Mar 29, 2013

day 1: El Angél to El Zócalo

From the metro station it was a short walk to Paseo de la Reforma. PdlR is the Champs Elysees of Mexico City, a broad boulevard filled with trees, wide sidewalks, stores, and the towers of the city. Art Deco side by side with postmodern next to the bland modernism of subtle curves and too much glass. Some interesting towers too. It’s a string of monuments surrounded by roundabouts, connecting the parc de la chapultapec with center of the city a-la-Hausmann. Along its streets are the US Embassy, the National Lottery, bank headquarters, and the offices of one Tatiana Bilbao.

I wrote the address down and when we got to the spot I thought it was, we were greeted by a fenced off construction site where a building once stood. Mierda.

I double checked the address. Oops, next building over, an unobtrusive lowrise tower with glass and a nice looking restaurant in the first floor. The professional entrance was around the back.
Office: check.

A friend and (and general practice) told me to start at the Zocaló, the giant square at the center of the city, the site of revolution and the center of the ancient Aztec empire. So we decided to walk, it being a nice day.
It’s about 6 kilometers to the Zocalo from where we were, so we were pretty tired by the time we got there.

 The walk was very nice and a really interesting view of the city. Smog was not as bad as I was anticipating.
The tallest, most shiniest buildings are towards the park end of Reforma, towards the downtown, they get progressively smaller and dingier, although they are still scatted through with a few hypermodern edifices such as a new leMeridian.

Approaching the historic district, we walked through the Alameda Central, a recently renovated public garden with a heavy police presence to keep people from vandalizing, roller skating, etc. Directly at the end of the garden was the Palacio del Belles Artes, a baroque performing arts/museum edifice in the vein of the Garnier Operahouse in Paris. Apparently, the despotic dictator Porfirio Diaz had an interest in the arts, and his 30 year reign showed his interest in bringing a European sensibility to the capital. There is also apparently an architecture museum on the top floor.

There is a lovely pedestrian street called Moreno that leads from the park to the Zocalo, filled with shops, reastuarnts, and ancient palaces next door to new architecture. Everything is being used. There is a Burger King in the ground floor of one of the 150 year old palazzos. A beautiful house covered with painted tiles.

The narrow street empties into the Zocalo, a massive void in the city. People congregate in the square, workers either errect or dissassemble a stage which takes up only a tiny part of the square. Groups of people march and sing.

We cross the giant square to the giant Catedral Metropolitana. The front facade is a beautiful baroque work, blending with the smaller catherdral next door to present a vast baroque face the width of the square.
Inside is surprisingly bright with sunlight, even though it is filled with people. Tons of windows in the clerestories are all filled with transparent glass. There is no stained glass to be found. The alters are masterworks of baroque carved wood and gilding.

There is a Christ on a crucifix at the front of the cathedral which is a centerpoint of attention. This christ is slightly shriveled and the wood is nearly black. Church lore tells of the miraculous story:

Once, a woman fell in love with a member of the clergy. The clergyman, bound to a life of chastity and marriage to the church, could only spurn her advances. This clergyman was also known to kiss the feet of the Christ before retiring for bed. In her anger, the woman spread poison on the feet to kill her unrequited lover. Miraculously, when the clergymen kissed the feet that night, the statue absorbed the poison, saving the life of the clergyman and becoming shriveled and black in the process. The statue is now known as the Lord of the Poison.

We continued on to find some late lunch. Alejandro took me to the neighborhood where he used to live and finding his favorite restaurant closed, brought me to a nearby enclosed market where we found a giant food stall that had taken over several stalls to create a dining area. We ate chiccharone (fried pork skin) quesadillas (but no cheese), and Huacachas, which are sandal shaped fried tortillas stuffed with beans and topped with various cheeses and meats. Mexican coke to drink, of course. Everything all together was less than ten dollars, including the food Alejandro bought for himself.

Afterwards, we called it a day since we were exhausted from walking so much and stuffed from lunch. So we took the metro back to his local stop, and he showed me how to find the combi that would take me in the right direction, and how to tell the driver where to let me off.

day 1: public transit

Slow start today. I slept well, being exhausted from the stress and the long day of travel. Woke up around 8, and did some research and work, trying to identify all the things I need to do. Making lists is calming.
Around noon, Alejandro and I made fried eggs with salsa, and that was our late breakfast. Alejandro explained that in Mexico, many people eat a late breakfast around 9 or 10, then a large meal at 3-4pm, and finally a light supper around 8 or 9 o clock at night.

Alejandro generously offered to show me the ropes of getting around the city, so we set out first for the route I would take to get to the office. They live in the state of Mexico, outside the federal district, so they have to take a combi or a taxi to get anywhere.

We walked through his neighborhood which is largely a series of affluent households with dramatic security precautions. Every house has a huge gate, and most have razor wire topped high walls. Some of them also have electrified wire.

At the major street, you can flag a combi which come pretty regularly. Combis are a generic term, used worldwide, to describe a variety of small busses for the use of public transit. I remember the term being used to describe the tiny deathtraps of Beijing. The combis here are larger and much more stable although they drive pretty fast.

The wage structure of a combi driver is based on a meeting a set quota. Anything above that quota is pure profit. So its not uncommon for multiple drivers to race for fares.

Anyway, taking the combi to the metro is easy- its one of the major destinations all the combis drop off at. Once we got to the station, you tell the driver where you got on and pass him your fare. (in our case, M$7 which is about 50 cents.)

Outside the metro station are tons of combis, busses, taxis, and the walkways and islands are filled with vendors and stalls selling cheap jewellery, food, sodas, and snacks.

The metro stations are dingy and old, they do kind of stink of humanity. The trains are relatively clean and there’s a train every three minutes. They’re also the longest trains I’ve ever seen for public transit, perhaps only bested by the trains in Moscow. The fare is M$3, paid in exchange for tickets at the Taquilla (ticket booth).

The system is very easy to navigate. Each car has a few line maps with every station marked with large icons, representing either a nearby major monument or a reference to the name (Chapultapec, which means ‘mountain of the grasshoppers’ is represented by a grasshopper icon). I thought it was for aiding visitors, but Sal was telling me they did it so the system would be usable by the illiterate. It still kind of blows my mind that there are illiterate populations out there. #humanityfail.

We changed trains twice and both times it was clear where to go to change and which line and which direction to take. Finally, we popped out at Sevilla, the metro stop closest to my workplace.

Mar 28, 2013

first impressions

From the air, you get a feel for the massive sprawl of the city. On the ground, you are overwhelmed by the density and complexity. Mexico city is full of people, it’s kind of dirty, but tropical, warm. Lots of concrete everywhere. The city is built in so many layers, the buildings meld and stack together like an ecclectic collector’s overstuffed curio shelf. There is a huge mix of apparent income in the buildings here, informal housing abounds, on top of more formal housing, contained by rings of stores and restaurants. And suddenly you’ll catch sight of an ancient baroque Cathedral. Traffic was not bad on the highways, perhaps because it wasn’t a rush hour. A few massive glittering towers puncture the oceans of mostly low rise construction. So far, people here are genial and accommodating.

Mexico City reminds me a bit of Shanghai, with the tropical feel and layers of history and poverty and the excitement of a major city. It’s not as slick (although I havn’t been to the Pudong here) and the pulse is not as fast and apparent. It also reminds me of Buenos Aires, although there was something more stately (and a lot slower) about that city that is lacking here, as though the Portenos took more civic pride in the upkeep and appearance of the city, as they took pride in their own appearances. I really wish Saori was here to experience this with me. I can’t wait to see her in May.

I’m living in a somewhat more affluent neighborhood of the city, actually beyond the boundaries of the distro federal, and so tomorrow we will see how hard it is to get to the centro historico.

five sighs of relief

My day of travels did not begin well.

I was up at 5 to hit the road by 530 for my 8am flight to San Antonio. I said goodbye to Neri at the house and dad drove me to the airport through the quiet freeways of Houston at that time of the morning.

I was flying airTrans and jumped in the “international traveler” line and waited while the two couples at the counter tried to wrap their heads around the fact that their flight had been canceled. Apparently some mechanical trouble with the plane. But they weren’t having it. I jumped lines as the ticket agent was explaining tersely that she drives a car and sometimes it breaks down.

Mechanical trouble was definitely a theme of the day.

