Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I could make any number of points about man versus nature in this post. I could ask the most relevant question: "Why must we constantly try to improve upon nature?" You can't put a man on a gorgeous mountain ridge for five minutes without him putting a Starbucks MoonDollars there. 

I could ask the next question: "Why make the cement crane flap his wings?"

I could even ask the final question: "Is the fisherman in the process of catching a cement fish?" It's highly important. I want to know if there's a stone trout on the end of that stone fishing line. Because the thought of a fisherman locked in time, seated there long after we're all dead (except for menever having caught anything, is incredibly depressing.

I don't have much in the way of relevant Starbucks anecdotes to go with this one, so: one day I'm working, wayyy back when, in the suburbs. Usual shift. Usual people. But one of my coworkers seemed nervous.

"What's up?" I ask.

"There's this creepy guy in the corner," she whispers, "and he's been staring at us for an hour."

I look. There, buried in shadows and hoodie, is my roommate. Waiting for me to notice him. And not for the first time. I'm forced to reassure the coworker that he's not a serial killer.

I miss that store sometimes.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Clickin' and Clickin'

You ever find a destination on Street View and just...keep on clicking around? Maybe it's just my ADD, but anytime I'm bored and futzing around in Google Maps I end up checking out the Street View in just about every direction. Got into the habit while apartment hunting last year; wanted to know what the surrounding area of my future home would be like. Granted, in the end I moved to an apartment less than a mile away from my old one, but I the only one who does this? I just spent 30 minutes clicking through Baraki-Nakayama in Funabashi, trying to retrace my steps and find my old dorm. Didn't quite work out, but at least if I ever go back I'll know where the 100-yen shops are.

UPDATE: Found it! 

That's what this postcard makes me think of: Street View. Perhaps, far in the future, we'll send postcards that let you look around the area in which they were shot. And while I'm throwing out ideas here, each Future Postcard is good for one round-trip teleportation to the destination it shows! Get on that shit, science.

As for street peddlers a-peddlin', for some reason I'm reminded of the woman who showed up at my door one cold morning in Des Moines. She was selling remote control cars. Door-to-door. They transformed.

Since this was before noon on a saturday, not only did I sleepily buy a transforming car from this strange woman, I gave her a tip and benevolently sent her on her way. This sense of peaceful well-wishing lasted about as long as it took me to close the door, when I realized I wasn't dreaming. Damn thing didn't even have LEDs on it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Testing The Waters

 ...and so far, so good. Nobody at Google's peeing in the pool, even if it did take a lot of confused clicking for me to reach the new post editor.

Today's post may feel a tad rushed. I leave for a caroling gig on Michigan Avenue in about an hour. If you see a handsome man in Dickensian clothing on the red line, give him all your money. Chances are he's me, and if he isn't, he deserves a reward for looking like me.

Christmas gigs are wonderful. Well, don't get me wrong, any gig is wonderful, but when your usual crowd is either tiny, drunk, or teetering between jubilation and belligerence, it's just delightful to have a gig with a built-in, guaranteed rapturous audience. Takes a bit of the pressure off. Plus, every one of these I've ever done, I've realized something midway through:

"My god. I'm getting paid to sing Christmas music in public. I'm getting paid to do what I constantly do anyway."

Santa gigs are still fun, but loads more intimidating. Children are picky little creatures. Shrewd, too, like goblins. Make a verbal misstep, and here comes a barrage of questions. Do something Santa didn't do last year, and you're tasked with explaining why that Santa had an English accent and you don't. And while kids sit on your lap, asking for hamsters and dogs (and in three cases, ponies), you try to assure them their dreams will come true while the parents shake their heads "NO" just out of the tykes' view.

All this going on around you, a yuletide cacophony, and if you screw up or break character, you don't just ruin the gig. You ruin Christmas.

Pay's good, though.

