Friday, March 21, 2008

A Touch of Class

Prior to my adventure in Valencia, I spent a weekend in Madrid. We had a fantastic feast at Casa de Toni with a cool dude named Cam and his parents. The right half of the table was discussing light fare. Bah. I engaged his dad, a history professor from Smith, and his mom in some of my usual topics – the future of humanity, the evolving role of the scientist through history, implications of European vs. American anti-intellectualism, and Henry Janssen’s glorious but quite gloomy article, The Credibility Crisis, and its implications for scientific inquiry and trust. He turned me on to ‘Anti-intellectualism in American history,’ a book I must seek out, as it is my destiny to fight this trend. Politics inevitably came up, but the old adage about not discussing religion or politics at the dinner table can be safely ignored among American intellectuals. No smart person will defend Bush or the fundies that put him in power. I missed half the salad spouting about the financial and ethical ramifications of reverse brain drain. The waiter and owner (who I presume is Toni) served up bottle after bottle of an exceptional Rioja, which did not quiet any of us.

One of the dinner party was a cool but decidedly intimidating Cuban thug named Miguel. Later we hung out at a bar that I thought was random, but turned out to be his. Also good fun. He had a squat bulldog wearing a black shirt that said Security. I told him this was pretty funny. No, Miguel said, that dog is security.

Later that evening, an argument erupted outside. It got quite loud. Miguel, who looked like he neither feared nor failed at physical combat, ignored it. Sure enough, out goes the security pooch, barking enough that he actually got the protocombatants to stop yelling and look at the dog. Great security! Way to defuse a fight! But too late. Out of nowhere, both the arguers were wet. Turns out that one of the residents of an apartment above the bar launched quite a lot of water at them. Also very effective. Now the arguers were no longer mad at each other; they were mad at the apartment owner, who was of course locked away and inaccessible. It might have been nastier in the days of chamberpots.

Fast forward to Las Fallas on 19 March. The main effigy was scheduled to burn at midnight. Bill, Jules, and I were hanging out at a prime location by 9 PM. Some random British dude took a liking to us. Eh, OK. Whatever. Around 10, things were getting really crowded and we could not help but notice a large metal vehicle with a flat top that was about 4 meters above the ground. I kept eyeing it. Someone is gonna go there sometime, I thought. Just a matter of time. The increasingly drunk Brit stumbled up there. Then a kid. Then another. Critical mass is imminent, I thought, it's now or never, and climbed up. Sure enough, 5 minutes later, it was packed and I was in the very front, with literally the best view possible. Behind me was a nice Spaniard from Navarro, and to my right was the drunk Brit. Around 10:30, the Brit says he ‘as to ‘ave a piss. Go for it, I said, there’s a bar over there. He tried to get off the metal structure, then realized this was impossible because of the crowd density. He fretted, then decided another beer was the best solution. Then another. I commented to the Spaniard behind me: I do not know this guy, I just met him. 11.30, the Brit casts about again for a way off the metal structure. Same routine – did not find a way off, got stressed, more beer. Hey dude, maybe you wanna pause that beer drinking? Never say this to a Brit. He took it as a challenge. He noted that he only had to wait another 30 minutes. This is Spain, I replied. He countered by pounding a beer. I turned to the Spaniard for a pre-emptive distancing. I don’t know this man, I said. I just met him. My friends are there – I pointed toward Bill and Jules – but neither were visible at the time. Joy. Midnite comes. The crowd cheers, but nothing happens. 12.30. 12.45. More steady beer drinking from Limeyquack. He complained about the delay. People around us started complaining about the drunk British men. No, I said to them in Spanish, I am not with him. And I am not British. And I am totally sober. (After saying this, I realized it was true.) But it is not easy mollifying drunk locals as an American, speaking their language with a Mexican accent. And it was fucking loud. Fireworks are going off 3 a second, but the effigy remains unlit because some elderly fireman was bitching about something. Indeed, I wouldn’t want his job. You are trying to burn a 10 meter tall structure in the center of a plaza. There is an angry, drunk, surging crowd within 3 meters, there is no way for any emergency service to get through traffic, and it’s your ass if anything goes wrong. The fire chief barked an order and they started assiduously spraying the surrounding buildings with fire hoses so they would not ignite or get charred. Thoughtful. Proactive. But the fire chief got no sympathy. The crowd was chanting and getting pretty angry about the delay. Around 1 AM the Brit starts complaining very loudly – in English, of course – earning a lot of glares. So I tried to get really absorbed with my new friend from Navarro, but the Brit kept grabbing me. 1.10. 1.15. Ah, he says, fock this, keep an eye out for me, eh? What?! He already had an empty beer can ready and his dick out. Dude, I said, there are 40 people watching you. Stop! Right now! Oh its brah brah broo something, I’ll just go down here. He knelt on the corner of the metal structure. Doesn’t work for ostriches, and did not work for him. I tried to move away, but as I mentioned the crowd permitted no movement. People below start yelling. Maybe 20 percent of his urine stream hit the can – of that, less than half actually made it inside. The remainder was a flat plane of piss, the sort of thing that could only stem from a wacky drunkard pinch. The guy hit some people directly with that, others indirectly with the ricochet off the can, and yet more from metal-platform drip. The can soon started overflowing, producing yet another source of post-penile drip, and of course he did not notice. I would have had trouble engineering a wider distribution if I tried. The Brit looks at me with all the uninhibited joy of the famous Steve Martin scene in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. A few guys started trying to climb up the metal structure, and not with friendly expressions. Stop your friend, the Navarran says. I told you, he is not my friend! Nobody heard, and their only cues were the Brit talking to me and conveying through body language that I am his soulmate. I’m gonna die, I thought. Right then – the timing could not have been more serendipitous – they ignited the fireworks in the main effigy. The crowd went wild. So did the Brit, rising to cheer in midpiss and thus unleashing a wild 3D arc that easily hit 10 more people. Then the arc bobbed up and down, since both his hands were now raised to cheer (each holding a full beer can, only one full of beer) and he no longer was playing accidental shower nozzle with himself. Of course this hit yet more people, including himself. None of them noticed, and probably thought it was just water dripping from the fire hoses. Yay! Ole! It’s Las Fallas! And we’re getting sprayed cause we’re so close to the fire hoses! We’re right in the middle of the action! Ignorance is bliss.

