Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fear and Loathing in New South Wales

(Also a non sequitur, written in the World Tower in downtown Sydney.)

Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer and I am in Australia.

After spending nine hours too many in Los Angeles, I met up with a host of Study Australia students. Fortunately for all parties involved, we’ve been through the freshman routine before and found fun, new ways to meet people. None of the uncomfortable immediacies of freshman year, oh no. Every one of these folks is all right: this party abroad looks promising. After three hours of solid get-to-know-you time with a cadre of mostly Queensland-bound college students, we boarded our flight to Sydney. Because of my insistence on a nap-friendly window seat, I found myself segregated from the other exchange students with a Red Cross worker from Victoria and a Christian missionary from No’th Ca’lina. The missionary and I grilled our poor Australian associate about such mundane fare as the cost of food, the state of the economy, the cuddliness of koalas, and the direction toilet water flows. In so many words, we annoyed her.

Far more important than the nuggets of raw information we grind out of our reluctant tour guide are the flight attendant staff. Their awesome Aussie accents aside, they seem hell-bent on winning us over with food. Qantas is the airline of kings. Never on an airplane have I eaten so well for free. It seems every three hours of the 14-hour flight they wheel through the cabin with something new and delicious to convince us to emigrate permanently. Moroccan chicken with couscous, fresh fruit, tasty cookies, pretzels, soft drinks, tea, water, breakfast services, more tea… it’s a never ending barrage of edibles that warms travelers up to Australiana. So help me, I’m going to Australia!

When we finally touch down in Sydney, I’m ready to get off. I thought it would never end. It was hard sitting on that thing for so long. As you readers at home and in Australia are no doubt wondering, “That’s what she said” jokes are all the rage down here among American college students. I haven’t decided whether they encourage or discourage the extensive use of pronouns, but when in Rome you do as the conquering barbarians do. I’m as guilty of cracking out “That’s what she said” quips as the next guy (or girl, as it turns out), and I feel almost no remorse. Our cadre of university—not college, mind you—students met up with the Study Australia coordinators and dumped our belongings curbside. In the heart of their summer, Sydney is experiencing winter weather: 68 degrees and cloudy. The locals are jacketed and cold, the loud Americans are celebrating shorts weather.

Outside the airport, my roommates and I meet one another for the first time and discover that we’re really cool guys. Though we have some different priorities—and liver damage isn’t one of mine—A-plus on the roommate front. The entire group, the whole abroad program, is a really fun set of kids. Mostly connected in some way to Indiana, Maryland, and parts of the Midwest, we are alike in our Australian interests to varying degrees.

As usual in new social settings, my refusal to drink piques everyone’s interest. This always fascinates me, because I wonder why everyone starts drinking in the first place. We learn from our vices and the vices of others. For instance, alcohol in Australia gets the pants taxed off of it. The cheapest case of beer goes for about $38 AUD, or around $25 USD. Boxed wine—goon, as the Aussies call it—costs much, much less. Food is more expensive on the whole, but some items are very cheap. Locally grown produce costs very little, and meat can be got for the cost of dirt. Chicken, pork, lamb, beef, kangaroo: it can all be found for very little at the store. Funny thing is, kangaroo is very cheap. Since there are about six kangaroos for every Australian, the government here has decided that it’s best to cull some of the overgrown ‘roo populations and sell them cheap to the public writ large. As a result, it’s one of the cheapest red meats out there. It’s packed with protein and other good things, and unfortunately for would-be chefs, it has very little fat in it. Cook kangaroo to anything past bloody raw, and it turns into boot leather. Moreover, kangaroos are very cute. The first night in Sydney, I wolfed down a plate of kangaroo. The next day, I met a kangaroo. It grabbed an ice cream cone full of grains from me and ate it. I felt like a criminal and doubt I’ll ever eat kangaroo again.

Our accommodations in Sydney are obscenely nice. In the heart of downtown Sydney on the 63rd floor of the World Tower, which our guide estimates to be a $1.3 million AUD property, my roommates and I get the chance to live like millionaires. But without responsibilities. We have sweeping views of Darling harbor, the skylines, and the western suburbs of Sydney, and large alcoves perfectly suited to brooding evil geniuses and partying college students. At some point or another during the orientation, every single student in Study Australia came to our room for a good time. We are the lords of hosts, and our room entertained more people in four days than I’d heretofore entertained in my entire life. The 41 students on the trip learned to count on us for enjoyment. What a life we lead! And what’s more fascinating is that only two glasses were broken the entire time. On any given night, at least 25 group members would pay us a visit. Take heed: there is always a reason to prop open your door with a shoe.

