Hope for a Beautiful America: A Road Trip for Independence Day

[Originally posted on Jul 1, 2012]

On this fourth of July week, I look out at a blue sky with cotton-like cumulus clouds floating over the Rockies – the majestic range of purple mountains we sing about this time of year in praise of the beautiful country we live in.  We arrived here after taking a road trip up from Phoenix to the Vail Valley.  I can’t think of a better way to spend this holiday than by experiencing 800 miles of the American Southwest by car.

We left the sweltering heat of Phoenix and headed up the I-17, a route familiar to many Phoenicians who escape the heat by traveling to to the cooler, smaller town of Flagstaff, Arizona.  As anyone in the southwest will tell you, the government’s definition of “forest” is a loose one when you see the national forest signs and nothing but two foot tall brush as far as the eye can see.  On this trip between the two cities, you experience the change of climates and see the forests truly develop – the brush become bushes, the bushes become six foot tall trees, and the trees become enormous pine trees, greeting you as you enter Flagstaff.

We headed east on the I-40 to pick up the US-89, driving past dormant and extinct volcanos that make up much of northern Arizona.  One of the areas we drove past is a favorite destination of ours – Sunset Crater National Park.  At Sunset Crater, you still see the black lava from an eruption that took place less than 1000 years ago, along with the forest life that found a way to grow beyond its ashes.  Next to Sunset Crater, you also have Wupatki National Monument – ruins of a civilization who thrived after the eruption, thanks to fertile soil created from volcanic ash.  When my parents saw this area a few years ago, my father commented that it goes to show that specific things die and species become extinct, but Mother Nature always has a greater plan, and there’s nothing we can do that will get in her way.

Past Flagstaff and just past the easternmost part of Grand Canyon National Park, we hopped onto the US-160, which takes you into deep into the Navajo Nation.  In a few days we will celebrate our freedom and independence, yet the history of this land serves as a reminder of how easily it can be to move from the oppressed to the oppressor.  By the mid-to-late 1800s, the U.S. Government and the Navajos had ongoing problems with raids, violence and violated treaties.  The U.S. rounded up the Navajos and placed them in an internment camp with other tribes – 10,000 people living in an inhospitable area that was only 10 square miles.  Food was in short supply, the water wasn’t clean, and disease ravaged the camp.  Eventually, the U.S. established a larger boundary for reservation land, giving the Navajos back a lot of the land they were taken from, and those who survived were allowed to return home.

I know this time of year we don’t want to talk about our country’s historic failures such as this, but I think we need to – what makes America great is that it is in the hands of the people.  No matter how badly Texas lawmakers don’t want you to think critically, it is human nature to do so, and the success of this country lies in our ability to think for ourselves and to take a stand when we see oppression.  If you are on the left or the right, that previous sentence has got you thinking of two completely different things.  That’s fine, I suppose, but as we watch the fireworks, as we sing “Yankee Doodle,” let us remind ourselves of the founding fathers and the revolutionaries who died not for our complacency, but for our activism.  They fought for the belief in a government for the people and by the people.  Not for and by the 1%, corporations or lobbyists, and not so we can passively elect political party caricatures to represent the signer of their largest campaign check.  As I drove through land that tells a tale of a darker American history, I’m reminded we cannot afford to sit idly by when a government supports fear mongering and inhumanity.  As all of history has shown, one thing always leads to another, and complacency will ultimately lead to an inhumanity comparable to the Long Walk of the Navajo.

History is a combination of triumph and loss, hope and despair.  This road trip through history is no exception, as evidenced by the wonderful national parks we encounter.

Author Wallace Stegner once wrote, “National parks are the best idea we ever had.  Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”  Following this road trip from Phoenix to Colorado, you encounter some of the most exceptional national parks in the country.  In addition to Sunset Crater and Wapatki, you’re reasonably close to the eastern end of the Grand Canyon, and aren’t too far of a drive from the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest.  After driving through Navajo Nation and onto the 191, you end up in Moab – a quintessentially charming Utah town once famous for its uranium mining back in the Cold War days.  Moab serves as a gateway to two other great national parks, Canyonlands and Arches.  These parks represent the love and respect we have for our land.  As we drove past deep red rock formations and copper-rich green mountains, I felt grateful for living in a country with such a variety of beauty within its borders.  Our geology is as diverse as our people, and we are inherently lucky for both.

The Colorado wildfires remained on our minds through the trip.  We took a brief detour around the Four Corners to go into southern Colorado, and the hazy air and smoke plumes were heartbreaking to see – it really seemed as if the entire state was on fire.  As Arizonans, we are all too familiar with the danger and devastation of wildfires – to date, Arizona has lost land greater than the size of Connecticut to wildfires.  Even considering that, what is happening in Colorado is like nothing we have ever seen.  Our hearts go out to the communities affected by these fires, and we hope for fast containment as well as the safety of the firefighters.

