Category: Humor

A Long Time Ago in Argentina

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[In 2002, I was back working in Houston, but I was still sent to  South America, occasionally.  But, this particular post has to do with a private trip we made first to Peru where my wife’s family lives.  It was a convenient place to let the the two young sons visit their aunt,  uncle and grandmother while the wife and I sneaked off to Argentina for a week. the prices I quote seem ridiculously cheap and not all of that is inflation from then to now – as explained in the text.  I was writing “Ten Things You Should Know When Visiting (Blank)” articles, in those  days and I just hit a big vein of them in a long-untouched directory copied faithfully from computer to  computer over the years.

I can’t find any pictures of this particular trip and I think we were in a video camera phase at that time.  We still have the videotapes somewhere, but we never look at them.  Someday we will transfer those to digital media and look at the young strangers who took that trip so long ago.  Meanwhile I have scarfed a couple of “file photos” just to break up the text.  I have put in a few modern remarks which are set off from the 16-year-ago prose with brackets [like this].

  Ten Thing You Should Know When Visiting Buenos  AiresBuenosAires9deJulio

  1. The streets and freeways are quite clean, which is unusual in this part of the world. As in many cities there are “recyclers” who comb the garbage for anything of residual value but, astoundingly, they clean up after themselves with brooms and extra garbage bags.  This is probably because the Argentinos like to think of themselves as displaced Europeans.  I myself have higher ambitions than to be a European. [With no offence to my European friends intended – this was before I met y’all 😉 ]. The hotel even has European bathroom fixtures, complete with bidet.  Do you know anyone who actually uses a bidet?…’cause I don’t.

 

  1. The streets are about a bus and two cabs wide and that’s what one usually finds in the width of the street. That is, except for Avenida Nueve de Julio [Ninth of July Avenue] which is the widest in the world, they say.*   The sidewalks are about three feet wide – barely enough room for two to pass without stepping into the street.  And ye had best not, if ye want keep yerself in one piece, ’cause the buses zoom by, with inches to spare, at ridiculous speeds.

*[That’s it in the picture above.  If you see 10 pictures of Buenos Aires at random, five of those have this street in them]

  1. The buses themselves are 80 cents (of a Peso) and the machines you drop your coins into actually make change. Best to get a seat if you can’t reach the grab bars, ’cause these vehicles spend most of their time in robust acceleration followed by vigorous braking. For variety there are sudden lurches to the left and right.  I never found a bus schedule but the hotel staff, store clerks and food servers are most helpful in this subject, as many of them probably depend on busses.  There is a Metro (a subway, I mean to say), but I didn’t manage to see any of it.

 

  1. As usual, no one is marching in the street, screaming anti-American threats. The anti-American mindset exists mostly in the imagination of the press (that includes the US media), some perpetual malcontents who manage to get a lot of face time on TV and a few asinine dictators who would be universally hated in their own country if they could not whip up an anti-American frenzy as a diversion. I won’t mention names but two of  them rhyme with Bastro and Busien.  If you’re still worried about it, pretend to be from New Zealand.  Most folks don’t even know where the heck that is.  If you meet an actual Kiwi, you may have some explaining to do.

 

  1. The best bet for changing money is the ATM’s with several networks. They’re called “multicajeros” (mool tea kah hair ose…accent on hair).  Look for the symbol of your particular network.   You get the latest exchange rate and they are to be found in banks with armed guards standing politely about, the better not to worry about muggers.  I never have any trouble with muggers, but I am six foot three and probably weigh twice  what you do.  There are lots of armed guards in Latin American countries and they are, generally speaking, polite because they have a strong sense of self-confidence.  It has to do with the Uzi and the flack jacket.  It pays to be just as polite to them.

 

  1. Prices are (by law, apparently) quoted in Pesos. The symbol for Pesos is “$”.  You might have thought that was for dollars.  Apparently it began with a really skinny “P” over a regular uppercase “S”.   When, rarely, prices are quoted in US Dollars, a “U” is added before the “$” and an extra “$” is appended.  Like this:  U$$   Prices are, to say the least, astounding just now (July 2002).  Some examples of ridiculously affordable purchases: Lunch for two in a rather pleasant sidewalk cafe consisting of steak and side dish with beer and dessert:  $20  (remember – that’s  U$$ 5.63).  High quality leather jacket: $400 (about U$$ 113).  Tango show, dinner and drinks for two in a really plush dinner theater:  $220  ( U$$ 62).  I got a hand-out for a burger joint that priced the bacon double cheesburger with fries and a drink at less than one US dollar.  I was too busy at really plush dinner theaters and rather pleasant sidewalk cafes to actually eat there.