On the regular line, I checked in using the kiosk, shelled out my $60 for two bags, and then got an error message. It took four different counter agents about 20 minutes to establish the problem was that I didn’t have a return ticket. They said that I was not going to be allowed to leave the country without a return ticket.

No, why, you may be asking, didn’t I get a return ticket? Because I didn’t know when I would be coming back and the tickets I priced were basically subject to a huge change fee. Plus, the one ways were cheaper than the round trips, so I just didn’t do it. Anyway, when I purchased my one way ticket, there were no warnings about this.

I am still confused about this mandatory return ticket issue. Is this something mandated by the government? Is this an airline policy? Is this an idiotic data entry thing where the system won’t process without a return ticket? It doesn’t make any sense if its an US immigration issue- people fleeing the US aren’t to going to not flee because they need to spend a couple hundred extra on a return flight. And once outside the US there is no obligation or compulsion I can think of (apart from the 8 month rule) to force people back to the country.

 One forum thread I read suggested that airlines may adopt this policy as a means of insurance- if people are turned away from the border at the airport, they are flown back at the airline’s expense if they don’t have a return ticket.

Anyway, I needed to buy a return ticket to go to my graduation anyway, so I flipped out my tablet and did some searches while the desk agent searched on the airTran and Southwest system, and I actually got a decent price for a flight back to St. Louis. At this point, I’d been at the airport for about an hour, and I was really happy I’d arrived early.

The time it takes to drive to San Antonio from Houston is about three hours. Considering my flight was supposed to depart at 8am, and actually arrived closer to noon, I might have been better served with the bus.

The first plane left the gate on time, but on the tarmac with the full system testing, we got an announcement from the captain “ahhhhhh….during our preflight checks….ahhhhhh….it looks like one of our engines is unresponsive……..ahhhhhhh.” So we did a U turn on the runway. In a plane. And went back to the terminal.

 Although we didn’t know it at the time, this plane’s mechanical issues would impact us farther down the line.
The vast majority of the people on board were trying to to catch a flight to Cancun, so when we got back, they all stampeeded off to another gate to catch another flight, and the five of us headed to Mexico City stayed behind and waited for a gate assignment.

The second plane was a Southwest flight. Mala suerte followed me because no sooner had everyone boarded before once again the captains speaker crackled into life and explained there were plumbing issues in the back of the plane and that a mechanic was being called to investigate. Apparently it was not as critical a problem as say, the engines, so we got it fixed and took off on our 40 minute flight.

In San Antonio, I caught up with the disgruntled Cancun folks as well as the people trying to get to Mexico City. The flight was originally supposed to leave at 11:30. I arrived at 11:45 and we didn’t take off for another two hours. Apparently, the plane that couldn’t in Houston was supposed to be the plane to Mexico City as well, so they had to bring another plane down from Atlanta.

On the flight to Mexico city (1 hour 40 minutes) I sat next to the same catholic sister I’d be seated by in the first plane. Flight went well although my nerves were completely shot as I worried about getting through customs and immigration. Actually, it was at the forefront of my mind all day as I didn’t know if I was going to be grilled about my 45 day stay. The issues behind it still need to be resolved in the next month or so.

When we landed in Mexico city, there were the extremely long dingy corridors familiar to any international traveler or dwarf inhabitant to the mines of Moria. One of the first things I noticed is that there’s a lot of helper people, usually pretty young. One guy checked my documents to make sure I’d filled them out, and a girl directed me to the next agent. No problems clearing immigration. (sigh of relief 1). My luggage came out where it was expected (sigh of relief 2).

Mexican customs is kind of fun. Each stand where you clear customs is manned(womaned?) by three women who directed me push a red button on a panel. Apparently its tied to a randomizing system where if you get the green light, you’re free to go, but if you get a red, your bags are xrayed and put for further scrutiny. I got the green (sigh of relief 3) and walked past the sliding doors into Mexico City.

The airport is dingy although the floors are marble polished to a nearly ice-slickness. My shoes kept losing traction. I pulled some pesos from an ATM (sigh of relief 4) and prepaid for a taxi at one of the numerous taxi kiosks. They’re more expensive, but very reliable and safe. I paid the girl and she gave me a ticket and directed me out the door. One ticket went to the guy manning the company stand, who recorded everything, one ticket to the driver, and one ticket to me with the cab number on it. I like this system. No haggling, just a set price based on your destination zone. Luggage in the trunk, and we took off! (sigh of relief 5). No mechanical problems this time!

Mar 27, 2013

Fonda San Miguel

is a very nice Mexican restaurant in the form of a hacienda we went for sunday’s brunch. It’s a buffet, but the kind of buffet that you make reservations for and the plates you bring to the buffet are hand painted Mexican tableware. We were early, so we waited in a beautiful sunlit courtyard/foyer. Lots of plants, artwork, lanterns. Must be beautiful at night too.

I tried a lot of good stuff- white corn tamales with poblano peppers, cheese enchiladas, chicken with mole sauce, two types of beef with peppers, and an amazing slow roasted pork with beets served on a bed of rice. There was salad, there were fresh house-made tortillas brought out the table, all kinds of vegetables, soups. I had two plates and left room for dessert. These buffet desserts did actually taste as good as they looked. I sampled the tres leches pudding and the flan. Really, the best buffet meal I’ve ever had.

Honk! Texas

is a festival which seemed largely in place to solidify Austin’s commitment to weirdness. It’s a free, outdoor, community event where amateur bands, mostly brass, play short sets and parade. There’s a very free-spirited vibe to the whole thing. People dress in fanciful costumes and hats in addition to a strong showing of hipster wear. I saw two guys conversing, both wearing nylon bodysuits with dollar bill print which covered their entire bodies including their heads and faces. And the musicians were even more strange. One group was actually an a capella opera group, which sang an Puccini aria wearing viking helmets, and then followed it with a rendition of “Day-O” swinging their helmets around and tossing candy from them at the end of each verse “work all night for a drink of RUM! (throw!)”

There was also a japanese food truck selling Takoyaki. I bought a can of iced green tea.

It was a lazy, fun, and entertaining event. Neri really enjoyed it both from the music and the spectacle. Dad liked it too. We might have stayed longer if we’d had a blanket to sit on.

mohawk

One of the reasons why we wanted to come to Austin was to check out the live music scene.

Unfortunately/fortunately, we were a week late for SXSW. The city that bills itself as “The Live Music Capital of the World” understandably has a large amount of it, so where to find it? The Austin Chronicle was actually a great resource- they have an event calendar which covers the days music and events with recommendations. The venue. Mohawk, was mentioned elsewhere, and so we walked out there after catching the bus from the hotel to downtown. Dad was concerned about standing out as the only “old guy” so we made a deal that if there were only people there half his age, we’d bail and go do something else.

Mohawk is on Red River road, which crosses 6th street close to the end of the street, farther from its tourist center at Congress. There’s actually lot of venues along Red River. It’s a quieter, more industrial area, not as populated, and it feels a little less safe than the touristy noise of 6th st. The posters out front from past and upcoming shows featured bands I’d actually heard of before. We were there way too early so there wasn’t even a line yet for the show, but we were the first ones in at doors open and snagged the only table with a view of the stage in the next room. The cover was $5. We hung out and drank and talked for about an hour, listening to the first band of the night warm up, and I actually liked them a lot. They’re a band from Mexico called ‘Como Las Movies.’ We listened to them play for about 45 minutes, and then hung around a bit more to see what the second band of the night was going to play. Didn’t like them as much, and the club had reached its full capacity, so when we left around 11, there was a huge line out front of people waiting to get in. I really liked the place actually, felt really local, big mix of people, ages, styles. Dad wasn’t the oldest person there by any means. Lots of people in middle age and older.

We took a cab back to SoCo to the only music venue on that street, the Continental Club. Based on the $10 cover at the door, and the kind of fuddy music coming out, we decided to give the club a pass and walked with great purpose and speed back to the hotel to use the bathrooms.

6th street

6th street in downtown Austin is basically Bourbon street, except with more bars and less boobs. The architecture and the urban fabric are probably the most interesting things about it.

SoCo

SoCo (South Congress) is a street, a tourist attraction, a half-mile long collection of boutiques, retro hotels, art festival tent lots, food trailers, and restaurants. It’s the Main Street of Austin, and also the main street of Austin, as it crosses the river, runs north through the downtown, and terminates at the Texas Capitol steps.
It seems to attract a crowd of both locals and tourists. The only time I’ve ever seen more food trucks/trailers in one spot was in the temporary food truck fridays at the end of summer in St. Louis. Austin is way Retro. Gulfstream trailers abound. All three of the hotels in the SoCo stretch play up their 60s motel origins, and Austin is a city of hipsters.