Driving past Grand Junction on the I-70 gave us a remarkable view of the Pine Ridge Fire, a fire believed to be caused by a discarded cigarette.  As we drove east on the 70, we saw white and black plumes fill the sky.  Freeway signs warned that the fire was nearby, but we were not in danger by any means.  As we headed into De Beque Canyon, we were surprised to see exactly how close we were to the outer edge of the fire – you could clearly see the flames from the freeway, small pockets of them, gradually cascading down the steep slopes of the mountain.  We spotted two helicopters doing remarkable work to fight this fire.  The pilots would lower the chopper down to the Colorado River, which separates the mountain from the freeway, to the point the chopper would be level with the cars on the freeway.  They would scoop up water from the river, then carry it over to the fire line, piloting perilously close to the edge of the mountain to attempt to aim the giant bucket of water to fight the flames.  These choppers were doing this over and over, for who knows how long.  Just imagine – these pilots are putting their lives at risk because someone mindlessly threw a cigarette out of a car.  This is a typical story for wildfires – it seems when they are not caused by arson, they are caused by self-centeredness; a discarded cigarette, a campfire improperly extinguished… the beautiful America we sing about is taken for granted far too often.

Now that we are at our destination for our fourth of July, I am glad we decided to trek through the hauntings of our history and our present to get here.  Like all history, the history in this region is one of beauty and ugliness, greatness and shame. We must accept it all and embrace the spirit of those before us who took a stand for better life and better government.  We must continue to show commitment to preserve the beauty of our land, live consciously rather than mindlessly, and speak loudly when the voices of others have been muted.

In other words, as we celebrate this fourth of July, let’s all be great Americans.

Photos copyright 2004-2012 Anne-Marie Pleau and Chris Giard.

Five Lands, One Dumbo Drop

[Originally posted May 27, 2012. Sorry, it still makes me laugh at how gross and ridiculous it is.]

This is a travelogue concerning poop.  Consider yourself warned.

Back in 2006, I was on an uber-fitness kick.  I not only ran 30 miles a week, I was on a strict diet – every gram of fat, protein and fiber was calculated and accounted for.  A result of this – and forgive me for the TMI – is you could synchronize a shuttle launch to my bowel movements. Enter my first trip overseas.

Chris and I went to Italy for the first time, and knew we would have to postpone the diet while we were out there.  When in the land of pasta, pizza and gelato, it seemed we’d be missing out on a key experience if we didn’t enjoy the food.  Enjoy it, we did – every hotel where we stayed included a free continental breakfast.  We expected this to be a couple of muffins, coffee and juice.  Oh, no; every hotel had a feast awaiting its guests in the morning: fresh pulled mozzarella, thin slices of prosciutto and pancetta, eggs, bacon, sausage, fresh tomatoes and basil, many kinds of bread, jams, butter, Nutella, juice and of course, cappuccino.  Lunches were made of delicious paninis, small pasta dishes and pizza, with an occasional snack of gelato.  Dinners? We generally went for places that had a prix-fixe menu, so we could try as many different types of food as possible.  One of our favorite spots in Florence was a coffee and pastry shop along the Arno – we’d get a little pastry treat, I’d get cappuccino served in a china cup, and Chris enjoyed drinking chocolate. One thing missing in all of this? Fiber.

This food was all delicious and delightful, but after a few days in Italy I felt a disturbance in the force; this radical change in diet left my digestive system in disarray.  After months of knowing exactly when I’d be in a bathroom each day, my lack of bathroom time began to scare me.  Oh, I didn’t think I’d need hospitalization or anything; I was fearful of what exactly would come out of me and when it would happen.  See, bad things always happen when you’re far from a bathroom.  This is the Poop Provision of Murphy’s Law.  Every day on our trip was well-planned and I wasn’t about to make an adjustment to our tight schedule to ensure I was within 50 feet of a public restroom.  I simply crossed my fingers and hoped.

While we were in Florence, there was one day trip I designated as a must-do – hiking the famed Cinque Terre.  Cinque Terre, literally translated, means five lands.  The region consists of five oceanside towns along the Italian Riviera – the outer two towns, Monterosso el Mare and Riomaggiore  are reasonably accessible, however the inner three towns, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola, can only be accessed by train, foot, or by boat*.  Because of the remote nature of these five towns,  they are old, beautiful, and almost undisturbed (I say “almost” because this is a hot spot for tourism).  While you can take a train ride from town to town, you have the option of hiking the entire thing, which is 11 km long, and a total elevation change of 3200 feet.  Needless to say, you need to have an intimate relationship with an incline treadmill or a Stairmaster to be able to do this hike.

We took the train to La Spezia, and grabbed the connecting train to drop us off at Monterosso el Mare.  I read that the stretch between Monterosso and Vernazza was the longest and most intense, so we decided it would be best to start on that end and get the hardest part out of the way first.  We bought our passes to hike, ate lunch, grabbed a couple of water bottles and went on our way.

Before long, we were climbing, climbing, climbing up stone stairs on the trail, ascending the mountainside and leaving Monterosso behind.  When we looked ahead at vista points, we saw vineyards meticulously carved into the mountainside.  When we looked to our right, we had the constant companionship of the Mediterranean alongside us, its waves crashing peacefully far below.

And then it started.

