pick me up

Anybody want to pick me up at DFW airport Saturday at 12:30 and drive me to pick up my car? (It’s been in the shop since the day I left for Mexico. A trained team of professionals have hopefully been undoing the damage done by a neighbor who crashed into Ye Olde Mitsubishi while it sat peacefully in my garage.)
I normally wouldn’t ask, but options 1, 2, and 3 have all backed out. Any pickup volunteers will be given a free lunch and first opportunities to hear all about my trip. Or, if that’s a drawback rather than an attraction, total driving silence.

three thefts

I arrived in Mexico on the evening of January 22. My flight landed at 8 p.m., and I wanted to get a nice dinner in the city I would be calling home for the next few weeks. So I broke out my Lonely Planet and spotted a place called Mirasoles eight blocks from the hotel I was staying that night. Quoth the guidebook: “This beautiful and classy restaurant offers Michoacan specialties; or alternatively, sample the Argentine parrilla with chimichurri.”
Sounded good. I went. Ordered some carne asada. It was overcooked and tough. Considering the state of my Spanish on January 22, I had probably asked for “grizzled tire rubber with a side of guac,” so I didn’t mind. I paid with my credit card — I hadn’t changed much cash into pesos yet and wanted to conserve my cash stash since banks would be closed the next day — and walked back to the hotel. It was the only time I used my credit card in my first three weeks here.
At dinner, my waiter — let’s call him Mr. Belvedere — was slow and unresponsive. But at some level I have to admire his speed. Because within a few hours of my dinner, with that galvanized steak still tangoing down my digestive tract, he had already taken my credit card number and started shopping.
$95 at a place called “Pilipinomart.” $32.37 to Vonage. $41.38 to MyWebFone.com. $27.98 to something called iTalk Broadband. $347 in all, in dribbles over the next three weeks, many of the charges tiny. I only noticed it all today, while scanning my statement online.
(I shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Mr. Belvedere is the guilty party. I have no evidence. All I know is that my credit card left my wallet only once in Morelia, and the charges started appearing almost immediately after it did. Maybe it was the busboy. Maybe it was Dick van Dyke. Maybe it was the cow, bitter over being forcibly devolved from a fine piece of Argentine beef to a set of whitewalls. Who knows.)
This is actually the second time this has happened to me. When my friend Fiona and I were roaming around rural China in 1999, we left some bags with a good friend of hers in Beijing — thinking they’d be safer there than in Sichuan backwaters with names like Zoige and Langmusi. What we hadn’t considered was that Fiona’s friend had a boyfriend named Micky, and that Micky liked electronics, and that Micky enjoyed rummaging through our bags looking for valuables. Among the things he found was my credit card, and among the things he bought with it was a nice new TV. Total damage amounted to $470.
I didn’t discover all this until I was back in the states, looking at my credit card statement. We confronted Micky via email, and under pressure from his girlfriend, he fessed up. I just scanned my email archives; this is the apology email he wrote me:
I am very sorry for what I did. I know it is inexcusable even if I give you so many reasons. But please beleive me that I never meant to cheat you. I felt so guilty. I admitted my fault, only it was too late because you’ve gone home already.
I know you were very upset but I’m glad that you gave me the chance to pay you back without any complications. What’s done is done. All I have to do now is to pay what I owe you. I promise to pay; however, I cannot give the whole amount all at the same time. I can give you $200 this month and the remaining $270 by October. I know you are anxious to get the money soon but this is the only way I can manage.
I’m working on how to send you the money. I’ll go to China Bank and inquire about a bank to bank money transfer. When everything is clear, I will inform you right away. In this case, maybe i’ll be needing informations about your bank address and account name and #.
I hope that this is alright with you. If not, please tell me your preferred way of paying you.
Again, I’m very sorry. I have never done this before and will never do again. Curiosity and craziness overcame me at that time.
I remember being incredibly pissed off and Fiona trying to make me see it from Micky’s perspective. He was a poor college student from a poor family. While I at the time was a Toledo newspaper reporter fresh out of college — not exactly part of the moneyed elite — I must have seemed unimaginably rich. I imagined myself spectacularly frugal by backpacking through China for three weeks and spending less than $1,000, including air fare. But to Micky, I must have seemed indistinguishable from Daddy Warbucks. He probably thought I wouldn’t miss it.
I didn’t like that line of argument then, and I don’t like it now. Seems to give carte blanche to anyone in a poor country to take whatever they’d like. I was pissed at Micky, just as I’m pissed at Mr. Belvedere.
Of course, today I’d never even think about sending my bank account information to a known thief in China. But in 1999 — simpler times, I guess, or just a simpler Josh — I did. And Micky sent me the money — no doubt a fair share of his annual income. Don’t know if he kept the TV or not. I do remember his girlfriend being pissy to me in emails because I’d made Micky pay me back.
I’m not going to hunt down Mr. Belvedere this time. I’ll let the credit card company handle that.
The biggest irony of all? The last bogus charge was on February 11. They no doubt would have continued beyond then — if I hadn’t been pickpocketed on the subway in Mexico City last Saturday, February 12. Spent the better part of the afternoon feeling stupid and having money wired to me from the states so I could afford bus fare back to Morelia. (Eternal thanks to SuperFriend Molly for the aid in my time of need.)
But part of the ritual cleansing a pickpocketing prompts is, of course, canceling all your credit cards. Suddenly, Mr. Belvedere’s numbers were no good any more. Sometimes it takes one kind of thief to stop another.