 

  1. One thing you never make fun of in Argentina is the Tango. Don’t worry – I didn’t learn this by painful experience, but rather by simple observation. The Tango started about a hundred years ago as a saloon dance and has evolved into a refined art form that is most highly regarded.  There are “Tango Shows” in elegant theatres where the dancers on stage perform energetic, kick intensive maneuvers that would quickly start a fist-fight on any pubic dance floor.  Instead of the original one guy with a guitar, there is an orchestra with a string section, a piano and two accordions.

BA_FOuntain

[I remember this fountain, which we saw on a bus tour.  That must be the Capitol Dome behind it.  Another  bus tour took us to a Dude Ranch where Gauchos did horse-riding tricks and there was a period house with clothes and furniture of the Early 20th Century.  It was there I met the only black  man in Argentina (a tourist from Nigeria, it turns out).  He asked me to take a picture of him with one of the hats in the exhibit.  When he put it on, the “spittin’ image”  of Nat King Cole looked back at me.  It was quite a vivid impression, like having seen a ghost.  You  can tell, because I remember it to this day in 2018.  The picture below is the real Nat, of course.  That man could sing circles around most vocalists of today.  He was also an accomplished piano and banjo player.  If you can find it on Netflix or at the Redbox, watch the movie “Cat Ballou”]

NAT

  1. Another thing (or rather, person) you don’t make fun of is Eva Peron. A First Lady of renown in the fifties, she has achieved a status of near-sainthood. If you can get through a day in Buenos Aires and not see a picture of Evita, then either you were not paying attention and are in serious danger of being hit by the busses I mentioned, or you don’t know what Eva Peron looked like.

 

  1. There are several pedestrian streets referred to as peatonales (Pea at tone Al ess…accent on Al). These are of course lined with “retail opportunities”.  Evidently there is a long tradition of “barkers” (I don’t have a Spanish equivalent for that) who stand at strategic spots and talk up their establishment and hand out…well…hand-outs.  There are also people who want to “talk” to you for just a minute (I’m not sure what they’re up to and I don’t want to find out).  And, of  course, the depressingly common occurrence of street beggars.

 

  1. Don’t call home from the hotel, because they are not participating in the “ridiculously affordable” phenomenon – not on phone calls, anyway. There are telecom shops called “Locutorios” (Low coo tore ee ohs…accent on tore) where you are assigned a phone booth with a chair (they want you to be comfortable). Rates are usually posted on the front door and are reasonable.  You make all the calls you like, your accumulating charges appear on a digital readout and in the end you pay at the counter.

Buenos Aires is in the midst of a short window of opportunity for affordable travel. Argentina was well-known as an expensive place before and  I expect it will return to that status when the economy recovers.  I reckon I’ll check the news for the latest country to declare bankruptcy before I plan my next vacation.

Hasta Luego,

Steve

Santa Claus and Superman

 

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Think about it.

 santa_400x400SupermanCReeves

Two legendary figures. Both are instantly recognizable by their silly costumes. Both are infinitely helpful, benevolent and altruistic. Both can do amazing things that no human being could accomplish and are admired almost universally, especially among children. I’ve never seen them together, have you? What makes you think they aren’t the same guy? Who does he think he’s fooling with that phony looking beard?

Look at the similarities. Both prefer bright primary colors. Claus with his warm red suit and Superman with his stunning blue ensemble avec flashy red cape (and outside-jockey shorts) topped off by yellow highlights. Both show up unexpectedly then leave before you can thank them.

Wait just a minute! What about this Lone Ranger guy!

…Nah, he’s into earth tones and hangs out with Jay Silverheals.  Both Claus and Superman do their big work alone.

 Superman flies with no apparent help. Claus flies with the aid of reindeer, or is that just a ruse? They both exhibit an affinity for cold climates. Actually, both are commonly known to inhabit the Arctic reaches. Santa in his Workshop and Superman in the Fortress of Solitude. This you think is a coincidence?