Not a night passed when we stayed in. Hindsight suggests that our decision to mob the clubs EVERY SINGLE NIGHT was not a particularly wise one, but hindsight can’t make history, it only writes it. Carting 25 Americans around is hard enough, especially in a posh, exciting international city. Getting everyone between our apartment and any given club is like herding cats or nailing Jell-O to a tree. (Funny aside: jelly is the word for Jell-O down under). We’re loud, we swarm bars and clubs, and we dance like oversexed degenerates. Refreshingly but confusingly, freak dancing is looked down on in Australia. Nobody but partying Americans do it. It’s an unfortunate downside to our socialization: in a casual setting, we lack mechanisms for interacting with strangers without rubbing our crotches on them.

Australians love their dance music. Every club, every bar booms with steady bass beats and sturdy time-tested American electronica. Cultural hegemony ensures that we never feel too far from home, aside from the obvious disorientation of living beneath the equator. What catches the clubber is the striking lack of rap and hip-hop. Apple bottom jeans aside, there’s been almost no rap since we reached Australia.

Apple bottom jeans reminds me, Australian women are, from a very shallow level, the most beautiful set of women I have ever laid eyes on. They are preposterously, pyroclastically gorgeous. Yes, gentlemen, there has been much ass inside them jeans, but never too much. Culture here embraces the outdoors—it’s too pleasant to do otherwise. They jog, they swim, they bike; they are the fit descendants of criminals who knew what they wanted and knew how to get it. As a result, the off-British cockney twinge of the Australian accent belies the most attractive people I’ve seen on this green planet. Point in case is the bartender at The Gaff bar down Oxford street in Sydney. Directly opposite Medusa on the spectrum of physical beauty, this woman turns men into statues when their eyes meet her sparkling blues (statues of stone or wood, that is). Irreverent though I always am, I couldn’t bring myself to ask this Helen’s name. We call her The Bartender, but Helen seems like a decent given name. I can easily picture a trans-Pacific war break out over this charming Aussie lass. Colin Oppegard once said that Russia was a country of unappreciated super models: Australia is a country of fully appreciated super models. I fall in love at least four times a day, and every four hours or so my heart breaks and heals over again. It takes a country like Australia to kick start one’s heartbreak metabolism: my heart is a veritable blast furnace.

On day three, we drove out to the Blue Mountains to give abseiling a shot. By now it’s become abundantly obvious that this is atypical Australian weather: the mountains are cold and rainy, and as a group we are ill-equipped for weather of either sort. Abseiling is a form of rappelling that requires participants to trust their lives to a piece of string the size of their index finger while they descend ten stories into a valley. Awesome sport! Awesome, but terrifying. Our only way back to our makeshift camp is by a series of muddy trails and a rickety, 50-foot string of ladders lashed together by yet more pieces of string. My dad fell ten feet off a ladder three weeks ago: psychologically, I’m not ready to make this ascent. As a result, I pussed out. I make three of the short—75 to 100 feet—descents, but can’t bring myself to go face-first off a 200 foot overhang like three of my roommates (the other one went, but went butt first like a human being). Because Alaskans do not shiver, I spent the last half of the Blue Mountains adventure quivering with rage under a tarp with the other wimps.

Still, I love this country. They drive on the other side of the road, their bigfoot is the fabled drop bear, and every woman is gorgeous. Not that it really does anything but magnify my every impulse toward inadequacy, but living among the beautiful is very welcome.

When you sleep on average four hours a night, it’s difficult to get a sober picture of a city. We created an environment hostile to the very prospect of sleep, and our overall health doubtlessly suffered as a result. From the early morning to well past midnight, Sydney belonged to the students of Study Australia, most of whom teetered between hangovers and drunkenness the entire time. Debauchery is spelled S-Y-D-N-E-Y. As the only completely sober person in the bunch, it’s my duty to chronicle our time in this Pacific jewel of a city.

There was surprisingly little vomit.

I had four valentines.

Internet cafes are expensive.

The technological infrastructure of Australia can’t compare to that in the US. Despite recent initiatives to improve the Web infrastructure, Australians still don’t get enough service to meet their demands. As a result, there are to my knowledge no free Internet caf├ęs. In Seattle, a coffee shop that doesn’t offer free Web access is an empty coffee shop. Here, it’s business as usual. Thankfully, our apartment in Brisbane is supposed to have Internet access. As in all things, we shall see.

There’s too much to Sydney to commit in this already extremely long blog post, but rest assured that you will all be filled in when I find the energy to tell the tales of New South Wales. Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer, and soon I’ll be in Brisbane!

It's a Bird, it's a Plane: It's a Plane!