goth kid update, fucked by the stable boy, james fenton

Remember that goth kid I wrote about a week ago?
Well, I saw him again yesterday. With his girlfriend. His stunning, life-affirmingly hot girlfriend.
Any pity/sympathy I may have felt toward him for his alleged social isolation is hereby retracted. Clearly, he’s doing all right on his own.
Apropos of nothing, two great writing quotes I’ve come across in recent days. First, Faulkner on editing:
“I get drunk, I get mad, I get thrown from horses, I get all sorts of things. But I don’t get edited. I’d rather see my wife get fucked by the stable boy!”
Must remember to pass that along to my bosses back in Dallas. And I’m sure that as soon as I pick up that Nobel Prize in Literature, I’ll be able to have the same attitude.
The second is from James Fenton’s All the Wrong Places. Fenton’s one of the most uniquely qualified foreign correspondents around, since his day job is being a poet. But he spent much of the ’70s and ’80s reporting for American and British newspapers in east Asia, and the book’s a collection of his longer-form writings from that time. (Fenton’s also the fellow who accompanied Redmond O’Hanlon on that trip to Borneo O’Hanlon later wrote a book about. Redmond O’Hanlon, who was later an executor of Bruce Chatwin‘s estate. See, all these British Granta writers are connected somehow.)
Anyway, the book’s introduction is about, among other things, why so much journalism is so dreadfully boring. He mentions the antecedents for modern foreign reporting: missionary society reports, adventurers’ nautical logs, wayfarers’ letters home to family, and other versions of what he calls “reporting in its natural state”:
“Journalism becomes unnatural when it strays too far from such origins. It is quite astonishing to me to see how much interesting material is jettisoned by newspaper reporters because they know they will not be able to write it up, because to do so would imply they had been present at the events they are describing. And not only present — alive, conscious, and with a point of view.
“On a trip through the sub-Sahara I shared a vehicle with an American reporter who wasn’t enjoying himself at all. It was a rough journey and at one point, alarmingly, we broke down. I remember my companion banging his head against the seat of the car and groaning: ‘We’re fucked, we’re fucked.’
“Weeks later I saw what he had written about the trip, and was amused to see that his only personal appearance in his narrative was under the rubric, ‘a Western Observer.’ Under the rules of his newspaper, he was not allowed to say: I saw this, or I did that, or even — at this moment I really believed we were all finished.
“But the rules under which he was working were invented, decades ago, by horrible old men obsessed with the idea of stamping out good writing. And the horrible old men passed on their skills to a series of young men who would never have become horrible without training, and these guys proceeded to attempt to make life as horrible as possible for us. Of the author of any of these American newspaper stylebooks, one could say, as Blake wrote of Reynolds: ‘This man was hired to depress Art.'”
A bit extreme, perhaps, but he’s on to something there.