Larry Niven pointed out that Superman had a pretty awful childhood – his folks dead, planet destroyed. He might be superhuman but just how much can any sentient life form put up with before he goes crackers? This guy’s schizophrenia is perhaps manifold. Santa might be an intermediate identity, half way between meek mild-mannered reporter and Super-hero.

Come to think of it he is already three people before you count Santa Claus.  His birth name is Kal-El (son of Jor-El of Krypton – a prosecuting attorney who looks like Marlin Brando – before the great “ballooning”).

Perhaps, orphaned and homeless himself as an infant, El/Kent/Superman engages in a forlorn form of bargaining-stage grief by dedicating one day a year to fulfilling the dreams of children…all of them. We know he wouldn’t have any trouble whipping out a few billion toys, but that might seriously cut into the time he spends catching bad guys or saving the structure of Space-Time itself.  But there is this trick he has of squeezing a lump of coal into a big, facet-cut diamond – so to provide funds to buy all the toys he might need,

I stumbled across another – and perhaps ultimate – explanation of this “Claus” persona.  There are these guys who are called “Mummers” you see.  Quoting Mummers.com:

“Mummers tradition dates back to 400 BC and the Roman Festival of Saturnalias where Latin laborers marched in masks throughout the day of satire and gift exchange.”

The tradition has survived the intervening 24 centuries to thrive until today. 

MummerExample

This is an example of a modern-day Mummer.  I picked an “average” costume from Mummers.com.  The Prize Winners are way “over-the-top” by comparison.  Something we cannot say about Santa – nor about Superman…Well, “over the top” actually may be appropriate there.

Perhaps the unwilling visitor from Krypton has adopted this ancient custom.  I believe this may be the explanation of El/Kent/Superman’s additional pseudonym (i.e., Claus). 

 Conclusions:

  • Our beloved legends are far more complicated individuals than we imagine.
  • They may be far fewer individuals that we believe,
  • This proves two long held popular “truisms”:
  1. “Go big or go home.” If you want to be different, then leave a vast gulf of space between yourself and the surrounding “different” individuals.
  2. “Crazy like a fox”. Success and insanity are by no means strangers.  The fact that Schizophrenia may be thrown in on top of it is not particularly surprising.

    So, what else is going on up there at the top of the world?

Praecepta Absurde,

Steve

On Zeno’s Swim Team

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When I was about 6 years old, my mother was a Water Safety Instructor (WSI).  And, since I had to go where she went most of the time, I learned to swim.  Not from her, you understand.  It is a well-known fact among aquatically inclined people that you cannot teach your own children to swim.  Your own children will cling to you like a second skin and refuse to let go.  They won’t do that to a total stranger – at least not until puberty.

So, Mom was teaching swimming to Intermediates which includes a child of the other WSI who is teaching Beginners – myself one.  It makes for a free child-care situation which was good because Mom had a way of spending money on things…actually many things…actually everything.

I remember once when I was being dragged out to a department store while Mom was shopping.  That happened a lot, you see.  Mom was using the ancestor of a credit card called a “Chargaplate”  – a thin metal plate with Dad’s name and a number embossed on it.  By this time, I knew that this was just an IOU and Dad would pay later.  Mom might have seen me eyeing the chargaplate and said to me, “Now, don’t tell your father I bought this.”

You might say I was a clever child, but this one seemed a no-brainer to me.  I knew darn well that Dad would be writing a check for this amount later in the month – and he wouldn’t be smiling.  One of my earliest memories was Dad cutting up credit cards with a pair of scissors (Chargaplates required tin snips).  Mom would then go back to the store and say she lost them and ask for new ones.  How do I know?  Didn’t I just tell you she dragged me along on shopping trips?  It all ended in Divorce not long after that.

We are trying to get back to swimming here and so, just to even out my criticism of my mother’s spendthriftery, I’ll relate a true story of her Water Safety credentials.  She and Dad were at a party down at the Galveston Yacht Basin where our doctor kept his boat.  Dad was an early adopter of “Bartering” – way before it became a hippie status symbol.  If you wonder why, re-read the paragraph above.

For example, Dad repaired our Doctor’s boat motor in return for the Doc sewing up the wound in my arm.  It took five stitches – I was swinging on a rope tied to a telephone pole.  The rope parted and I wound up hanging by my impaled right arm from a hurricane fence.  All the other kids who had encouraged the Big Guy to swing on that rotten old rope ran like thieves.  Mom came out and “plucked” me off the fence and took me to the Doc.

hurricanefence99

File photo detail of a hurricane fence.  These were universal around the houses in my neighborhood.  The “barbs” at the top were intentional to discourage climbing.  We climbed these pretty much on a daily basis in the summertime.  These days they install the fencing itself “upside-down” so there is just a blunt corner at the top – for obvious reasons.

