Monday, November 28, 2005

Rule #11

11. Drink coffee
Did you make the typical American mistake by giving up coffee sometime around 1998? You and millions of others were duped into thinking that coffee is bad for your heart, your relationships with family members, and sex. HA! American coffee consumption is down and as a result we have become a nation of cock-eyed boobs more self-absorbed than a good daily jolt of coffee would ever allow. We have let down our guard and in return we received George W. Bush, a war with no end in sight, most every country in the world planning or applauding our inevitable downfall, and what's with this Paris Hilton thing?

But what about Starbuck’s you ask? How could our national consumption of coffee be down given the Starbucks phenomenon? Starbucks, laddie, does not count as coffee. Starbucks is jazzy and fun. You go to Starbucks for a frothy sweet Frappaccino and to work on the crossword puzzle while listening to theraputic piano jazz, not to get a cup of coffee. Ask the chipper counter guy, pardon me, “barista” for a small coffee and you’ll be scolded. Starbucks coffee only comes in Tall, Grande, and, now, Rio Grande. Supersized coffee, sigh, how pathetic.

This all leads me to say that in Florence they do coffee right. Everyone drinks coffee, it is good coffee, and it is consumed not in insulting paper cups but in good solid ceramic. You do not scamper down the street chugging a bucket of coffee as you dodge traffic and talk to your plumber on your cell phone. You stand at the bar, you stop everything else, and you concentrate on getting that stuff into your system. No Grandes here, no sirree. Coffee is served by the thimbleful. This means that you can drink it all day long.

Is there really a link between coffee consumption and the body politic? Voter turn out was 3.7 trillion times higher in downtown Florence than in all of the state of Idaho. Sure, the Italians got Berlusconi, a guy who was being investigated for fraud and so he simply passed a law to exclude politicians from criminal prosecution while in office (this is true, by the way, and so please do not forward my blog to George W.). Did I mention that he owns most of the media outlets in Italy, as well as, I believe, the electrical outlets and several dozen emotional outlets. But nobody ever thought Berlusconi was a nice guy, or a sincere guy, or a guy who was anything less than self-serving in the first place. They would vote for him again in a heartbeat but everyone hates him. Berlusconi, unlike some other world leaders, is obviously a coffee drinker who knows that his actions are being tracked by a nation of coffee drinkers.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Rule #10 You are how you dress

Contrary to the natural human inclination towards vanity, when you walk the streets of Florence you must dress down, or, better yet, dress dorky. This is tough to do when you are surrounded by Florentines, as they always look sensational. Make-up is applied to the Florentine female face tactfully, discreetly, and several dozen times daily. Taking out the garbage calls for eyeliner. There is a kind of tradition in Florence of getting a bit dressed up after dinner and strolling around town smiling at other sensational and satisfied Florentines. They even have a name for it: “Il passaggiata”. There is a kind of tradition in my house of digging a trench in the couch and pretending to read the newspaper until you fall asleep with your mouth open a minute and a half later. We even have a name for it: “Il passing out”.

So why dress down? For one thing it is hubris to contend that you could ever possibly keep up with the high standard of chic-casual gorgeousness that oozes from the pores of these people. But the real point here is that even if you were to pull off an imitation that might pass for fashionable on the dark side of an unlit alleyway at two in the morning, you would not want to.

You would not want to pass as a Florentine because then a real Florentine might then treat you like a fellow Florentine and that means talk to you. If there is one thing these people like to do it is talking (more about this topic later, I assure you, I would love to talk about it). And if they do talk to you, it is expected that you respond…in Italian.

The other day I was standing in line at the super market when an elderly woman asked me where the casaba melons were…at least I think that’s what she asked me…I was dumbstruck and did not know what to say, and if I did know, I would not know how to say it. Then it all made sense to me. The old bat was nearly blind! She could not see to whom or even to what she was talking. So I turned her in the right direction and gave her a little shove. You see, usually people take one look at me and see a tall American, possibly a moron, most certainly a dork. This is not only due to my height, build, skin color, and usual slack-jawed look of bottomless befuddlement, but also the way I dress.

When I say dress down, I don’t mean just put on your well-worn baby blue Old Navy polo (actually, if you do that you may very well be mistaken for a Florentine). No, when I say dress down so as not to be engaged in conversation, I mean: dress like me. From the top: bad haircut three or four months old, glasses that were barely stylish in 1983 when they were purchased, untrimmed facial hair, t-shirt that proudly declares you are a fan of “Porky’s All-You-Can-Eat House of Lard”, cargo shorts, each pocket bulging with, well, let’s just say “stuff”, mismatched socks matching mismatched shoes caked in dog poop. It works, friends. Waiting at a street corner yesterday a beautiful young woman with freshly applied eyeliner looked up at me from her street map and then turned to my dog to ask for directions.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Lucca Report

Geography quiz
Choose one:

a) Lucca is a charming town nestled in the Tuscan hills and surrounded by a magnificent ancient wall.

b) Lucca is a charming town nestled in the Tuscan hills where grown men and women run around wearing cardboard wings, swinging plastic sabers as they stage battles just outside the magnificent ancient wall.