Heyyyy, wait a minute. I know this handwriting. Jess is back! Between the texas jaunt and a recent void in email communication, I wondered if she'd either vanished on the Silk Road to live in banditry or disappeared upon reentering the country due to subversive attempts to visit Blogger.
"Shut up," Jess? That implies I disagree with your assessment of the Forbidden Kitty. I like to think he's one of a long line of Forbidden Kitties, licking themselves throughout history. Sauntering in and out of the palace at will back when doing so meant death by a hail of arrows (even if you looked like Jet Li).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Winter In My Hand

It's the craziest thing. A while back, circa yesterday, two thousand and gosh darn eleven, Blogger had rich text formatting. I'm pretty sure they had it at the beginning of this fudging entry. Now I have to pretend I remember HTML, and pretend I ever learned> css. Not sure what exactly is going on, but screw it. Let's talk about snowball fights.

As a kid, Calvin was my hero. Not for most of the brattiness (though as the fifth of five boys, I was pretty bratty). Not for the pet tiger (though I STILL want a tiger). Possibly for the vocabulary, though lately in my day-to-day the words "dude," "awesome," and "like" often usurp verbosity.

But definitely for the snowballs. Calvin was a malicious little bastard when it came to snowballs. Whether slinging them at his man-eating tiger or at the fearsome Susie Derkins (with her mean right hook), he always attacked without hesitation or mercy. Me? Any opening shot I fired at my older brothers would result in my own personal snowmageddon. I held more fragile alliances than WWI-era Europe and they were all as useless when anyone decided it'd be funny to hit Jimmy with a snowball. I'm pretty sure Johnny was supposed to be on my side the day he hit the side of my head at point blank range and gave me one of these.

So when I look at the pair of tip jars at my coffee shop, one labeled SLEDDING and the other SNOWBALL FIGHTS, guess which one I pick?

Here we have picturesque and not at all terrifying Mt. Hua, where surely both of the aforementioned activities are common. I don't have much experience with high mountain cliffs, but I have traversed some narrow trails while skiing in Utah, and I'm sure the level of wintry fun is similar.

I don't think you can really consider not breaking your neck a failure in any context, Lisa. Unless you were hoping to be rebuilt as some kind of cyborg.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Nihao, Pardner

Ah, good old Shenzhen, China! Though it started as a poor village, its establishment as a Special Economic Zone in the 1970s created a flourishing city populated (as of 2010) by over 10 million people. Many foreign companies base operations in Shenzhen, and it's one of China's busiest container ports! If the name sounds familiar to Western readers, perhaps it's because the Apple-contracted manufacturer FoxConn bases its factories there--

...what's that?

I'm sorry. Uh, on further inspection, this postcard is from Shenzhen's sister city. Houston.

Houston...China. Right! Um...back in 1836, some very confused settlers sailed out of the Gulf of Mexico, only to somehow, against all odds, shipwreck in the Guangdong province of China and found a city--

It''s real Houston, isn't it? Actual Houston. Why do I have a postcard from Houston?

Oh!...OH! This explains the mysterious new narrator in those last few cards! Jessie went AWOL! To Texas! From...China. For a job interview. And then she pretty much immediately flew back. Which, wow, I wouldn't trade my worst five freshman year hangovers for the jetlag she's gonna go through. Jetlag, hell, we're talking jetwhiplash.

I have no particular memories of Houston, but I do vividly remember visiting San Antonio as a child. Our hotel room porch overlooked the River Walk from several stories up, and I thought I'd never seen such an exciting view.

Until my brother started throwing down ice cubes at the tour boats, showing me how much more exciting the view could be. I joined in with glasses of water, and finally it was the two of us, flinging high-velocity ice shards harmless little ice cubes at the people below. In our defense, they were so far away, they couldn't really be people. I'm pretty sure we laughed when one of us--I propose my brother, though my memory remains fuzzy--struck a bald man on the head.

We stopped laughing when the knocking came.

My brother stood poker-faced as the hotel employees demanded information. Wish we'd had time to work out our cover story more, because even as he insisted we hadn't thrown anything off anywhere, I blurted out: "We didn't mean to hit him!" as though that would explain everything.

Well, in a sense, it did. It explained that we were responsible for the angry, bleeding passenger of a tour boat, and the employees in turn explained we were lucky to stay in their hotel.

Sometimes I remember the moment of impact: no sound, not even visible blood, just a distant bald man grabbing at his head in shock. I feel bad. Then I remember my brother and I couldn't have any soda for the rest of that week-long trip, or buy any souvenirs, and I ask you: who got off worse?

