Breakfast In America

I like trains. Well, not the trains themselves, maybe - but the idea of trains. Things on rails don't really ever get lost. And it's not that I'm worried about getting lost; some of my best memories are from places I'd never thought I'd find myself in. Rather, I'm fascinated by the idea of the tracks themselves - they are unidimensional. They have a start and an end, and everything in between is unyielding. Someone long ago decided that "this is where the first station will be, and the last will be over there." Entire nations have been built on this concept, trading posts and villages sprouting up like daisies along where the tracks briefly slide into a train station, only to disappear again into the distance. The rails are a work of art, like a sculpture designed long ago by some artist who would never have guessed that thousands upon thousands of people would one day be sliding back and forth in air-conditioned, web-enabled little cars. In my case, I was sliding towards the Hudson valley, across northern New York State, in this, the first part of a multi-leg trip across the United States.

Trains in the US, of course, are not nearly as popular as their European or Asian counterparts. This is automobile (and truck) country, and the sad state of most of Amtrak's network speaks volumes about its inability to compete in a country where nearly everyone drives when they can, and flies when they must. However, there's a little part of Amtrak's system where the cars are a little cleaner, the staff a little friendlier, and the ride a little nicer than in the rest of the United States - of course, the irony is that it's a chunk of the network that's shared with Canada. The incredibly cheap, surprisingly comfortable ride from Montreal on down - all the way through New York city and beyond - is one of the only stretches of travel time where I can actually get serious amounts of work done. I can't work on planes - the seats are too cramped for my shoulders, and my Dell M90 engineering workstation is too big and heavy to be mounted comfortably on those flimsy tray tables... I've broken more than one trying to find out. And driving would be easier if I weren't always the designated driver. Maybe I make the mistake of saying that "I enjoy driving", or the fact that I hold licenses to drive busses, trucks and taxis, or that people somehow still trust my driving skills after watching me barrel down snowy mountain slopes in my Korean-spec Hyundai Avante or drag race my '82 Trans Am, but I always end up being asked by everyone else to drive. But in the train, it's a different story - power outlets, big (empty) seats, tables, and friendly neighbors.

This time, however, I had done most of my work already long before leaving. That left some downloaded emails to reply to and web stuff to take care of, but the rest of the 7 hour ride was spent playing Call of Duty 4 (on Linux) and watching movies. As we were pulling into Hudson, where Dharma was to pick me soon, I had my eyes swelling with tears from watching the end of Juno.

Now that we've established that I'm a big ole' wuss, let's move on.

Oh, something else - apparently Jennifer Garner's character required no acting at all; she's really a prissy bitch in real-life, too. That makes me like her even more, strangely enough. Then again, if you'd met some of the girls I dated in my early- and mid-twenties, you'd know I have a thing for prissy bitches. Apparently.

Dharma showed up mere minutes after I disembarked the train from Hudson, and as always, the rest of my time with her was an absolute pleasure. We drove up to her beautiful house in the Catskills - famous for being the birthplace of Mike Tyson (the Catskills, not Dharma's house) - where in exchange for food and shelter, I played with her dog Iris, spent time with her little angel Quinn, and helped re-organize her shed. Life in the mountains is definitely something I could get used to. One day. My dreams of owning a penthouse in the city and a manor in the country still being rather distant, I will have to settle for coming to visit Dharma once in a while to get my fresh-air fix.

The next morning, we set out to Dharma's hometown of Scranton, halfway to DC, in her green Dodge Grand Caravan.


The driver of the flatbed truck wasn't one for small talk. To be fair, neither were Dharma or I. We had already resigned ourselves to having to pay a hundred bucks for the towing service, back to a dubious northern Pennsylvania garage / junkyard / repair shop ironically named "My Place". We're lucky a police officer spotted us on the side of the road trying to get at the hopelessly stuck spare tire in her van. If he hadn't found us, we could've been there for much longer. Then again, if we had a working spare tire in Dharma's van, we would've been able to easily replace the mysteriously shredded rear right tire that forced us to pull over on the side of Interstate 87. After about an hour of futility trying to get an uncooperative spare tire mechanism to release, a state trooper found us and called for a tow truck, which took another hour or so to arrive. I suppose it says something about us how we spent that hour broken-down on the side of the highway: plugging away at our laptops while the rest of the world zoomed by.