chatwin review, la perdida

Finished up Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia the other day after writing a bit about the author here a bit earlier. Not that it needs my endorsement, but it’s really quite excellent.
(I’m sure “‘Excellent!’ –Joshua Benton, crabwalk.com” will be appearing on the back cover of the next paperback edition.)
It was a slower read than I’d expected. Not because of the writing, which was compelling in a muscular, Hemingway sort of way. Mostly because it has nothing resembling a traditional narrative pull. It’s 200 pages divided into 97 — well, I hesitate to call them “chapters,” since some are barely a handful of paragraphs, but chapters I suppose they are. The longest stretch only four or five pages.
This may sound strange, but in places it really felt like a blog. Lots of short entries, experiences boiled down to the salt, arranged in chronological order. The biggest difference is that Chatwin’s removed himself as a character, something most of us bloggers can’t bear to do. After the first couple of chapters, he pops up only in occasional snippets of dialogue; you never hear what he’s feeling or experiencing. The only thing you hear from that authorial voice is a cataloging of where Bruce went today. It rightly puts the emphasis on the people he meets, and it makes his descriptions more abstractly powerful — but it also makes you wonder a bit more about what he’s making up.
The self-excision is a curious choice, since Chatwin’s the only consistent character in the book. Everyone else flits in for a page or two, says something colorful, then exits stage right. Anyone you meet on page 46 is certain to be long gone from your mental cast of characters by page 82. I suppose he wanted to make the book more about the place — and its flora and human fauna — more than about characters. That’s really what distinguishes In Patagonia from its many successors in the travel-writing world — the trend since the 1980s has been toward centering a journey tale around a much stronger authorial presence. (As with the Redmond O’Hanlon book I wrote about here recently, where you can smell the writer’s sweaty socks in every paragraph.)
Anyway, the real delight of Chatwin is his way with the descriptive paragraph. He may well be the master of the form. Since he’s shuttling in someone new every page or two, he never has much time to develop anyone. He’s basically got a couple sentences to summarize someone and communicate their essential qualities before they can become participants in whatever action he needs them in. And damn, does he do it well.
I just rummaged through the book, flipping to random pages — here are a few examples:
“He was a big man in a striped suit and double-breasted waistcoat. Seals and keys jingled on his fat gold chain. His hair was engominado, like a tango dancer’s, gleaming wings of jet-black hair, but the white was showing at the roots and he looked sick and shaky. He had been a great womanizer and his wife had just got him back.” (p. 92)
“Milton Evans was the principal resident of Trevelin and son of its founder. He was a round mustachioed gentleman of sixty-one, who prided himself on his English. His favourite expression was ‘Gimme another horse piss!’ And his daughter, who did not speak English, would bring a beer and he’d say, ‘Aaah! Horse piss!’ and drain the bottle.” (p. 34)
“Paco Ruiz was eighteen. He was a pretty boy with strong white teeth and candid brown eyes. His beard and beret helped him cultivate the Che Guevara look. He had the beginning of a beer stomach and did not like walking.” (p. 79)
“Swirling along with the crowd was Simon Radowitzsky, a red-haired boy from Kiev. He was small but brawny from working in railway yards. He had the beginnings of a moustache and his ears were big. Over his skin hung the pallor of the ghetto — ‘unpleasantly white,’ the police dossier said. A square jutting chin and low forehead spoke of limited intelligence and boundless convictions.” (p. 122)
“He was a thin nervous boy with a drained face and eyes that watered in the wind.” (p. 25)
“His wife had been stone deaf since her car collided with a train. She had not learned to lip-read and you had to scribble questions on a pad. He was her second husband and they had been married twenty years. She liked the refinements of English life. She liked using a silver toast-rack. She liked nice linen and fresh chintzes and polished brass. She did not like Patagonia. She hated the winter and missed having flowers.” (p. 67)
And my personal favorite:
“In the spring of 1859 the lawyer Orelie-Antoine de Tounens closed his grey-shuttered office in the Rue Hieras in Perigueux, looked back at the byzantine profile of the cathedral, and left for England, clutching the valise that held the 25,000 francs he had withdrawn from his family’s joint account, thus accelerating their ruin.
“He was the eighth son of peasant farmers who lived in a collapsing gentilhommiere at the hamlet of La Cheze near the hamlet of Las Fount. He was thirty-three (the age when geniuses die), a bachelor and a freemason, who, with a bit of cheating, had traced his descent from a Gallo-Roman senator and added a ‘de’ to his name. He had moonstruck eyes and flowing black hair and bear. He dressed as a dandy, held himself excessively erect and acted with the unreasoning courage of the visionary.” (p. 16-17)
Don’t you feel you know Paco Ruiz and Milton Evans and Orelie-Antoine de Tounens, or at least can picture them in your mind’s eye? If you learned that de Tounens later carpetbagged his way to South America and declared himself His Royal Highness Orelie-Antoine I of Araucania and Patagonia, would you be surprised?
Writers might take note of the technique in Nos. 1, 3, and 6 — saving the plainest language and most direct phrases for a concluding detail (“his wife had just got him back,” “did not like walking,” “missed having flowers”) that hits like a punch.
One other reading note: I’m not a big comics person — certainly not opposed, just can never seem to find the time to keep up with the scene past Clowes, Ware, Crumb, and the other biggies.. But before coming to Mexico, I picked up the first four parts of La Perdida, a comic serial by Jessica Abel.
It’s all about a young Chicago woman who, trying to “find herself,” moves to Mexico City. She struggles with a host of identity issues: Is it okay to hang out with your gringo ex-pat friends, or is that cheating? Is a devotion to (insert chest-thump here) “keeping it real” sensible or stupid, and to what extent is “living like a Mexican” something to be sought after? What are rich people’s obligations when they interact or try to understand/value poor people’s cultures? Where is the boundary between appreciation and condescension?
This could all be boring, masturbatory stuff, but to her credit, Abel doesn’t get too dogmatic. Or, more accurately, when it seems like she is, she gets dogmatic in the opposite direction to keep things interesting. In all, it’s quite well executed. Part 5 — which I believe is the thrilling conclusion to our tale — was just released a few days ago. (It’s been coming out at a breakneck one-issue-per-year pace.)