I felt something in my lower abdomen that told me this long leg was going to be even longer.  Oh no.  Curse you, delicious, fiberless pasta!  Because Chris and I have been together forever and were long past that point of reserve in our relationship, I looked at him and said simply, “it’s time.”

His eyes widened with concern, and he shook his head.  The Poop Provision of Murphy’s Law – we were too far along and too high up to turn around, and still had a ways to go before Vernazza.  “Can you make it?”

I looked around.  Definitely no bathrooms nearby, and I’m a strict believer in the “pack it in, pack it out” rule of hiking.  I had nothing on me to pack it out other than the plastic bag we needed to carry our waters, so clearly that wasn’t an option.  I sighed.  “I hope so.”

Chris took in a deep breath of air and looked out to the ocean with a sarcastic smile on his face, as if he were cursing the piece of the universe that controls Murphy’s Law. “Yup; this isn’t going to end well.”

Thanks.

We continued on, and I became briefly distracted from my discomfort.  A flute? I heard a beautiful melody carrying over the breeze to us.  As we hiked, the melody got louder and louder until we turned a corner and came to its source.

An old man with a long, salt-and-pepper beard sat atop a boulder on the edge of the trail, playing a carved wooden flute.  He seemed in his own world, if not for the table of unlabeled bottled wines beside him. The golden nectar of the wine shimmered against the sunlight as we approached him.  The romantic and the realist argued in my mind:

The Romantic: What a story it would be if I bought a bottle of wine from this man!
The Realist: It’s insanely expensive and a tourist trap.
The Romantic: But how often do you get to purchase wine in the middle of a hike – on the side of a mountain?
The Realist: Never, because it’s probably illegal.
The Romantic:  It may be, but it has a story! I need to put aside your reservations and purchase this mysterious bottle of wine!
The Realist: …And carry it how, exactly? You only have a plastic bag.  You’re going to carry a bottle of wine along with your bottles of water in a plastic bag for 9 km?  Seriously?
The Romantic: Come on.  Have a little sense of adventure! There’s no label on the bottle – how mysterious! How unique and pure!
The Realist: How do you even know it’s wine, let alone a good wine? He could have peed in the bottle for all you know.
The Romantic: It does look a little like pee…I…oh…{{shakes fist}} It’s you, Asshole Brain! I should have known! You ruin everything.
Asshole Brain: Ha, ha! Oh, and… snotty mustache!
The Romantic:  I hate you.
Asshole Brain: I love me.  And you need to take a shit right now.  Badly. Hahhahahahhahaa {{skips off to a hidden part of my imagination to contemplate destroying other pieces of whimsy and joy}}

“Well? Are you going to buy it?”

I looked at Chris, whose slightly exasperated at yet another example of my inability to make a simple decision.  My stomache ached.  I sighed.  “No.  Let’s keep going.”

Damn you, Asshole Brain.

We finally saw a view of our next town – the town with a public restroom! Vernazza.  It was a stunning little town filled with wonder, old things and fat, stray cats, but ohmigodIneedtofindabathroom.  I was smart enough to read about where the bathrooms were located ahead of time, and we rushed towards the train tracks.  There was a sign for the bathroom.  Yes! There was one stall door, a white, wooden door with a single latch.  Wow, no privacy.  IdontcareIneedtogo.  I opened the door and Chris and I looked inside.  My heart fell a little.  Chris nodded his head.  Murphy’s Law.  “It’s a squatter.”

The little bathroom stall contained a white fiberglass square on the ground, like the base to a shower.  There was a chain pull for the flushing mechanism.  No sink, no toilet paper.  Was this even meant for people to take a poop?  “Do you want to find something else?”

I shook my head, slightly dejected.  “This is it.  This is all they’ve got.” I looked at him like we may never see each other again.  “I’m going in.”

He nodded sympathetically.  “I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

I closed the door behind me and latched it shut.  Logistics.  How am I going to do this?  I thanked my co-workers who told me I had to have a Charmin-To-Go roll on me at all times along with a bottle of Purel.  I opened my Charmin-To-Go and laid out squares where my hands needed to be.  Due to the size of the base, I realized I’d have to remove my pants off of one leg to properly straddle the base.  As I was preparing, I heard a few people begin to approach outside.

“Is this the bathroom?” A British female voice asked.

As I carefully hopped on one foot trying to remove a pant leg over my hiking boot, I heard the newly self-appointed Cinque Terre Tourism Bureau chief and Stall Guard – my husband, respond.  “Yup…my wife is in there.  It’s a squatter.”

Dude.

They carried on a conversation as I carefully placed my palms on my Charmin squares.  They were sliding and crumpling under my hands, and my feet began to slip.  Shit! I tried squirming to steady myself.  More people came up to the stall, different languages chatting and asking questions.  I heard someone shake the door.  Oh please, Jesus, let that latch hold.  I don’t want to experience the international embarrassment of people seeing me reinact the pose from the Exorcist where Linda Blair became a reversed spider and crawled the stairs.  Behind my fear and panic, I heard one reassuring voice inform people over and over.

“It’s a squatter.”

Really, Chris?!? If only one could facepalm in the spider position…

The pressure of hearing all these people gather outside the stall made me nervous and further complicated my expulsion process.  Focus. Focus.  Come on!

