A Cozy Coupe Highway Robbery

First off, I’ll own up. All the warning signs were there, and I flat out ignored them. In hindsight, I’m a moron. Let’s just get that out of the way. Now, the story:

My kid loves cars. He goes crazy anytime he sees one of these Cozy Coupes at a kiddie play center or a friend’s house. He makes a beeline, grabs ahold of the steering wheel, and sits there smiling his toothy smile for hours. His little playmates line up for their turn, but he doesn’t give a poopy diaper. He just lounges on the driver’s seat, his arm over the red door, smushing his miniature palm into the red horn.

Beep beep. 

My fiancée and I decided it was time to get one of our own. After a few online searches, we found an awesome deal on a Cozy Coupe Truck. A really, really awesome deal. Like, this deal was half the price of the next closest seller.

That was the first warning sign.

The online store website was ‘yourbabytoy.com.’ Not Amazon, eBay, Target, or Walmart. This was a random online shopping website that had a listing of seemingly thousands of baby toys and was named, in the most bland, uncreative way possible, Yourbabytoy.com.

Warning sign #2.

On checkout, shipping cost was a whopping 99 cents. Once assembled, the Cozy Coupe Truck stands maybe three feet high. The whole mess of molded plastic assembly parts probably weighs 10 pounds combined. This random site was asking the equivalent of a McDonald’s Cheeseburger to put this plastic hunk on planes and semi-trucks traveling hundreds of miles to my doorstep.

Strike three.

I already told you, I’m a moron. Glad we covered that. Back to the story:

The first thing I noticed was that the order receipt didn’t have an estimated shipping date. I emailed info@yourbabytoy.com basically asking, ‘Dude can you let me know when I can expect this to arrive?’ No response.

Then PayPal confirmed my payment and gave me the email address of the seller.

At this point, I’m thinking Ooookay, maybe yourbabytoy.com is an Etsy type site, made up of a network of individual toy peddlers?

I sent the seller an email, too. No dice.

The next day PayPal tells me my order’s been updated with a shipment tracking number. It says my order’s expected to arrive the next day. I tell my fiancée about this pleasant surprise and we do a little happy dance.

The delivery day comes and goes, and the delivery never shows up at my door.

Except. The tracking number says the shipment’s been delivered.

Perplexed, I send the seller an email: Have I missed something?

Then I check yourbabytoy.com. The browser takes a bit long to load, so I try again. The site fully loads this time, and tells me that “The store is currently unavailable due to maintenance.”

My palms begin to perspire as I write an email to info@yourbabytoy.com explaining the situation and asking for clarification. Minutes later, a new message pops into my inbox. It says there was a problem delivering my message to info@yourbabytoy.com and that gmail will retry for 19 more hours…

At this moment I’m Bruce Willis at the end of the Sixth Sense. All the warning signs from before flash before my eyes. I stumble from my chair and take deep and heavy breaths as the full weight of the realization hits me: I’ve been scammed.

Eventually, I regroup. I’m not gonna take this lying down. It’s an online order. This scammer’s left a trail of crumbs on the internet; all I have to do is shine a light on ‘em for the appropriate authorities to see.

Unfortunately, ‘appropriate authorities’ in this case meant PayPal, and ‘shining a light’ meant venturing into the hellmaze that is PayPal’s resolutions center and customer service. When Dante wrote Inferno he was *probably* foreseeing 21st century corporate customer service systems.

I take the first step by making a claim for a refund on my payment on the basis that I never received my order. Less than a week later, PayPal denies my claim. The reason? They received information from the seller that confirms my shipment’s been delivered.

The tracking number I’d received.

But.. but… I never got the package! The tracking number’s a sham! I lamely protest in my head.

I finally collect myself together enough to think to reach out to UPS about the tracking number. They ask for my delivery address to see if it matches the one on the number. It doesn’t. It’s addressed to a business instead, and doesn’t have my name on it either. All this information is exchanged via emails, a neat paper trail of evidence.

Boom. The smoking gun. I’ve really got this scammer now.

I go back to the PayPal resolution center, excited to bring down this scammer. But there’s a problem. I can’t make any new claims on the purchase—the one claim I’m apparently allowed to make has been denied already. There’s no option to appeal either.

I descend further into the hellmaze. A call and a 20 minute wait gets me to Jenn, a customer service agent. After I explain the situation she quickly understands and says that with new information I can appeal the claim. She’ll make a change so that I’ll now see an appeal option. After hanging up, I get an email with instructions. But when I follow them, there’s no appeal option.

I respond to the email asking for help. Another customer service rep, Yogendra, responds. No worries, she says, she’s gone ahead and appealed my claim for me.

