Monday
Feb212011

Desert Life in the City

During the day the sky is most often a reddish-tan. You could say it’s cloudy, but you wouldn’t. And it’s more than hazy, and too earthen to be smog. In the air hangs sand, suspended detritus—a dirty desert snow globe shaken each day.

Yesterday a forceful wind blew through the city, made powerful in places where buildings concentrated gusts. Bags and newspapers whipped across the sky. Lots of them. (A local once told me errant plastic bags are Kuwait’s state bird.) At times they held fast on the high sides of minarets or caught on light posts and electric lines. The wind didn’t clear the sand from the air, however. It just moved it around at high speeds.

Even with sunglasses on—because despite a lack of direct sunlight, the sky remains glaringly bright—you can feel invisible particles scraping your eyes. I maintained a wince, or, when that became tiring, just let tears stream across my face.

Today someone apologized to me for the weather. “It does become nice,” she said. I replied smiling, “It is not your fault.” She shrugged and looked away as if blame could be assigned to something. Perhaps it is just communication. English lacks words for the conditions of this place. And I don't know the language of the desert.

Dusk comes early, as night soaks into this air quickly. There are no stars or a moon that I’ve seen. The blank sky seems very low—a soft ceiling between the city lights and the blackness just above. Within this dome people live, shaken awake each morning: a modern folk whose heritage is the harshness and desolate nature of the sands, but also a people who left that all behind to collectively practice a type of urbanity I consider rather lonely.

“As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city,” Albert Camus once wrote. “Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.” I now do believe he is right. 

Sunday
Feb202011

Kuwait City in a Hop, Skip and Jump

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 A man should never run while wearing a suit, I am told. It is ungentlemanly. It is also prudently practical given the dangers of leather-soled shoes and how uncomfortable it is to break a sweat in a starched shirt. In Kuwait, however, I have found it almost impossible to walk at all. Running is necessary. No, not from protesters or riot police—but from the daily hazards of city life.

As a pedestrian environment, Kuwait City sucks. There is no elegant way to put it. There are few sidewalks, even downtown, and those that do exist are covered in sandy dirt and trash or upended by construction.

Between my hotel and my office are two city blocks, along which I skirt a narrow strip of bricks and cobbles, dashing across side streets, from which or into which cars and bikes fly. You must keep your wits about you because they don’t stop. Those that slow only do so to see if they can give you a ride—cabbies. They beep endlessly, pulling up to shout: “What you walking, man. You crazy. No walk. I give ride.” I wave them on.

Having dashed the two blocks, I then cross two triple-lane streets with a median strip to get to my building. The crosswalk is marked and there are blinking yellow lights, but the pole to which they’re attached is bent sideways, having been slammed at some point by a truck, rendering the set up useless. Fun, fun.

I’m rarely alone in this game of Frogger. There are usually young men lined up on the other side, as if at a track meet. They’re not wearing suits. These are not Arabs, of course. They are Indians or others. The Arabs, for the most part, wear thobes—the long traditional gowns. Running in a suit is not simple. Running in a dress is not possible. You’d have to hike that thing up, a truly ungentlemanly move.  And so they drive or are driven—at least that I’ve seen.

The crossing tests not just your speed but your depth perception. The locals have it down. I’m still learning.

There is a slight bend to the road, distorting the fact that it serves as a straightaway, along which cars, trucks and buses accelerate to get to the next stoplight. When you think you’ve rightly judged the oncoming traffic, a car will break away forcing a dive back to the median. At dusk it is even more difficult. Half the cars stealthily speed along, dirty like the darkness and absent headlights in the fading light.

Zip, and I’m off. Cross the first lane, stop. Let the bus pass. Then dash to the curb, ahead of the cab and the car I didn’t see.

Safe on the sidewalk, I usually feel as if I’ve outrun bullets behind me. For a stretch I mosey, catching my breath. Screech—from above an old metal window scrapes open and down pours garbage and related liquids, right onto the street. In a shot, I am off—preferring cleanliness to manliness. Perhaps I’ll just be a gentleman at home. 

Friday
Feb042011

First Firsts and Last Lasts

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” the waiter at a local café said to me. “And where’s your older friend?” referring to my colleague who I regularly get coffee with in the mornings.

