting lots and lots of photos for you on my upcoming summer journey/work experience overseas.

I took it out last weekend for the first time at my friend Anthony's Art Deco Birthday Extravaganza, so head on over to my Flickr page if you want to see more of this kind of dressed-up goodness:

(That's me and my gorgeous girlfriend.)

(I'm on the left.)

"This is my Jerry Springer moment"

In case you hadn't heard, the most popular opera in London over the last 100 years just hit the stage at Carnegie Hall for a two-night run.

That's right, almost five years after it's debut on the South Bank in the National Theatre, "Jerry Springer: the Opera" has made it across the Pond.

I had originally written a sort of "what-is-art?" piece for the blog, but deleted it about 8 hours after posting, because, really, you need a lot more space than five paragraphs to make a decent argument about that.

Also, this show is extremely controversial in many circles... And it makes no claims to be anything but. Tap-dancing Klansmen, foul-mouthed transvestites, diaper fetishes, 200-pound pole dancers, golden showers and "three-nippled, cousin-lovers" dominate the show. Yeah, it's hilarious - I saw it twice (once in previews and once in the show's first run), but I don't know that I've fully recovered.

Say what you will and argue what you want. I think the discussion that the show is generating is a good thing. Theater nowadays has gotten pretty stale. No one goes, no one cares. And that's really unfortunate, because there aren't many better things in life that a terrific stage performance.

One of the things "Jerry" did during its five-year run in London's West End was reinvigorate the theater scene over there. It debuted, at great risk, on the country's national stage and discounted rates. The new artistic director of the National Theatre, at that time in his first year on the job, was taking a calculated risk to draw a new generation of theater buffs into his wings.

And it worked. The show's month-long run was extended to eight. The awards, the people and the money rolled in. Everyone was talking about it.

We're starting to see that happen in New York. Heck, even across the country, people are talking. That's a good thing. The theaters across the country need to fill their seats. Maybe this is a step in that direction.

Of course, it would help if this version of "Jerry" was able to book more than two shows. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, check out Ben Brantley's review in today's Times and enjoy 25 tap-dancing members of the KKK.

Monday, January 28, 2008

More successful friends...

So, if you're like me, that last $20 of Christmas money has been burning a hole in your pocket. Or the anticipation of vast refunds from the IRS has got you fixed with the spending bug...

If so, then please do yourself a favor and buy the next great American memoir to hit bookshelves - "Behind the Blue-Star Banner."

Not only is it written by one of my best friends and former roommates (which was reason enough for me to buy it, and, frankly, should be for you!), but it's a terrific read. Michelle's writing full of down-to-earth humor coupled with moments of deep poignancy and it resonates with her readers from page one.

Four years after 9/11, Michelle found herself 23-years-old, married, pregnant and about to experience a winter alone in Alaska, as her husband flew out to Iraq with the 172nd Stryker Brigade. With only a growing baby and an overactive beagle to keep her company, Michelle experienced the life of a military wife trapped on the tundra - living in-55 degree temperatures, waiting anxiously for monthly calls and counting down the days to her baby's birth and husband's return.

Her story is one shared by thousands of women across the country. Now, for the first time, their voices are being heard.

Pre-order a copy, okay? I'll get her to sign it for you and everything... here's that link again!

Thanks guys.

They like me... they really like me!

So, it's not even the end of January and I already met one of my goals for 2008, which was get paid to do this writing thing.

Actually, that was one of my goals from 2007, but let's just say I rolled it over to this year.

Good Catch Publishing
, a small, up-and-coming house based in Oregon just asked me to join their staff of freelancers. GCP works predominantly with churches to put out books with the life stories of their members. The churches then use the books as an outreach tool, a fundraiser or just as giveaways.

I will come in to the process as a GCP journalist. Typically, I'll be assigned to interview one person, get their story and write it up for an upcoming book. Pretty exciting stuff, I think...

I don't know if they'll let me publish excerpts here, but if they'll allow it, I will. If not, um, well, I don't want to get fired, so you can call me and I'll read it to you over the phone and you can be mesmerized by the smooth, sultry sounds of my "reading voice."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"Dre-ee-ee-ee-am, dream, dream, dream, dree-eam..."

I have dreams.

Maybe not on the level of the "I have a dream" speech from M.L.K., but they are dreams just the same.

I have a dream that I'll one day play a guitar in front of people and sing a song that I, myself composed, and they will cry tears of joy at the beauty of it.

I have a dream that my Buffalo Bills will win a Super Bowl, even if the team has to play half its games in Canada.

I have a dream that I will dupe someone into paying me thousands and thousands of dollars to write and have a title that includes the words "editor-at-large" and/or "best-selling."

