Monthly Archives: September 2011

Temporary Aberrations…

Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and current failed presidential candidate, made the following comment about gay marriage.

“I believe that marriage is between a man and woman,” Gingrich said, the Des Moines Register reports. “It has been for all of recorded history and I think this is a temporary aberration that will dissipate. I think that it is just fundamentally goes against everything we know.”

Sometimes I think the true “temporary aberration” is the United States itself, which produces bigots as if they are the country’s chief export.

Gingrich is not the only GOP presidential candidate to appeal to “recorded history” regarding gay marriage. Let’s check in with everyone’s favorite Congressional representative and mental patient Michele Bachmann, who said in 2004:

“You have a teacher talking about his gayness. (The elementary school student) goes home then and says “Mom! What’s gayness? We had a teacher talking about this today.” The mother says “Well, that’s when a man likes other men, and they don’t like girls.” The boy’s eight. He’s thinking, “Hmm. I don’t like girls. I like boys. Maybe I’m gay.” And you think, “Oh, that’s, that’s way out there. The kid isn’t gonna think that.” Are you kidding? That happens all the time. You don’t think that this is intentional, the message that’s being given to these kids? That’s child abuse.”

Sorry, this quote doesn’t directly reference gay marriage. It’s just dumb. Sure, the 8-year-old boy is now a committed homosexual (just as I was a committed ninja at that age) until his female classmate shows up one day with breasts. If a boy can pass the breast test, then he deserves his gay honor badge, but hearing that his teacher is gay is not going to make him gay. Gayness is not spread through auditory contact. If that was the case, then everyone who listened to “Livin’ la Vida Loca” in 1999 would be gay.

Anyway, a more relevant quote from Bachmann during a recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

“The family is foundational and marriage between a man and a woman is what the law has been for years..”

Got that? So, gays can’t marry because that’s been the law for years and we can’t change the law because gays have historically not been able to marry.

That’s probably why it took so long for the self-proclaimed-but-rarely-in-actuality “land of the free” to end its “peculiar institution.” “We can’t free negroes because they are slaves and slavery has existed for centuries and is the foundation of our economy.”

There’s the other rub — end slavery and some lazy white people might have to work. What would happen to Scarlett’s hands if she had to wash her own gowns? Gays marrying has no impact on the economic health of the U.S. Empire. So, the anti-gay marriage position does not even have the virtue of selfishness.

Also, put a powdered wig on Gingrich — though I think that’s what he’s already wearing — and he could be arguing against female suffrage: “I believe that only men can vote because I say so with no facts to back it up. I believe the suffrage movement is a temporary aberration that will dissipate. It goes against everything we’ve ever known.”

Gay marriage has probably existed throughout recorded history, even if not legally recognized as such. The attempt by people like Gingrich and Bachmann is to legislate homosexuality out of existence — the legal equivalent of putting their hands over their ears and shouting, “La, La, La, I can’t hear gay people being gay around me.” They also simultaneously promote family values while denying that gays can have families, so homosexuality remains on the margins of society. This is how you ensure they remain second-class citizens. And “converting” to heterosexuality won’t help. It’s similar to the Jews and Muslims who converted under pressure to Roman Catholicism in Portugal. They were dubbed “New Christians” as a means of distinguishing them from the “Old Christians.” And they were always under suspicion.

Gingrich has already expressed his concerns:

“I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment. I think it is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it. I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion.”

But Bachmann is more sympathetic — if not sort of sinisterly condescending — of the “New Heterosexuals“:

“And again, don’t misunderstand. I am not here bashing people who are homosexuals, who are lesbians, who are bisexual, who are transgendered. We need to have profound compassion for the people who are dealing with the very real issue of sexual dysfunction in their life, and sexual identity disorders. This is a very real issue. It’s not funny, it’s sad.”

Sad, indeed.