When Mom brought me home with my arm stitched up, the “backdoor” neighbor had hammered down all those barbs along all her fences – not just the common one.  She was a Catholic with about 8 children.

Anyway, Mom and Dad were – at the Doctor’s invitation – attending a Yacht Basin party.  There was a little boy  – maybe three years old – playing with a dog.  Actually, he was trying to push the poor animal over.  Doggy departed suddenly and the boy plunged into the water of an empty boat slip.  The water is quite deep there, as these were big boats.

My Mother immediately and instinctively jumped in, grabbed the kid and handed him up to Dad who was by that time prone on the deck and reaching down.  The party-goers were stunned and amazed.  The parents of the kid were very thankful.  Mom had her faults, but Dad and I both were very proud of her that day.

Swimming, we were talking about swimming, right?  I learned to swim at an early age and it became a habit.  I was good at it, unlike other sports and swimming does not require a lot of equipment.  Plastic goggles go for about $10 these days.  It is not hard on the ankles, dogs don’t chase you and instead of sweating through a 105° day in Houston-August I was in a pool full of water.

There was swimming in Charles F. Hartman Junior High School (grades 7, 8 and 9), but it came with a very weird requirement.  The excuse was that they did not want wet bathing suits in the lockers because they go all moldy and stink.  The requirement was that you had to swim nude…unclothed, in the buff, in your birthday suit.  So, I would have to strip down and “cavort” with a bunch of naked boys if I wanted to swim?  No thank you very much.  This was not “co-ed”, of course, or I would have reconsidered. That wasn’t the only weird thing about Junior High School, but we are trying desperately to get to the swimming story as the title suggests.

I still went swimming outside school, though – properly attired of course.  We had a membership for a pool club called the Tropicana.  I was actually on their swim team for a while.  Pool clubs were quite common in those days because few houses had anything resembling air-conditioning (Yes, that’s what I said) and summers were Murder in Houston.  The Summers still are, but everything that can hold a living human body inside has A/C now.

The Tropicana was a unique aquatics venue.  It was an indoor pool in a metal building.  If you looked closely, you would find that the building was supported by steel wheels on a railroad track.  When the weather was appropriate, the entire building rolled back and the Tropicana was now an outdoor facility.

There was another quite interesting pool in town, as well.  The part under the diving boards was actually about 15 or 20  feet deep.  That left room at the bottom for a clear plastic hemisphere about five feet in diameter.  This dome was held down by chains connected to the concrete below and air bubbled up from a hole in the bottom beneath the center of the dome.  By that time, I was an accomplished pool denizen and was quite comfortable descending to pop my head in the dome and watch the swimmers around me.   I would occasionally make forays out into the water when I saw coins tumbling down from the pockets of the diving board users.  As often as not, I could re-coup the admission fee and once I had enough left over for a hot dog.  It was best to get there early, because the dome usually filled up with other wannabe scuba divers and became uncomfortably claustrophobic.

PoolDomeThis is a “file photo” of something like that pool dome.

The pressure was considerable higher that deep and ears had to be “popped” by attempted exhalation while pinching the nose.   Ascending afterward also required re-adjustment of the ears and discharge of the expanding air in the lungs.  All this would, of course land the pool’s managers in Court with a cornucopia of lawsuits, these days.  I don’t remember the name or location of this place, but I am quite sure that the “diving bell” feature is no more.

I swam in Austin at the University of Texas in one of three pools there.  In my last semester, I was working in a metal shop and showed up at the dressing room in rusty old jeans, a dirty army-surplus jacket that I wore while welding and worn, old steel toed boots(I had them resoled and I wore them on the Walkabout).  I showered and dressed out for swimming and then afterward, I walked away to class in slacks, a Hawaiian shirt and boat shoes (my Clark Kent mode).

I am still swimming today.  Since we still have the gym membership until unemployment bankrupts me, I swim every day.  I have been building up in distance and I swam 63 laps only this morning – it’s some old guy’s age.  To be clear, a lap is two lengths of the pool (one northbound, one southbound) to arrive at the starting point.  The pool is 25 yards and the total distance is one and three-quarters of a mile.  It takes about two hours.  I am quite sure that the twenty-somethings swimming around me are utterly incapable of such effort.