My thoughts were broken by an angry German man who stormed up to the door and started knocking furiously on it.  “BEEIL DICH! Ich muss scheissen!”

Chris calmly told the man that I was in there, and I’d be out as soon as possible.  I’m pretty sure he ended the conversation by informing the man that it’s a squatter.

GAHHHHH!!! Stop telling everyone I’m taking a shit!

Finally, relief came to me, and I swear to God it was like the heavens parted and I experienced perfection, mercy and all that was beautiful in the universe for one brief moment.

Now for the dismount.

I slid my hands towards my feet to get up.  I slipped for a brief moment, almost sending my back into the base. Luckily, I caught myself in time, grateful for the little things.  I took care of business, put my pants back on and grabbed the chain.  Please, please flush.  I pulled it, and heard a satisfactory disposal mechanism.  It didn’t sound like a traditional toilet flush, but it got the job done.  I Pureled like there was no tomorrow and unlatched the door.  The entire freaking G8 summit was waiting outside, legs crossed, doubled over and angry.  I didn’t make eye contact with anyone, and simply found Chris in the crowd.  The look on his face was about 20% sympathy and 80% amusement.  “Feel better?”

I furrowed my brow.  “Let’s go.”

He bid adieu to his new friends, giving up his post to the next husband willing to accept the job of Stall Guard.  As we walked away, I could have sworn I heard a pleasant male British voice inform a newcomer, “It’s a squattah…”

We leave our mark everywhere, he and I…

 

Thanks to Sandra for the translation skills!

*This is what I read at the time, however when reading for this story, I discovered that there was a small road that went into Vernazza at the time we hiked it.  There were pretty nasty mudslides in the region in 2011, which closed off this road.

London Calling: The Religion of Nationalism

For the past week and a half, I’ve been soaking up the sights in London. This is only my second trip overseas, and once again I find myself longing to do this more often. London is an amazing city teeming with excitement, diversity and history (and pubs). As someone who loves art history, it has been a feast for the eyes. I particularly enjoyed exploring both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey – these two houses of worship are very different from one another, but have a common thread which runs between them. As I walked through them, I found myself thinking about politics and religion in the U.S., and how the concept behind the Anglican Church influences us today.

My first stop was at Westminster Abbey. While it was built over multiple eras and has a variety of stylings to show for it, the Gothic signatures are the most dominant – flying buttresses, an enormous rose window, and my favorite – stunning, stretch-to-the-sky rib vaults. The nave is particularly breath-taking; I kept looking upward as I walked along it. The abbey is beautiful and at times seems to defy gravity.

Unlike the churches in America or the cathedrals I’ve seen in Italy, there is an unmistakeable secular feel once you are inside of the church. As I later joked to Chris, who couldn’t join me for the excursion, “anybody who’s anybody is buried in Westminster Abbey!” There are so many tombs here, you are practically tripping over tombs to get to more tombs. Images or statues of the crucifix are lost or forgotten when placed next to these often grand monuments to the rich and the powerful. When I think of the history and evolution of the Anglican Church, I find it interesting to see the theme of placing images of royalty in the church where one would expect to find a Biblical figure.

The Lady Chapel, housing the tomb of Elizabeth I (and is also the burial place for her half-sister Mary I) is an area of exceptional beauty, filled with natural light and elaborately carved pendants and fan vaults. According to the Abbey literature, the room is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but the architecture and positioning of the tomb make it clear that Elizabeth I’s tomb is the main focus of the room. I would even make the argument that there was a conscious effort to equate Elizabeth I with the Virgin Mary in this space.

There is a celebration of the humanities at Westminster Abbey as well, with the famed “Poet’s Corner” as well as monuments honoring Purcell and Handel, who were both buried here. It is only when you enter the older portion of the church – the undercroft – where you feel a sense of piety and quiet spiritual reverence through its simplicity.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, its current iteration constructed in 1675-1711 after the prior cathedral burned in the Great Fire, has a different character than Westminster. It’s built in the English Baroque style, with a Romanesque approach to it’s arches and vaulting systems. Aesthetically, it’s a “heavier-looking” building than Westminster and is more of a celebration of massiveness achieved through an open, rounded horizontal design versus the celebration of the vertical displayed in Westminster. It has a far more religious feel to it than Westminster Abbey, with images on the dome telling the story of St. Paul’s life. Again, though, there is a secular feel on the main floor with the statues featured. The religious iconography is out of reach and at times difficult to see (in part because much of it is so high up on the ceiling of the massive dome), but the secular figures are large and at arm’s reach. This isn’t to say it is a primarily secular space – the high altar, chapel and quire are all very traditional in design – it is just more focused on the secular than one would see in the American churches or Italian duomos.

As I walked through St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, I kept thinking about using art as a way to connect leaders and religion. In these two grand spaces, you see a governing body that intertwined itself with religion to encourage people to equate their nationalism with their religiousness and vice versa. The role of St. Peter and subsequent popes are replaced with a nation’s leader and subsequent leaders, in a way that encourages people to believe their leader has the “keys to the kingdom,” that is, the direct line to God. Supporting your leaders is supporting your nation, and supporting your nation is supporting your God. In return, God will bless your nation, which blesses your leaders and by association, you. God Save the King.