Of course, the answer to the above quiz is “c” because the answer to all Geography quizzes is “c” even if you are not given “c” as a choice, and if you did not know that you are either, a) stupid, b) never took a Geography quiz, or, c).

Lucca is probably the only charming Tuscan town where mom and dad can bring Jeff, Jr. and they will all find something that they will like. Dad will go for the magnitude of the walls surrounding the town, which will make him ask himself if he remembered to activate the alarm to the bike shed? Mom will be enchanted by the statuary and architecture, which will make her ask herself why she has been in Italy for a week and still not bought a pair of shoes? Jeff, Jr. will dig the guys dressed like barbarians and the babes in bursting leather and ask himself why go back to Passaic?

We were warned by the frank description in the guidebook that the citizenry of Lucca are not your typical warm and welcoming Tuscans. Other towns had walls, too, but over the centuries they realized that the days of invasions were over and dismantled the walls, using the bricks to build useful things like McDonald’s (which, of course, only served to renew the modern assault). I asked an elderly woman at a bus stop directions to San Frediano. Slowly she looked me up, she looked me down. Barely parting her lips she explained how to travel all the way across town and all of the landmarks I would see along the way. This detailed description was delivered at what astronauts call “Mach 10” and what we call, “Mach incomprehensible”. She then gave me another slow up and down to make sure that I did not understand and that was that, thus showing me that she not only knew the way to San Fred but that I was an idiot.

Don’t get me wrong, after a weekend in Lucca, I believe that they have done the right thing by keeping those walls intact and showing hostility to tourists. In fact, I think that they should install a guard with a clipboard at every portal to present each visitor with a questionnaire.

Who’s faster Superman or the Flash?

a) Out of my way I am late for work.
b) What’s the Flash
c) Well, that’s an interesting question. Of course, since both heroes are members of the D.C. Universe, this question has popped up from time to time. In # 176 of The Flash the two guys had a race but it was a staged to distract Sinestro from blowing up the world by tricking him to bet all his money on the Flash to Place. A few years later, the issue was raised again in The Justice League of America #233, but this time both Superman and the Flash rode horses because they were complaining that their girl-friends, Lois Lane and Iris West, were not paying them enough attention and since everyone knows that girls like horses, maybe they would come to the track to watch the race and go out for coffee afterwards with the two mighty heroes. They vied for the title a third time in Adventure Comics….etc., etc., etc….

Once a year the town of Lucca plays reluctant host to thousands of comics and video games fans. This is reason enough to keep those walls standing and to give strangers wrong directions. In Italy it is the largest comics festival. This requires a revision of the word “festival”, which one generally associates with confetti, gayety, and snappy trumpet music. This Lucca “festival”, one generally associates with pimples, body odor, and lengthy, frank, soul-searching discussions about who is faster, Superman or the Flash. On top of this many, many participants dress up as their favorite genre characters, This can make getting down the aisle to find a cup of coffee like running (or, rather, crawling) the gauntlet. A pair of paper mache wings knocked off my hat and when I reached down I tripped on a devil tail. Rising to my feet I had my eye poked by a metal spike affixed to the tip of a leather bustier. Some fun, this festival.

The awards ceremony for the big festival winners (Best artist of the year, Best game of the year, Best Playstation sound effect of guy’s head getting ripped off of the year) takes place in a church. Yes, a church. But not some dinky storefront joint in a dilapidated suburb. This is your high baroque style church with every square centimeter decorated with gold leaf and mosaic to the glory of God. They have ripped out the pews, however, and replaced them with nice plush auditorium seats, which is a good thing because it is very difficult to nap in wooden pews and sleep is required to make it through the endless ceremony. A stage has been constructed at the apse. There, projected onto a huge screen where the altar once sat, was the logo of the Lucca comics festival: a glowering female warrior figure with six arms most of them holding weapons but at least two of them holding her cantaloupe breasts. I am not a religious man, but I memorized the exits should God decide to take any of this personally.