jon hecht, clem, miles of music, decemberists

Friend of Crabwalk Jon recently went to Jordan and took lots of photos. I in particular like the numerous attempts at what he terms “gay/middle eastern/hipster” fashion photography. Not sure the shirt removal was, strictly speaking, necessary, though.
Jon also points out this encouraging new live Clem Snide track. Their new album End of Love is set to be released on the 22nd. (That link is to a special autographed version of the CD, available from Miles of Music — one of my very favorite curated online music vendors, specializing in alt-country/roots music and their intersection with pop. Their weekly what’s-new mailing generally points out a few releases I hadn’t heard about but should have.)
As for the Clem — it’s only $12.99! Will it be a godsend like their first few albums, or a muddled sentimental mess like their last one? Who knows? For the price of a medium pizza — without extra cheese — you can find out. The aforementioned track sounds Ghost of Fashion-era — all the irony, none of the schmaltz. Which would be a good thing.
While I’m posting about music: A whole bunch of live Decemberists covers, of varying sound qualities, ready for your download pleasure. Of particular quality are the covers of “Bring On the Dancing Horses” (Echo and the Bunnymen), “Nighttime” and “The Ballad of El Goodo” (Big Star), “Up the Junction” (Squeeze), and — you’ll like this one — The Outfield’s ’80s classic “Your Love,” reinvented as an audience-participation scat by guitarist Chris Funk.

random links

The Haidl retrial — its precursor was much covered here at crabwalk, try “haidl” in the search box for details — has started. And, fittingly, idiot pro-rape lawyer Joe Cavallo is already in trouble for misbehaving.
Woman fakes existence of child, collects five years of child support before kidnapping someone else’s kid (with promises of Santa!) and saying she’s hers.
Stereotypes come to life: “Jerry Don Hartless was engaged in a heated argument about an episode of the Jerry Springer television program moments before he reached into his overalls, pulled a gun and shot Billy Bob Wallace under the Angelina River Bridge on FM 343, according to testimony heard Tuesday in the 145th District Court.” With a special guest appearance by “Wallace’s son, Wild Bill Wallace (his given name).”
Out of work, frau? Have you considered prostitution?
“Two boys, ages 9 and 10, were charged with felonies and taken away from school in handcuffs, accused of making violent drawings of stick figures.”
Best headwear ever. (Okay, so maybe it’s just a conveniently placed background. I still want it.)