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Posted by on September 30, 2011 in Political Theatre


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Berlin and Munich have history, Amsterdam has my short-term memory, but Budapest has old world charm. I have longed to visit Hungary since my childhood fascination with Countess Elizabeth Bathory. The Countess is considered the first vampire because at some point, she struck one of her servants so hard she drew blood. Apparently, the guy she had who normally handled her bitch-slapping was on holiday. When she looked at her blood-stained hand, she noticed that it seemed younger than it had before. Rather than examining her life and determining that she was crazy, she began killing young women and bathing in their blood to preserve her youth. There were laws about this sort of thing, even when you’re doing it to poor people. She was believed to have murdered more than 600 women but was only convicted of about 80, which was still a dozen or so above the legal limit for royalty, so she was bricked up in a set of rooms until her death four years later. Attendance at her funeral was only slightly better than the “Lestat” musical.

I did not drink any blood while in Budapest, despite my hotel being on Barnabas street. The hotel had a great view of the Danube river, which divides the Buda and Pest districts. Well, it did if you left your room altogether and walked two blocks to the river. The hotel was the type of place that charged you for everything. The rooms had Internet access but the cost was similar to what Stephen I, King of Hungary, might have paid to have noblewomen come to his rooms and perform pornographic acts while delivering a right-wing screed that wasn’t backed up in fact.

I took a river cruise one night, where I had the “pleasure” (those are irony quotation marks) of meeting the most obnoxious woman in the world, so yes, she was from New Jersey. Her eyebrows appeared to have been trimmed at the Vulcan Salon and Spa in Teaneck. She was visiting Budapest for the weekend but currently working in Prague. She spent a good deal of time complaining about how Czechs were not friendly to her, which I viewed as an example of both their good taste and evidence that even Prague does not have enough beer to make her desirable. It greatly bothered her that they wouldn’t make sandwiches the way she wanted (it’s a Czech restaurant not Subway) or remember to put the sauces on the side per her request (again, it’s a Czech dish, not what Woody Allen called “boiled chicken” run “through the deflavorizing machine.”).

I should clarify that I had nothing to do with her suddenly and accidentally falling into the Danube and drowning. I actually wasn’t even on that river cruise. It was another cruise entirely. I only heard about this woman from a drifter, who is probably the one responsible.

Hungarian women themselves are far more appealing than T’Pring from Jersey (I’m even including the Countess), though tour guide Rick Steves makes a point of warning visitors about the “konzumlany” — gorgeous “cosmopolitan” girls who drag you to an expensive club where you buy them a small fortune in drinks and they go home with the bartender. Men who spent any part of their 20s in Manhattan will recognize this as “Saturday night,” and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Breakfast in Budapest consists of beer and cigarettes. Lunch is goulash, which is a tasty stew of meat and potatoes, seasoned with paprika. The broth is thinner and more like soup than in other countries, particularly Prague, where you could eat it with a knife and fork.

I only had a couple days to spend in Budapest, but I had to try the thermal baths. The city has 123 natural springs and two dozen thermal baths (“furdo”). There are gender-segregated nude baths; however, two weeks in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic with their schnitzels and strudels had taken its toll and I was in no condition to be seen without my swimsuit.

The pools have a range of temperatures: 30 degrees Celsius (bath water), 36 degrees (hot tub), and 42 degrees (lava). I am a lava man and spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon relishing what some religious people spend their Sunday mornings hoping to avoid.

I did see a Canadian woman mess around and dive into the lava section — not even the toe-in-the-water test but a full-on cannonball. Her screams were heard in Toronto. No worries: I added some paprika to the stew and enjoyed some Canadian goulash.

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Posted by on September 29, 2011 in Social Commentary


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One thing that’s very different about being abroad compared to being in the U.S. is that everyone speaks English. This fluency is not restricted to heads of state or academics but to average people on the street — cabbies, bartenders, even the crazy lady on the subway in Berlin was bilingual. She came up to me and said, “Entschuldigen sie mich, haben sie irgendwelche Änderungen… wait, you’re from states? Forgive me, could you possibly spare some change? I am not at all well.”