Bridging Gaps

My scanner did everything it could to ruin the front of this postcard. I apologize for the devils in the machine; clearly I should set that thing up with a curved roof. I like this wall, though! Looks good for warding off everything from ghosts to hordes of enemies. And just damned impressive in general. Ezio and Altair would need a week to climb that thing.
Here we have the city wall of Pingyao, a former banking center which looks, in many places, just like it did 2 centuries ago.

I even like to picture the bridge Lisa mentions as one of those swaying, unsteady rope dealies you'd see Indiana Jones struggling to cross. Doesn't seem accurate, but hey, it's not in the picture, so I'll just feel free to assume!

We're Driving Too Slow

High-falutin' family friendly sophisticate I am, I usually avoid employing overt profanity on this blog. Words are tools, you see, and bringing out the old four-letter gang's like conducting surgery with a hacksaw. That said, I checked my mail for the first time in 1.5 weeks today, and uh, quoting Jon Stewart:

Holy fuckballs.

I've got a whole mess of entries in the wings, postcards all scanned and ready, and then this...this treasure trove arrives? It's time to step up my game, ladies and gentlemen. If this blog were a movie, nervous scientists would be removing their glasses and the President would send us all to DefCon 1.

But nobody makes movies out of blogs, right? We can't be that out of ideas--

Anyway, the nice thing is, blogging's getting easier. I'm not sure when it happened, but somewhere in the last three years writing a paragraph became as fun and productive as slip-n-sliding on sandpaper, and it's good to feel...well, good while I write again.

So, what've we got today?

Pagoda! A lovely example of Chinese architecture, though apparently not the one located just outside of Fenyang. Lisa, just leveling with you here, but if you blacked out the "Ying County" part on the postcard, I'm pretty sure we'd all believe it was the Fenyang pagoda. But you're too honest for that. And I am ashamed I suggested it.

Also, ooh, liquor factory! I'm sure there're some lovely views of fermenting huangjiu, but I'm glad you went with the pagoda. :)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hot Deals, Cool Savings!

Remember that Geico commercial from a while back? Before the Cavemen, but post-gecko? Geico's web site was the bee's knees, a place you could get instant quotes and price comparisons and all kinds of neat stuff, and all you had to do was sign up.

The commercial riffed on it; some reporter guy asks the Geico Gecko (referred to henceforth as Geicko) "isn't it a little difficult to go to to get a quote?"

And Geicko responds: "Saying you have to go to is like saying, 'ello there, if you just...stand up, you can save loads of money. What's so hard about that? No thanks, you say. I'm so rich, I think I'll keep my seat."

Point being, people often ignore simple things they can do to save a bit of scratch. I'm not sure why I had to quote a years-old insurance commercial to make that point, but bear with me, I'm on cold medication.

The mysterious and not at all famous coffee company I work for offers a grand way to save bucks in the long run: the registered card. You buy one of their little gift card dealies, load it up with some money, register the numbers on the back at their website, and after a few transactions you get bonuses: free refills on coffee and tea. Free flavors, free specialty milks like soy or breve, free drinks every fifteen purchases.

All this for transactions you were going to make every day anyway. And yet, people endlessly try to get around the registered card requirement for these benefits, which, mind you, we're supposed to push.

"I'm only getting one pump of syrup. The Starbucks MoonDollars down the road doesn't charge me for it!"

"I just want a splash more tea on top."

"I want to talk to your manager, and I want one of those free drink coupons!"

The most egregious example was this one woman I served waaaay back in the day. She was a regular's regular, in multiple times a day every day, and despite the fact we all knew her name and how to make her favorite drink, not only did she never tip, she never even treated us like people. And she always...



tried to get a free refill on her drink. Without a registered card, refills cost 55 cents. Big money for a suburban housewife, no? Oh, if only we'd told her she could register her card and waive that cost! Ah yeah, wait, we did. Over and over. Every day. Like water off a duck's back, this advice went in one ear and out the other.

Finally I laid it out for her, after hearing her complaints for the hundred thousandth millionth trillionth time: "Look, I'm not giving you a free refill, because it's not our policy. You know exactly what you need to do to get one. I'll even help you do it."

