Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Inexperienced bar-goer

A while back, an accounting firm at the end of our street went out of business and a bar opened in the vacant space. And not just any bar but a classically stereotypical hipster bar with velvet curtains and smarmy twenty- and thirty-somethings who look down on you when you walk by on the sidewalk with your Dutch stroller thinking that you should be using a Radio Flyer wagon to transport your baby. Anyway, this bar INFURIATES our neighbor, as the street in front of our house tends to fill up with the bar's patron's cars. He is always on the lookout for reasons to call the parking authority for any infraction, which endears him to the bar, I'm sure.

Which reminds me of my first Portland bar experience. Now me and bars don't have a long history together. Growing up Mormon, I always had the perception that bars were dark, seedy places that smelled like smoke, stale booze, cheap perfume, and despair. All the men were drunks looking for an excuse to be away from their families and drown their sorrows and worries in cheap whiskey and all the women were caked-on makeup floozies with stringy hair looking to snag a man for the night. The sitcom Cheers only altered my perception a little--bars were also places where people were forced to work if they were imprudent enough to get an English literature degree. My college years didn't afford me any opportunities to glimpse inside a real bar, given that going within 50 feet of one was a violation of the BYU Honor Code and the nearest one to Provo was a biker bar 80 miles out in the West Desert.

Well, finally, after fleeing Utah and moving to Portland, I finally got the opportunity to step foot in a bar... a REAL LIVE BAR! What made it alluring wasn't the alcohol, since I don't drink (although I was curious to find out if you really get free pop at a bar if you say you're the designated driver... if I found that out to be true, I'd never have to buy Diet Coke again and I'd be hanging out at bars all the time! Turns out you have to be in a group of people drinking who actually need someone to drive them home. Stupid rules.). No, the siren beckoning us into this bar was its wealth of pool tables. One day, around 4:30 in the afternoon on a weekday, Margaret and I walked by that bar and saw that the only people in it was the bartender, a couple of waitresses, and a couple of hardcore drinkers who looked like they'd been sitting on their barstools since the place opened at 10:30 am. We furtively looked around to make sure that no one from our ward was in view, then I took a deep breath (the last smoke-free breath I would take for the next 90 minutes) and stepped over the threshold. The main surprise I had about the place was that it had an awful lot of plants. I didn't really expect that, assuming that any potted thing would be quickly killed from being the dumping ground for cigarettes, bad cocktails, and the occasional vomit. Who knew?

We sauntered over to the pool table closest to the door all casual like, trying to project the image that this was something we did all the time. Margaret took care of getting the billiard balls out of the machine and picking out our cues while I got the task of, gulp, going up to the bar and ordering our pops. Believe me, all your cred disappears when you step up to the bar at the local dive and order a couple of rum and Cokes, but hold the rum, and instead of Coke, please use Diet Coke. I told the bartender we were the designated drivers, hoping that would throw him off track. Which it didn't. Damn!

Chastened, I brought our pops back to the pool table and we started our game. Given that this was the first time in years that either of us had played pool, we were absolutely terrible. But we were having fun laughing at how ridiculous we were at our awful pool-playing skills. That game lasted quite a while. It takes a surprising amount of time to sink... um, however many balls are in a billiard set... when each ball takes four to five attempts. By the time we finished, we were getting into it, and so I went and got refills on our modified rum and Cokes and we started a second game, as the bar was still quite empty. Within 10 minutes of starting the second game, however, people started flocking in. I don't know if it was happy hour or the local steel mill 45 miles south of us had changed shifts, but suddenly the bar was a noisy, smoky, crowd of people. Soon all the other pool tables were filled and we were feeling the pressure to finish our game. A guy saw that we had only several balls left in our game and came over to place two quarters under the lip of the pool table. "Um, I wouldn't recommend betting on us," I told him. "We're not very good players." He gave me that, "you're a non-drinking Mormon poseur just faking that you're comfortable in a bar and feeling all rebellious while drinking your Diet Coke-look" (you know the one) and told me that that's how you declare that you have dibs on the table for the next game. I wanted to bolt from the bar in humiliation, but couldn't waste the rest of my Diet Coke and the fifty cents we'd spent on the game. The 35 minutes it took to sink the last three balls felt like an eternity, as I could feel the eyes drilling in on us as we feebly tried to finish our game of shame. After the eight ball dropped into the corner pocket, we gulped down the last of our Diet Cokes, put on our coats, and proceeded to never step foot in that bar ever again.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mixed blessing