But… my emails! I weakly protest at my screen. I haven’t shared the copies of emails from UPS disputing the validity of the tracking number with UPS. How can the appeal be made without this new evidence? I respond to the email explaining the situation, attaching the emails from UPS.

Almost immediately PayPal notifies me my claim has been denied again. Then, in response, Melina from Protection Services Department responds to my message saying that they’re reviewing my case. I go back to the resolution center and can only see that my claim’s under review, but there’s no information on the content of the appeal. I still have zero clue if my UPS emails are being considered in my appeal. Right on cue I get another denial notification from PayPal.

I send more follow up emails and receive responses from two more PayPal lackeys, Biswanath and Gaurav. There’s no continuity nor humanity in the responses I receive. It’s an endless string of different humans mimicking robots, telling me in form template messages that my case is either being denied or under review.

I’m hopelessly lost in the hellmaze. Every turn I make, I run into a dead end. I’m locked into a soulless cycle, engaging with the faceless soliders of PayPal’s customer service army. I am Bill Murray, waking up to Groundhog Day every morning.

After the sixth cycle I decide to step out of the hamster wheel.

+++

Honestly, I’m embarrassed. I’ve established I’m a moron, but that’s probably understating it. Internet scams were only supposed to happen to the elderly ranks of society—grandmas sending cash to random Nigerian Princes emailing for help. I’m a millennial. An avocado toast munching, grew-up-with-dial-up-internet millennial. My youthful hubris led me to believe this could never happen to me. It made me a perfect target. It’s a lesson learned.

I’m also pissed. I don’t even care about the money. That’s lost, I’m never getting it back. But what really bothers me is that this scammer got away with it. They’re probably out there plotting their next internet con, purchasing domains like awesomeelectronicgadgets.com and freecaribbeanvacations.com. Hundreds of others might be ripped off by this thief on the loose. It makes me furious just thinking about it. And it feels like PayPal and its convoluted customer service labyrinth stood by and let it happen. Heck, they helped grease the wheels a little, facilitating the transaction. They’re complicit. I know this blog isn’t going to magically prompt PayPal to transform their customer service system into something that even remotely works. But hopefully some of you will read this and learn from my mistakes.

In the end my fiancée found a beat up used Cozy Coupe on Facebook Marketplace. It’s dirty, has scuffs and scratches, all the stickers have long peeled off, and the door doesn’t stay shut.

But you should have seen the face on our kid when he first saw it in our garage. It was enough to make me forget the scumbag scammer, PayPal’s hellmaze, and the money I lost.

 

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My (Long Overdue) 2018 Book Review

In 2018, reading took a backseat in the sport utility vehicle of my life, taking up a spot right next to the car seat we installed for our newborn son. Suddenly, it found itself competing with a bunch of foreign pastimes for my free time, like diaper changing; chair rocking, walking, sometimes dancing (a slow waltz, mind you) the baby to sleep; and hunting for pacifiers. (Why does it seem like every time a pacifier is most critically needed, it seems to have disappeared?)  In the back seat, stuffed toys, board books, foam letters, used diapers started to pile on top of it. But it was never completely buried.

I took a look back on my year and was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t read quite as much as I did in 2017. But my reading list didn’t entirely comprise of board books and other forms of books you can put in your mouth, either.

When there’s a will, there’s a way. I devised ways to get my reading time in. I seized spare time during my son’s naps and breastfeeding sessions. On flights, I resisted naps and the crossword puzzles in airline magazines. At bedtimes, I crawled under the covers with my iPhone light on, terrified of waking up the baby but determined to get a few pages of reading in before I dozed off.

And now, I look in the rearview mirror, and it’s been a fun reading year. I said in my year-end book review last year how social reading can be, despite the act itself being strictly solitary. It was more true than ever for me this year: more than half the books I read this year was recommended at one point to me by my family, friends, co-workers. Ray Dalio’s Principles: Life and Work came up several times in conversations with a colleague. At least three (The Dispossessed, The Running Man, and A Man Called Ove) were all suggestions on my Facebook post linking to the 2017 book review blog article. The #1 book on this list was recommended to me by my sister.

It’s also funny how looking back on the books have told me about my year. I read my first John le Carre novel, and it was a pick up from the first estate sale I’ve ever attended. I knocked off two books that had been on my waiting list forever (The Once and Future King and Seeing Voices), sparking a feeling of (no, not joy, Marie Kondo) relief, a clearing of guilt perhaps not unlike the feeling after you’ve just completed a visit with friends that you’ve promised, but neglected, to see for far too long. I’d been following the author of #4 on this list on Twitter for a while, and finally decided to buy a book of his and was rewarded with a rip-roaring tale. Also, because of a writing project of mine, my book choices leaned heavily towards the memoir genre—which explains how three memoirs landed in my top five.