People are generally fine with speaking English to you, as it avoids having to hear you mangle their language like a college football player speaking to the press. I try to at least learn the words for “hello,” “thank you,” and “please,” along with any phrases I might frequently use such as “more wine?” and “sure, I’ll have another glass.” The effort is usually appreciated. I did have a cab driver in Prague who claimed to not understand how my friend Brendan, who has lived there for a year, pronounced the name of his own street, but after the meter had run for another minute, it suddenly registered.

Often, when you take an English-speaking tour in another country, the guides are British or U.S. ex-pats. In Lisbon, the guides were Portugese and the two I had spoke impeccable English. They had the idioms and jokes down and everything. I started to question my own English: “Was that the right word? I know it doesn’t sound as good without an accent.” One of the guides mentioned to me that English is taught in primary school and they get 12 years of it. They also watch subtitled U.S. programs to reinforce it. Unfortunately, seeing “Run, Lola, Run” aided neither my fitness nor my German proficiency.

If I didn’t feel stupid enough, at one point I complimented the guide on her knowledge of local history. She thanked me but politely brushed it off as just being a result of growing up in the area. Can you imagine the sorry-ass walking tour some kid from Jersey would give based just on living there? “Yeah, down the street, that’s where someone saw Snooki, and Springsteen played at that bar once… I guess. He’s from here, right? Or is that Dylan? Whichever old guy writes songs about poor people.”

You start to get a complex after a while if you only speak English. That means you’re just one language away from not speaking one at all. It seems reasonable that you should have a “safety language,” which I guess for everyone else is English. I’ve seen Spanish tourists communicate with a German tourist using English and, amazingly, a waitress in Budapest speak Hungarian to one table, German to another, and English to mine. This is a waitress who, based on her age, grew up under communism.

In the states, there’s a lot of English-only pushes from politicians who apparently want the U.S. to be among the least-skilled nations. That’s really the opposite of what we should be doing. I try to imagine what my life would have been like if I had learned another language in my youth. When I was a sophomore in high school, I remember this cool senior sitting in study hall singing Soul II Soul. If I had been able to say, “However do you want me? However do you need me” in Portugese (roughly, “no entanto você quer que eu, no entanto você precisa de mim”), everything might have been different.

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Posted by on September 22, 2011 in Social Commentary


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When I arrived in Vienna, I had pretty much maxed out my limit on schnitzel. I have the unfortunate habit of going native when I travel and consuming the local cuisine exclusively. While in Germany and the Czech Republic, this meant lots of beer and meat. Vienna was more of the same but followed by coffee and cake in one of the many cafes.

I am a fan of cafe culture, as it reminds me of my youth when you had time to spend in coffee houses. When you’re in college, there are about 48 hours in each day — enough time for class, studying, talking to friends on the phone and then hanging out with them over meals or mugs of coffee or beer. Then you graduate, get a job and you’re down to 30 hours a day. Then you marry and you have about 15 hours, half of which are spent at weddings. You have kids and you get 10 minutes, provided you wake up at 5 am. If you sleep in until 6, it’s 5 minutes and if you let it go to 6:30, you’ve missed a day.

The Viennese manage to keep life at a 48-hour day, which is both impressive and necessary when you live in a city with so many grand buildings. I stayed at the The Imperial Riding School Renaissance Vienna Hotel, perhaps the third-most pretentious hotel name in Europe. It’s ideal for business travelers who wish to arrange the murder of an associate. The front desk is very accommodating: “So, you’ll want your partner dismembered and disposed of by Friday? We are happy to assist.” The club room is stocked with free champagne and heavy appetizers that make dining out unnecessary, which is convenient as the room rates made dining out impossible. One night was about the price of four in Berlin, but as they say, Berlin is “poor but sexy” and Vienna is “rich but beer goggly.” When I saw the bill, I had to clarify with the front desk that it was in Euros rather than some meaninglessly inflated currency like Kroners or U.S. dollars.