Walking along SoCo is actually pretty fun. The boutiques are really self-aware. There was an antique store which was set up like a flea market, but giveaway was that all the ‘stalls’ were thematically arranged and carefully coordinated to have a cumulative ‘flavor’ of antique funkiness. The arabesque and bizzare was highlighted. It’s almost as though an old town’s crammed flea market was re-imagined by Anthropologie.

There were two Mexican import stores, one more generic with a wide international breadth of goods and one more curated to higher end Mexican wares. Allen’s sells the most beautiful, widest variety of $400 cowboy boots I’ve ever seen, and just down the street is a small boutique of expensive hipster wear straight out of San Franciso or LA. I actually bought a pair of black suede mid-top sneakers there that had been marked down from $120.

The hotels, as it turned out, were fully booked, even a week after SXSW, so we got a room at one of the larger hotels closer to the bridge.

SoCo is only one street and a few stores wide. Behind the stores on both sides of the street, there are some beautiful and historic neighborhoods of wooden Texas bungalows from the nineteen-teens, giant trees mixed with prickly pear cacti, and roaming cats. The houses have been lovingly restored and maintained, and many of them have been painted bright colors. I went walking around there one sunday morning, and it was beautiful and green and calm.

Smitty's Market

In the very small town of Lockhart Texas is apparently the center of the Texas BBQ universe.

It’s built in an old main street butcher shop, but you enter through the back where there’s giant pallets of chopped wood waiting for the ovens. You line up for your food in the dim, smoky back rooms, where a fire is burning on the concrete floor right next to the long line of people waiting to order. There’s two ancient registers running (cash only, folks), and a giant cutting table where a bunch of guys go back and forth to the ovens and retrieve huge slabs of ribs, brisket, link sausage (cold rings and hot rings). Your order is tossed on to a big sheet of butcher paper with a few smaller sheets to serve as plates along with a stack of sliced white bread and a half pack of Saltines.

Sides and drinks are ordered in the dining room adjoining, a sparse and large space which used to be the old butcher shop with the giant main street windows. Three lines of picnic tables run the length of the room and its full of the noise and bustle of groups of people eating, drinking, congregating, and waiting for tables.
The meat is good. The shoulder was outstanding, a clear winner. The ribs were really meaty but not fall-off-the-bone tender in the way I like. The sausage was really coarse ground and not that great. The cole slaw was really sweet, but a nice compliment to the meat. It’s good BBQ, perhaps the top five best I’ve had, but the real value is just the surreal experience.


this and that in Texas

The touted Zilker Botanical Gardens were kind of a letdown, but as a friend pointed out, its hard to beat Phoenix and St. Louis.

Dad and Neri bought some talavera serving bowls at one of the places on SoCo and the store owner gave me a concho with a steer head and “Austin Texas” on it as a souvenir. It kind of makes me want to start collecting conchos of the places I’ve been and making a belt out of them. Too bad its kind of limited to places with cowboy/vaquero traditions.

Our last night there, we ate at the highly rated Hudson’s on the Bend, a spendy little restaurant out in the countryside up in the rolling hills outside of Austin, near the shores of one of the big lakes out there.

Apparently, it’s also a favorite haunt of Lance Armstrong. The drive was really beautiful, with the sun setting behind the hills covered with trees. The food and service were superb. I ordered the seared duck with diver scallops, with a duck confit and sweet potato hash and grilled vegetables. I’ve had better scallops, but  I can’t remember when. The bread pudding for dessert was flawless. Not only was it the best bread pudding I’ve ever had, there was not one thing I would change about it.

On our way out of town, we took the 71 country highway and found ourselves out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Texas, surprisingly green and pretty countryside. I wanted to see the Historical marker on top of the sandstone bluff overlooking the tiny town of La Grange. The marker commemorated the best little whorehouse war dead from one of the Mexican-American wars. It was an interesting bit of history, but also a great view of the surrounding landscape and the winding Colorado river below (not The Colorado, but a Colorado river).

We also stopped at Hruska’s Grocery gas station gift shop bakery travel market outside of Ellinger. Interestingly, this part of Texas was heavily settled by Germans (and also some Czechs, from the sound of it). Apparently, the Kolaches were not to be missed, so we got some cheeseburgers and some Kolaches to go, along with some locally canned pickles. The Kolaches really reminded dad and I of the rolls dad’s grandmother used to bake. They were nearly identical actually.

Mar 25, 2013

'neighborhoods in transition'

I was really happy dad and Neri got a place close to downtown, on the outside edge of the neighborhood known as Rice Military instead of a suburban mcMansion out in the sticks. The neighborhood is really interesting. It’s almost all housing, but what makes it interesting is the contrast between an older existing neighborhood, what would have been a low-density first ring suburb from the early 1900s, and the slow and steady replacement of that neighborhood, parcel by parcel, by 700k luxury townhouses.

This dichotomy is radical and striking in the contrast of the housing stock. The entire neighborhood is full of instances where you will have one small bungalow style 1920s house with a clapboard sides and a wooden covered porch in the front, perhaps 1000 square feet in total, sitting in a fairly generous lot, and right next door, looming over it, pushed the lot lines, four to six townhouses each four stories tall. And the income levels are manifest as well.

The roads in Houston are, in general, in third world condition. A collection of jackasses, over a long period of time, apparently decided that road maintence was a folly and a waste, so the drivers of Houston, already marvels of Darwinian evolution, have to swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid having their entire cars plunge into the gaping chasms. And that’s in the NICE neighborhoods. This neighborhood doesn’t even have edges to the street- the asphalt kind of disintegrates into nothing as the ground slopes into a crazy dive into the 3’ open ditches on the sides of the road. Forget meeting ADA, the rare sidewalks that cross these ditches have long falls on either side of them. And I don’t mean that they rarely cross- the sidewalks often cross the ditches, but its rare to find sidewalks at all.

The water pressure is terrible, and the last time I saw a power pole with so many tap lines coming into it, I was in a favela in Rio.

The bottom line is luxury houses are being planted into a neighborhood with minimal accompanying upgrades to infrastructure. Broken asphalt to epoxy garage floors and travertine.

The mix of income levels doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I’ve read studies that indicate mixed income neighborhoods are actually some of the most stable and safest. What I find extremely distasteful, however, is how many of these luxury townhouses have high fences and locked gates. Remember that these townhouses are typically built to 5’ of the property line. So I’m coming across townhomes that have a 5’ wide ‘yard’ separating their fence and front door. I think people who move here look at some of their neighbors and get worried. There is nothing as hostile as a fence to me. A locked gate and fence says “I remove myself from this neighborhood. I don’t want to have anything to do with you or your life, and I will make damn sure you don’t have anything to do with mine. I wouldn’t even trust you with a locked front door.” It pretty much kills the pleasantries of walking in the neighborhood too. Who wants to walk by a wall of security fences?

However, I am kind of intrigued by the possibility of creating tiny cul-de-sac communities with the crammed in townhomes. It’s actually pretty funny to see a bunch of tall luxury townhomes squeezed into the space where one house was before: its like a large group of Americans squeezed into a tight elevator- everyone is scrupulously careful not to touch each other, even though they have to contort to get everyone in. Dad’s house is separated from his neighbors by about eighteen inches On the other sides, the other houses are about ten feet away. Huge windows look out onto massive blank stretches of stucco which bounce a lot of indirect light around. For me, that’s one of my biggest complaints about the house. Not enough natural light.

I am however, encouraged by the density of the neighborhood which is being created. When you replace a 1000 square foot house with four 2500 square foot townhomes, you’ve multiplied the capacity tenfold. And when you have density, you can do anything. We’ll see how the houses hold up over the long run though. It’s all cheap stick and stucco as far as I’ve seen so far.

Mar 23, 2013

the widmann nominee

Yesterday morning after I stumbling downstairs, my friend Vivian messaged me that I’d been nominated for the Widmann award and that one of my professors, Christine, was trying to get in contact with me but I had the wrong email.

So I shot a note over to Christine giving her my email and I got an email back congratulating me on my nomination and asking me to put together a 3’x7’ board and maybe some models for display.