I attended the festival as a guest of Igort (he’s one of those guys with one name, although, when you meet him he seems like one of those aristocratic guys who should have three names), the Italian publisher of Coconino Press who have reprinted the comics version of Paul Auster’s novel, “City of Glass” that I made with David Mazzucchelli. Despite the fact that it is named after a dirtswept town of 122,754 in the middle of the Arizona desert, Coconino publishes very, very beautiful books, so beautiful, in fact that I proposed marriage to a copy of Marti’s “Taxista”, but my wife caught me and hit me over the head with an equally beautiful copy of Matt Broersma’s “Insomnia”. The artists who draw these books are a soft-spoken lot and very friendly. Although only a few could speak English we bonded instantly upon meeting by giving the universal cartoonist’s secret handshake: shake a moth out of your otherwise empty wallet and cry on each other’s shoulder. We sat in a line with pencils, pens, and watercolor sets and spent the day inscribing books. I was the least well-known of the bunch and still personally inscribed at least 50 copies: “To my close personal friend, Dear Ebay winner”.

If you think that sitting in a stuffy tent all daylong inscribing books is a cool, prestigious activity that is good for the ego, you:

a) have never sat next to a booth blaring Playstation 2 sound effects of guys getting their heads ripped off for 12 hours.
b) have never had people walk away from you in mid-sentence when they realize that you are not your far more famous and talented collaborator.
c) really do think that the Flash is faster than Superman because of his performance Action Comics #567 where he went Mach-a-zillion and zipped himself into an alternate universe where regular guys wear plastic wings and the superheroes get to relax and drink cappuccino.

Igort, Gipi (they both have fine books out in English, buy them now), and me.

Me and Craig Thompson (not only has a hugely successful book in English but also is American, speaks English and seemed to understand most of what I said)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Rule #9

9. Think twice before sending a package.

The Post Office in my neighborhood glistens. It shines on an ancient street with the venerable dome of San Frediano in the background. The P.O. displays lots of chrome and glass and an electronic number dispenser that makes a beep when you take a number. Taking a number is important because it gives you time to go down to the corner, have a cappuccino, get a haircut, read the paper, do the crossword puzzle, get another haircut and do your grocery shopping without losing your place in the batting order. It is not so much that there are lots of people waiting to do business in the P.O. It is just that on average each transaction takes the length and contains the same amount of drama as the first act of La Boheme.

Now there are plenty of mornings of my life that I have given up willingly over the years: watching reruns of “Our Miss Brooks” when I was a squirt, that year-long double period of Mr. McCorn’s 8th grade Geography class (where Mr. McCorn had the audacity to teach about the doldrums and not mention his class by name), sitting for hours outside Desiree Talbot’s dorm purposefully not drinking out of my coffee cup so that it would look like I had just happened to sit down. But nothing compares to the void that you feel between your ears and in your soul as you leave an Italian post office after sending a package.

Back in the States, the USPS emits some red-tape but basically, you go into the P.O. fill out a form the size of a 3 X 5 card get your package weighed, pay, and go get a cup of coffee (yes, in a paper cup). Italian postal red tape is twice the width and twice the strength of your average duct tape. The poste clerk shot off many questions regarding the weight and contents of the package I wanted to send. In some of these questions I even understood a word or two and nodded as if I understood and agreed with each syllable. I am such an agreeable guy. I am also hell bent on not looking like a complete dolt, but, of course, a dolt is exactly what I appeared to be: nodding my head up and down vigorously, repeating “Va bene, va bene, va bene,” and wearing a grin borrowed from Alfred E. Newman. Based on my nod rate per second I was given a certain number of forms to be completed…all in triplicate. The perforations on the forms gave away the secret: they were actually printed on toilet paper. If you press down with any vigor, they shred, but if you don’t press down hard enough you may find yourself doing all of the triplicate forms individually…believe me. I stood by and watched Marsha go through writing the same info three times while receiving a blitzkrieg of deadly ice pick stares from those waiting in line behind us. I fended these stares off with my bold and manly defense: basically a stupid grin, a shrug, and a look that attempted to distance myself from my wife as much as possible while still holding the package with my fingernails as she affixed the label (a look of Matrimonial Mutiny that is admissible in a court of law as grounds for divorce in Idaho, Missouri, and the District of Columbia).

Dripping sweat and in desperate need of another cappuccino, as we left the Post Office, we wondered why this necessity for different forms, different stamps, and different classifications. I suggested that it was about employment, that somehow giving people more work to do gave them a greater sense of importance and duty. Marsha’s point was that it gave some kind of order to the Italian world that is more organic by nature. My sister, who has had much more contact with the Italian people than I, maintains that in the Italian view, the worth of any transaction between two people is valued based on the length and the quality of discourse and contact. In other words, no matter how many people are waiting behind you in line at the butcher, the longer you talk with the butcher regarding the quality of the chicken you are purchasing, where it was hatched, the weather, your family, his family, anything, the better the chicken will taste when it finally gets to the table.

Following this line of reason I imagine, after going 10 rounds in the ring with the Poste clerk, that my little package is not in the dark chilly cargo hold of some greasy freighter, but snuggled in a luxurious first-class leather lounger. And as the stewardess kindly turns off the reading light, my little package murmurs in it’s sleep, “Va bene, va bene, va bene.”