"You should give it to me anyway!"

"I can't do that."

"Can't or won't?"

Both, I desperately wanted to say. "Can't," I said. "Miss, we have a policy in place for this. It's not my decision, I just have to do what the people upstairs tell me."

"Yeah," she replied, snatching up her drink and slapping down fifty-five little ones in one janky, angry motion, "that's what the Nazis said."

And she was right.

That's what the Nazis did, isn't it? Overcharged the Jews?

Or is it possible that they did something far, far worse, something so awful that it forever altered and affected an entire race of people? And that invoking their name for something as petty as a fifty-five cent refill (demanded five hours after the original purchase) might make whoever invoked it...a horrible person? Particularly since geographically she was pretty close to the highest concentration of holocaust survivors in America?

I guess we'll never know.*

Moving past that ugliness, we have a lovely screenwall!

I wish we had more of this in Chicago. I don't mean murals, because between the graffiti, the community projects, and the modern art, we're lousy with murals. I mean DRAGONS!!!

Everything could use more dragons. I think I just got an idea for the city's newest art piece. It's gonna breathe fire.

I miss bilingual conversation. My Japanese was never amazing, but between my garbled Nihongo and my conversational partner's struggling Eigo, we could usually meet someplace in the middle. It served well enough when we talked about our mutual dislike of Bush, when I needed to find swag for certain kinds of anime (coughRoninWarriorsJessiecough), or when I needed to buy the absolute best kind of beer.

Nothing against Jess' handwriting, which cheers me up every time I get it in the mail, but I do love how Lisa's English seems influenced by her Chinese. Lots of lovely lines. I wish I could go without redacting my last name; the Y looks really cool in it.

*Nah, we do know. Forget you, lady.

Friday, December 9, 2011

You think you can see crazy.

Thing is, crazy's not always invisibles crawling all over you. Crazy's the edge that eccentric guy has on the markets; crazy's that weird little quirk hobbling your otherwise brilliant physics professor.

Crazy's come a long way since the Victorian sanitarium.

And yet, hovered over by a creature whose demeanor flutters between charming host and sociopath, I think I, for the first time in a long time, can just see crazy. Six foot three of it, leaning in close to my face, breaking promises and implying, always just barely implying, threats.

I came here because Starbucks MoonDollars wouldn't transfer me to the city. I found a cafe: new, independent and hiring, and I thought getting away my old place in the corporate toolbox would be rewarding. I wasn't prepared for the Crazy.

Crazy is running a crepes operation, with crepes in its goddamn name, when you can only make two crapes at a time, at roughly four minutes per crepe.
Crazy is reading negative Yelp reviews every single morning, sometimes twice a day, and still missing the point of them entirely.
Crazy is firing your training coordinator and your manager, then being angry your staff seems shoddily trained.
Crazy is seeing that your kitchen has consistency problems and firing the head of your kitchen, thinking you can run it all yourself.

But the craziest of crazy is, when Yelp complains about slow service, choosing to--rather than buying more crepe griddles or perhaps hiring more support staff--place yourself in the midst of your cooking line and micromanage the living hell out of your employees for six to nine hours at a time.

When your shift, a self-admitted night person, requests to open with the bakers at 4 AM just so he can avoid you for 5 hours, perhaps you've crossed a line.

When your customers complain on yelp--ahh, yelp again--about the "manager" yelling at and criticizing employees in front of customers kindly, perhaps you would like to avoid looking crazy. Perhaps leaning in well past the point of appropriateness, well past the point where spittle flying from your mouth is merely felt and not tasted by your underlings might be a wise idea.

We'll never know, because I worked for a crazy person.

"People on Yelp are saying they don't like how I yell at you," he said one day.

We, as a group, chuckled nervously. My crepe rollers and baristas looked with hope towards me, as though I could offer some kind of explanation, respite, or perhaps physical protection. But I had bills to pay, so I just chuckled some more. Then his eyes were nanometers from my own, and I could smell the weird spilling past his lips. You can't cover up weird, which has a smell all its own. My co-shift was a girl who chugged peppermint extract like water and believed floride to be a government plot and she was intensely sane compared to our beloved owner who now breathed angry bull breaths directly into my eyes, nose, and mouth.

