Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Milwaukee to Indianapolis

In Uncategorized on August 11, 2010 at 12:00 am

The following is a fun little anecdote from earlier this year. This is my only submission rejected from the San Diego Reader.

The flight out of Milwaukee was overbooked, so I volunteered to give up my seat. I expected free tickets and a hotel. Instead, I got free tickets and a limo-ride to Indianapolis.

Three other travelers joined me on the sidewalk as we waited for our ride.

“It’s probably just one of those courtesy vans,” said a knowing salesman. “Sometimes they call them limos.”

But sure enough, a stretched limo appeared. I climbed into the vehicle with the salesman and an elder married couple, newly tanned from their vacation in Florida. We pulled out of the Milwaukee terminal and started plunging through the Midwestern darkness.

The salesman eyed the rows of tumblers and champagne glasses, then called out to the driver: “Hey, you got any booze back here?”

“No, sir!” the driver laughed. “Not for this ride.”

“That’s too bad,” the married couple guffawed. “After all the delays, we could use it.”

The last thing I remember was a large sign for Mars Cheese Castle. The next thing I know, I was snorting awake. It was 1 a.m., according to the stubborn Indiana clock. There was much to do – find a rental car, lodging, contact local friends, all in the early morn. But at least I’d arrived in style.

The International Spy Museum: 2

In Uncategorized on August 10, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Photo taken in Sosua, Dominican Republic.

When you peruse the sections on World War II and the Cold War, the good humor melts entirely, and a serious schooling takes over. Exhibits on German crytography and the legendary Windjammers are awe-inspiring; it becomes apparent that spies aren’t just men who try to strangle each other in Parisian hotel rooms. Real spies have changed the course of history – intercepting telegrams, breaking codes, planting bombs in Cuban cigars. The fates of nations have hinged on the spy’s behind-the-scenes toil. And as the Cold War demonstrated, the spy’s world can become a labyrinth of loathing and self-doubt; it’s one thing to put on a persona in the name of king and country, but once you pretend to be your enemy, it’s easy to forget your friends. The chapter on Berlin is claustrophobic and heart-breaking – we see spouses betraying each other, coffee shop massacres, sweaty payphone conversations, all in the name of vague ideologies. In the end, the Spy Museum triumphs because it does more than stimulate our excitement; it sobers us up, reminding us that James Bond is fantasy and nuclear proliferation is profoundly real.

Unlike most museums in D.C., the Spy Museum is independent, snipping all ties to the Smithsonian megalith. This means the museum has an hefty entry fee ($12.50), but the expansive exhibits, top-notch cafeteria and adorable souvenir shop make it well worth the ticket price. And when you leave, one alarming fact keeps the adrenaline pumping throughout your day: Washington, D.C. has the highest concentration of spies in the world.

Just goes to show: Paranoia can be fun.

The International Spy Museum: 1

In Uncategorized on August 10, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Last night I saw Salt, which was a fun little film about car-chases and assassination. Ky thoroughly enjoyed it, since she loves Angelina Jolie and all her face-kicking badassness. I enjoyed it because I love tales of espionage. To that end, here is a favorite essay about the International Spy Museum, which first appeared in Salt Journal in 2004. Photograph of a queue to enter the Capitol building, Washington, D.C.

Each Thanksgiving, I visit Washington, D.C. to see my family and dine on my grandmother’s succulent turkey. Like any good spy, I travel by bus – low security, no bag checks, no record of your passage. These days, Washington looks less like a historic tourist trap than a Soviet compound: Walking the Mall, it’s common to see army Jeeps, soldiers bearing automatic weapons, police blockades and metal detectors at every municipal door. This is the District of Columbia in the twenty-first century: Martial, paranoid, and quietly tight-fisted.

Ironically, the only museum that doesn’t require a pat-down is the International Spy Museum, a multi-media funhouse of espionage, where you assume an alias, learn how to duck surveillance, and train to plant bugs in tree-stumps. The more frightening our terrorized world becomes, the more delightful the International Spy Museum – it combines Disney World simulators, History Channel information, and the charming suspense of a Hitchcock thriller. Most charming of all: Much of your passage is narrated from speakers by James Earl Jones.

The Spy Museum delicately balances adolescent hoke and serious sociological background. The introductory video and alter-ego chamber help create a do-it-yourself atmosphere; you imagine that becoming a spy is as simple as pulling on a trench coat. This is the Museum’s clever hook – keep visitors smiling through the intro, then hit ‘em with history. (If you’ve never crawled through an air duct before, you must give it a try). By the time you reach the sections on ninja and Civil War spies, you’ve already fallen into the rhythm of the place.

The Museum enjoys its share of dark irony – one corridor is full of spy toys and lunchboxes; in a small screening room, you can watch period cartoon shorts from World War II. The cartoon characters are your stock Warner Brothers animals, dressed in sailors’ whites and drinking pints in navy bars. When one unlucky duck tells a prostitute about his unit’s position, we see Fascist soldiers raining bombs on unsuspecting cargo ships. The lesson: Loose lips sink ships. In its day, the cartoon was comic and informative; today, it comes off as secretive and eerie.

My Book

In Uncategorized on August 4, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Photograph of my bedroom-office, where I wrote about 40,000 of the book’s ~50,000 words.

In brief: My book, The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage, will be published by Autumn House Press in Spring 2011.

I just found out this morning.

The contract is in the mail.

A lifelong dream is now coming true — to publish a meaningful book (meaningful to me, anyway) with a reputable press.

The project started in May 2009, when I decided to take a bus through five Eastern European countries and chronicle the journey. The first draft took about six months to complete. As many know, this early version was shortlisted for the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. This was very encouraging news, and I have since expanded and refined the manuscript — I eliminated a trip to the Acropolis, but I added a Swiss mime, a guy covered in scars, and a magical fountain.

I’d like to thank some of the people who have toiled through this manuscript and offered great advice: Richard Gibney, Sarah Ali and Kate Dillon come immediately to mind, although I know there were others. Copious thanks also go to Amila Ibricevic, who was kind enough to meet with me in Sarajevo after 13 years apart. You are all spectacular people, and as singular as a writer’s life may be, the success of this manuscript is really a group effort.