The Widmann award is given to one undergraduate and one graduate student from each graduating class. This means that I’m not only competing with my class, but also the semester after ours. The faculty and administration kind of distance themselves from this distinction, but the award was created to go the “best architecture student.” There is also a cash prize of $1,500.

Actually, the school really plays down the awards. I never hear about them until pretty much the announcement of the award ceremony which is untaken with as much expediency and low-drama as possible. The exception is that they put up the works of the students nominated for the Widmann up in the main hallway.

Since I’ve never heard of students nominating, I can only assume that faculty nominate students and then a panel of faculty review the boards and the work and the select one student to be named the the winner.
There’s a LOT of nominees for this award- there were 12 students from my year of about 70 kids, and 12 kids from this semester’s class of 50. It works out to be nearly 1 in 5 getting nominated. Based on the list of students, it feels like it heavily favors the students who didn’t study abroad.   Obviously face time plays a heavy role in who the professors favor. It also seems as though the degree project work is a large part of who gets tapped.

Let me say now that I’m 90% sure I’m not going to win. My work isn’t flashy enough, and while I have some professors who might champion my cause, I don’t think the combination of the two are sufficient to win. “Best architecture student” is such a vague criteria. If I were running the game, I’d base it on 25% on design innovation, 25% on collaboration/aiding other students, and 50% on working their ass off.

Actually, let me take a step back. I left my computer tower in Phoenix, so my first challenge was getting the tools to even create a board. I jumped on dad’s computer and downloaded a trial of InDesign, and rummaged through my bags until I found my jump drives with the smaller file versions of my architecture work I was going to use to put together a website for Saori and I. The only problem was using dad’s mac. I really hate mac computers, so I had to learn to use the magic mouse and the interface and try to figure out how the hell to right click. (Apple’s motto: “simplicity above usability”)

Based on boards I’d seen before, I didn’t want to go nuts. I selected my degree project, my new orleans project, and my housing studio project, and arranged them in three bands with lots of white space on the page. Not so many pictures. Minimal text. Took me a few hours to put it all together. But it still needed to be printed and posted tomorrow, in hard copy, in St. Louis.

I begged a favor from a friend of mine who kindly plotted it for me and she’ll post it for me sunday. So we’ll see. I think the award ceremony is in two weeks? Maybe less? I’m not crossing my fingers though.

Mar 22, 2013

next thing you know I'll be voting republican

The past few weeks have seen me play a little against type- I went shooting at a gun range, I sold my Prius and drove around Phoenix in a pickup truck, I advised my grandmother to buy an iPad, and I bet money in a NCAA march madness bracket.
 Actually, the latest departure could be the most shocking- I went shopping at Jos. A Bank. I would suggest that the vast majority of clothing stores I go to are either relatively cheap (goodwill, target) or relatively fashion-forward (J Crew, Banana Republic) or somewhere in between (urban outfitters, gap, H&M). Expensive and stuffy is not my scene. I think even Brooks Brothers has built a more fashion oriented portfolio than Jos. A Bank. Nonetheless, I was gifted a coupon for $20 of anything (is there anything for sale under $20 there?) So today Neri took me there.

They did have a few shirts that fit me OK, and the color was nice, no question about the quality, but I didn’t like the collar so that was out. I did end up getting a black linen shirt which has roll up sleeves. I think it will work pretty well when its hot and humid. For all of our advanced material science research, graphene, aerogels, piezoelectrics, nothing beats linen which is one of the oldest fabrics known to man for comfort in hot humid climates.

My big as achievement of the day, however, was filing my taxes. I can’t believe it was so easy. I just made up answers to every question. Actually, it took me several hours of work and numerous websites with past bills and financial data. The weight on my shoulders was that 2012 was the year I liquidated an IRA to pay for school and I was terrified of the penalties I thought I was going to be forced to pay. However, since all of the withdrawals went to pay for educational expenses, the penalty dropped to 10% and I was able to claim a lifetime learning tax credit that boosted my return into the black. Unfortunately, Missouri was not so lenient, so I still need to pay them about the same amount I’m getting back from the federal government. Still, I was so happy and relieved not to be owing a small fortune, I could have danced.

Light dinner of broiled fish tonight, a really nice cut of tuna from the gourmet grocery store, served with mini portobello mushrooms and salad with a wasabi+soy sauce+mayo marinade/sauce.

Mar 21, 2013

typhoid vaccines and Safeways in disguise

Got up early yesterday, satisfied myself with a blueberry muffin and some bagged pu-erh tea, and launched into a search of vaccine for Typhoid. After many minutes of intense research, I came up with a pharmacy that looked likey. Alas, the results of our inquiry were unsatisfied, but we were encouraged by the direction that the first Walgreens test indicated.

The house cleaners came by and I practiced my Spanish while Neri got ready to go. My spanish is a lot worse than I thought. I still remember a lot of vocabulary, but I speak like a drive a stick shift: terribly without practice. Hables un poco mas despacio, por favor.

First stop was El Rey tacos, a small cuban/mexican outlet. Dos tacos y una media horchata. Pretty good. The cuban tacos had sour cream and fried plantains.

Next stop was the Walgreens that had the vaccine- apparently there’s a few Walgreens that specialize in travel immunizations. Expensive though- nearly $100 for the shot. However, a drop in the bucket compared to actually developing typhoid.

After the Walgreens, we went over to a Barnes&Noble and I used up the rest of my gift card there for a slim volume of basic spanish grammar and a map of Mexico City.

On the way back to the apartment Neri took the car to the auto spa. Driving around parts of Houston like Post Oak or the newer richer areas, I’m struck by the resemblance to Abu Dhabi. The immaculately pruned and planted medians, the formula 1 track wide streets. The gaudy street lighting and signage in chromed steel. Even the massive luxury condo towers incongruously rising next to the Houston bungalows they are slowly replacing.

The last stop of the day was Randall’s ‘Flagship’ market, which turned out to be a Safeway in disguise. Not sure if its one of those things where Safeway bought a local chain of groceries and kept the name, or if its a new entry to the market and wanted a more distinctive name.

Anyway, came home and took a nap until dad returned from the office. Saori called me about the same time, so I skyped her for about an hour and a half which made my day. It was so good to see her, although she’s so tired and busy with work as they’re gearing up for a competition submittal. My tablet died just after we said our goodbyes.

We ate a late dinner of delicious beef stew and salad that Neri prepared. I made some cornbread from a mix which once it arrived on the table wished it had been born a baguette.

Mar 20, 2013

first day in houston

Got up at six this morning to rise with mom and enjoy reading the news with her and drink some coffee before she headed off to her second day of work. I did some preliminary packing, and after mom had left, Larry and I went out for breakfast at Harlow’s cafe. It’s now one of Larry’s favorite places to eat too. It feels strange to eat there because it doesn’t feel strange. Phoenix is no longer contaminated with my associations of my past life there, I associate it more now with moms house in Awhatukee than any of the apartments in Tempe or Phoenix.

I’m still homeless. I try to think of where my home is, and I’m coming up with nothing. Many places I’d be welcomed to live, but no place that is really mine or where I would feel to be at home. Home kind of ended for me when I dropped off Saori at the airport for Germany. The apartment just became housing.

Anyway. Drove back to the house, packed up most of my crap and left some crap behind, including my computer tower, widescreen monitor, climbing gear, and winter jacket. I was hoping to take the jacket with me as rain gear, but it was too bulky and my luggage ended up being overweight so I had to leave it at home. I loaded up Larry’s truck and he drove me to the airport.

About two weeks ago, I left St. Louis with a car full of cat, artwork, computers, luggage, legos, cat crates, kitty litter. The back of the prius was so full I had to put Suki in the passenger seat on the drive up to Bloomington. I’ve sold, donated, and left behind everything, including the car, paring my traveling possessions down to a suitcase, a duffle bag, and a Freitag messenger bag.

Airport was busy, but not insane. Flight was full, only two hours long, so I grabbed the first middle seat I could find between two portly gentlemen who were thrilled that I was a lean little guy. Flight went by fast once we were airborne. Landed in Houston and dad met me at the baggage claim.