"So you need to smile while I talk to you. Otherwise they'll think I'm yelling at you. And I'm not yelling at you." He gave me a look that said I can kill you, I can grind you up and serve you in our crepes and no one will ever believe you, just talk back peon, just talk back and smiled. "Am I? Am I yelling at you?"

We agreed he certainly wasn't yelling at us. Then he smiled in a manner which showed all his teeth, nodded, and strolled out to his luxury SUV.

Crazy people aren't supposed to have luxury cars.

Who is this mysterious new source of handwriting?! Who could it BE?! Perhaps China's gloriously superior economy has invented ghostwriters for travel postcards. Well it's over, then, eh? Finally those Capitalist pigs will pay for their crimes, eh?...what's that? The Cold War's over and Austin Powers references are so 1999? Well, never mind, then.

Last thought: suddenly the handwriting is far neater. Prettier, even. I wonder if that has something to do with writing kanji. I hope we find out!

But seriously if any of you know the name of this crepe restaurant I'm talking about, don't go there, the owner is probably a future batman villain.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fireworks and Pigeons

Recently, my roommate burst into my room. His eyes held the haunted look of a man who'd seen something terrible: war. Death. The Prequels. He leaned against my desk, limbs and voice shaking, and asked:

"Jim, do you know if pigeons migrate for the winter?"

"Um," I said.

"Look it up." Not a request, not even a command, but a statement of something I needed to do. If there's a multiverse, and every choice leads to infinite other possible outcomes across that multiverse, I would still have googled pigeons in all of them.

No, we discovered. Pigeons do not migrate. In fact, their homing abilities are extraordinary. Will wasn't thrilled to learn this.

See, our apartment had a pigeon problem in the summer. We have exterior porches, and there's one additional porch outside of the laundry room. Since that isn't exactly a happening place for humans, pigeons moved right in and, as pigeons do, started poopin' up the place.

Cue entry of landlord with powerwasher. The powerwasher left grooves in the wood. I was at work that day, but I'm told the resultant guano mist drifted over to a neighbor's building while she sunned herself on her deck. Awkward.

Results of that: fewer pigeons. But two decided to stay. And when Will strolled upstairs to do laundry many nights hence, he got a faceful of pissed-off pigeon. Or possibly frightened pigeon. Confused, even? Pigeons aren't the most expressive creatures. Anyway, we've had pigeons for a while now, and it's always a lovely game of Am I Going To Fly At Your Face any time you head upstairs to do laundry.

But funny thing: since our apartment has a no-pets policy (except, ironically, for birds), and since pigeons sometimes look like they're kissing, Will grew attached to the little cooing buckets of pestilence. He suggested that we'd be kicking out a couple just trying to make their way in the world. Despite my desperate, yearning need for some kind of pet around this eerily silent living space, I asked if he'd feel the same way about a homeless couple living up there.

So: we've tried one fake owl. That didn't work. We tried three owls, two of which moved their heads and hooted. Today, just one day into that phase, Will texted me to let me know we have "three owls and three pigeons who just don't give a shit." It's a little different, though: before, they roosted on the windowsill, above our heads, and you could walk by without disturbing them. Now there's an owl on that windowsill, and those flying rats strut about your feet, so every step you ask yourself: do I feel lucky?

Maybe we should try fireworks? I'd make the drive to Tennessee Alabama myself. Something tells me the firecrackers in this postcard might be...slightly overkill, but then again, there's no kill quite like it. If I had a few plasma grenades, I'd aim to get a sticky.

You know, the SO HAPPY on this postcard does somewhat melt the cavern of ice Starbucks MoonDollars constructs around my heart on a daily basis. But I have to point one thing out.

Any dragon kite over 7 meters long damn sure better not look that happy, because any dragon kite that size damn sure better ward off evil spirits or bad luck or something. I'm not being smarmy, neither! I'm the man who missed prom thanks to appendicitis and who missed callbacks thanks to clumsicitis. I hypothesize that if I carried a kite at those times--a kite somewhere between Jack Bauer and Kohaku--I would've been fine and dandy.

Granted, it is 3 AM, so this hypothesis could be flawed.