And now, without any further delay (how can it be March already!?), the top books I read in 2018:

The Top Five

5. Porcelain: A Memoir, Moby, 2016

Against all odds, a memoir written by a musician landed on my list. While the book did feature his music career, it was about so much more. It was about living in an abandoned factory as a teenager, grappling with Christianity, the club scene in 90’s New York City, resisting and then giving in to a drug habit. Moby’s stories of going to record stores every week to listen to and grab the latest releases on vinyl, and then lugging stacks of these records over to clubs where he DJ’d were a neat glimpse at the not-so-distant past, when you couldn’t purchase and download songs at the touch of your thumb. Moby writes his story with a personal touch and humor that drew you in, and every time I put it down I looked forward to the next time I could pick back up where I left off. 

4. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi, 2005

It only took me a couple days to burn through this book, and boy was it a heck of a run. I’d been following the author, John Scalzi, on Twitter for a while. One day at a Barnes and Noble I came across his name, boldly emblazoned on a book cover in full caps, space fighters and a planet under fire in the background. You can’t get any more sci fi than that. The story’s set sometime in the future, where old people on Earth can volunteer to fight in the planet’s interstellar defense force. They have to serve 10 years, and in return they get a brand new, genetically perfected body and a second chance at life in a colony on another planet. Scalzi has a fun, wry writing style and paces the story just right—every time you end a chapter you just have to start the next one.

3. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, 2010

 Every year I join in a Secret Santa thing with my extended family. Last year for the second year in a row I kept my wish list simple: I wanted my Santa to give me his or her most favorite book, and to have a conversation about it. I was expecting a paperback summer beach read, a lightweight to toy with on the mat. I got this instead, a sumo wrestler towering over me. Not going to lie, it wasn’t an easy read. But it was worth it.

Jim Crow never really went away, Micelle Alexander argues. It was just quietly, slowly replaced by a far more insidious system of oppression. Alexander lays it all on the table, starting with how the War on Drugs and its damaging rhetoric led to a prison system of a size never before seen in mankind, overwhelmingly occupied by people of color. She explains how, in place of poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow era, we now have felonies slapped on people convicted of minor possession drugs, stripping away their rights to vote, and greatly reducing their chances of employment and generally shunning them from society. She dives into the dangers of the ‘colorblind’ society we now have, shifting our definitions of racism to outright acts (such as the use of the n-word), and ignoring more subtle forms, such as the study that found that 95% of people, when asked to picture a drug user, thought of a black person—even though only 15% of drug users are black.

Most striking was Alexander’s argument that ‘black exceptionalism’ contributed to the new Jim Crow. Stories of successful, wealthy black people became weapons that opponents wielded to argue that this new form of systemic racial oppression existed. It was written in 2010, so Barack Obama was the prominent example. We had a black president, how can you argue that such racism is still prevalent in America?

Six years later we said goodbye to President Obama and ushered in a president who ran on a campaign promise to build a border wall, referred to African countries as ‘shithole’ countries, tried to enact a Muslim ban, made fun of the Trail of Tears, and referred to Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists.’ The list is a lot longer, but I’ll just link to this article instead of wasting any more space here.

In the age of Trump, in a time when Colin Kaepernick cannot get a job because he knelt to protest oppression of people of color, this was a timely read. Shout out to my Cousin Aubree for the gift.

2. Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt, 1996

Hot damn, this was a really good read. I’d never read someone who wrote quite like McCourt does. His sentences run, run, and run. They meander, take quick twists and turns, and roll on with the rhythmic patter of a cross-country runner’s well-worn sneakers on a countryside trail.

And the stories he tells, sweet Jesus. Poverty like I’ve never seen: infant deaths, subsisting on sugar water and food stolen from neighbors, living in rented hovels right next to the neighborhood outhouse. An alcoholic father blowing paycheck after paycheck on bar tabs, a determined mother getting by ‘on the dole,’ and going to great lengths for survival. A heartbreaking read, well worth it.

1. The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls, 2005

The second consecutive memoir featuring an alcoholic father, The Glass Castle tops my list for 2018. My sister Cindy read it some time ago and told me it was so good. I didn’t believe her until I cracked it open. Rex Walls, the author’s father, steals the show. To evade debt collectors, he uproots his family dozens of times before Jeannette turns ten. One minute he’s tying himself to the bed to prevent himself from drinking when Jeannette tells him his birthday wish is for him to stop drinking, the next minute he’s burning down the Christmas tree because there are presents and he didn’t buy them himself. You love him and you hate him all at the same time.