When you look at American history, you see a similar trend of equating nationalism with religiousness, particularly when the nation’s ideology is challenged. Consider the phrase “In God We Trust.” It appears in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, which was written during the War of 1812. When we were a nation divided during the Civil War, the Union added “In God We Trust” to coins as a way to indicate God was on the side of the Union. In the 50s, as a response to the anti-religious sentiment of communism at the height of the Cold War, we changed our nation’s motto from “e pluribus unum” to “In God We Trust” and added the phrase to all paper money. Finally, following the September 11 attacks, posters with the phrase “In God We Trust” filled the schools, again suggesting God is on the side of the United States. Once again, supporting your leaders is supporting your nation, supporting your nation is supporting your God. If we all are patriotic enough, God will Bless America. Whether you believe this or not is entirely up to you, but the parallels in history are fascinating (to me, at least).

There is one noticeable difference between the U.S. and the U.K.: when I look at the reverence placed on kings and queens in Westminster Abbey and the similar VIPs buried in St. Paul’s, I notice a certain secularism to the Anglican Church and to England in general that we don’t have in the U.S. The effect in England seems to give the religious areas a more secular feel, whereas in the U.S. the effect gives our secular areas a more religious feel. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m interested in reading the various theories people may have explaining it.

As I come across other notable things while in London, I’ll share them with you – most will likely they be far more fluffy and touristy than this post. I’ve seen many amazing things here and have a few suggestions to those of you who are considering a visit. Until then – cheers!

The Sky Mall Catalog Index

[Note: My MacbookPro died a violent death when I tried to view a Skrillex video on YouTube.  Those two things may or may not be related, I'll leave that up to you to decide.  Long story short, I wrote this entry on a different word processing app and now my paragraph spacing is wonky.  I apologize for it looking weird and inconsistent from the other entries.  Once I am a little less lazy and on my own computer again, I'll fix it.]

Some people use the Consumer Price Index to determine how the economy is doing; I use the Sky Mall catalog.  You see, the more high-end crap there is in Sky Mall, the better our economy is doing.  As of the “Early Spring 2012” catalog, there are a number of offerings to give us hope.  I decided to go ahead and give a +/- number to a few of the products offered so we can gauge our economy.  If the number is a +, it’s a positive sign for our economy, where negative numbers are a bad sign.


The Zombie of Montclaire Moors Statue from designToscano: +20
The very existence of designToscano indicates that we are doing okay.  The next time your Uncle Ray claims that Obama has sent us into the next Great Depression, ask “oh, did they sell Bigfoot Garden Yeti Statues in the Great Depression at a price inflated to $125 in today’s dollars?”  Because I’m pretty sure they did not.  Or, did people order 16th-Century Italian Knight Statues for $995 from 35,000 feet in the sky in the Depression? No? Okay then, we’ve still got more than enough money to wipe our butts with in this country.  It’s not just that you can buy these things from Sky Mall, it’s that people do. Garden Zombie has been saying hello to me for like, 4 years.  Remember when I said I didn’t deserve to win Powerball because I’d blow it on useless junk? Well, I’m adding another point to that – I want to buy a house in an Old Money neighborhood and fill it with nothing but Sky Mall stuff, starting with designToscano.   It would be the most gleefully tacky house in the world.  I also want to point out that I know at least 10 of you out there just clicked on the statue link above with the intention of purchasing it.  I’m not going to mention any names, but let’s just say a few people from my international dinner party went into a little too much detail about their plans for the Zombie Apocalypse…


The Queen Essential EZ Bed from Frontgate: -5
Frontgate is the saddest part of the Sky Mall catalog, because their products are designed for executive transients who don’t remember how home is supposed to be.  They have an entire line of “resort-style” products, like towels, bathmats and sheet sets (complete with a picture of someone’s wife, sleeping alone yet again).  And nothing says “Executive Transient” like the Queen Essential EZ Bed.  Many of us have inflatable mattresses, but how many of us have fancy-schmancy-looking Queen air mattresses?  Why is this a -5? Because it indicates that you’re working so damn hard to make ends meet, you haven’t been home enough to help your spouse pick out a bed for the guest room.  Now, you’re mother-in-law is coming to visit your lonely spouse, and you’re forced to get something – anything – from this sad little catalog on your millionth flight.


Protein Gunk from protica: -5
This is a recent development in Sky Mall that I am not a fan of.  Similar to the Frontgate offerings, this is for people who travel too damn much.  On the road all the time? Can’t get enough protein, because your only airport options are Sbarro’s and Cinnabon?  Well, here you go – get your protein fix from these artificial products.  If someone from the 40s saw the packaging for these, they’d assume it was radium and plutonium and shit.  I guarantee, if the words were covered, the last thing they’d guess these products to be is “nutrition.” This is scary.  Stay away from this.  If this is the only way you can fit protein or “fruit” into your day, I am so, so sorry.  God did not intend for you to live this way, man.
The 24k-dipped Roses from the “Sky Mall Collection”: -10
Maybe these look nice in person, but judging by the picture, these are the ugliest, tackiest looking things I’ve ever seen in my life.  It’s like it’s marketed to Lillian Vernon/Miles Kimball shoppers who just hit a windfall. Like, maybe they just sold their Gone With the Wind plate collection on eBay.  $800 for 12 ugly gold-dipped roses in an ugly overly-ornate vase? Blech! I know it’s just as frivilous and wasteful as a Garden Zombie, but this is a bad omen for our country.  Trust me on this.