(This non sequitur piece about my journey from Alaska to Australia was written in the Tom Bradley International Terminal.)

Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer and I am sleep deprived. You might have seen this coming—I did. Seventeen hours ago I started my trans-hemispheric trek from Alaska to Australia. There’s no rest for the traveler. Let’s measure the journey: alphabetically, the move from Al- to Au- is trivial, piddling. As time commitments go, I’m not even halfway through the adventure. In the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX in Los Angeles, I’m a mere quarter of the way through my ten-thousand mile marathon.

Psychologically, I’m ready to give up. I’ve done war with a veritable evil axis of cold symptoms for the last two weeks. What began as a case of the sniffles evolved into punishing salvos of sinus congestion, chapped lips, a sore throat, intermittent deafness, spontaneous erections, coughing, and solipsism. The common cold is the David to my Australia trip’s Goliath. Unable to pop my ears during the descent into Seattle, I experienced knifebrain for the first time. Knife meets brain. Knife falls in love. Knife penetrates brain. Try ramming an ice pick between your eyebrows. Such is knifebrain. These two minutes of desperation are longer than any heartbreaking rejection or scathing lecture you’ve ever known. You’d peel off your own scalp for thirty seconds of relief. And as quickly as it comes, knifebrain disappears. The phantom pains stick around for the next hour or so, but the headache itself has said so long, see ya, deuces, peace, hasta la vista, arrividerci. You frantically pop your ears, hoping to appease knifebrain. Knifebrain is a jealous master who insists you worship no false maladies before it. So you pop enough Tylenol to give an alcoholic cirrhosis and cultivate a jaw-popping tic that wards off all potential mates. The homeless give you a wide berth. Children stare and point. Mentally, emotionally, I’m fried.

The Sea-Tac airport isn’t unpleasant, per se, but I’m always happy to leave the Emerald City behind. Consider the following statement: Seattle yuppies are pretentious shits with atrocious taste in airport art. I experienced firsthand the despair of “Clumps and clods.” This particular opus features a scattering of large metal blobs on an improbably located staircase. “Brilliant” commentary on the evanescence of life aside, I weep for the art world. Moreover, I weep from lack of sleep.

Through the miracle of Orbitz and my own trip-planning genius, I gave myself a seven-hour layover in Seattle and a nine-hour layover in Los Angeles. For those of you keeping score at home, my first day on the road involves seven hours in the air and sixteen hours with my thumb in my butt. I’ve seen the sights, and the sights are few. In Seattle, I’m rescued from two hours of abject boredom by Tyler Mahoney, Ben “Tombstone” Watanabe, and Trevor Lane. It’s early, and none of us are at our best. Honestly, I must be a let-down. It’s like going to see a concert from an artist who’s decided to dive for rock bottom: no shtick, no jokes, just head-clutching, sleep-deprived, surly Chris Lauer. The breakfast is more for me than them. I need to see those boys before I hit the fatal shore. By the time I get back to the states, they’ll have been long-graduated veterans of the real world and I’ll be an over-partied, sunburned, worn-out college student. So, out of pure selfishness, I asked them to crawl out bed at 7:30 on a Monday morning to entertain me. I love those guys. This blog goes out to them. May you all be healthy and well-dressed.

After my hetero life mates deposit me in the airport, I hunker down for another stint in the stratosphere. We take aim at Los Angeles in a 66-seat Canadair, the smallest plane that’s ever had the luxury of carrying me. Raving fans and gentlemen, you might not know this about yours truly, but turbulence excites the bajeezus out of my “holy-shit-I’m-going-to-di
e” reflex. 66-seat airplanes magnify turbulence. You can do the math yourself: my nerves are tangled and balled up like a set of Christmas lights, I’m too tired to think, and my ear drums might burst at any moment. Sunny Los Angeles is enjoying a particularly blustery round of the Santa Ana winds, and my wee little aircraft bucks and shudders like a drunken sorority girl on a mechanical bull. Like Deion Sanders drunk with a football, the pilot all but spikes the plane into the runway. We bounce twice. My life flashes before my eyes. The plane is completely fine. I’m rattled but otherwise OK. United Airlines is not to be trusted.