The real heroes are Jeanette and her siblings, who endure their eccentric and self-damaging pair of parents, and go on to create substantial lives for themselves. It’s heartwrenching, it’s poignant, it’s worth your time.

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Full List of Books I Read in 2018
 
A Man Called Ove Fredrik Backman
Unbroken Laura Hillenbrand
Outliers Malcolm Gladwell
The Once and Future King TH White
Born Standing Up Steve Martin
‘Tis Frank McCourt
The Running Man Stephen King
The Glass Castle Jeanette Walls
Lord of the Flies William Golding
The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Steig Larsson
Seeing Voices Oliver Sacks
The Honourable Schoolboy John le Carre
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life William Finnegan
We’re Going to Need More Wine Gabrielle Union
It’s Not Yet Dark Simon Fitzmaurice
Porcelain Moby
Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourt
Hit Makers Derek Thompson
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander
Principles: Life and Work Ray Dalio
Old Man’s War John Scalzi
The Dispossessed Ursula K. Le Guin

The Year-End Book Review Extravaganza

WELCOME to the Year-End Book Review Extravaganza, where most of the books contain made up stuff and the rankings don’t really matter. Here, I look back on the books I personally read in 2017, pick out the best ones, and write out some thoughts on each of them.

Looking back this year, I realized something. We know that reading a book is a solitary act. There’s nothing more lonely than sitting and reading static words on a page, words that were written and finalized by a writer some time before you come upon them–sometimes hundreds of years before. To truly read, you have to shut off the world around you, flicker your eyes until the words dissolve, and a moving picture starts inside your head. You’re alone in the book.

Yet. I look back on the books I read this year, and I remember how I came across each of them. My college buddies raved about Shoe Dog on our group text, so I borrowed that from the library next trip (What? Yes, of course I go to the library–you’re missing out on the greatest public good, my friend). My early language advocate friends pointed towards Made to Hear, so I went on Amazon and ordered my own copy (side note: I eventually gave a copy to a parent support organization in Russia as a part of a grant project on bilingual education; our partners were so excited to get one). Things Fall Apart was a recommendation from a college professor.

The number one book on my list below? I would have never read it if it weren’t for my girlfriend. But read it I did, wisely taking her suggestion. I read it by her side on the beaches of Playa Maroma in Mexico. I would look up from the pages, excited by what I just read. ‘Which part are you on?’ she would ask. I’d tell her, giddily describing the pages I’d just read. ‘Ooh, have you read the part where….?’ ‘Not yet, not yet, don’t ruin it for me!’ And then I’d dive back into it.

Books spark conversations. They build bridges between people. They are social tools. It’s funny–though you consume books alone and in silence, when you close the final page you often find yourself wanting to discuss what you’ve just read with someone.

I’m excited to discuss what I’ve read in 2017 with all of you. 

Honorable Mentions

The Nix Nathan Hill, 2016 – Hill is a fantastic writer in the mold of Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. I still remember the rush hour scene and the vivid description of a driver stricken with road rage’s hefty loogie against the protagonist’s driver’s side window.

11/22/63 Stephen King, 2011 – A fantastic read. King doesn’t disappoint in this one. Loved being transported back to the sixties, and the fly-on-the-wall description of Lee Harvey Oswald was fascinating and chilling. There was a long lull in the middle of the book, though.

Everybody Lies Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, 2017 – I love my pop socio-economic books–think Freakonomics, The Tipping Point, Predictably Irrational–and Everybody Lies belongs in this group. It’s got a fun new twist: Big Data. The basis is, people can lie on surveys or in experiments, but they don’t lie in private, like when searching stuff on Google. Luckily, Google searches are public info to an extent, and Stephens-Davidowitz goes to town on this pile of data, revealing which areas of the U.S. are most racist, revealing our true sex habits, and how people become lifelong sports fans of their team.

Made to Hear Laura Mauldin, 2016 – This book is required reading for anyone interested in the early language acquisition/early intervention fields, or anyone working with families of young deaf and hard of hearing children. Many interesting insights into what parents experience in the first few months and years after giving birth to a deaf child. For me, I derived the most benefit reading between the lines. Mauldin writes as a neutral observer, a fly-on-the wall sociologist, but the information she shares is telling.