It was good to see him. I think he may have lost a little weight since I saw him back in January. He drove us back to their new townhome close to the downtown. The house is really nice. Three floors, each about a 1000 square feet. Really high ceilings, wood floors, granite countertops everywhere, everything top of the line upgraded appliances. Storage space everywhere, but still so much residual furniture from so many moves that it spills into the garage. Actually, its not really a townhome since the building is technically separated from the neighbor by a foot-wide gap. These new luxury developments are really awkward because they’re the first “improvements” the neighborhood has seen. Two car carages filled with Lexuses and Beamers, and the street outside has no shoulder or sidewalk and the edges are deteriorating. There’s been so many new taps on the power and cable that the poles look like they’re out of the Favelas of Rio. It is obvious that infrastructure has not kept pace with the development of the area.

It’s actually kind of uncomfortable since there’s still quite a few streets and properties where the owner has not sold out their little bungalow on a the standard large parcel. Dad’s house is one of four on what looks like a standard plot size out on this street. Because the developer basically built up to the easement of the lot line, probably 10’ from the wall, the third and second floor windows look directly into the backyard and back windows of the bungalow directly across the fence. With the super-high floor to floors on these houses, there’s really nothing you can plant that would block the view of the backyard apart from 20’ mature trees.

Anyway, we went out to dinner at a sushi restaurant and shared some rolls and edamame and sake. The sushi was pretty good. Felt really decadant to order four rolls, even if one of them was a california roll.

Drove back the apartment and watched some TV for awhile before Skyping Tay. Even though I just saw him literally three days ago, it felt good to see him again. Apparently Suki is still waking him up at 6 or 7 am to feed her, goddammit, feed her RIGHT NOW, so he was talking about going to bed earlier when Suki goes to bed so at least he gets more sleep that way. I do hope that they work something out because I really don’t want Suki to be stealing Tay’s sleep when he spends so much time studying anyway.


So much more still to do. Taxes, Typhoid vaccine are on the top of my list. It’d be nice to hear back from the company I’m interning with about what I should do regarding visas or if I even need to get one.

Mar 19, 2013

mom's first day of work

Yesterday was mom’s first day of work. I can’t reveal too much about it, except that it’s a government job and its related to her credentials as a tax attorney. She seemed pretty excited about it, and it is kind of novel since she hasn’t worked in in office since, oh, before the internet. Larry kindly lent me his truck for the day after mom left.

First stop was vaccinations- DTaP booster shot in the arm. Easier than I thought it would be. The Walgreens down the street had a pharmacy that administered it: $65. Spendy, but cheaper than contracting any of those three diseases. I should be up to date with my Hep A. I still need to figure out my typhoid vaccinations, which might be available in pill form.

Ran by the new library at South Mountain Community College. Another piece of Arizona modern architecture with boxy forms, frosted glass, cor-ten and copper. I liked the spaces overall, I liked some of the details, and I thought the way the interior was lit was interesting. However, I thought the detailing was a bit to fussy, too much filigree. I’ve seen so much of the Arizona desert cor-ten modern, and so much of it is the same. I shot some quick photos and went on my way.

Next stop was lunch with Gina from DWL, I wanted to find out what was happening in the office with everyone, and, more importantly, to find out what I could about living and working in Mexico City. It turns out her parents live there, and they’re a good reference for museums and for emergencies. She also gave me the names and numbers of some of her friends down there. Switch is the same as ever. Overpriced pitas and iced tea.

Stopped by a camera shop on 7th street. I showed them my lumix camera and the dust inside the lens and the small lens scratches. They looked at it, but told me it wouldn’t be worth the time and expense to fix it. So now I’m kind of torn about whether to take Grandma Loretta’s offer to buy me a new camera for graduation or to hit her up for something related to coming back to the states for graduation (hotel room, anyone?).

Mom came home around six after she got off work- apparently the entire day was spent on paperwork, badges, and beaurocracy. She wasn’t even really allowed more than 15 minutes for her own welcoming luncheon (takeout Peiwei). She was a little frazzled, but it sounds like she’s going to enjoy working there. Said the people were nice. We drank wine on the patio and talked about our day. I helped put together a cheese plate from a fruit and cheese basket they’d received and we ate that for dinner along with more of the wine.

After dinner, I left to go climb with Sal and learn more about living in Mexico City. So I met him at the Arizona Rock Gym and we bouldered for awhile. Bouldering in St. Louis was kind of exceptional in that the bouldering routes there are very accessible and relatively easy. You don’t need to be a master climber with a lot of experience to handle some of the easiest routes. Almost every other place I’ve gone to climb, however, the bouldering room is the domain of the master climbers. It’s the weight training room to the baseball stadium to fine tune movements and muscles. Experts only. These bouldering routes are really hard since it seems the implicit assumption is you approach climbing first as a top-roping novice and work your way up to bouldering when you get good enough to need it. I figure as soon as I build up my strength and stamina with the top roping, I’ll be in pretty good shape since I’ve already got a solid background of bouldering.

I left my climbing shoes and bag in Phoenix. It occurred to me that it was stupid to bring them since 1) I dont even know if they’ll have climbing in DF (distro federal aka mexico city) 2) I needed to lose bulk and weight in my luggage and 3) I should be top-roping, if I top rope, I need a belay partner, and 4) climbing is something that I’d rather do with Saori.

Phoenix is a good city to drive in at night. The roads are wide and clear, the desert nights are always fair, and the low city rolls on by in its neon ambivalence.

the epsilon cat

I really feel bad for Zara.

Imagine a crew of sixty-year old, grizzled country firefighters who have been living and fighting fires together their entire lives. They’ve lost other crew members along the way. Now imagine that they are all BROTHERS. One day they are joined by a 20 year old dopey donut shop employee, who is not the hottest donut on the rack, if you catch my drift. This is pretty much the relationship between the Marsh cats and Zara.

She’s not necessarily hated by the other cats, just largely ignored and occasionally whapped as a reminder of her inferiority. “Why don’t they like me, George, huh George?”

urban FAIL

One of the biggest problems I have with Phoenix is how much it fails as a city from an urbanistic standpoint. Phoenix was laid out a rational grid. This is not itself a problem- it’s a bit boring, but Manhattan was also laid out on a grid. The problem is that the scale of the grid is way too big and the squares that are formed by the grid are mostly empty. It’s as though the city was designed to be a massive warehouse- easy to find your way around, and everything is clearly organized and labeled for maximum visibility.

Phoenix is that sense is a very convenient city- every good you need to purchase is available at a particular Cartesian coordinate, 18th and Bell, 36th and Goldwater, Thomas and Central. There is very little “tucked away” in Phoenix, and fewer “hole in the wall” places.

However, Phoenix is only convenient if you have a car and don’t mind spending a large percentage of your day in it. Phoenix appears to have been designed around the idea that the ideal city was the one that let a person in a car drive from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

Driving around the city, its amazing how relative the sense of distance and time are compared to other cities. For example, in St. Louis, anything farther away than 5 miles was “kind of far”. The part of town I considered to be my general area had a circumference of about two miles. St.Louis has really short blocks and contorted and distorted streets, so people drive more slowly, and the density of the city makes it feel like there’s more distance traveled. A gym five miles away would take about twenty minutes to get to and would feel far from home.

In comparison, Phoenix, a place of incredibly low density and designed for maximum car accessibility skews my sense of space to be much larger. “My” part of town had a circumference closer to 5 miles, you don’t bat an eye to travel 15 miles, and it will take you twenty minutes to get there. The grocery store five miles from home is your “local” store.

I guess fundamentally the problem I have with this is that if your city is a warehouse, you end up thinking of your home as another container and yourself as a container custodian moving from one point on the grid to another, shuttling around stuff from A to B in a highly efficient manner. There’s no engagement with the city, there’s no chance for collisions, encounters, discovery. People really like ‘lifestyle centers’ or outdoor pedestrian shopping malls. Why? because its interesting and fun and vibrant. Why couldn’t the city be like this?

Blah blah blah.

Mar 18, 2013

birds, billikens, and burritos

Today is mom’s last day of unemployment and she wanted to see wildflowers so we all grabbed our birding guides binoculars, and water, and headed out to the Bryce Thompson arboretum. There were a few setbacks related to the following facts:
  1. The arboretum is located approximately 60 miles east of Phoenix on US60
  2. It is a spectacularly beautiful day
  3. It is St. Patrick’s day
  4. Most people are not working today
  5. The Arizona Renaissance Festival is located approximately 40 miles east of Phoenix on US60.
So we sat in RenFest traffic for awhile, less than an hour.