In total, we spent about 4.5 hours dealing with this flat tire. The tow-truck driver / mechanic didn't inspire much confidence when he sold us a tire that was the wrong size for our van upon seeing that our spare was actually an old, worn tire filled with plugs. We argued over what the numbers on the side of the tire mean - I'm not a mechanic, but I have enough automotive common knowledge to know that the "65" in "215/65/15" is the ratio of the height of the sidewall in comparison to the rest of the measurements. I eventually resigned myself to buying the tire and driving the other 4+ hours to Scranton with the alignment all screwed up. It was a safer choice (though not "safe") than taking our chances with the plugged, beaten spare. Against all odds, we did eventually make it to Scranton in one piece.

After a brief stop at Dharma's friend's place, we went straight to her Mom's. Dharma's mom is a delight to be around, and we always have a wonderful conversation, no matter the topic. She also always has some great tea whenever I happen to drop in. We didn't spend much time there, though; we spent the night, then hit the road running the next morning (after getting some semi-healthy organic grub for the ride ahead from the local granola-hippie-mart).

Driving into DC was uneventful, and thanks to my GPS (which, I should mention, is hacked to shreds, runs Linux, and speaks directions in a western hillbilly accent), we effortlessly find Cecille's nice apartment, where she graciously offered to host us for the length of the summit, as well as Amelia (who is probably as close Keira Knightley as I will ever get to meeting). Spending a week in a one-bedroom flat with three beautiful women? Yeah, this trip is starting off alright, I suppose.

The summit itself is different than all the ones that came before it. I've been to every wireless summit since the first one back in 2004 where I met Sascha, but now in DC it progressed from grassroots, hacker-and-policy-hacker meetup to something a little more high-falutin' official. This was the natural progression, of course, and DC was the natural place to host it now. The line-up of speakers was of a far different cloth from what I'd remembered from previous years, too: Amir Dossal, Executive Director of the UN Office for Partnerships, Rey Ramsey, One Economy, Jonathan Adelstein, Commisioner of the FCC, etc. I'm not going to go in depth about the summit here; suffice to say that it was bigger than ever, very exciting, and definitely worth the trip.

I often wonder how different I'd be if my parents had moved the US instead of somewhere else. What my theoretical American identity would be like, how I would feel about the world, and what my answers to the two very different questions "Who am I?" and "What am I?" would be. I saw a non-descript, normal looking young guy about my age, dressed in board shorts and a polo and a Yankees baseball cap, casually park his $225,000 Lamborghini Gallardo in front of a Starbucks to get some caffeine - it seemed totally normal and par-for-the-course to everyone around. No one even noticed him except for me. I met scores of friendly Ethiopian taxi drivers, and learned more about the city from them than I could from any amount of time speant looking up "DC" on the Internet. What if I were a hedge fund kid? What if I were a Taxi driver? Could I be both? What would I choose to be if I were actually given the choice? (hint: I have a license to drive a cab...) I was here for a summit that aims to connect more people to a faster, cheaper, and better Internet, yet here I was feeling stronger than ever before about the fact that the Internet was nothing more than another superficial layer we've added to obfuscate ourselves and the people around us. In building the global village, we forgot all about the "village". We have all become brown, we are all experts, and we all know everything about each other. I can find out about riots in Cairo, human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, feminicide in Mexico, or what any random upper-middle-class blogger with a new Macbook thinks about the rigged elections in his or her police state. I cannot, however, know how my next-door neighbor feels about the rising levels of violence in our city, know if the little kids across the street are doing good in school, or if the elderly grandmother around the corner is lonely and would like some company. We all have voices, and sometimes we try and give voices to those who we think deserve them, either because we think it's what's "right" or because we're trying to fill a void in ourselves by doing things that we everyone approves of. We forget, though, that not everyone feels the need to speak all the time - and precious few left have the patience to listen.

DC itself was far more interesting than I had imagined it to be. I had visited before, but never stayed long enough to get a feel for the place, and, admittedly, my previous impressions weren't very positive. This time, though, I made time to walk around the neighborhood, and drive (in Dharma's big green van) to other ones. Against all odds, I had a really good time in DC - though the company I kept went a long way to ensure that. I did the typical DC sights, the hill, etc. I spent the first evening alone - there was a swanky dinner for 'wireless visionaries' and apparently I'm not a wireless visionary ;) - so I walked around until I stumbled into a cool pizza place / ping pong hall. Yes, at Comet, they serve decent pizza and have ping pong tables in the back. I met a group of friendly students, we got to talkin', and then we played some ping pong for a while. I didn't do half bad, even though I tend to suck at racket sports. All that time on my Xbox playing "Rockstar Presents: Table Tennis" seems to have paid off. Several session tracks, impromptu hack sessions, and mango martinis later, and it was time to leave the seat of power of the free world.