“Oh, he passed away.” I looked sad.

“I’m…I’m so sorry.”

The waiter was shocked and became a bit distraught. CC, my coworker and friend, enjoys the concept of being a regular and tends to befriend wait staff. He tips well too.

“Nah,” I said. “He’s not dead. He has a cold. He’s home today.” I laughed.

The waiter laughed pretty hard too, but only because of the jarring situation so early in the morning.

My comment was not entirely out of place. I’ve been contemplating my friend’s mortality ever since last week. And my own, for that matter.

CC and I had been debating—over coffee—whether he should buy or lease his next car. I had already lost the debate over what type of car he should get. After years of driving Jaguars (and once upon a time an Alfa Romeo Spider, in which he’d speed around town in a mustache and pith helmet that he’d picked up from Abercrombie & Fitch at the end of its previous incarnation), he’s decided on a Volvo SUV. I thought he should go with a Maserati. To win this point, I pressed him on the convenience of a lease. He resisted, demanding that he wanted to own his last car.

“You’re too young,” CC said to me. “You don’t understand. This is my last car, the last one I’ll ever own. That’s quite a realization. It means something.”

At the time, I thought that he was just proving my original point about getting a Maserati: If you’re going to go, go big. But upon reflection his comment made me realize that I am too young. I’m used to firsts: First kiss. First car. First sky dive. First ice axe.

I’m not accustomed to lasts. I can’t even think of a last I’ve had—only last firsts. If anything, I’m entering that middle phase where the firsts dry up, becoming fewer and farther between. The “middles” don’t offer much. (Though, admittedly, as excited as I was about my first car—a new Subaru—I was just as excited about my second car—a new BMW—which I actually deem my first adult car.) It is not that middles lack notable experiential qualities. They are just tempered, at times to the point of being completely overlooked.

Indeed, a great meal has to be exceptional to be noted, because we have meals all the time. Only to a starving person, whose every meal is a first and potentially a last, can appreciation or fulfillment truly exist at every sitting.

It must be then that the exhilaration of a first must have an equally potent counterpart in a last. Doom? Resignation? Contentment? I don’t know yet.

All I know is that you can provoke someone’s first laugh of the day by confronting them with someone else’s last breath. Though I bet the next time that waiter sees my friend, he will be as happy as if it were the first time he got one of his generous gratuities. 

Wednesday
Feb022011

Flashback: Nantucket Reds and DC in the Summer

About mid-winter I get a little antsy and feel the need to organize. It is likely a touch of Cabin Fever. Having gone through all my physical possessions, I dug into my hard drive last night, and came across this email I wrote a college buddy about five years ago. I still think its funny:

To work today I donned a pair of Nantucket Reds--usually reserved for the weekends, but I felt that it would be all right, since I have a drink thing tonight at the Club and really just feel like being that guy.

Now, I know these pants evoke a certain reaction among people, and it may be the mid-July heat, but it is only 9:14 am, and I can’t explain the bizarre hostility I've received from people on the street. Its not like these are a rarity down here, but the looks...sheesh.

Making things worse, I decided to jump on the bus (such a mistake). Alighting, I was greeted by stares.  Fine, whatever--hubris carries us through. I paid the fare then sat near the front. I didn't feel like trekking to the back past the tired eyes of government workers, who "work 9 to 5, live for the weekend, and are constantly disappointed by rainy days and Mondays." The bus rumbled forth. And it began.

“Pink pants, nice,” the guy across from me, who looked like he just finished a midnight shift in a dumpster, said rather drawly.

Certainly, I’m not a confrontation type of guy, but given the heat (“With devils and those caves and the ragged clothing! And the heat! My god, the heat! I mean, what do you think about all that?”), such a remark could not go overlooked this morning. So I felt I had to explain: “Thanks, but they’re not pink. They’re red.”

Clearly not getting it: “Look pink to me, mister.”

“Well they’re not.”

“Where can I git me some pink pants like that?” Chuckles emanated from my fellow bus-riders, and even the driver. He was being quite loud. 

I wanted to, but I couldn't ignore him at this point. “These are (Elaine gulp here) from Nantucket.”