And here we are: I’m in Los Angeles, where paparazzi hunt celebrities, everyone tries to be a celebrity, and nobody likes celebrities. The internal contradictions are stark and amusing from a distance, but take the distance away and the city of angels holds only the smell of exhaust, the taste of stale vomit, and the sight of the gorgeous Hollywood sprawl. The lady at the Qantas check-in counter clicks away at her keyboard with inch-long fake nails: such is the cost of vanity. I shake my head and ask her why she works with nails that would instantly disqualify her for air travel. She informs me that, contrary to my belief, they are attractive. That’s right. Us guys love our long-nailed women. I’m reminded of the many social devices mankind has used to subdue womankind: high heels, corsets, The View. Miss airline employee dismisses me as a dumb yokel from the backwoods blown into LA by gale-force winds and checks me in. What a town! I slog through security for the third time in 24 hours only to learn that the Tom Bradley international terminal is undergoing a makeover. Scratch that: it’s going through complete facial reconstruction. Between me, blinding halogen lights, and a scattered few construction workers, I’m the only person in my end of the terminal. No food, no soft lights. Just hard airport seats and welders shouting at one another in Spanish. Famished, I leave the security area to find food.

Be wary of the sushi sold in airports.

So here I am, typing to you from a crowded computer lounge at LAX. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be in Australia, where the men are drunk, the women are gorgeous, and the children are poisonous spiders. Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer and I’m needed urgently down under. I’ll post more as events warrant.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Boats, Books, and Dating in the Land Down Under

Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer and my phone doesn't work.

Years ago, when I was young and stupid, I romanticized the freedom of the cell phone-less life. Freedom from friends, freedom from girls... the freedom to mope around on weekends and read. Positive and negative liberty converged in the absence of that one omnipresent modern convenience. And then I went to college, where everything changed. That's right, boys and girls, I bought a cell phone. Rappers use cell phones. Venture capitalists use cell phones. Impoverished college students, rather than splitting the difference between urban musicians and the uber-rich, spend the better part of their meager cash rations on "staying connected." In general, the term "staying connected" is used by phone companies to make frugal people feel inadequate. Before becoming a strong, empowered, self-made man, I caved to peer pressure and bought a phone.

Cell phones, like weeds, are hard to remove once they've taken root. My phone is an unwelcome extension of my body. But welcome or not, I like to put my appendages to good use. So when I emigrated to Australia for a semester and my phone ceased to function properly, you can sketch a raw image of my disconnected anxiety.

I am utterly lost.

For reasons that elude the problem solving skills of in-store phone company reps, my mobile phone can't call other mobiles. Land lines? No problem! In the pantheon of modern technology, I must have unwittingly aggravated a lesser deity of telephones. As an apathetic/agnostic by birth, rubbing mysterious and powerful spirits the wrong way is not the way I like to do things. I'd rather play Frisbee and eat organic food.

Disconnected, stranded in a strange city on the flip-end of the planet, and really, really ridiculously good looking, I was forced to come to terms with my phone situation. Yes, money is tight. Yes, I earned myself a mean sunburn. And yes, my student card doubles as a library card. So last Friday, rather than head to the beach, I donned my ancient Tevas and set out for the University of Queensland to get free reading material.

Libraries are candy shops for the literate soul. As a general rule, I enter libraries expecting to check out one or two books and leave with a backpack stuffed full of unrelated readings. I pulled out books on Kant and on international relations, on Australian politics and on feminist perspectives of Machiavelli, on philosophy and history, and I went out to the big room to read and, in classic Chris Lauer fashion, dick around on Facebook.

I sat down across from a big, mustached guy--with a poncho, he would have looked like Sancho Panza from "Don Quixote"--and plugged my laptop in to the world across the Pacific. Simultaneously, I cracked into Carr's writings on the 1919-1939 period. In any given library, you're unlikely to find a more dashing, more attractive, more intelligent multi-tasker than yours truly. Obviously I was too much for Sancho. He closed his laptop and went to find less dazzling surroundings. Sancho was not missed. But I wasn't alone for long. I soon discovered I wasn't the best looking person in the library. A slender red-haired girl took a chair at my table. Because beautiful people are a dime a dozen in Australia, I didn't give this showstopper the attention she deserved. But that all changed a few minutes later.

"Excuse me," the bombshell leaned across the table, "is your Internet not working also?" The accent caught me first. Pinched vowels, an almost timid uncertainty about sentence structure, strong consonants. Very cute. Very German. Helping her with her Internet woes will obviously not be enough. I must know more about this beautiful stranger.

"Hi, I'm Chris. What's your name?"

"I'm Jenny. Where are you from?"

Completely unaware that Jenny was a German name in common use, I performed the standard move of all nativist Narcissists and started rambling about all things Alaska. As our conversational tryst continued, I learned that the girl sitting across from me was very likely the most interesting exchange student in Australia (no offense to my fellow Study Australiites). Jenny told me she's student of cultural science, focusing specifically on music subcultures. As a member of more than one music subculture, I decided then that I needed to walk away with her phone number. After an hour and a half of gripping discussions on the nature of music culture and the realization that our music tastes differ very little, we swapped phone numbers. My stomach and heart had switched places, and I left to catch the ferry home.