A short cab ride to Reagan National Airport, and I was on a plane crossing to the opposite end of the most powerful country in the world. Looking out through the glass from my window seat next to the wing, I thought about what it would be like to be an Ethiopian Taxi driver in DC. I also thought about what it would be like to drive a Lamborghini Gallardo.

Speakers Table

My 18-year-old cousin, Philip, was about to graduate from High School, and I felt like it would be nice for me to be there. Besides, it had been over a year since I'd seen my family in California (most of my mom's side resides in the Bay Area). Besides besides, I needed a vacation :). Between San Jose, San Francisco and Modesto, this felt like far more of a vacation than I had had in a while. I stayed mostly with family, and got to hang out with all my cousins - where I live, I don't have any family nearby, so it's a big change to have them around so close for any amount of time.

First, I stayed with my Aunt and cousins in San Jose. I don't want to go into too much detail about my family here, but I really love my cousins, aunts and uncles. I see them on average less than once every few years, so we always try to make the best of it when we do get a chance to meet up. Forget Texas; California is big. There are lots of people, lots of food, lots of space, and lots of money. Things are spread out everywhere, and in most cities, owning a car is a necessity, not an option. The problems with actually going out and doing stuff without a car are exarcebated by the dismal public transport throughout most of the state; I barely saw any busses anywhere, even in San Jose. I suppose biking would be a valid option, but again, I saw precious few bikers cycling around. The exception to that would be San Francisco, where the "pretty-girls-with-shapely-legs-and-flower-baskets-on-their-bikes" ratio was high enough to maybe give even Montreal a run for its money. But there was also a "high-school-cheerleader-with-her-own-Cadillac-SUV" ratio to match.

Oddly, I see less and less difference between the cute hipster sociology major cycling to school with her Converse sneakers and her iPod on, and the cheerleader driving around in an SUV and listening to hip hop in her designer label clothing.

The liberal progressive mindset is something that's been starting to baffle me; it's become a bit of a paradox. I mean, I have already been labeled as a far left activist by a lot of the people I've worked with. On the other hand, I've also been told how too mainstream, conservative and "heteronormative" (is that a bad thing?) I am too, because I live in the suburbs, go to the gym, own a car, have a family I'm close to (when did "family values" start to equal "conservative"?), play video games and watch Hollywood movies, and eat meat. In a way, they're all right about me, I suppose. I'm a socialist who wears $100 tshirts. I love animals, but I also love to eat them. I'm a gun control advocate who enjoys going to the shooting range, an enviromentalist who drives a car, and a feminist who likes girls who look like girls. I earn most of my living on the Web, while bashing it for not being all it's cracked up to be.

The idea that a view is either liberal or conservative is one of the great logical fallacies of modern sociopolitical discourse. There really is not that great of a divide between the two sides in terms of goals - nobody wants the world to rot away from global warming, see their loved ones in danger, or have to worry about money. We just have different ideas of how to accomplish those goals. No, the difference between left and right is mostly semantics; the real difference is between people who make educated decisions and those who don't. On one hand, it's too easy to bash conservatives for the uneducated choices that they've made in the US in the past few years: the Iraq War, 'conservative' fiscal policy, social service privatization. However, I see the other side of the coin when I look at self-described liberals.

Since the nature of my work is such that I'm usually around far-left workers and activists, they are the ones who most often point out the more "traditional" or "conservative" aspects of the way I think. Likewise, it's easier for me to point out the logical fallacies in their own reasoning: they'll gladly protest against increased immigration security, and want to keep it easier for Latin Americans such as Mexicans to "escape" Mexico and find a "better life" in the United States - instead of bothering to address the root underlying causes (economic) of why Mexico is so FUBARed in the first place. They'll attend environmental rallies and demand people just throw away their pick-up trucks and SUVs, while they themselves continue to buy shiny gadgets and Converse sneakers. Even on the other side of the world, Arabs protest against American hegemony, then drive home in their Chevrolets, stopping at Dairy Queen on the way home. I'll bet money that half of the Tibet protestors at any given event couldn't spot Tibet on a map, in much the same way that most Americans couldn't spot Iraq on a map. They champion the idea of "voluntary simplicity" while playing Monkey ball on their iPhones in the Subway, oblivious to the fact that simplicity is very rarely voluntary.