I have a dream to one day drive this 100-mph up Route 93 to my ski lodge with three fireplaces and an outdoor hot tub.

My brother, apparently, has different dreams.

I woke up the other day to this email:

"Hey, I had a weird, random dream last night where you were killed by a gang of Chinese mafia members. So, if you're dealing in the black market a bit, you may want to chill out for a little while..."

This followed up an email he sent me a couple months back:

"So, weird dream last night... I don't remember all the details, but I was chasing you and Dylan (a friend of ours) with a knife. I think I killed both of you. If it makes you feel any better, I was crying while I did it - in my dream, not real life."

Well now... it looks like we have a perfect example of Middle-Child Syndrome taken a step too far.

Normal middle children "bemoan their fate as being ignored and often grow resentful of all the parental attention given to the oldest and the baby of the family, and feel short-shifted... They have to compete for family attention against the milestones set by the oldest, and growing up in their shadow. Middle children have to try a little harder to “be heard” or get noticed. The middle child usually has to fight harder for the attention of their parents and therefore crave the family spotlight."

However, nowhere in that article does it talk about younger brothers having dreams about their older, shockingly handsome, brothers dying horribly bloody deaths - at their own hands, no less. That sort of thing is just sick... paging Dr. Freud!

I have another dream. I have a dream of a world where older brothers and younger brothers can join hands and sing in the words of that oldie, but a goodie:

"Lean on me/when you're not strong. I'll be your friend/I won't kill you in your sleep."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Observations at a Starbucks on a Saturday afternoon...

My writing compadre Julie and I decided to meet up today in a downtown Starbucks and get some good work done – me on my thesis and her on a job hunt. While I did manage to write a couple pages, I couldn’t resist people watching (one of the things I love to do when in coffee shops) and put down some of my observations for you to enjoy…

Three ladies sit down at my table. One is “of a certain” age and seems nice enough. Definitely well put together – the lipstick matches the jacket, which also matches the bag. The other two are younger, and, as it turns out, are her daughters. They don’t look anything alike, unless you count the scent of money wafting across the table.
The one in the middle has an enormous circle-cut diamond, encircled by diamonds on a (platinum?) band with, you guessed it, more diamonds. They’re out wandering the streets of Boston planning a wedding. Judging by the amount they’re dropping on flowers for the rehearsal dinner (two grand – I’m so nosy), it’s going to be a high-class affair.
The bride-to-be eyebrows seem to be constantly arched in surprise. This is less due to any sort of sticker shock, but more to an overly enthusiastic wax job, which gives her the look of someone being goosed in their Paper Denim jeans every 15 seconds. Or, maybe she’s just surprised that the popped-pink-polo she’s chosen to wear for bridal registry day is so 2004.
The three of them crowd over their venti teas and examine a Crate & Barrel “free gift” card insert from this season’s bridal magazine. The card entitles one of them to a silver-covered wicker basket.
“What the hell would you use that for?” asks the sister. She’s wearing a Pink Burberry scarf, that matches her light freckles, upturned nose and $200 haircut perfectly. Oh, and it looks good with her $85 lip bleach job, too. Snap!
“We could fill it with candy for Valentines Day!” sniffs bride-to-be.
“Oh, that’d be cute!” coos the cougar mom.
“Let’s go to Pottery Barn and then we’ll be done,” says bride-to-be.
“Can we at least go to one store that I want to go to?” Mom asks, only whining ever so slightly.
“Which one is that?” sister/maid-of-honor/girl most likely to go home with a groomsman asks.
“Maybe Lord & Taylor.”
“What about Nordstrom’s?”
“There’s a Nordstrom’s around here?”
“It’s a Neiman Marcus, you always do that. Get it right.”
“I don’t like pleated pants.”
“Oh, they’re pleated. We couldn’t get anything but pleated.”
“Why is that kid whining? You know, if you let your kids whine, they’ll just develop a speech impediment.”
It was at this point that I have to start tuning them out, otherwise I would be tempted to overturn my table, spill their teas and mess up their hair while laughing maniacally.
Oh well, congratulations. May you last ‘til ’09.