The Top Five

5. The Conservative Heart Arthur Brooks, 2015

Don’t call me a raging Conservative just yet. In light of the worsening divide between the ends of our political spectrum, an issue further exacerbated by algorithms and follow choices on social media, I’ve made it a personal challenge to open my mind and read stuff from all points on the political spectrum. Brooks’ writing style inspires; you find yourself nodding along with the points he makes; and you start to believe in the meaningful value of hard work, and why everybody deserves it. Good stuff, and I believe I’m the better for having read it.

4. The Big Short Michael Lewis, 2010

It’s been a decade, give or take, since the height of the Great Recession. I don’t know why it took me so long to read this book–it’s been on my Book Queue for years now–and it was one of the rare cases I watched the movie before reading the book. As good as the movie was, the book was better. Lewis does a masterful job stripping down the complex monstrosity that was the subprime mortgage crisis to bite-sized, comprehensible passages. The book sifts through the debris of doomed financial jargon–credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, tranches–to shine a light on the humans that walked in the eye of the cyclone. It astounds me the layer upon layer of moral depravity that contributed to the financial crisis.

3. Special Topics in Calamity Physics Marisha Pessl, 2006

A little backstory here. I had a friend come over to my place a while ago. Was proud to show him my bookshelf, show off my literary taste. He turns from the shelf and says, ‘You’ve got too many books by old white guys.’ And though I hated to admit it, he was right. I had all four books of the Rabbit series by John Updike, for Pete’s sake. So on my next trip to Recycled Reads (used bookstore run by Austin Public Library), I was hellbent on discovering a new writer. I found her.

Special Topics is a special book. I don’t quite know how to describe it. I saw a review say the narrator has a Holden Caulfield-esque feel to her, and I agree. The clan of teenagers described in the book brought to mind the Breakfast Club, somewhat. Pessl’s prose was lyrical at times. The description of the narrator and her father’s relationship was excellent. The novel contained a mind-boggling number of references to movies, books, even obscure works, so many references that I found myself marveling at how so supremely well-read the author must be. (It got distracting at times, the sheer number of references–one of the few criticisms I have.) The book turned into a suspenseful whodunit, and had more twists and turns down the stretch than a How to Get Away with Murder season. I can guarantee you won’t be able to predict how it ends–I’m still thinking about it.

2. Shoe Dog Phil Knight, 2016

Did you know Nike used to be called Blue Ribbon Sports? The way Mr. Knight tells it, he came up with the name on the spot in a business meeting with executives at a major Japanese shoe business. Shoe Dog is an inside look at the long, tumultuous business journey of the ubiquitous sports apparel company we now know as Nike. The eclectic bunch behind the business in the early years, shady Japanese businessmen, a surprisingly exciting and suspenseful battle with the federal government, and the story of how Nike logo was designed by a college graphic design student–this was a great read, cover to cover.

1. Seabiscuit Laura Hillenbrand, 2001

Hot damn. Who knew horse racing could be so exciting? If any of my 2017 reads were to become a ‘stranded island’ pick, this would be it. Truly good nonfiction reads like the best fiction–it sparks the imagination, pumps blood through veins, and touches the heart. I read this on the beaches of Punta Maroma, Mexico, but Hillenbrand transported me from waves of the Caribbean blue sea, and made me see through the eyes of George Woolf on the back of Seabiscuit, kicking up dirt and galloping down the stretch to best War Admiral in the Match of the Century. From the long shot, also-ran, always down but never out jockey Red Pollard to the ill-humored virtuoso trainer Tom Smith to, of course, the lovable Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand packs the pages of the book with so many memorable anecdotes that take you straight back to the hey days of horse racing. There’s nothing more American than an underdog story, and Seabiscuit just might be the best of them all.

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What’s in my Queue for 2018?

I can’t wait to read Ray Dalio’s Principles and Derek Thompson’s Hit Makers, newly minted gifts from my jolly fat pal at the North Pole. I also have a family secret santa thing, and recently I’ve made my wish list simple: give me your favorite book, and let’s have a conversation about it after I’ve read it. I received Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow from a cousin, and am excited to have that conversation with her. My first book of the new year is The Dispossessed, by the master Ursula LeGuin, which was a strong recommendation from a friend who did not take too kindly to my Conservative Heart-influenced political spoutings. Eyeing my impending fatherhood, a friend has bestowed upon me The Reluctant Father. I also am excited to finish up the final book of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, the first two of which were thrilling reads, narrowly missing the Honorable Mention cut. And I keep putting it off, but 2018 may be the year I take on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. As for deaf reads, I have been wanting to read Mindfield by John Egbert. Fellow reader, I welcome your book recommendations for the new year.