The bathroom at my hotel had a bidet. I named mine Joan Crawford. Without a bidet, your bathroom experience is equivalent to a 19th century outhouse with a half moon on the door. If you have a child, you would gladly sacrifice him or her for the bidet. If you had two children, you would want two bidets in case something happened to the primary one. Also, having the other kid around would just remind you that you’re some kind of monster who traded your child for a bidet.

The reason U.S. residents are so uptight is directly related to the lack of bidets. Watch how the GOP presidential candidates walked on stage during the debates. These are men and arguably one woman without access to a bidet. The Democrats would still have the House if instead of universal health coverage they had pursued universal bidets.

I took a tour of Vienna with a charming guide who looked just like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Considering none of the women on the tour were groped and/or impregnated, the resemblance was just superficial. He was very pro-Vienna, which is run by the Social Democratic Party. This means the Viennese struggle under the tyranny of the government caring whether they live or die, which is in contrast to the U.S. system where you are free to die wherever you wish as long as it’s not on a rich person’s lawn or on an alternate side parking day.

I’m usually not big on nationalism of any sort, but when this guy said good things about his country, he backed it up with facts. In the U.S., you’re just told it’s the greatest country in the world — period — and if you don’t like it, you can take your commie ass and leave. And that’s in a public school history class. Our guide pointed out that Vienna is tied with Vancouver, Canada for quality of life and the Economist Intelligence Unit rated it the second-best city in which to live. I also personally rank it the best city in which to get a haircut — far out-performing the sloppy, clipper-driven butchery I received as a kid in Greenville, S.C.

Definitely rich but decidedly not beer goggly was our well-dressed and well-coiffed guide at the Vienna State Opera House. We seemed to inspire pity in her, sort of like she was volunteering at a hospice but with less hope: “These are the orchestra seats, which would sell for about 250 Euros each or the cost of one sleeve of my splendidly tailored shirt. Over there are the box seats, which I am sorry to say are far beyond what you could ever afford to pay given your own personal poverty, which, I am sorry to say, is considerable and bleak. We do offer the underprivileged, by which, I am sorry to say, I mean you, day-of standing room tickets for 2 Euro, which I would use to wipe my ass if it were paper like your U.S. currency, which I do in fact use to wipe my ass, as it is less expensive than toilet paper and is a good pairing with the bidet.”

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Posted by on September 21, 2011 in Social Commentary


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I enjoyed Munich slightly more than Berlin, as did Hitler, which aside from my eight years of vegetarianism in the ’90s and fondness for Argentina, is about all we have in common.

At the Nuremberg train station, on my way to Munich, I stopped at a bagel shop for breakfast. You would think that Germany had done irrevocable harm to its bagel industry, but it actually wasn’t that bad. I asked the middle-aged blonde woman for an egg and cheese bagel and she responded, “No! Egg or cheese. Not both!”

Now, in New York, this would be a fight, but when a blonde German yells at you in English, you don’t talk back. You just take your “Sophie’s Choice” bagel and like it. I’ve probably watched too many World War II movies, but Germans speaking German aren’t that scary; it’s the shouted German-accented English that gives me brown trousers.

Most Germans I encounter are bilingual and speak flawless English, which puts them at an advantage over most Americans who are barely lingual. Out of respect, I try to use as much German as I can, interspersed with halting English phrases to elicit pity. “Hallo, schnitzel… Please? Life is bowl of chocolates? Danke schoen.”

When I arrived in Munich, I went into a Starbucks and ordered from another middle-aged blonde woman a latte with skim milk. Her response: “No skim milk! Just cream!” Again, I paid for my Neville Chamberlain latte and liked it. Don’t mess with the German barista. She is not joking.

By the way, all these middle-aged blonde women look like Emma Thompson with a German accent. So, you have Emma Thompson pouring you coffee, Emma Thompson driving your cab, Emma Thompson giving you directions to the closest biergarten.