Products for Pooping Pets: +3
Be it the Spaceballs kitty litter box, the “train your cat to shit in the toilet” DVD set, or the mini-yard for your pooch, one thing is clear: we have become lazy and spoiled when it comes to animal crap – I know I have. Can you imagine growing up in the Little House on the Prairie days, and having to clean up giant mounds of smelly cow and horse poop? Today, we see 3 kibbles of cat shit and we lose our minds.  Between the epic poop-scooping and the mandatory baby-making back then, I so would have been the lady in the gothic books who is banished to the attic to spend her days peeling yellow wallpaper and biting the help. These products are completely unnecessary, and I would buy every single one of them.


The Strollercycle from Hammacher Schlemmer: +10
So, as you can tell, I don’t have children, but there are but a few things I know about the li’l munchkins. One of those things? Those suckers are heavy! If I did have a kid, before I was banished to the Attic of Crazed Biters Baby-Makers, I’d get one of these things.  I mean, it’s a stroller, but you can make the kid do the majority of the work!  The kid looks really happy in the picture, too. Surely, if the baby in the picture is happy, that means they love the product they were stuffed in, right?


Ads for stuff that isn’t executive paranoid yuppie crap: -10
It’s always a bad sign when Sky Mall can’t get enough advertisers in their catalog and they have to resort to “Visit Las Vegas!” ads or selling inflatable air dancer stick guys.  Sky Mall isn’t about Las Vegas desperation or bad storefront eyecatchers circa 1996; it’s about travel oxygen masks, do-it-yourself liposuction kits and last-minute gifts for the boss who has everything.  And of course, Garden Zombies.

 

Total Sky Mall Index rating for Early Spring 2012: +3
We’re looking slightly up, people.  Granted, it’s not at the legendary Perpetual Motion Desk Toy Era of Reagan, or the Sharper Image Era of Clinton, but we’ve still got Hammacher Schlemmer and a Garden Yeti.  We’re all right.

Venice, Tainted

A few years ago, Chris and I took our first overseas trip to Italy.  I prepared for months for it – not only did I learn some basic Italian, I learned about their culture so I knew what to expect and how to be respectful.  Mealtimes in Italy are a different experience than in the States – you can expect to spend significantly longer in a restaurant, with a more relaxed style of service and multiple courses to enjoy.  For an eat-while-standing-over-the-sink girl like myself, this was an adjustment, but I appreciated the change.  They are also generally set on their offerings – when you order a meal, there isn’t a whole lot of off the menu customization.

On one of the last days of our trip, we were in Venice, and sat down for lunch at a trattoria.  I became increasingly sick from my traditional Vacation Sinus Infection, and looked forward to relaxing outside and enjoying some Venetian cuisine.  A cruise ship docked in the port for the day bringing with it a grumpy couple who sat down next to us a few minutes after we placed our order.  The man frowned and grumbled at the menu, “where’s the pizza?”  The woman scanned her own menu, clearly irritated.  “We’re in Italy – where’s their pizza?”  My husband Chris helpfully pointed out where it was located on the menu.  The man glared at the pizza section, never looking up to acknowledge Chris’ existence, never mind his helpfulness.  “Where are their toppings? I want a pepperoni pizza!”

I took a sip of my wine and took a breath, hoping the combination of wine and Acti-Due (an Italian version of Sudafed) would slide me into a blissful coma.  I hate conflict and sensed these people were going to be a problem.  Chris remained friendly and gregarious, because he is nicer than I am.  “I don’t think they have pepperoni here.  And it’s a little different in Italy – they list what types of pizza they have and you order from one of those selections.  There aren’t topping choices the way you see at home.”

“Well, that’s silly,” the woman sighed.  “We want a pepperoni pizza.”

Chris shrugged his shoulders.  The man looked up from his menu for a second to look around.  He growled, “Where’s the waiter?  It’s been five minutes,” and stuck his nose back in his menu.

While I silently prayed for them to leave and ruin someone else’s lunch, Chris kept a friendly, disarming demeanor.  “Service takes a while everywhere in Italy…”

The man kept his eyes on his menu and actually waved off Chris.  It was the “talk to the hand” for dusty old taint hairs, apparently.  As Grumpy Old Taint (a.k.a. G.O.T.) did it, the woman started chatting with Chris, and it appeared neither even noticed the rude gesture.  They made small talk about where the couple was from, and she discussed their current travels.  Surprise, surprise: every country they visited had rude people, and guess what?  They hated everything and everyone.  I seriously would love to see a Frommer-style guide from this Debbie Downer: “Explore Italy! These Spaghetti-Slurping Assholes Don’t Even Have Pizza!”