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Full List of Books I Read in 2017
The Big Short Michael Lewis
Special Topics in Calamity Physics Marisha Pessl
Dispatches Michael Herr
Bossypants Tina Fey
Everybody Lies Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
Shoe Dog Phil Knight
Good to Great Jim Collins
The Hot Kid Elmore Leonard
The Circle Dave Eggers
Giant of the Senate Al Franken
Hillbilly Elegy JD Vance
The Girl who Played with Fire Steig Larsson
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Steig Larsson
3 Steps to Yes Gene Bedell
Seabiscuit Laura Hillenbrand
Soccernomics Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
Trainspotting Irvine Welsh
Consider the Lobster David Foster Wallace
The Conservative Heart Arthur Brooks
11/22/63 Stephen King
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew Shehan Karunatilaka
Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel García Márquez
Sacred Hoops Phil Jackson
The Nix Nathan Hill
Murder on the Orient Express Agatha Christie
The Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead
Rabbit At Rest John Updike
Made to Hear Laura Mauldin
Our Revolution Bernie Sanders

Russian Thoughts

Once again I find myself walking along the European facades of eighteenth century buildings overlooking Nevsky Prospekt. To the west-slight northwest, a golden cross atop the Admiralty building. I have been here before and I have seen these sights  only half a year ago. I am here on official work business, building storybook apps that encompass a quartet of languages: Russian Sign Language, Russian, American Sign Language, and English. You can learn more here.

Take note: the words on these blog entries are mine and my own alone. These are an American newcomer’s observations from the seat of Saint Petersburg.

Borscht Soup

Russian cuisine tends to lean fish-heavy, which’s not my style. The last time I was in Russia, I teamed up with a buddy and downed a bottle of vodka and ate a jar of pickled herring, which was really salty but got better after each shot of vodka (what doesn’t?) This time I wanted to try a popular Russian dish: Borscht Soup. I broke my Borschinity* at Мама на даче.** The slightly sour soup was beetlicious. Strips of supple beef mingled with tangy beetroots and creamy soft potato bits made for some festive and sensual dancing in my mouth. It came with a unusually heavy square of bread and a small cup of white substance that turned out to be sour cream. One munch revealed a meat filling; subsequent dips into the sour cream transcended a pleasant surprise into a meal highlight.

Toothpaste

I bought a tube of run-of-the-mill toothpaste. Colgate, right there on the package it says ‘mint flavor,’ literally in English. But to the tongue, it tastes different. The mint. It has a distinct taste. It’s not candy-like, overtly peppermint like a red-and-white striped Christmas candy cane. It feels like you can taste the leaf from whence the mint came. It stays with you for minutes afterward, a natural, genuine mint taste. I can almost feel the leaf remnants between my molars.

Not-So-Russian Dolls

Rows and rows of Russian dolls line the shelves of roadside stands along major St. Petersburg avenues. You know the stands I’m talking about—these smalltime dealers that commoditize national stereotypes and cram bourgeois trinkets like miniature monuments down tourists’ mouths.*** Standard fare at these stands in the Russian Federation are Russian Dolls. Wide-eyed women hand painted on wooden containers. Dolls within dolls within dolls: the Inception of toys.

I walk by one of these stands and do a double-take. There’s something not so Russian about the dolls on one of the shelves. Instead of wide-eyed beauties in exotic dresses, I see Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. I have a passionate dislike for Rodgers—I despise him two Sundays every fall when he torches the Vikings, and pretend he doesn’t exist the rest of the time. Yet I see his stupid #12 yellow-and-puke green jersey staring back at me on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg, Russia, eight full hours ahead of Central Standard Time. He’s hanging out with Tom Brady and a host of other NFL stars. In another stand I see doll Donald Trump. And then an idiotically beaming one-eyed Minion. Kim Jong Il**** staring emptily at the sidewalk. The lightning-marked forehead of Daniel Radcliffe in a brown robe.

It’s a fascinating phenomenon, years in the making. that’s unfolded before my eyes. These Russian Dolls have been commoditized, Americanized, turned into even cheaper versions of the tourist trinkets they had been reduced to in the first place. These dolls  are a microcosm of the greater Russian Federation. What was once the mighty Soviet Union is now dotted with KFCs and McDonald’s and Citi Banks and HMs and knockoff Apple stores. Capitalism at its finest.

Even then, I was tempted to buy myself a Rodgers doll. Just so I could open each Rodgers doll up and toss them out, until I got to the wee tiny smallest one. I would keep that one, and only that one. I’d take him out two Sundays every fall. Sit him next to the TV, and whisper to him as my Vikings slaughter the real-life version: “Oh, you’re a big boy, aren’t you? Oh, yes you are!”