The pounding sound in my chest drained my memory of the all-important fact that my phone is a mute, and as I walked away down the main concourse I realized that I needed to walk back and forwardly, formally ask this girl on a date, I was accosted by a bunch of quiche-peddling UNIFEM hustlers. UNIFEM is a great program that supports women's rights, don't get me wrong. It's about as objectionable as a hug or UNICEF, both of which it has a lot in common with. But as a college student on both a budget and a mission, quiche would have to wait.

"Not right now, amigos. I have bigger fish to fry."

"But the quiche is free! We had a meeting earlier and we have all these leftovers..."

"You're giving away old quiche? Sounds dangerous, edgy. No way I'm eating any."

So I turned tail and ran from those cosmopolitan-minded hucksters back into the library. There was Jenny, walking back to her seat from the water fountain.

"Hey, you seem like a busy person, but would you like to go see a movie sometime?" Sometime? My, my. My A-game has slipped after two months in the frigid north, cooped up with no alluring women to ask on dates. Open-ended time options are the bane of the dater's existence. Tomorrow becomes next week, next week becomes a busy schedule, a busy schedule becomes a never. My tact has failed me.

"Yeah, definitely!"

"OK, great. See you!"

My brain is convinced that this is the last I'll ever see of this amazing lady, but my heart desperately hopes it isn't.

I pass the quiche brigade again. "You sure you wouldn't like some quiche? It's heaps good."

Had I listened to Natalie Portman's rap anthem more recently, I would have swatted that greasy egg pie out of his hand and shoved him into his associate quiche-disher. But my mind was at peace and I was one with a turbulent universe, so I risked my digestive system and took their damned quiche.

"You can't take a quiche without taking a pamphlet." Cheeky bastard, inducing me to litter. I'm wearing foot gear long since forgotten by civilization that my roommates frequently criticize. To the untrained eye, I look either impoverished or edgy. I wish I could be edgy. Very obviously, I will not be donating to UNIFEM until I strike it Oprah-rich in the legal world years from now. I take the pamphlet and eat the worst quiche of my miserable young life.

Moving on: I'm on a boat and I have a hard time avoiding allusions to T-Pain and The Lonely Island. I wish my voice would auto-tune like T-Pain's, and my desire to spray Santana '73 cham all over the deck is hard to control. Kant is my companion on this big, turgid, watery road. "The Perpetual Peace" seems oddly ill-suited to the weekend that followed.

Friday night is placid, casual; standard fare for a man stripped bare of initiative. But Saturday morning I received a text message from none other than Jenny the German girl. She asked if I wanted to see a movie later.

There was a smiley face in the text message.

A smiley face.


Not only is this girl fascinating, I'm now convinced that she likes me as much as I like her. Cue problem: my phone can't communicate with other cell phones. I take a shot at placing a call: I'm greeted by a cheery female voice that informs me, with a thick Australian accent, that my call cannot be connected.

Fuck you too, robot.

I sent her a text message, but with no way to know if I got through to her, I got antsy. Minutes pass like kidney stones. An hour goes by. No response. The German girl who sent me the smiley face has forsaken me. So I cave: I read her number off my phone and dial her from the land line. I get an answering machine. If this girl is anything like me, she never checks her voice mail. Despondent, I slink back to the couch and try to learn a thing or two about cricket, convinced I've ruined a fine evening.

Cricket reminds me of my attempt to learn bridge. In the comics section of the morning paper, there was always a segment on a particular bridge problem. Having no prior knowledge of the game, and coming in with preconceived notions of how card games should be played (i.e., like poker), I was hopelessly lost in the bridge world. I'm no closer to understanding the game today than I was before I spent two weeks shoddily reverse-engineering a game I cared nothing for out of the newspaper.

Cricket and I have the same problem. I get that there's a ball guy, a bat man, and a smattering of dudes who stand around scratching their junk. I get that the ball guy is trying to break sticks, which annoys the bat man. The bat man slaps the ball and the nut-scratchers, ever fond of balls, try to grab it. There are scowls. There are tears. The score reflects the scowl-to-grown-man-breakin
g-down-and-crying ratio. The goal of the game is to get the entire opposing side to throw up from sheer disappoinMY PHONE IS RINGING! IT'S HER! IT'S RINGING!

"Hey! How're you going, Jenny?"

"What?" she asks. Australianisms don't translate well over the phone.

"Hi Jen, what's up?"