I can’t place this one guy. His appearance gives one the impression of either being a brilliant M.I.T. professor, mentally working out theorems, or of the guy who digs the cans out of my recycling bins each week on a break between talks with Verne, his imaginary pet troll.
I looked up to see him chewing on a plastic bag, so it appears to confirm my latter suspicions. His hair, styled in the ever-popular Ben Franklin fashion (bald on top, long on sides and back) sticks out haphazardly in all directions, coming dangerously close to the latte belonging to the studious co-ed next to him.
He’s also switched seats three times in the hour that I’ve been stationed behind my laptop. Perhaps he’s waiting for someone? Or maybe he’s even more OCD about his seating arrangement than I am (I refuse to have my back to the door – you never know when your mortal enemy might show up. In my case, my mortal enemy is either Derek Jeter, the lead singer for Maroon 5 or Griffin, the smelly kid from fourth grade.).
He’s dressed in a fairly clean, 3/4-length wool dress coat. Underneath that, he has corduroy slacks and a v-neck sweater, both also in presentable states of cleanliness – no stains, no smell. He does come off as frumpy, and not just because of the hair. Everything he’s got on is wrinkled.
If I were a betting man (and I am for the right odds and money), I would have to wager that he is nuts more than he’s brilliant, even if it is a combination of the two. While I’ve been typing the last three paragraphs, he’s still been in focused, intense conversation with Verne the Troll. And, if I’m not mistaken, Verne has done something to make him upset. Watch your back, Verne!

I have seen no less than four iPhones in the past ten minutes, not including my own, confirming my suspicions that I have already slipped dangerously behind times. I must now go and my replace my horribly outmoded iBook G4 with a shiny new MacBook Air, stat. Whatever “stat” means.

This other guy, his head is huge. It looks like a lumpy bowling ball squatting on top of his rounded shoulders. His posture is terrible – all hunched over, gremlin-like - and it is an instant reminder for me to correct mine. Now sitting straight up in my chair, one leg crossed over the other (attracting sideways glances from the boys, but dammit, it’s comfortable) I shoot sideways glances his way. He's removed the bubble-top of his non-whipped frappacino and is tilting the slushy chocolate drink back to his lips, gulping each mouthful down with a long, drawn-out sssssssslurp. I can see the other table members shooting him glares over their copies of Love in the Time of Cholera and How Starbucks Saved My Life. And I find myself doing the same… I wonder if I’m better at shooting darts with my eyes than I am in bars?

What is it, exactly, that gives high-schoolers the herd instinct? Two groups of eight just walked in here, one right after the other. The first was chattering non-stop about some girl named Tracy, who apparently isn't with them and also has some questionable hygiene and moral issues, at least by their standards. I don't catch what the second group was yammering on about, because I’d just noticed another instinct they all seem to share – the motivation to wear that bare minimum of cold-weather clothing.
It’s chilly out. I’m sitting by the door and every time it opens, my fingers turn a slightly deeper shade of blue. I’m typing furiously, not to record all of this stuff, but to keep my digits attached to me, right where they should be – at the ends of my wrists. I’m sitting inside and I’m cold, yet not one of these kids is wearing anything heavier than a thin, unzipped sweatshirt. The girls all seem to be part of some sort of team, or buy their clothes in bulk, since they all wearing identical fake-fur lined, puffy black vests.
Whatever, I probably used to do the same thing. Actually, I have two vests that I recently donated to the Salvation Army because I haven’t worn them in years.

What is it about the French that make them so freaking skinny? This lovely couple just added cream and sugar to their respective coffees. I’m not a big guy, but they could’ve used my jeans as His & Her sides to a denim sleeping bag.
I hate them.
Good thing I stuck with the soy latte.

Okay, time to go warm up… my fingernails just went black and I can’t feel my toes. I thought coffee shops were supposed to warm you up?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I've missed you...

As you, my faithful readers, have no doubt noticed, I haven't posted much this year.

Okay, I've only posted once and, to be honest, that was one I'd started writing before the ball dropped. I should beg your forgiveness - I know you've come to expect at least thrice-weekly Internet lovin' from me to make it through those tedious 8-hour days in your cubicles. I have a good excuse, though!

Here it goes...

So, I went home from work on January 4th, just like it were any other day. When, in fact, it most certainly was not.

That Friday marked the last day that I, Mike Nagel, could truthfully call myself an employed man. When I re-started my computer at the end of the day, it was out of habit - I always did that when leaving at the end of the week, just to give the poor, non-Mac machine a break. But it was a futile, worthless gesture... the thing could have spontaneously combusted and it wouldn't have affected me one iota (or, less, depending on how big your particular iota is, I wouldn't know).

I woke up the next day in a cold sweat. Which, when you think about it, isn't really possible - who's actually cold when they're sweating? Unless you're talking about Tom "Terrific" Brady's icy blue eyes, that is.

Suddenly, I was without purpose. At 3 a.m. on that Saturday morning, a most inconvenient time to be awoken, I realized that even the word "Saturday" had lost its meaning. I no longer had any "weekends," because I didn't even have a "week." My week could never end because it couldn't even begin.