*Weak attempt at making a ‘virginity’ pun, if you hadn’t figured that out already.

**Mama at the cottage, according to Google Translate. The restaurant is around the corner from our hotel, and the name is a welcome homey feel. Our hotel is surrounded by a couple gentlemen’s clubs and our strip of Nevsky Prospekt is populated by seedy gents and ladies hawking cards advertising said clubs; a restaurant genuine and unironically named ‘Mama at the Cottage’ is, as said before, a welcome presence in these here parts.

***The stands in St. Petersburg sell paper masks with holes cut out at the eyes with the likeness of celebrities’ faces on them. From Kim Jong Il to Leonardo DiCaprio, eyeless familiar faces stare back at you, arranged in bundled bouquets hanging from poles. For one hundred and fifty rubles, you can pretend to be a slack-mouthed Дональд Трамп or a regal square-jawed Vladimir Putin.

****Or is it Un? *heavy sigh* I can’t keep up.

The Real Heroes

I like flip-flops. They’re an essential piece of my footwear collection. They’re lightweight. They allow my feet to breathe. And—best of all—they do a pretty bang-up job protecting my feet from the pavement and whatever sharp objects lie there.

Good flip-flops are like excellent offensive linemen. A great left tackle blocks blitzers from reaching the quarterback’s blind side; flip-flops block glass shards from the soft arches of your feet. And they both do their jobs, day in and day out, without much recognition or appreciation. Just show up every day, say yes sir and no sir, and never complain. Even though they never get any love.

It’s admirable. I could never be an offensive lineman. Or a flip-flop. They’re amazing contributors to our society.

Except.

Every once in a while, offensive linemen do get noticed. All of a sudden, people realize how much a good offensive lineman meant to his team. It almost never happens because of something positive, though. Oftentimes, it’s because… the offensive lineman got hurt. Yep. He goes down, the team misses the playoffs and everybody starts gushing and praising the offensive linemen and how important he was to the team’s scheme. The whole thing’s so heart-breaking it’s like a goddam eulogy for the injured offensive lineman.

The same goes for flip-flops. You never notice them until—pop—the strap slips loose from that little gap between your two biggest toes. The solid foundation beneath falters for a brief moment. You suddenly become acutely aware of the contents of the ground beneath you. It’s rough. It’s sharp. It’s hot. Or—ugh—it’s sticky.

Instead of the eulogizing though, you’re cursing the poor flip-flop. Oh you lousy— son of a—cheap piece of—

The only person you should blame for the situation you’re currently in, standing on a sticky barroom floor, is, of course, you. Your formal relationship with your flip-flop began at the point of purchase. Granted, flip-flops pose a conundrum. You could opt for a super-cheap pair (Old Navy anyone?) but they’re about as reliable as… well, Old Navy flip-flops. On the other hand, you could pry open your wallet and splurge on a nice high-quality two-tone, leather-strapped, cork-footbed pair of sandals. The problem is, flip-flops are notorious for suddenly disappearing. Their ‘loseability’ is sky-high. And if you lose a pair that has a ‘cork-footbed’… you’re gonna feel that hole in your wallet.

(Related story: One spring break at Panama Beach, a friend of mine returned from the water only to find that his flip-flops were missing, probably stolen. He was crestfallen. But he refused to let it ruin his fun. Without skipping a beat, he searched along the beach until he found another pair that fit him and took it for himself. FUN UNPAUSED! I wonder what the owner of that pair did. Probably went and swiped someone else’s. Musical flip-flops, hey!)

When it came time for me to make my flip-flop choice, I went the Old Navy route. I lose stuff all the time, an expensive pair wouldn’t be a good investment. This worked out fine until I began my Europe trip last summer. While traveling, you don’t have enough room for an extra pair of flip-flops, which is kind of a problem if you have an unreliable pair. You also find yourself in situations where it would really suck if one of your flip-flops quit on you.

It did, indeed suck, when I became that guy at Temple Bar in Dublin, Ireland. It was Friday night, all the bars were so packed if you left one the bouncer wouldn’t let you back in. Packs of dudes wearing wacky themed shirts prowled the streets, dragging drunken husbands-to-be wearing dresses. One pack started an impromptu game where the men sat in a row facing forward, and then carried a guy down the line above their heads, mosh-pit style, down towards the end of the line where the guy sat down, adding himself to the line. One by one the men floated down the line of outstretched arms, and the line grew longer. The game ended when the leader pointed out a 400-pound gentleman from the crowd, who reluctantly came forward and promptly flattened the first few poor souls. The leader took off his cap and solicited beer money from the crowd as the pancaked gentlemen writhed and screamed in protest beneath nearly a quarter-ton of flesh.