We decide to go on a date later that evening. Not just any old date. Not some lame maybe-hook-up-at-a-party date. Not for this one. She's a dinner-and-a-movie girl. In looking up movie times, one film catches my eye. What could be better than Slumdog Millionaire? It won awards.

This is the same reasoning people use to justify Nickelback.

I have a history of choosing bad first-date films. When I was in high school I went on a date with a beautiful bright young lady who had just turned seventeen, who could, for the first time, watch R-rated movies in theaters. What could be better than watching an R-rated movie in a theater?

Whenever I ask that question, the answer isn't "nothing."

She decided to turn seventeen at the unfortunate junction in human history when the only two R-rated films on the big screen were Doom and Saw II. Fully loaded with popcorn and Sour Patch Kids, we settled in for a nice, uncomfortable, romantic first date to the opening credits of Saw II.

Raving fans and gentlemen, torture porn is never an acceptable date option.


After the gut-wrenchingly terrible cinematic miscarriage that was Saw II, we went for a walk and made tiny icemen in the seafood section of the grocery store. Good, lighthearted fun. I walked her to her car and got a peck on the lips. For the next week, I rode around on a cloud. A week later, she and I put the ugly business of Saw II behind us and had another--better--date.

There's a reason I study history. A great and very famous man whose name escapes me once wrote that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. It was probably Jesus. Maybe Professor X. My lesson from that fateful evening was that you do not take pretty girls to jarring movies, not at first. Or maybe Martin Scorsese, maybe he said it.

"Slumdog Millionaire won awards. It'll be a great date movie!"

I can see my mother now, warning me against taking a girl to Slumdog. My mom's a real peach. "You'll regret it. You won't get any!"

Too bad for me and too bad for history. To Slumdog we go, and a mere five minutes in I regret the choice. Slumdog Millionaire (Warning: I spoil the ending) is a story about a super-poor kid from the Mumbai slums who wants to impress a hot girl. She's a perfect ten, and he's the South Asian equivalent of Corey from Boy Meets World. The next two hours are filled with beatings, electrocutions, poop, senseless killings, rape, boiling acid, gun play, and the Indianized version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." In the end, the main character wins big on a guess and uses his 20 million rupees--roughly US$400,000--to run away with the gorgeous Latika, who for reasons I won't explain loves this goofy, abused bastard.

Sounds good for a date, aside from everything leading up to the last three minutes of the film.

If there was any chance I had of holding this girl's hand that night, Slumdog blew it for me.

No. Wait. I'm going to assume responsibility for my actions. I blew my chance at holding her hand.

Raving fans and gentlemen, I encourage you all to breathe deep from the misadventurous wellspring of my inexperience. We study history for a good reason: so we don't screw up the same way twice. I didn't learn my lesson, but you can learn from me. Never forget. Be ever vigilant for critically acclaimed movies. Slumdog Millionaire is a fine work of art, a beautiful piece of cinema, but a TERRIBLE date movie.

Afterward, we walked back to her house and talked about life and music and travel and adventure and Australia and Europe and Alaska and culture and Tolstoy and Ben Kweller and Circa Survive and... and...

And then I got a hug.

And then I got in a cab.

And then I confessed the whole evening to the cabbie.

And then he told me to bring a crowbar next time.

And then I told him I didn't understand.

And then he, in the Socratic way, brought me around to the understanding that crowbars were intended for opening a woman's legs.

I decided my cab driver was not a romantic.

It was a fine hug, but I'm left with the residual notion that I blew multiple chances for hand-holding or even the errant smooch. Why? I don't know. I couldn't say. Perhaps I should have brought a crowbar.

But I'm glad I didn't. See, books, history, and romance all share something in common: they take time. History unfolds over the course and span of days, months, and years, and is studied in minute detail for decades as patterns emerge and weave their way into cohesive narratives. Books demand a patience and mental involvement that far outstrips any television series or movie, that lets the avid reader construct vivid wordscapes across the vast plain of imagination. And dinner-and-a-movie girls don't always smooch on the first date.

And you know what? I'm cool with that. I read every day, I study history carefully, and I can wait until next time for a kiss on the cheek. Maybe longer. Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer, and, like so many good things, this too will take time.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

550 Calories

Raving fans and gentlemen,

My name is Chris Lauer and I disgust myself.

Today, I committed the cardinal sin of yuppiedom: I ate a double quarter-pounder with cheese. Plain. No ketchup, no onions, no damned pickles. Dripping with guilt and grease, I wolfed the fucker down faster than you could ask for two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun. I guess I should feel proud about myself. I guess.