my weekend in morelia

Had a lovely weekend, thanks for asking. Friday night I stayed out until 5 a.m. drinking with three friends. Hadn’t done that in a while; it went a long way to undoing the mental aging process launched by spending the last two weeks surrounded by 19-year-olds. I’d forgotten how good a 5 a.m. cheeseburger can taste.
Sunday brought a relaxed trip to Patzcuaro, a lovely small town about an hour’s drive away from Morelia. It was nice to get out of the city and the air pollution for a bit, even if the town’s streets were clogged with vendors selling “local” “crafts” to passing gringos.
In between, on Saturday evening, I went to to Estadio Morelos — home of the local soccer team, Los Monarcas. Team propaganda says the team is named for, well, monarchs — particularly manly kings. But the real reason is that just outside Morelia is Santuario Mariposa Monarca, one of the world’s largest reserves for migratory monarch butterflies. Nearly a billion monarchs flutter down here from the Great Lakes each winter.
It’s a big attraction for the region. But, but it’s not a particularly threatening mascot — which is why the team chooses to be Los Monarcas instead of Las Monarcas and why it sticks to its invented “king” story. Would you be intimidated by a team named The Quite Pretty But Extremely Delicate Butterflies?
(I hear that fans of opposing teams, unfooled, have created some creative anti-Monarcas taunts over the years, many of them turning on the alleged homosexuality of the team’s supporters.)
This year, Los Monarcas are quite goodsecond in the 18-team Primera Division — and it was quite an exciting game Saturday against Los Tigres of Nuevo Leon, despite bouts of pouring rain.
(May I make an aside for a moment? Someday, when I’m much wiser than today, I will produce a Unified Theory of Life in Underdeveloped Countries. Said theory is still in development, but I believe I am now ready to unveil Benton’s First Corollary:
The amount of economic development in a nation is inversely proportional to the relative prominence of its advertising for building materials.
Theoretical backing: As a nation gains wealth, greater division of labor leads building construction to become an ever more specialized skill. In poorer nations, more people perform their own construction work, which makes the widespread advertising of building materials a potentially fruitful expenditure. In wealthier nations, only a smaller group of architects and crew foremen need to be sold building materials, encouraging their makers to advertise in more directed, specialized forums.
Supporting evidence: I have already commented (fifth photo down) on the strange prominence of roofing materials in the advertising of Zambia, along with the strange prominence of Christian imagery in said advertising. And the biggest advertiser at the Monarcas game, by far, was Tolteca, a firm that makes concrete. The halftime entertainment was — and here I shit you not — a group of middle-aged men dressed in costumes meant to evoke sacks of unpoured concrete.
These men were made to run an obstacle course — including a rubber slide whose transit seemed to evoke the birthing process — and then attempt to kick a soccer ball into a goal. Standing between them and success was an enormous goalie, himself dressed in an enormous concrete-sack costume. He was quite cruel, this monster concrete goalie, gleefully slapping aside the halfhearted kicks of the men, whose kicking movements were likely not used to being restrained by concrete leggings.)
The other halftime entertainments were, in order: A dozen very attractive dancing girls, whose appointed tasks included flirting audaciously with the race of concrete-sack people; a man dressed up as a dancing refrigerator; and a creature who, depending on the angle, was either an alien or an under-ripe tomato come to terrifying life.
In the end, the Colorful But Extremely Sensitive To Cold Temperatures Butterflies edged Los Tigres, 2-1.