G.O.T. abruptly stood up and started flailing his arms as if he were cast out to sea and trying to get the coast guard’s attention.  “We need SERVICE! Where’s a WAITER?”

Debbie Downer looked up at her useless taint-hair of a husband.  “Charles, the people here are so rude! When are we going to get a pizza?”

Chris looked at me, his eyes saying, Can you believe these people?

I looked at him, my eyes saying, you’re the one who is still talking to them, motherfucker… although I think he interpreted my glance as I know, right?? I really hoped the restaurant knew we weren’t with the Mr. and Mrs. Taint – I didn’t want a loogie in my lunch…

A waiter arrived at their table.  G.O.T. was a man who knew what he wanted – you’ve got to give him that.  And he wanted PIZZA! PEPPERONI PIZZA! The waiter tried explaining they didn’t have pepperoni.  Debbie Downer was not pleased.  “How could you not have pepperoni?”  She passive-aggressively sighed and bargained to customize a pizza based off of the ingredients they did have available that didn’t sound too “weird” or “unpleasant.”  I think they stuck with cheese.

The waiter looked uncomfortable with each question he asked.  “Would you like soup with your-“

“WE JUST WANT PIZZA! RAWR!”

Our food arrived and I asked for the check, so I could get the hell away from these horrible people as soon as I was done eating.  Debbie Downer continued to talk to Chris, and I remained as cordial as I could – unlike G.O.T., even if I don’t like someone I’m going to at least be polite, because I’m not that brand of asshole.

As Debbie Downer talked and complained, G.O.T. snorted and grunted.  I ate my meal.  What brings people to this point?  What lives did these two people live that turned every vacation they ever had into a nightmare?  And why did they keep on doing it if they hated it so much?  They were fortunate enough to travel overseas and see beautiful things they’ve never seen before.  Palaces, weird birds… the most amazing art and architecture in the world! Mr. and Mrs. Taint were very lucky to be in the situation they were in, but they entered into it with the expectation of being disappointed.  Paradoxically, having the expectation of disappointment never disappoints.

I remembered a quote from a former manager I had at a retail gig in college.  She wisely and simply stated, “you just can’t make some people happy, because they are at their happiest when they are miserable.”  Exhibit A and B: sitting next to me in a Venice trattoria.

Chris and I ate our food quickly; even he was tiring of their behavior.  The waiter brought back our change, G.O.T. roared “WHERE’S OUR PIZZA?”

Chris and I stood up to leave.  Through a forced smile, I said “enjoy the rest of your cruise!”

Debbie Downer gave a “thank you” in a way that told us she didn’t comprehend what “enjoy” meant.  Judging by the pizza-deprived caveman she married, I don’t think she ever knew the meaning of the word.

Mr. Taint said something that I could only make out as a “Bah! Grumblesmut!” to bid us adieu.  I never wanted to beat someone so senselessly with a pizza pan as bad as I did at that moment.

Chris muttered as we walked away, “so that’s what they mean by ‘ugly Americans.’”

“I have a favor to ask you.”

“What’s that?”

I stopped him and grabbed his shoulders to look him squarely in the eye.  “If I ever turn into that?  Fucking shoot me.”

We continued walking.  “Same here.”

“Agreed.”

 

Delicious-looking pizza photo taken by Celeste C.  Thanks, Celeste!

Coffee Talk: Ranking Your Away-From-Home Options

I drink coffee.  No; I live to drink coffee.  With the exception of a few breaks where I tried to wean myself off of the loving grip of caffeine, I have had at least two cups a day since I was fourteen years old.  I tried quitting because caffeine can be pretty bad for you – there was a point in college where I had headaches every day, and my therapist recommended I lay off the java.  There was another point as an adult where I tried quitting because I was diagnosed with high blood pressure.  Let me tell you something – going off coffee is like living in Oz your whole life and suddenly waking up in Kansas; it’s awful.  Needless to say, I am still on it, and you will have to pry my morning cup of coffee from my cold, twitching hands.

While I will never turn down a cup of coffee, not all coffee is created equal.  You become especially aware of this when you travel.  Below I have rated, best to worst, the types of coffee you can get when you are away from home.

1.    French press coffee at the in-hotel restaurant

I love the coffee at nice hotels.  It tastes like they picked coffee beans from the nicest plantation in Heaven, filtered the water through the golden hair of a mermaid virgin princess, and gently pressed the grounds through the water with the Hope Diamond.  Even though I am a coffee freak, no matter what I do, I can not replicate the flavor of coffee at my favorite hotels – I have bought the actual coffee they used, used filtered water, used a French press and I just can’t perform the magic they have performed on my cup.  My favorite cup of coffee was at the St. Regis in Kauai.  I suspect location may have had something to do with it…

2.    Starbucks

The only reason this is ranked higher than number 3 is because you know exactly what you are getting with Starbucks.  I pretty much know that wherever I am in the country, I can count on my Skinny Cinnamon Dolce to taste good.  There are people who despise the flavor of Starbucks’ coffee – silly people: you don’t order just a plain old coffee at Starbucks; if you’re not getting something that ends in latte, macchiato or frothgasm, you’re doing it wrong.