The arboretum was pretty crowded too with their plant sale, but once you cleared the visitor’s center things really spread out. For some reason, nearly everyone brought their dogs, and I nearly saw a fistfight break out when two small dogs got lose.


It was a beautiful sunny day though with a nice breeze, and although there were more wildflowers along the highway leading to the arboretum than at the arboretum, it was still such a pleasant time nobody really minded. We did see quite a few birds- cardinals, mockingbirds, swallows, goldfinches, hummingbirds. It was also good to stretch my legs since the only exercise I’ve had since I left St. Louis has been moving my suitcases from place to place.


Traffic wasn’t as bad coming back to Phoenix, and we stopped at a Filliberto’s for dinner. Good horchata. I’ve had a lot of different preparations of horchata ranging from the thinner type I get here in Phoenix, to the nearly frozen-margarita consistency I got in St. Louis, to the extra pulpy variety I got at a fast food place in Albuquerque.

Low key night- filled in my NCAA basketball bracket, mostly based on places I identified with where I lived (Arizona) or family lived (Florida, Indiana). I tapped St. Louis to win, although their mascot has already won the creepiest mascot contest:

Mar 16, 2013

A Sonoran Desert Wedding

Yesterday morning, while Larry was picking up his other son Dan and Dan’s wife, Tori, mom picked Tay and I up from the hotel and drove us back to the house. Mom made the two of us pecan waffles for breakfast. She has been really indulging us while we’ve been here.

After breakfast, I talked about going to get vaccinated for my trip to Mexico. I was anticipating getting quite a few vaccines- including Heptatis A, DTP, and Typhoid. Hep A is really expensive actually, several hundred dollars, so I was actually dreading the pain in my wallet more than the pain in my arm. So, I was very happy when mom pulled out my vaccination records and I realized that I was going to be able to get by without a Hep A booster (although I think I’ll still need a DTP booster).

Around that time, Larry came back with his son Dan and wife Tori and we sat and visited for awhile. Around 1, we all piled into the vehicles and headed back to the hotel to give the groom and his bride time to prepare. Mom dropped Tay and I at Arizona Mills Mall, a low-rent single loop outlet mall. I was looking for walking shoes for Mexico city, but I didn’t see anything I really liked, and I thought it would probably make more sense for me to see what people are wearing around the city.

There are few things that will mark an American tourist more effectively than white tennis shoes. A local once told me that with those white shoes glinting in the sun, you can spot someone wearing them a block away. My goal for this trip is “low profile,” but I also want to be able to fit into the design community- so I guess with the way I look, I’ll probably try to come off as a Spaniard or Argentine. Who knows, maybe I’ll just look stupid.

Anyway, after one mall cycle, I was spent, and we walked out of the mall, across the vast expanse of the parking lot, and across the street back to the hotel. Tay and I washed our faces, and slowly got dressed for the event. I’d been debating buying a new white dress shirt since I vaguely remember some ring around the collar on my favorite JCrew oxford, but I decided against it. Looking at the actual shirt in the light, back at the hotel, I realized the shirt was actually pretty filthy, stained, and lint-covered. Cursing myself as I ironed, I debated running back to the mall and finally consoled myself with the fact that the suit jacket was going to cover most of it, and I’d wait until dark to take off the jacket.

We met downstairs in the Ramada lobby at 5pm, and the grandmothers and Jen immediately started shooting photos. Got a lot of compliments on the tie Saori bought me for Christmas. Tay and I were both wearing Macy’s suits and sunglasses, which I guess looked a little “Men in Black”ish, or at least Blues Brothers-ish, but I guaranteed everyone that we would have plenty of time for photos in much more scenic locations than the cramped Ramada lobby.

Right on schedule, mom drove up wearing her cream wedding dress, and shortly after Larry pulled up in the SUV wearing his suit. They both looked great- Larry had his desert bouitionierre and mom had her giant desert bouquet. Mom was wearing her giant mauve pearl earrings, and wore a comb she’d ordered from Hong Kong in her hair. We split into the two cars and headed for Camelback mountain.

The guest list was very small:
Larry Marsh- the groom
Paul- Larry’s stepson
Jen- Paul’s girlfriend
Daniel- Paul’s son
Tori- Daniel’s wife
Nancy Case- the bride
Alec- Nancy’s son
Taylor- Nancy’s son
Betty Case- the mother of the Bride
Loretta Perkins- Alec and Taylor’s grandmother

And that’s it. The sons acted as the groomsmen and the bridesmen, so when the wedding party assembled, there were only four guests in the audience.

We arrived at the Royal Palms resort in the late afternoon and it looked great in the low-angled sunlight. We paused out front for some photos (I was the photographer for the night) and proceeded around to the wedding site. The little courtyard for the wedding was decorated with tea lights, a few tables out on the lawn for the cocktails, and a large decorated table under a wood trellis.

The minister met us there, and as soon as we were all there, they started arranging us for the wedding ceremony itself. Mom and Larry stood beneath one of the arches that formed the short colonnade, up a few steps, and the children of the bride and groom flanked the steps. I held the groom’s ring, and Tay held the bouquet. The ceremony was quick, perhaps ten minutes. The minister spoke a short bit, and then read a passage mom had adapted. Mom used the sonoran desert as an allegory of their marriage- filled with both beauty and wonderful days of spring, but also the long days of oppressive heat and the violent monsoons which much be weathered together.

The rings were exchanged, and each pledged their lives to each other as they held each other’s hands. The minister concluded, and, vested with the power by the State of Arizona, pronounced them man and wife. Everyone clapped, and then the bride, groom, and minister went to sign the wedding certificate. Larry’s son Paul and I were asked to sign the marriage certificate as witnesses.

Drinks were brought around on trays. I grabbed a white wine. The old waiter affixed a wary eye on Taylor, and as he was reaching for a drink, deftly rotated the tray arround to present the water goblets. Tay, undeterred, reached around to grab a white for himself, as mom explained the wedding hostess that Tay was in fact, well over 21. They didn’t give me any problems. We drank and chatted and took a bunch of photos, and then pulled out the sparklers.

We’d been taking bets on how long before the staff would shut us down, but they were surprisingly cool about the whole thing. Actually, there wasn’t much to protest: the sparklers I got were really short and weak, and they kind of burned out before I really had a chance to pass them around. Next wedding, I’ll buy better sparklers.

We sat down to dinner as the sun was beginning to set and the hostess took our orders. We had the option of chicken or fish and I ordered the chicken. Everyone else ordered the pan-fried salmon. “Didn’t anyone see Airplane?” I asked.

I sat next to Paul’s girlfriend Jen and next to Larry at the head of the table. If I had one complaint about the entire wedding, it would be that the table was just too big. If you wanted to pass something to the person next to you, you had to lean way over and extend your arm to the full length. It was kind of deadening on the conversation being so far apart from each other. Mom and Larry cut the cake and send it to be sliced up for everyone.

The cake was Larry’s favorite, German chocolate with a buttercream icing. Mom passed on a slice. I thought it was pretty good cake. Really rich. They served the cake with decaf coffee and more wine and finally we wrapped up the night and headed back to the where the valets were bringing up the cars.
We were all dropped off at the hotel and Tay and I decided to call it a night.

Mar 15, 2013

also close to the waffle house

Tonight, after mom and Larry kicked us out of the house, my brother and I will have no choice but to sleep behind the Christie’s Cabaret Gentleman’s Club in South Tempe. It’s dark and cold and getting late. How did things come to this?

Larry kindly paid for the room at the Ramada. I should probably turn on some lights and turn down the air conditioning in the room.

Didn’t really sleep well in the study either on the blow up mattress. My left knee has been bothering me in the night- actually, I’ve been having problems with it ever since I left St. Louis. I’m also just not sleeping well in general. Going to bed late with Tay after midnight or one, and getting up around seven or eight in the morning. Lots of strange dreams.

Anyway, mom made us blueberry pancakes with a lot of fruit for breakfast, and then I waited for Darcee to arrive so I could give her the legos for her little kids. Darcee drove down from Mesa with her two kids, both pretty young, although the eight year old is adamant he’s going to be an architect when he grows up.

Apparently nuts about the legos, which is why I hauled them these several thousand miles. It was good to see Darcee again. She’s in great shape, military trained firefighter/medic who could easily kick my ass, and still looked about the same as she did in high school, except a little more age showing in the face, as have we all. She was trying to talk me into doing a trail run in north Scottsdale, but I explained that her helicopter medic experience would be put to good use in getting me off the mountain.