As an omnivore, it's my natural duty to munch on everything that comes my way, my physique be damned. Equally important is my dedication to behaving like a good son. So when Mom takes orders for McDonald's, what kind of self-loathing, arugula-eating ingrate would I be if I turned my poor mother down? On the filial piety front, I swung for the fences. But in every other way, I waged a war on decency. For starters, no self-respecting human being should eat McDonald's fast food, let alone inhale a burger in a few short seconds. Arteries cinch tight, arms go numb: this is the stuff hospital visits are made of.

Clearly, because I'm 21 years old and invincible, only the most immediate health concerns--flesh-eating bacteria, spiders, gunshot wounds--faze me. Seeing as no substantial part of my anatomy threatened to fall off or stop working on account of a miserably unhealthy lunch, I refused to let health issues bother me.

My environmentalist friends know all too well that the American meat industry dumps extraordinary quantities of methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Like the wife of a dictator, I'm an enabler, and for that I apologize. If the difference between climate correction and the heat death of the planet boils down to half a pound's worth of ground beef, I will personally assume all responsibility for global warming.

For whatever reason, I can't get Dave Brubeck's "Suicide is Painless"--the M*A*S*H theme song--out of my head. Could it be that I've had a small stroke and these are the last guilty paroxysms of a dying subconscious? Did a brick of cholesterol get sucked straight into my bloodstream and go on a demolition derby through my cerebellum? The smart money says my higher brain is imploding and it's taking everything down with it. I give myself a few minutes to test the hypothesis. Both sides of my body still work. Memory is still solid. Dave Brubeck is still stuck in my head. I resolve to watch fewer reruns.

Convinced that renegade blood clots pose no imminent danger to my person, I loosen up a bit. I'm not out of the woods yet; a bad hamburger can do strange things to a guy. Fifteen minutes after my bout with gluttony, I'm filled with something my guidance counselor said I'd never have: initiative. I tell my sister to get in the car because we're going for a workout. Before the angels of my better judgment can save me from myself, I'm at the gym pounding out reps on the rowing machine.

100 calories later, Larry King and John McCain are shooting the shit. The owl man asks standard questions, Mac parries like a good beltway insider. The squirming is political and hollow. Fun, but still political and hollow. This is how drug users start bad trips. As I break the 200 calorie mark, the pain in my knee informs me that my days as a rower are numbered. Time to hit the elliptical.

Something is wrong about this workout. My face isn't beet-red, I'm not gasping for breath, and I... I enjoy it. What's wrong with this picture? Shouldn't I be vomiting blood in a urinal in the men's room? 300 calories. I've lost my front row seat to ogle Larry King's strigiforme features. Instead, I have the luxury of watching snowboarders compete in the X Games. I confess, I've never given two shits about snowboarding or the X Games, and even in closed-captions the sport fails to impress me. I've convinced myself that the commentators are morons.

"He was totally steezin' down that pipe 'til a bogus slip-up ruined his day," said one burnt commentator.

"Totally, brah," said the other, "he was straight illin' and then the lip was all 'fuck your day, bro,' and he was like 'you aren't my real dad,' and then the mountain totally slapped him in the face like my jerk step-dad who thinks weed is a crime."

The first anchor offered words of consolation and commiseration. "Totally, brah."

To be fair, I didn't read the captions. At all. After 450 calories of strenuous exercise, everything from the shoulders up shuts off. Hallucinations set in. These anchors could be Oxford scholars for all I know. But frankly I don't care: snowboarding bores the urine out of me. 500 calories, and my second wind is all but exhausted. For however much I bought into the hagiography of the Unites States' favorite illiterate swimming star, my body is no blast furnace like Saint Michael's. There's no pain, only exhaustion. Nothing but sheer inertia pulls me to the magic number of 550.

There has never been a good reason to vacuum up a fast food burger and hit the gym in the same 30-minute span. Oddly enough, my stomach never bubbled up, cramps never overtook me, and I came out of the exercise session like a bat out of hell. But all isn't roses for the self-abusive exerciser. After toweling off my sweat and downing some much needed water, I caught up with my sister and we set off for home. Katie has a funny look on her face. She sniffs the air and winces.

"Chris, you smell like McDonald's."

"Are you fucking kidding me?"

"No, dude. You're like a deep fat fryer."

This is the kind of scent that takes painful scrubbing, powerful deodorant, and numerous herbal cleansers to evict from the body. I knew better, you should know better, and there is no call for ever making the same mistakes I make.

Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer and I smell like French fries.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Acting your age

Raving fans and gentlemen,

My name is Chris Lauer, and I am freezing. For the last two weeks, nature has visited a bone-shivering cold snap on Alaska, of all places, and us unfortunate denizens of the 49th chamber have had to suck it up and deal with the sub-zero temperatures. To celebrate the blistering cold, I went for a midnight run in minus-35 temperatures: my eyes froze shut. The heater in my car stopped working. 400 miles away, in hyperboreal Fairbanks, my friend Brett froze his hair at a hot spring.