The fire engineering was perfect – no damage at all to the people or houses. The effigy burned cleanly. All collapsing parts fell straight down. It was really impressive. They have done this before. About 10 minutes later, as the fire started dying, I became among the first to exit the metal structure. I found Bill and Julien and said, we gotta go NOW. I started to explain. Julien said, yeah, we heard the crowd yelling about something just before the effigy went up. We thought they were complaining about the delay, but it seemed that just this little region of people was much angrier than the rest. Yes, that is because they were pissed off about getting pissed on by a pissed Brit. Wars have been started for less. Keep moving.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shock and aaaaahhhh

When I was 12, I went to Baja with my dad and brought back some fireworks. I was told that home at the time - Palm Desert, CA - had an average age of 58. I do not know if this is true, but I can buy it. There wasn´t much to do unless you liked golf, shuffleboard, and spending $200 on lunch. The main streets in the region were (and still are) named Bob Hope, Fred Waring, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, etc. So I quickly learned three things:

1) fireworks are really fun.
2) kids will pay well for fireworks in the desert, which were totally illegal.
3) the methods and mindset that I (now) recognize as good engineering and science paid off when applied to pyrotechnics. If you cut open a firework, and pour the gunpowder on the ground and light it, there is a lot of light and nothing. Lighting an explosive on the TOP of an anthill does very little. Only when the gunpowder is contained will it get loud and produce concussion. Proper redirection of the blast can very dramatically affect the outcome. If, for example, you are annoyed at the crabby old fogeys at Sandpiper, a local retirement community, because they will not let you cut through their backyards to get to the mall, you can detonate an M1000 on the dirt and nothing happens. But the same firework, only 20 meters away, right against a crevice in a mountain, will send a very loud concussion wave over Sandpiper. The effectiveness of this could be easily verified by cop cars coming 20 minutes later, trying ineffectively to find William Hoopes and me, who knew those mountains well. We even got in to taunting them by popping off a few more when they were looking for us. Same principle as ventriloquism.

Around the same time, our friends Chuck and Pat Milton in Colorado would have an annual fourth of July fireworks show out there. We went to Colorado each summer for other reasons, but the Milton fourth of July party was high on the list. They spent many thousands of dollars each year. Because Chuck was a cool guy, he would let the kids see the catalog and light some fireworks. Year after year. I thought I had seen it all.

How deeply humbled I have been over the last few days in Valencia for Las Fallas. Each year, these mad Spaniards spend months making huge, gorgeous paper mache effigies. There are over 300 neighborhoods, and each one gets together, forms a committee, and takes great pride in their effigies. They deserve it. Some of them have to be more than 10 meters tall. Even the feeblest mini-Fallases are maybe 6 feet tall, and flawlessly beautiful. For 4 days, people party around the effigies, and then on the last night (about 8 hours ago) they burn them.

Also, they blow up more fireworks than I thought possible.

These Valencians are mad. They definitely go through more kilotons per day than any fireworks show I have seen. Not so much large scale fireworks, set off by professionals, but small to medium ones by locals. They specifically target civilians. They light half sticks of dynamite and throw it at your head. They light bottle rockets where there are literally 15 different cables, ropes, clotheslines, etc. Why are there not more three-fingered and one-eyed Valencians? No idea.

On concussion. If you light an explosive in an alley with 2 5-story buildings on either side, where will the shockwave go? Back and forth. This is why professional pyrotechnicians arrange for detonations to occur way out in the open air. You can still feel the shockwave. Imagine the same caliber - at least - 10 feet from your head. The blast makes your hair stand on end. I still cannot hear properly. We watched some poor Chinese tourist take a direct hit, stumble, almost fall over, and then turn around to yell at the kid responsible - who was, of course, launching another one at him at the time. My friend Julien Reedhead took a piece of shrapnel in the leg. Not cardboard - metal, from a wire frame. Dude, I said, you should wear long pants to provide some flak protection. Dude, I was wearing jeans at the time, the metal went right through it.

By 2 AM I finally learned the routine that Bill Tortora followed. If you see a firework, turn your head away and open your mouth. Now I will need some time to unlearn that. This morning, I walked around the corner for a tasty breakfast of churros y chocolate. Someone in front of me accidentally dropped a piece of paper. Incoming! I turned away and opened my mouth. Pause. Pause. Nothing. Dammit, get it over with!! Pause. Pause. Guy taps me on the shoulder and says in Valencian, it´s OK, Las Fallas is over.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

the weather

I think the sun is nice. It is nice when it is about 23 degrees celsius. However, I do not like it when it is cold and/or rainy. Sleet is right out.

(Insiders will understand why this blog entry differs from others.)