Tay and I went shopping for a wedding present. We had an idea and it was relatively quick and easy to execute, but we ran out of time. Originally, we were going to return the truck to Larry to drive to Sally’s in exchange for their SUV, but since we were closer, Tay and I just decided to make the run ourselves. Jonathan swapped keys with us, and I drove it back to Phoenix. Mom was back at the house.

“Did you get the house keys or the other keys off the key ring?” She asked.
Um.
“Did you get the remote control for the garage?”
Not quite.
“Did you get the text message I sent you?”
Hey, look at that, ‘new text message’….
Not the best moment of the day.

Anyway, we waited at the house while mom and Larry went to the airport to pick up his stepson Paul and his girlfriend Jen. They both moved to Durango recently and they’re in their early 40s/late 30s. Nice people. They kind of saw this whole Phoenix trip as a vacation, and were generally impressed with everything at the house and the restaurant we hit.

At the wedding, there will be the bride and groom. the two grandmas, and the bride and groom’s children. Both of Larrys sons are attending, one of them with a girlfriend, and of course there’s me and tay. We could not have squeezed everyone into the house, especially fighting with the five cats for space. The hotel is a Ramada that was nearby, and the fact its behind the Christie’s Cabaret is just comic fodder. It’s actually nice- the outside and structure is kind of dumpy, but all the interior finishes and appliances have been recently renovated and upgraded.

Since tomorrow is the wedding, I guess tonight was the rehersal dinner, although it wasn’t, really. It was just the eight of us- mom and Tay and I hit the bar about an hour before to make sure our name was in for a table that could seat everyone, and I got to have a draft of the Four Peaks Kiltlifter. It’s a good beer, but with my St. Louis experience, I don’t think it can really stand up well against some of the other craft beers I’ve quaffed. (Beer conesouirs do not drink beer, we quaff it.-Ed.) My second beer was a Lagunitas IPA and it was delicious.

We ordered a round of bruchetta and two 12 inch super-deep dish pizzas. Actually, it was less pizza, and more like a lasagna without pasta. I ate one and a half slices and I was totally maxed out, getting into “wafer thin mint” territory. Food was good, I like Oregano’s. I sat across from Jen and learned about her thoughts on living in Durango, the pizza, Phoenix, etc.

Afterwards, we went back to the house for stomach settling and watching the latest episodes of The Office and Project Runway before mom and Larry took us to the hotel.

Mar 13, 2013

habemus salmon!

Today began with a “white tornado” of cleaning the house before the grandmothers arrived. We moved out of the guest room and into the study, cleaned, vacuumed, windexed, swept, and generally tried to fake everyone out. Mom has a Miele vacuum cleaner which is supposed to be the Mercedes-Benz of vacuum cleaners. It’s apparently still cheaper than the Dyson vacuums, which reeks of hucksterism to me. Bentley or Benz, the vacuum still weighed as much as a luxury sedan although it did do a good job of vacuuming. My solution for dealing with cat hair? Don’t have wall to wall carpeting. I’ve never really understood why we have carpeting, especially for a culture that (a) doesn’t sit or lay on the floor, and (b) doesn’t take off our shoes at the door. It just gets dirty and its difficult to clean and it stains easily.

Anyway, after the grandmothers arrived, we sat and visited for awhile, and then we split into three groups: Mom took the grandmothers to north Scottsdale, I went with Larry to the grocery store to shop for dinner, and Tay boldly volunteered to stake out a position on the couch and make sure that none of the cats somehow opened a door to escape.

I’d offered to make dinner tonight because since I’ve been here, I’ve been treated to nearly every meal outside at some really nice restaurants, and even thought I know mom and Larry are happy to have me here, I wanted to contribute a bit for myself. I wanted to cook the pan fried salmon Saori taught me to make with the glazed carrots. So, Larry took me to Fry’s and I bought a load of groceries including some wine and 3 pounds of Alaskan salmon fillet.


As the head chef, I deputized Tay as my sous chef and tasked him with preparing the asparagus in any way he saw fit. I threw a quick salad together, peeled and sliced up some carrots, and threw them in the microwave to get them cooking. I started heating the skillet with butter and oil, and sliced up the fillet. I salted the thing heavily, threw on some pepper and tossed them in the hot skillet. Unfortunately, electric ranges suck, so the oil/butter was not quite hot enough to really do a good job of searing/frying for that first batch.

The carrots came out ok- after softening in the microwave, I sauteed them in oil and butter with more salt until they carmelized a glaze. Tay’s roasted asperagus came out a bit crunchier than I think we was hoping for, and when I pulled the last of the fish fillets off the pan, the house was filled with thin smoke. The salmon was good. Not as good as Saori makes, but still not bad. I served it with lemon and soy sauce. Salad was good, helped myself to a double portion.

We opened all the doors and windows and the burning in my eyes went away. Mom bravely tackled the epic mess I’d left behind, and the rest of us retired to the living room to play with our various tablets and smartphones.

bang bang

I’m not sure where Taylor got the idea to go to a shooting range. I know I’ve always been open to the idea, its just something that’s never happened because nobody said “hey, lets go shooting!”

When I was at scout camp, I shot a rifle and shotgun, but it was years ago, and I’m not sure it still counts if the guns are bolted to the table. Nobody else has any gun experience, apart from Larry’s trips hunting as a child.

Tay did the research and picked out Shooters World in the west valley, and the rest of us piled into the car and drove out after researching what it would cost. We went inside and were directed over to the gun rental counter, where we filled out two very short forms and handed over our drivers licenses. We told the guy at the counter we had never shot before and wanted something with little recoil, and he suggested a .22 revolver.

I was happy with a revolver- there’s something about the simplicity of the design and the exposed mechanism which I found comforting and interesting. With a clip gun, you pull the slide back to chamber the first round- you don’t really see anything happening. With the revolver, you cock the hammer, and then you’ve got a hair trigger, and when the gun fires, the barrel rotates.

The ammunition it shoots is .22 which is about the smallest bullet you can imagine, so when we finally got it out there, the recoil was very manageable. The guy at the counter basically showed us how it worked- how to open the cylinder, how to load the rounds, how to close the cylinder and two ways to pull the trigger. Then he handed us four pairs of earmuffs and basically said “have fun kiddos.”  But first, we bought 100 rounds of ammunition, and a target.

I was thinking, ok, silhouette or bullseye, but Tay wanted something a little more fun. Although the company offers targets of cartoon Easter bunnies for the seasonal holiday, Tay opted for a zombie target. Actually, they offer four or five zombie targets. One of them is a Nazi zombie, one is the generic type, but we got the Arab terrorist zombie.

We may have put him down when he attacked our country, but we couldn’t keep him down. Old Adubl bin Dayd al-Zombi with turban and brain target separate.

I was a little nervous at basically going in and shooting without someone who knew what they were doing, but I ended up standing at the front of the range slot. I opened and closed the cylinder. I worked the action of the gun a few times first- it was a great confidence booster. I knew I could pull the trigger. So I opened our box, loaded the rounds, closed the cylender and rotated it to make sure it had locked and then squeezed off the first shot after cocking the hammer.

It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. There was some Steven Segal in the corner blasting away with a .50 cannon, but what I got was more like a loud “pop!” and a slight jerk. I felt a lot better. This was something I could handle. Apparently, .22 ammunition what you’d use “varmit” hunting and possibly for self defense if you can empty the barrel.

That first clip went slowly as I got a feel for the gun and the shooting. Then I emptied the spent shells and handed the gun off to Tay, more of giving moral support for his first time loading and shooting. Mom hauled me up there too to make sure she was doing it right, but like me, she realized it was actually really easy, comfortable, and actually pretty fun.

“It’s just another skill game,” she explained later. “Instead of throwing darts at a board, you’re using a gun.”
We put that terrorist zombie down for good and I got a real bullseye target so we could try to hone our target practice skills. I fared the best in the shooting, although I never did hit a bullseye. Larry was about as good as I was, followed by Tay and mom was pretty hopeless. “Shotgun,” she said, grimly, envisioning the kind of weapon she’d like in a life-threatening home invasion.

“Skill game” or not, I’m still conflicted. On the one hand, there was something about the accessibility of the gun- the way that you held this precision metal machine in your hand, a combination of chemistry, physics, and solid gadgetry that was so simple and straightforward- that I really enjoyed, like using a bicycle, a machine that translates your intent into power. To be fair, there are few items on earth that have been as designed as guns. When I held that revolver, I was holding the accumulation of literally 2000 years of continually progressing technology and craftsmanship.