To celebrate the season, I'm loading up a shopping cart with aerosol spray cans and investing in a sturdy beach chair.

While we're on the subject of ozone depletion and summer recreation, I'm leaving the hemisphere. Don't take it personally: you're all fine people with interesting lives and dirty secrets, and I'll be back to see you all again in early July. But, starting Feb. 9, I'll be communicating with the northern world between spider bites and late nights from Brisbane, Australia.

I'm terrified of poisonous things, which makes Australia a great place to hyperventilate and die. Even the mammals are poisonous in Australia (specifically the Platypus, nature's felony). Despite my deep fear of Australian fauna, I'll be roaming into all corners of the outback to test my mettle and confront my fears. Or be murdered by them.

I worry too much.

When I was four years old, I was scared shitless of growing old and dying. See, I watched "Bambi" for the first time and was forced to deal with the grim reality that even timeless, anthropomorphic cartoon deer--mother deer!--die gruesome, violent deaths. Naturally, I was distraught. Luckily for me, mom and dad were around to offer words of consolation, if not encouragement. "If we lived in Australia, you could get bit by a spider and *bam* be dead before you felt the bite," said dad. Mom slugged him in the arm for sewing the seeds of many nightmares to come. Ever enamored of slapstick comedy, I croaked pulses of hysterical laughter before remembering the awesome gravity of my situation. As a little boy in Alaska, thousands of miles from the nearest poisonous animal, I convinced myself that I was in immediate danger of sudden death by funnel web spider. In my teen years, "Arachnophobia" and its cinematic ilk would not help matters.

Years later--when I was six--I saw a commercial for an energy utility. "The sun will last another eight billion years. So... you should buy energy from us." The advertising message was thin, but the prospect of not living to see the end of the sun--or worse, being consumed by the resulting supernova (I knew of such things at this age)--was simply too much for my precocious little ass to handle. There were tears.

More recently, I developed an obsession with house prices and average salaries. See, for every five college students who become hopeless idealists, one becomes a statistical fatalist. Fatalists are addicted to figures and will site case studies at the most socially inopportune times. We fatalists are the meth addicts of the intellectual world. They're gaunt, thin, have bad dental hygiene, and smell like cat urine. Determinism is a cruel mistress. Statistics have become a touchstone for normalcy and have done too much to inform my notions of success. Though I can't say I've lost weight, chewed through my lips, or ever smelled like a litter box, I do care waaay too much about statistics and place an inordinate amount of faith in them.

Or at least I did. A week ago, I brushed up on an old staple of parental wisdom. Usually meant as a frustrated admonition, the adage "act your age" gave my 21-year-old self pause. Have I been acting my age? When I answered this question, while driving on the highway, I slammed on the breaks. Holy samoleons! For better or for worse, I'm guilty of not acting my age. I don't do the things 21-year-olds do. I don't think like a 21-year-old. This must be the reason I'm never pleased with myself. A sedan screeched around me on the right, horn blasting, the driver no doubt muttering all kinds of colorful expletives. Fuck him: I just found enlightenment. For the last 21 years, I hadn't been acting my age at all. See, I insist on simultaneously being 15, 30 and 45. Obviously, I am none of these ages. And I was never particularly good at being 15. What I realized, parked in the fast lane of the New Seward highway, was that I'd been importing stress from all over the span of human life and processing it into the contentious little cancers of anxiety. That night, I dumped those stresses: the fear of sudden death, of the eventual heat death of the universe, of the small mortgage I'm taking on to finance my education, of the much larger mortgage I'll one day take out to buy a house, of the family I'll one day have, of the job I'll one day hate, of the money I'll one day make, of the place to where I'll one day retire, and of the ailment that'll one day end my life. All of it, gone. Not to say that I've gone all Tucker Max on you: I still care about more than booze and pussy, but now I get to busy myself with the life of a 21-year old college student. No more will I export the moment: I'm here and my life isn't going anywhere without me.

However, the baggage of anxiety is still terribly real. I need to convince myself that I will not be tied down and gang-raped by a legion of funnel web spiders, which will not be easy. I need to delete my list of potential retirement destinations, which will be ridiculously easy. I need to go on dates, which is less difficult than warding off horny, drug-crazed arachnids but much harder than deleting links to overpriced beach front property. I'm sure I'll manage

Raving fans and gentlemen, I'm Chris Lauer, and I will write you all again very soon.