I recently bought a pair of those high-tech Gap chinos with the space age treatment infused in the very fibers of the pants that make them impervious to stains and repel liquids like the back of a duck. Well, I've loved these properties up until an event a couple of days ago that have made me rethink the benefits. I was holding Lucy and I heard the telltale noises that indicated that something was going on in her pants. Then I looked down and realized that the substance that escaped the diaper hit my space age pants and instead of soaking in, just ran down them and all over my shoes! Ugh. It is MUCH easier to wash a pair of pants than get poo out of sueded shoes, believe me!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Just call me a hopeful romantic

I am so happy to be ending this drought of posts with such historic news that Obama was elected the next president of the United States. And to say that I am surprised, relieved, and hopeful about it is an understatement. I think for me, the magnitude of this election underscores my hopelessly romantic and idealistic view that America is first and foremost an idea. Unique among nations, it was founded not by coincidence of geography, homogeneity of its population, or benevolence of its ruler but by a simple idea summed up in our Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Such power was held in that idea that it expanded to much more than the white, male, landowners it was originally meant for to eventually include blacks, women, Indians, indeed everyone. The power of this idea struck me full force a couple of years ago when Margaret and I were in Oslo. Despite all the time I'd spent there while on a mission, it wasn't until going back on vacation that I actually got the chance to visit the Oslo City Hall. The building is quite amazing and the symbolic significance of it being the site where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year only adds to its gravitas. Upon the building's completion, the major artists of Norway were invited to paint murals and frescoes inside. All of them were impressive, but one completely reshaped my perception of America.

Åge Storstein painted a fresco in one of the rooms that went from floor to ceiling on all four walls. The fresco is titled "Menneskerettighetene" or "The Human Rights." In it, the concept of human rights and liberty is symbolized by a flame. A flame that is ignited in America at the Revolution, spreads to France, then to the rest of Europe. The flame is almost extinguished by the Nazis, and on that panel, there are a huddled mass of Norwegians hiding underneath debris, carefully guarding only a tiny ember. Finally, in the final part of the fresco, the shackles of oppression are thrown off and the flame is allowed to burn brightly and be held aloft. Looking at this painting, and subsequently thinking back on it, I was struck by the wonderful gift that America gave the world and how thankful the world was for our contribution. But I was also struck by the change in our role in the world. Rather than being a force for good and freedom in the world, we'd become preoccupied by more selfish goals that belied the noble ideals of our founding. I was no longer living in the same America that saw patriots fight for the idea of liberty and justice. I was no longer living in the same America that my grandfather fought for and my grandmother sacrificed for for the sole purpose of bringing liberty and freedom to people on the other side of the world. I was no longer living in the same America that the rest of the world saw as a beacon of hope and possibility. Such were the emotions that I felt upon seeing this painting.

That was a long introduction to why I am so hopeful about the outcome of this election. Seeing the thousands of people gathered in Chicago to hear Obama's victory speech I felt hope. Hearing the fireworks, whoops, and honking cars at my house starting less than five minutes after the polls on the west coast closed and Obama was projected as the winner, I felt hope. Reading the Norwegian paper online and seeing that the top TWELVE articles were about the election and how excited the Norwegians were about our selection gave me hope. The following morning, seeing people still so excited gave me hope. All of these things combined to give me a hope that we can live up to our ideals once again and be a flame that gives light to the dark places in the world.

I don't think Obama can do this on his own, though. We'll all have to work together for this idea called America. The excitement, optimism, and hope that Obama has inspired in so many tells me that America still has it in her to be a source of good for this world in desperate need of our characteristic can-do, idealistic, creative nature to come shining through. And that, above all else, gives me hope. So after reading this post, you'll probably think that I'm just a hopeless romantic, to which I'll respond, I may be a romantic, but after that election, I'm far from hopeless.