I freaked out and began pacing my room, which is something I'd never done before, most likely because it only takes two-and-one-quarter strides to reach either side of the room and the 180-degree pivot to turn and step the other way causes extreme rug burn after a few minutes. But I was too panicked to care that my soles (and very soul!) were bleeding... I needed to find a meaning, a purpose in my existence.

At precisely 5:42 a.m. - which was sunrise on the 5th - it dawned on me (ba-dum ching!), I would take a trip! I would search for meaning in my travels! I would wear the same pair of pants for 10 days straight!

Hastily, I gathered some belongings and shoved them, willy-nilly, into my backpack: my journal, a digital camera, a couple Clif bars, three sets of socks and underwear, a Hooters t-shirt, flip-flops, wool socks, a Sharpie, a picture of my mom, an Espanol word guide/dictionary, a flask, a paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and my bottle of allergy medication. I flung the load onto my back, scribbled a hasty goodbye to my roomie (and an apology for using the last square of Charmin) and threw open to the door of my apartment and stepped out confidently, albeit hastily, because I slipped and fell down a flight of stairs, landing prone in front of a lawn ornament of Little Lord Fauntleroy (seriously, my landlady has lawn ornaments adorning her landing).

Recovering from my fall, I continued out the door to Logan airport...

There, I bought the second-cheapest Jet Blue ticket they had to offer - a one-way to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I could've saved 20 bucks and flown to Fort Lauderdale, instead, but one look at each destinations advertisement was all it took to convince me to spend the extra Cleveland (which is what I call 20-dollar-bills, refusing to acknowledge the switch that took place in 1928 to put the impeached Andrew Jackson on the front... read more here). The photo of Puerto Rico showed smiling couples with taut, bronze skin playing in crystal clear waters... bosoms and pectorals everywhere! Fort Lauderdale's showed the same thing, but in geriatric form - the guys all wore black socks with sandals and the gals showed off plenty of bosom-action, but it was all around their belly-buttons.

I was going to Puerto Rico! I had a plan! My mind was filled with exclamatory punctuation!

I landed without a place to stay, but I didn't care... I had decided on my flight down, in between happily enjoying the Dunkin' Donuts coffee that now comes on all Jet Blue flights and the little blue bag of pretzels, that I would sleep on the beach. I'd never done that before.

When night came, I dug myself a little bed on the beach, made a mound of sand for a pillow and curled up with my backpack to watch the sun go down. I fell asleep watching the sun painting the sky a brilliant palette of pinks, oranges and reds. The waves crashing into the shore, lulled me to sleep and a gentle breeze wafted over me.

I woke up to find the surf pounding around me, my bag nowhere to be found. The undertow had dragged it, along with one shoe, away, and was threatening to do the same to my pair of pants. I was completely soaked and a rather large piece of seaweed had wrapped itself around my head, partially blinding me.

I stumbled around the beach for a while, grasping at my pants and struggling to pull the wet jeans up to cover my bare rear, when I found about about two cups of sand had found its way into the crotch. Now THAT was comfortable.

Sputtering seaweed, I tried to figure out what to do. The entire beach was completely dark and that comfortable sea breeze I'd fallen asleep to was now freezing cold. My erect nipples were cutting twin holes in my Hooters t-shirt, which I would have found amusingly ironic, had they not been blue.

The closest apparent source of light (a neon sign) and civilization (it said, "Budweiser") was about a quarter mile down the beach, so I started walking towards that. My one bare foot leaving footprints in the sand next to my shoed foot that read "Puma" and had a cute little drawing of a cat on it. I reached the bar and tried to assess the situation. I looked like I had just washed up on shore (which I kind of had), but I still had my wallet, which albeit soggy, could be used to pay for some drinks, a spot at the bar and a chance to dry out and figure out what to do next. I took a deep breath, held my head high and walked through the door up to the bar, my bare foot leaving wet, sanding footprints on the floor, which, incidentally, was covered in peanut shells, causing me to squeal in pain every other step.

Crunch. Ouch! Crunch. Ouch! Crunch. Ouch! Crunch. Ouch!

It took eight steps to get to the bar.

I ordered a "cheapo cerveza," no doubt impressing the bartender with my fluent Spanglish, and looked around. It was about as close to a biker's bar as I'd ever been in. Everyone there was bigger than me, more leather-clad than me and harrier than me, including the chick behind the bar. I was, as the British say, scared poopless, but no one was paying any attention to me.