If all this isn't liberal paternalism - disguised as compassion and empathy - to the Nth degree, then I don't know what is. And my patience for people who purport to know what's best for others is rapidly reaching an all-time low.

You cannot spend any considerable amount of time in California and not drive a convertible. It simply can't be done. And since I was going to be here for a couple of weeks, and hang out with my cousin for his graduation, it was my duty, as a humble guest in the great state of California, to have a convertible. I picked up the electric blue Nissan 350z a few days after I arrived, and drove to Modesto and back with it.

I couldn't believe how cold it got at night in the bay area. Modesto was warmer, but San Jose got really cold at night - colder than DC or even Montreal was at the same time of the year. If I hadn't been padding myself with that extra layer of fat I added from all the Iraqi food, fast food and sweets I was gorging myself on, I might have even caught a cold. As bedroom communities go, Modesto is like most others I suppose: huge malls, dismal public transit, large people driving larger cars, McMansions and Wal-Marts strategically placed to keep each other company. Had I been here alone, I probably wouldn't have lasted more than a couple days. But the location quickly became irrelevant as I spent more time with my family I almost never see. This is where they live, and wherever it is, that's where they are. I could've spent any amount of time, even in a place like this, and not ever felt out of place.

Why do people get such hideous tattoos in San Francisco? I love tattoos in the right context, but girls with badly-designed tribal tramp-stamps just don't do it for me. That said, San Francisco, asides from being cold, is also probably one of the greatest cities in the world in which to be a heterosexual single male.

When I think "Califonia" I think "beach", but the beaches we visited were far too polluted to take a dip in. I didn't do any swimming there. Actually, I didn't get any exercise at all. It's funny to me that we have "beach water quality indexes" to know when and where it's safe to dip yourself into a body of water. I wonder if, 10 years from now, the air quality indicators we have on the television weather reports will indicate when and where it's safe to breathe.

There was something else I didn't see often while I was in California - happy people. For all its sunshine and beautiful weather, everybody seemed pretty bummed out. People work insane hours, spend even more hours in traffic, buy up real estate in bulk to try and build a McEmpire for them and their families, and are always looking for the next big thing, whether it's a business opportunity or the next generation of the iPhone. It is said that we live in a market-based economy or a credit-based economy; I think that this is inaccurate. I submit that we live in a future-based economy. You see, the main reason behind everything we do - buying Apple stock, iPhones, real estate, going to school, volunteering - is to invest in our own future, to work towards something we think we'll want or need at some further point in time in our lives. We don't do or buy anything to help the present us, but to help the future us instead. It is, in essence, what we need to adapt to in order to thrive in this way of life we've shoehorned ourselves into. Most of everything we build, even when it's something seemingly altruistic, directly or indirectly addresses some desire we have for our own future. However, as the old cliché goes, if you live for the future you won't ever appreciate the present. And the inability to train our minds to focus on what we're doing instead of why we're doing it is probably the root cause of the 2008 Great Smile Famine of California - afflicting liberals and conservatives alike.

After a whirlwind couple of weeks split between sight-seeing, gastronomic debauchery and trying to continue getting some work done, I was all set and ready to come back to Montreal - even though I'd only be back for a couple days before I'd have to cross the border into the US again. I kissed everyone goodbye, took the convertible back to the rental place, and stopped for some food before heading to my gate at the airport. I'll never get used to the size of the portions they serve you in the United States. If there's one thing that can keep you feeling full all the way through an 8+ hour transnational flight and beyond, it's breakfast in America.

American Flag


Monday, August 18th, 2008
oso's picture

Didn't you see The Darjeeling Limited? Trains can definitely get lost.

You should get a MacBook ... they fit perfectly on trains. And, of course, they run Linux.

What's heteronormative?

You need a new camera pose.

Monday, August 18th, 2008
stevenmansour's picture

You should get a MacBook ... they fit perfectly on trains. And, of course, they run Linux.

Considering that my 2-year-old Dell still has more powerful hardware than new Macbook Pros coming out today, that's not gonna happen. And Apple hardware still has some serious issues trying to run Linux.

Besides, my computer fits perfectly on trains - it was planes I was complaining about.

What's heteronormative?

Heteronormative. However, it's also often used in a more pejorative manner about people like me who enjoy family dinners and live in the suburbs.

You need a new camera pose.

That's the last thing I need, hermanito. The telenovela chicas love that pose.

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