At the same time, there is a fascination with the morbidity, a kind of enthralled horror at the ability of our minds to conceive of doing horrible things with that gun. I could, for example, have easily and simply shot and killed my own brother or mother. Although I didn’t think of it at the time, it occurred to me later. It’s very much like the thoughts of when you are on a plane and, unbidden, in your mind play the scenario where you open one of the emergency exits in midflight, or instead of taking a large step away from a lethal drop, take a step forward instead.

As a pacifist and a humanitarian, I feel morally obligated to recall the fact that guns exist solely to kill and injure. There is a pedigree of death as well as design. The design of a gun stems from its purpose to send a hot chunk of metal to rip the skin, shred muscle, mangle organs, and splinter bone to the purpose of causing maximum pain and the extinction of life. I wonder can one admire the architecture of a death camp?

Mar 12, 2013

old town

Didn’t sleep well last night either. Went to bed late, got up early, and took a shower. For breakfast, the four of us went to T Cooks at Royal Palms for breakfast. It’s a little expensive ($13 breakfast entrees) just for breakfast, so figure closer to $18 per person after coffee, tax, and a tip for the valet. However, $18 is a steal of a deal for the Royal Palms experience, which was the resort that Dubya used when he came to town as President.

What’s so special about breakfast? It’s just a luxurious, self-indulgent experience. The valet takes your car, you wander through the really beautiful and historic hacienda style resort which is actually quite intimate, and its filled with lush vegetation, rustic patios, pools, and fountains. The breakfast is prepared at T Cooks, recognized as one of the best restaurants in the city of Phoenix, and the quality of the ingredients, food, and service is stellar. For less than $20 a pop, you get to feel like a multimillionare.

I ate the cinnamon banana brioche french toast which was quite good, although I liked mom’s pesto and prosciutto omelette better. Good coffee and lots of it. After we ate, mom attempted to show us how to get to the spot where they were going to get married so we would know how to find it on our own. Unfortauntely, she’d forgotten herself, so we had to wander for awhile until we stumbled across it (it is a small resort, after all).

The wedding spot is in a secluded open area against one of the buildings. There is a small grass lawn, and an equal sized patio with a wood pergola. Mom wanted to have the ceremony facing an old wooden door, but we all convinced her that it would be much better to have it under the arch to the collonade, someone raised up from the patio.

The directions to the place are kind of tricky, so to remember it, I named them all with the letter P: parking, portal, passageway, pavilion, portal, path, pool, pergola, patio, party.

After breakfast, we went to old town Scottsdale so Tay could pick up something for his friend who was watching Suki for us. Old Town was hopping. I’ve never seen so many tourists taking photos of saguaro cacti and the giant boots and other movieland “westernalia” crap that constitutes Old Town. I guess it is peak season in the prime tourist location in Phoenix. Thank god we didn’t go to Fashion Square mall.

OId Town does have this one labrynthine souvenir store which sells nearly everything you can think of related to Southwestern or Mexican souvenirs. Leather moccasins, leather goods, tee shirts, silver jewelry, a wall of cowboy hats, tequila flavored suckers with scorpions, bracelets, terra cotta crucifixes, “Native American” baskets made in Pakistan, falsa blankets, serapes, rugs, golf pants, talavera pottery, toys, spices, and salsas. There’s an entire room of the store which consists of iron hardware for cabinets and woodwork. Most of the Mexican stuff you can pick up at border towns a few hours to the south for about a third of the price. However, this stuff is relatively curated, and we’ve actually picked up some amazing works of Mexican art out of the more generic stuff.

We drove back to the house for a short while, changed clothes, and headed out once more. We stopped by the post office and went on to Shooters World, which probably deserves its own post since this has become quite lengthy.

dress shoes and top five guacamole

I have a beautiful pair of black dress shoes. They’re glossy, elegant, Cole-Haan, and currently located about two thousand miles from where I need them to be on the wedding day. So today mom and I made a run to the banks and then to Ross Dress for Less. I found a pair of shoes that worked from Florsheim, and then we walked over to Nordstrom Rack to compare it with their selection. Everything at the Rack was at least double what I wanted to pay. So Ross it was.

Ross has a subtle smell to it that reminds me of working there for the summer after freshman year of college. Retail is not a good fit for me, and North Scottsdale shoppers can be real bitches. It was a great experience in the way that burning your hand on the stove as a kid is a great experience: this is really not what I want to do. I did make some money, and the entire time I was working there, I fantasized about the trip I was going to go on with the money. I did actually end up using all of the money (and then some) on a backpacking trip through Europe the following year. I am aware that most people usually spend their summer earnings on surviving the subsequent year of college, but then I’ve never made great financial decisions when travel is concerned.

Anyway, after I got home, I Skyped Saori for about an hour, catching up on her adventures in Germany and giving her the lowdown on my adventures since Oklahoma. It was good to see her again, and we chatted while she ironed her clothes. She was also kind of sad to hear I’d sold the prius.

Meanwhile, the rest of the household was starving and researching the late lunch/early dinner options. They waited very patiently for my skype call, but eventually reminded me that no one had eaten for six hours, and mom had only had a few nuts for breakfast.

So we ended up heading out to Pollo Blanco, a Mexican restaurant in the Clarendon hotel. The Clarendon was an old hotel from the 1960s or so, probably a best western or something like that with a big pool in the center courtyard. Right before I moved out of Phoenix, the hotel reopened as a boutique hotel playing up its 1960’s vibe and installing a highly commended restaurant/bar in the ground floor. My old coworkers from DWL actually took me here back right before I left, so I remembered the place
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We split two pitchers of margaritas which were pretty good I thought, and a bunch of tacos and chips and guacamole. Mom thought it was is the best guacamole she’s ever had. I hedged a bit- stating that I’d had better guacamole but I couldn’t remember when, and Tay agreed it was in his “top five” best guacamole. The tacos were good too.





On the way back, we drove by the office mom’s going to be working in downtown. It’s a tower, bland, but at least with some windows.

One of my favorite things about Phoenix is the abundance of mid-century modern architecture. It’s dated, sure, but its not a glass box or tudor fantasy. There’s something about the minimalism and the stripped-down nature of mid-century architecture that seems to echo the native desert dwellings. I also just like it from purely aesthetic reasons.

Back at the house, we watched Seven Psychopaths which was very enjoyable and interesting, and the cinematography and lighting was gorgeous. Much too beautiful of a movie for the campiness it was aiming for. A lot of really dramatic colored lighting and wide angle desert shots.

Mar 11, 2013

pictures from Joe's Real BBQ





Mexico Ho

Today was pretty low-key. Mom made really good waffles with fruit. I bought an airline ticket to Mexico City and did some preliminary research on vaccinations. It looks like I’ll probably want to get Hepatitis A, Typhoid, and possibly a dip/tet booster. We’re going to investigate if I have a vaccination record in mom’s safety deposit box tomorrow.

I practiced more Rhino. I’m still very nervous about how my Rhino skills will be received. And I still havn’t seen the hour lecture Ms. Bilbao gave at Rice that was recorded. Everyone says wonderful things about her, and she sounds like an amazing architect. I can’t wait to meet her.

We went to Sprouts and the grocery store and I picked up some a six pack of beer from a brewery that was not familiar to me- the Phoenix Ale Brewery. Apparently they opened really recently. I grabbed their unfiltered ale, which was really nice and hoppy, almost to the point of an IBA but without the higher alcohol.
For dinner, we met Sally and family at Joe’s Real BBQ in Gilbert, one my favorite BBQ places in town. It was good to see them again- both the kids are bigger, but Sara has shot through the roof. It was really pleasant out- we arrived well before sunset, and we watched the afternoon fade into night outside, with the strung light bulbs and wooden picnic tables. It was very pleasant.

Back at the house, we watched a new episode of Dr. Who, which I’d never seen before. I was kind of intrigued, but the acting and dialoge is so wooden, and the whole thing is incredibly campy. I guess that’s part of the appeal. The premise is interesting and the story is pretty inventive, but I didn’t really get hooked on it. I have now seen Dr. Who, I know what a Tardis and Dalek is. I think I deserve the uber geek badge now.

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website. medium.com/@wende...