3.    Local Coffee House

Some local coffee houses are really cool – they have that “let’s hang out and play some weird version of chess” vibe.  Sometimes their coffee is really good, too.  If you have comfy chairs or couches to sit in, I will like you. If you have a bookshelf filled with books, I will love you.  However, when grading as a whole, I rate them slightly below Starbucks simply because you really don’t know what you’re going to get.  Sometimes you feel like an outsider.  It’s like when the out-of-towner walks into the saloon, and everyone stops and stares. Except in this situation, they are all hipsters instead of cowboys or saloon whores, and they’re drinking cappuccinos instead of tequila.

4.    Gas Station Coffee

Gas station coffee is basically the Malt-O-Meal version of Starbucks; you know the brand name is way, way better, but you are either in a place where you can’t easily get to a Starbucks, or you are kind of cheap.  That’s okay – we’ve all been there; it’s hard to justify paying $5 for 14 ounces when you can get your 32 ounces of sugar-blasted  Reeses Peanut Butter Cup Cappuccino for $2.

Here’s my trick: unless you enjoy drinking sugar water, fill up one quarter of your cup with the sugar-blast cappuccino of choice, and the rest of your cup with regular coffee. You’ll actually have a chance of experiencing the joys of a caffeine high that way.

5.    Diner Coffee

When I was in high school, I wasn’t allowed to work until late in my Senior year, so I saved my school lunch money to hang out with friends on the weekends.  One of the things my friends loved to do is go to one of the 5 million diners available in Connecticut (all of which became part of some random Greek cartel in the early 90s).  Because I had limited funds, I would only order coffee.  I judged the quality of the diner by how cheap their coffee was – if I could get a coffee for 30 cents or less, the food was destined to be inexpensive and delicious.  If the coffee was closer to the dollar mark, the food was more for the New Yorker set, and not what I would classify as true diner food. Bottom line – that cheap coffee is in fact, really cheap and not very tasty.  On the other hand, it works if you are poor, and it washes down well with the $4 trio of pancakes that are the size of a lion’s head.

6.    Sad Packet in the Hotel Room

I am more than just a caffeine addict – I am a ritual coffee drinker.  When I wake up in the morning, I look at that time as a slow, critical process to reintroduce the world to my tired brain.  While I am not a habitual person by nature, my morning ritual is essential.  I have to have my coffee and read the news (preferably by newspaper, realistically via computer).  When I am in a hotel, there are few things sadder than reintroducing the world to my brain via a sad, old, dusty Starbucks Disappointment Pod accompanied by off-brand Sweet-N-Low and a dry creamer from 1962.  Oh wait, there is something sadder…

7.    Single Serve sad packet in a hotel room

Note to Starwood Hotels: your Starbucks paper cups aren’t fooling anyone.  That little single serve thing in the room is impossible.  The pod doesn’t fit right, and a sad packet still tastes like a sad packet, even if you have to crumple it into a tiny little hi-tech-looking basin.  At the very least, put pods in the room that actually fit the basin appropriately.  I am a die-hard Starwood person, but I now travel with my own coffee because I don’t want to kill my vacation buzz.

8.    Coffee at Grandma’s

Part of your travels will include a trip to grandma’s, so I have to include this one and I have to place it dead last.  I’m not going to bash grandmas; they are wonderful people.  Their house has that old-person, sweet mothball smell, and they are usually pretty good cooks. However, there are two weaknesses with grandmas, and that is in the soda department and the coffee department.  I will explain the soda issue with a common dialogue I had when I went to my grandparents’ place as a child:

“Can I get you a soda?”

“Sure.  What do you have?”

“Everything.”

“Do you have root beer?”

“No, but I have cream soda.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s like root beer.”

“Ok, I’ll have that!”

Then grandma or grandpa would sweetly hand me a can of Shasta Cream Soda, and I would sip it down with a smile, knowing full well that cream soda is nothing like root beer, and my sweet grandma would murder me in my sleep if I threw away a half-full 5 cent can of soda.

The problem with soda and coffee comes down to the same root problem: a lot of grandparents grew up in the Depression, and they don’t want to waste money.   Their philosophy is to buy the cheapest thing in the store and not waste it.  I can appreciate this philosophy – I come from an excessive, wasteful generation.  We should appreciate that we have the means to drink any kind of soda, even Shasta; but grandmas around the world? I draw the line at bad coffee.  I’m telling you right now, you don’t need to do this to yourselves – good coffee is not expensive.  Live a little!

My husband’s grandmother was the worst offender – she was a die-hard coffee addict, which made me feel a kinship to her, but she would make a pot and reheat it over and over until it was gone – even if it were overnight.  By the time you got to the last cup or two, it would have the taste and consistency of Penzoil that hasn’t been changed out for 300,000 miles.  You could pour a gallon of heavy cream into your final cup, and it would change the color from black to Chocolate Laborador.  Bless her heart, it was awful.

So grandmas of the world, I am going to introduce you to one word: Yuban.  Cheap, but reasonable-tasting.  And kids? Help granny with the groceries once in a while if you are going to drink all of her coffee and Shasta soda when you visit.