“Oh. They only wear pink pants on Nan-TUCKET?” 

“No, but that’s where they’re from.”

“They only make pink pants on Nan-TUCKET?”

“Um, no.”

“What’s so special about Nan-TUCKET. Goddamn pink pants.” He was really angry at this point and gesticulated wildly in a dismissive manner.  

Disregarding the fact that DC is in the midst of a “crime emergency”, I said: “They’re red. Nantucket Red.”  And with my ire up, I continued.

“See they’re made from the dried resin of cranberries grown in protected bogs on the island. Small Native American children pick the berries and crush them with their feet in large vats. This isn't what makes them special though,” I said leaning in a bit and lowering my voice. “You see lots of companies try to imitate this color, but no one can quite get it right. This is because this red is not just from the cranberries. Every now and again, one of the children slips into the vat, and...well…you know.” I winked at him.

The guy looked at me with wide eyes and was completely silent. I leaned back upright, and said causally: “Now, I’m not saying this is condoned, or that OSHA isn't aware of it. I’m just saying these pants are special, and have been for a long time. So, you know, people look the other way.”

The chuckles and smirks vanished. And the bus pulled up to a stop. The driver turned around and shouted: “You!” Pointing at me. “You git the hill off ma bus. Now git. Go!”

“Its true!” I said.

“Go!” 

So I did. I had to walk a few extra blocks in the heat to work and sweat through my damn shirt. Fortunately, I work in the same building as a Brooks Bros., so I ran in to retrieve a fresh shirt. Rolling up to the register, the cashier looked at me and said: “Nice pink pants. We sell those!”

No wonder there’s a god damn crime wave in this city. 

Tuesday
Jan252011

Public Reaction to the State of the Union...in 1913

On December 2, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson delivered the first "message to Congress" in person since the last President to do so, John Adams, in 1799. President Thomas Jefferson, who followed Adams, eschewed the practice, believing it too reminiscent of Britain's monarchical tradition. 

Often we in Washington view tradition as inviolable; however, the dynamic nature of the powers that govern our leadership actually allow for considerable deviance—and the public seems to enjoy it. I couldn't find commentary on Mr. Jefferson's decision to mail it in, though I was able to look up the public reaction to Mr. Wilson's breech. The most remarkable aspect was concern for his message's length and anticipation for how Mr. Wilson would reconcile his love of brevity and what was traditionally a rather long statement. 

Said The Washington Post (Nov. 27, 1913): "The President's first general message to Congress, as unofficially outlined, will be no less notable for its departures from the beaten path than for what it may contain.... In all likelihood we shall be treated to the briefest paper of the kind ever submitted to Congress." 

The New York Times expressed similar sentiment under the headline "WILSON TO READ MESSAGE: President’s First Annual Address Likely to be Brief":

WASHINGTON, Nov. 13.—President Wilson intends to go to the Capitol when the regular session of Congress convenes in December and read his first annual address in person. He made this known to-day. While it will be nothing new for Mr. Wilson to address Congress, a good deal of curiosity exists as to how he will condense the usually voluminous annual written message into a comparatively brief speech.

In the past, annual messages have been very bulky affairs, some of them containing as many as 15,000 words. As a rule they have begun with a summary of foreign affairs, and have then taken up the needs of the various departments of the executive government, and devoted considerable space to general recommendations of policy. Mr. Wilson, however, does not relish long documents of this sort, and it is probable that his annual message, or address, as it must now be called, will require a good deal less than an hour’s time in delivery.

It is considered likely that he will deal briefly with the chief subjects upon which he believes Congress should act at the reular session, leaving it to the annual reports of the Cabinet officiers to reflect his views on department matters. 

Presciently, the Post heralded the change in how the government had come to embrace the public in its practical function: "Time was when the government grind mostly found its way into print only through the medium of these annual reports to Congress, but nowadays the publicity bureaus spread the information broadcast from day to day, thereby keeping the reading public promptly and fully informed." 

In light of the circus surrounding today's State of the Union Address, the Post's somewhat off-handed comment seems rather quaint and idealistic—especially when considering how we've gone from concern over 15,000 words to worrying about 140 characters.

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