No one, that is, except this one scruffy dude in the corner. He was a small guy with, no joke, an eyepatch AND a wooden leg. Seriously. In 2008, someone was walking around in a bar with a wooden peg leg. It started at the floor and disappeared into his cut-off, khaki shorts. Someone had taken the time to ornately carve and paint a mermaid into the side of it. Her sea-foam tail started at the base of the leg and continued upwards to just below a pair of fantastic, wooden breasts (36 C's, I'd say). I couldn't see her face, since it disappeared into his pants (if I had a nickel for every time...), but it was quite the piece of work.

Anyway, Mr. Peg-Leg Eyepatch was staring at me. Not wanted to be rude, I didn't stare back, but tried to drink my beer in peace, which is hard to do when one eye and a wooden leg with boobs on it are fixated on you. I sipped. I pretended to read the Spanish label. I sipped again. I learned the Spanish names for the months by checking the born-on date. I sipped some more. I re-read the label, and so on.

I did this for three (tres) beers. I had no where else to go! And all the while, the weird, piratey looking dude just nursed his own beer and kept staring at me with his one good eye.

Eventually, while I was on my fourth beer and giggling without reason every time I read Junio on the bottle's label, the guy walked over. He was surprisingly smooth for a guy with a wooden leg. You couldn't even hear him striking the floor with it - just the same crunch, crunch sounds everyone else (but me) made when walking over the peanut shells.

"Ahoy, there!" he said. No, really.

"Ahoy!" I said back and saluted him with my bottle. No reason not to be friendly.

He looked at my bare foot. I looked at his mermaid's bare chest.

"You look like you could stand to have a drink bought for you. Ever had a Mind Eraser?"

Visions of roofie coladas danced in my head. But I didn't want to seem standoffish. Plus, I still had nowhere to go and I didn't want to spend all of my own money.

"Nope, what is it?"

Peg-Leg chortled heartily, if not somewhat ominously. I don't know what it was - perhaps the fact that his laugh was deep and dark and that his smile didn't reach his eyes - but I was nervous. Apparently, though, not as nervous as I should have been.

He hauled himself and his leg up onto the stool next to me.

"Betty," he said to the mustachioed bartender, "get this kid a Mind Eraser."

I tried to watch all the ingredients her tatooed hands poured into the blender, but it was impossible. Clearly, it was a popular drink and she'd made it plenty of times before, because she spun bottles, poured in syrups, crushed ice and blended it all together in a flash. She set the drink before me, condensation dripping from the outside and a deep, red, slushy mixture inside.

I took a sip.

Boy, that felt good! I started to warm up inside... and all the way down to my bare foot...

I took another sip.

"So, tell me your story," said the pirate.

I did, right from the beginning of my revelation that morning to waking up on the beach that night, sparing no detail (including my airport purchase of a grande-triple-shot-soy-extra-hot-extra-foam-no whip-latte). During which, he bought himself another beer and me another pair of Mind Erasers, laughing another dramatic har-har guaff when I drunkenly started on both at the same time (Man, if I had a nickel for that!).

Did you know they still Shanghai'd people in 2008? Yeah, um, me neither...

When I woke up the next morning, with the absolute worst headache I've ever head in my life, I was on the deck of a fishing vessel bound for Caracas in the company of Peg-Leg and a bunch of other guys I recognized from the bar. Apparently, they needed another drug mule for operations coming out of Bogotá. Their last one had burped too hard and three condoms full of coke burst in his stomach.

At the risk of self-incrimination and a life-sentence from the D.E.A., I won't tell you about the next week, except to say that if you've never pooped a balloon before, thank your parents. And, if you have, tell me where to buy the most comfortable, inflatable donut, okay?

I finally managed to escape while I was expelling the balloons into a public toilet in Havana. I pulled a Shawshank and crawled through a hundred foot pipe filled with foul, stinking, ballon-infested fecal matter and then found my way, via sewer main, to the black market, where I managed to find passage on the next ship bound for (no joke), Fort Lauderdale. It cost me quite a bundle to get on that homemade raft and I'm not proud of what I did (suffice it to say, that word "kidney" in Spanish is "riñón"), but I finally made it back.

Didn't you miss me?


Okay, okay, okay... so maybe I made some of that up. Or all of it. But at least it's better than telling you, "I had writer's block and not much time in front of a computer," right?

Any idiot can play greek for a day
and join a sorority or write a tragedy.
Articulate all that pain,
and maybe you'll get paid.
But it's a sin when success complains,
and your writer's block - it don't mean sh*t.
Just throw it against the wall and see what sticks.
Gonna write a hit - I think this it.

It's a hit.

Rilo Kiley, "It's a Hit" from More Adventurous

(Was listening to this album, which is ridiculously good and I just sorta re-discovered, while I wrote this post. You should check it out.)