As you might imagine, swimming laps is extremely boring.  The mind tends to wander and I used to lose count of the laps quite often.  I have a rule that when faced with uncertainty over whether it was 10 or 11 laps (e.g.), I always choose 10.  That way there can be no doubt of the final count as a minimum.  While this has the effect of maximizing the exercise, I found myself forgetting every few laps as my attention drifted.  The logical extension of this problem would have me swimming excessively with a dismally small count.

To remedy this, I have developed several strategies to force myself to remember the correct count.  Visualization:  The brain – or at least MY brain -seems to remember visual clues much better than mere numbers.  So I adopted the habit of counting laps on my fingers in front of my goggled eyes.

So, what do I do when I get to 10?  There is a really clever way to count – unambiguously – to 99 on two hands.  It is a system used by Korean schoolchildren and it is called, “Chisemba” if I remember correctly.

One moment please…

Okay, I don’t find it online, so I will explain it, myself.  Or, rather I will visualize it for you (see photo below)

Chis_1-9

So, we got to 9 on one hand.  Next is a “1” on the left hand to indicate 10 and so on up to 90.

Chis_10……………….Chis_90

You see that we can count all the laps we are likely to need  on two hands.  Only for a brief glance at the push-off, I don’t swim with my hands like that, in case you wondered.  It does make an amusing mental image though.

Now the problem is that sometimes, when distracted by neighboring swimmers (or talkers)  I forget to make the visual count.  So, another form of memory aid is needed to back this one up.  Say we have decided to swim 30 laps.  By the time we get to lap number 3, we have covered 1/10th of the total.  At 5, one 1/6th is done.  Then at lap 6, 1/5th  , at lap 7 ½, 1/4th  at lap 10, 1/3rd, at lap15, one half.  If you need something to fill the long gap between 10 and 15 laps, then 12 laps is 2/5ths.  I might forget the count but remember that I just passed the half mark, and so on.

There are also points along the  way that represent fractions of a mile  (9,18,27 and 36=1 mile).  I used to work in nautical miles so (10,20,30 and 40 =1 nm).  I can also “go metric” and come up with kilometers (11, 22=1k, 33, 44, etc).

In the higher lap counts, there are oddball combinations like ½ a mile and half a kilometer (29) and in case I really get bored (everyday!) there are integer squares (4,9,16,25…) and prime numbers (1,3,5,7,11,13,17…) and 42 (the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything according to The  Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

And at the end of the swim, we count down by fractions as well, when 2 laps shy of 30, there is 1/15th remaining,  1 lap is 1/30th, a half lap is 1/60, then 1/120, 1/240, 1/480…etc.  Each of these distances – while small – must take some finite time to accomplish, right?  So, I never finish and I am still in the pool right now reaching out with my index finger toward the side of the pool, trying to cover that infinite series of fractions, yes?

PoolReach

File photo* of a swimmer reaching to finish that infinite number of fractional laps

That is one of Zeno’s Paradoxes.  Zeno was an Ancient Greek who evidently got paid to think up goofy stuff like that.  Where do I sign up for that position?   I may be overqualified!

*Art Nerds among you will recognize Michelangelo’s God Creating Adam currently on permanent loan to the Sistine Chapel.  That is the image that popped into my head when I imagined the infinite series of fractions.  I would have used the Adam portion of the image, since Adam doesn’t have all those Cherubs around him – but Adam is doing the backstroke and is attired for the Charles F. Hartman pool, if you get my drift.

Praecepta Absurde,

Steve

Advice to the Modern Traveler (#1)

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Walkabout posts

July 26, 2016

It is entirely possible to lock yourself out of the modern, electronically keyed hotel room.  Even with the card-key in your hand and even with a new card-key made by the concierge.  Even the “Super” may not be able to get into the room.

Here is the secret

:LockOutHotel

All you need to do is leave a plastic bag (with bread and apples) hanging from your door latch.  If the bag slips and turns the handle slightly (as seen above), it will effectively keep everyone out of this room.  The same room with all my luggage, medications and other “stuff”.

I am slowly coming to the conclusion that the Universe was created as a practical joke.

You have been warned! 😉

Steve