el grupo death mas brutal en mexico

Saw my first Morelian goth kid yesterday. He wore a black cape and boots with too many buckles. The right side of his head was shaved, but the long top strands drooped foppishly over the stubble. Skinny and pale (for Mexico), he had the paranoid look of someone who fears everyone around him is staring in disapproval. Or, far worse, that no one is.
When I was on Pitcairn Island in 1999, gossip was that one of the islanders was gay. At the time, I thought that might be the most isolated human existence possible — to be the only gay man on an island with only 40 residents, hundreds of miles away from the nearest fellow traveller, without so much as a passel of Queer Eye DVDs to keep you company. Being a goth kid in Morelia isn’t that bad, of course, but I wonder how much of a community that kid can find here. Where will he get his Siouxsie & the Banshees bootlegs?
Then again, I may be underestimating Morelia’s musical diversity. Sunday night brought to town what, judging by the number of posters on local walls, is the most anticipated concert of the year: a death metal act named Leprosy. Their posters feature pictures of the group looking scary and hairy and a slogan that is so deliciously wonderful it may end up on my tombstone:
Leprosy: El Grupo Death Mas Brutal En Mexico.
(“The most brutal death group in Mexico.”)
I can’t tell you how much I love the sounds of those words. For more than a week, I have been muttering to myself, in a scratchy voice half-Ricardo Montalban and half-Rob Zombie: El grupo death mas brutal en Mexico.
I can report that the phrase’s mention livens up any conversation — as do the obligatory follow-up jokes about the opening act. (Depending on the day, they include Cholera, Dengue Fever, and the Yaws).
I realize that, contrary to the impressions of suburban parents, the goth and death-metal demographics do not often overlap. But I imagine that, in Morelia, black-clad teens with unusual hair are forced to find commonalities.

pitchfork looks back five years

From Pitchfork’s generally worthwhile list of the top 100 albums of the last five years comes this week’s nominee for Worst Simile of the Millennium:
“Even more far-reaching was 2003’s Kish Kash [by U.K. dance artists Basement Jaxx], which at its best, sounded like the aural equivalent of Shiva’s rainbow cumshot.”
Um, ewwwww.
For the record, I am the proud owner of Records Nos. 99, 96*, 94*, 91-, 89, 86-, 78*, 77*, 72, 71*, 70-, 62*, 61, 60*, 58, 57*, 56, 54, 53, 51*, 50, 48-, 47*, 46-, 45-, 44*, 43-, 42-, 41-, 40, 39-, 38, 36-, 35, 34*, 31, 27*, 25-, 23-, 21*, 20, 16, 15, 14*, 13*, 11-, 10, 9-, 8-, 7-, 6-, 5-, 4, 3, 2-, and 1-.
(Since these lists exist solely for the purpose of promoting discussion: Asterisks designate albums I would bump up to a higher slot; minuses tackle the [in this web site’s considered opinion] overrated. Please note that a minus doesn’t by any means indicate the album in question is bad. The Avalanches’ Since I Left You is frickin’ awesome, for instance. But the fifth-best album of the last half-decade? ‘Tis far too slight for that.)
Some artists whose work would have made my own 2000-2005 list, despite falling short of official Pitchfork deification: Belle & Sebastian, Beulah, Calexico, Neko Case, Clem Snide, Consonant, DJ Shadow, Enon, the Exploding Hearts, Luna, Malkmus, Mojave 3, the Mountain Goats, My Morning Jacket, Pernice Brothers, Rjd2, Tahiti 80, the Thermals, and the Weakerthans.
Also, including only Iron & Wine’s first album is an insult to its amazing second.
I like these regular Pitchfork lists because it gives them a chance to reevaluate their past critical pronouncements — or, to put it less generously, to clean up after their horrible errors.
F’rinstance: Just a few weeks ago, the ‘Fork proclaimed the Arcade Fire’s debut album to be The Best Album of 2004 and King of the Holy Roman Empire. Now, it’s just the 45th-best album of the last five years. Either 2004 was a spectacularly bad year for music or (more likely) the ‘Fork has recognized the error of its ways. (Me, I like the album, but it most certainly ain’t all that.)
F’r anuth’r instance: The Rapture’s debut album was allegedly The Best Album of 2003 and Czar of All the Russias. But now it only ranks No. 38 — a much more fitting placement.
Special Top 10 pronouncements: No matter how many times I try, I simply cannot get into the Animal Collective (No. 9). The love of Modest Mouse (No. 7) is, like an all-consuming foot fetish, a love I shall never understand. And I think we as a nation are still giving Radiohead (No. 1) too much credit for being difficult.
(Quoth the review: “Consequently, in the months following its release, Kid A transformed into an intellectual symbol of sorts, a surprisingly ubiquitous signifier of self. Owning it became ‘getting it’; getting it became ‘anointing it.’ The record’s significance as a litmus test was stupid and instant and undeniable: In certain circles, you were only as credible as your relationship to this album.” These three sentences manage to summarize my problems with the indie-rock world quite neatly.)