Dogs are very popular in Germany. Their standard of living is probably on par with the dogs in Belize, who wear Hawaiian shirts and walk up to bars begging for ceviche. Dogs are allowed off leash here, and strangers will stop to pet them. This would freak the hell out of Americans but Munich is sort of like a big petting zoo. Owners also let their dogs off leash to play with other random dogs. “Hey, there you, Klaas, go sniff some butts.” In New York, there’s a complex application and approval process before your pet can play with another dog.

Traditional German food involves sausage and sausage stuffed with sausage. This is washed down with a liter of beer and an inhalation of second-hand smoke from your waitress. The life expectancy should be about 27, but Germany actually ranks 20th out of all countries. Israel is 8th because living well really is the best revenge.

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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in Social Commentary


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Berlin vs. South Carolina…

Spending time in Berlin is interesting after growing up in South Carolina. Aside from the fact that “Berlin” is a better band name than “Pelzer,” there’s also the manner in which the two places treat certain indiscretions in their past. Berlin must have something in its tap water that promotes remorse and regret — an element regularly filtered out of the United States’s supply. Berlin is very “OK, here’s what went down. There are historical and educational reasons for knowing. We don’t dwell on it but man did we screw up. Have some Schwarzwurst.”

When I was a kid, there was really none of that in South Carolina. It was more, “Your ass is free but we’re not that happy about it. Have some processed cheese.” If Berlin and Germany as a whole is “Never Again,” South Carolina was “Oh, yeah, we’d do it again.”

Arriving in Berlin, I expected to see “Hitler Boulevard” and “Joseph Goebbel Jr. High School.” After all, there was a Wade Hampton High School near where I grew up, and there are at least 8 streets named “Wade Hampton” in South Carolina. This guy was a Confederate calvary officer who spent his life managing plantations in South Carolina and Mississippi. When his father died in 1858, he inherited one of the “largest collections of slaves in the South” — about 3,000 — and a library that boasted 10,000 volumes, which would have made it possible for each slave to check out 3 books at the same time if they had library cards or been allowed to read.

I suppose Germany does not name things after Nazis because, most importantly, they believe you should not memorialize bad people but also because the Nazis lost. Where else in society, other than the American South, do we name things after losers? There’s no Walter Mondale Airport or Fort Michael Dukakis or (eventually) Barack Obama Square. But even the black hair salons are named after Confederates in South Carolina: My mother got her hair done at The Jefferson Davis Beauty Parlor and Weave Shop.

While I was on a bus tour of the city, the tour guide mentioned that the Berlin Zoo once had Africans as exhibits but “that would never take place today. Thanks God!” You would never hear that in South Carolina. I have taken plantation tours when the guide was at the point of tears discussing the lost cause. “Yeah, well, you know, after the War of Northern Agression, the owners could no longer afford the upkeep of the plantation so they had to sell their home. Sniff. Sniff.” My heart breaks for them. Besides, they probably just moved to a condo in Charleston, near the water. It was better than sharecropping while waiting for your 40 acres and a mule like a sucker. That was worse than waiting for those X-ray glasses you ordered from the back of a comic book. You should have been suspicious — why is no one else using this technology? — but you knew everything was going to change once you received them.

I was on one tour where the guide was in antebellum costume, flouncing around in a ball gown and thinking she was cute. She asked my friend, “Wouldn’t you have loved to have lived when you could dress like this all the time?” My friend replied, “No, because I would have been a slave.”

But the U.S. has this fascination with the trappings of a society built on slave labor and human misery. There is no German version of “Gone with the Wind” (“Vom Winde Verweht”). Berlin also has monuments to the victims of the holocausts. Monuments to slaves in South Carolina are alongside the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals. This is like your wife’s ex-boyfriend coming along on the honeymoon: “Don’t mind me. I’ll just sit here and silently resent you.”

Berlin is an overall progressive city 70 years after World War II. I would not wanted to have been anywhere near the South in 1935 — 70 years after the end of the Civil War. You had Jim Crow and lynchings; the only real improvement was the launch of zoot suits in the late ’30s. And you had at least 30 years to go until “I Spy.”

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Posted by on September 4, 2011 in Social Commentary


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