The party was rocking, and Kevin, Scott, and me were having a blast. Eventually, we reached a Cinderella moment: we had to decide if we wanted to catch the last train at quarter-past midnight, which went back to where we left our car at a park-n-ride. Screw it, we decided, we’d party until the sun came up, glass slippers (or weakass flip-flops) be damned.

Just as the clock struck half past midnight—pop. I stood in the middle of a crowded pub, one bare foot buried in a half-inch deep layer of spilled beer and rum and cokes. Panicked and furious, I stormed out of the pub, and limped all the way on the cobblestone streets towards the nearest train stop, clutching my busted flip-flop. Scott and Kevin caught up a few minutes later. I was so pissed I refused to talk to them.

Fortunately the train was still in operation, though it stopped two stations short of where we’d parked our car. Ever the hero, Kevin ran the last half-mile or so to retrieve our car and picked us up. I tossed my flip-flop out the window into somebody’s lawn somewhere in the suburbs of Dublin.

The flip-flop troubles didn’t stop there. I bought a new pair in Holland a couple days later. Better quality, but hardly ‘cork-footbed’ level. It did just fine though, and in time it was like I had a pair of good offensive lineman under my feet again—I forgot all about my pair. Until Neuschwanstein Castle. Me and Scott scrambled up on a nearby cliff for a beautiful snapshot—a climb which also snapped the strap of my flip-flops. We only had moments before our scheduled tour of the castle, so I assembled a hasty repair job, using a spare belt strap in my backpack. It held up for the entire tour and the entire rest of the day. I felt like freakin’ Macgyver.

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The snap moments before my flip-flops snapped. Worth it? Probably.

Later, I refined the repair using a thin nylon rope somebody had left behind at a campsite. I took it real serious, too. Wrapped the rope around several times to ensure strength. When I saw that the rope stuck out in the bottom and would wear out from rubbing on the ground, I took Kevin’s Swiss army knife and carved out a notch on the sole so that the rope wouldn’t touch the ground when I took a step. Kevin wasn’t happy when he caught me with his knife, though.

“What the hell are you doing!?” he yelled, snatching at the knife. I looked at him with the innocent face of a newborn lamb.

“Just fixing my flip-flop,” I said.

“We use this knife to chop onions for dinner, dammit,” he said.

Looking back, the use of Kevin’s knife wasn’t such a good idea. But I’m still proud of my repair work.

A couple days ago, I got an email from my buddy, Scott. After spending three months romping around western Europe (two of them with me), he met up with his girlfriend in South Africa to begin a five-month journey up the African continent. At the very end of his email he wrote: “Check the attachment, you should be proud of your masterpiece.” Check it out:

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(click for a bigger view of my quite-impressive-if-I-do-say-so-myself handiwork)

This flip-flop may have the equivalent of a repaired ACL tear… but three months after giving away under me on the cliffs of Neuschwanstein Castle, it’s still doing a damn good job protecting Scott’s feet from the treacherous terrain of Africa.

Just like an excellent offensive lineman. Day in, and day out. No complaints. Let’s give it some love, for once.

The Nyle Phenomenon

The Cycle 22 season premiere was the first episode of America’s Next Top Model I ever watched. It surprised me how much I enjoyed it. A lot of memorable moments still stick out in my head. I laughed out loud at Nyle’s jokes about Bello’s crown. Shit was definitely worth $1.99 1

But my favorite part of the episode didn’t even occur onscreen. I watched it at home, with my girlfriend and my family. During a commercial break, my dad declared to us that he was “uncomfortable” with the show. We laughed. He said he wasn’t sure if he could keep watching.

But when the show came back on, he kept watching. That was the moment that I began to realize the power of Nyle.

You see, my dad is a proud AARP cardholder. His TV diet consists of healthy amounts of HGTV and pro sports games. The skimpy bikinis and undies and the bucketloads of drama on ANTM agree with him just as much as yucky broccoli and brussels sprouts agree with a kid. But he sat in his favorite recliner and watched every minute of the episode.

Why? Nyle DiMarco.

My dad is just a tiny part of a larger phenomenon.

That same night, my friends were up at a lakeside cabin in Wisconsin. They boated over to a bar on the lake to watch the show. When they asked the middle aged bartender— who may or may not have been wearing camouflage overalls and a fishing cap with hooks on the brim— to change the channel of the only TV in the place, he was dumbfounded. A blank stare on his face.

“What do you mean, you don’t want to watch the Brewers game?”

They told him, “Our friend is on it!” Grudingly, he changed the channel.

At first, he and the two other people in the bar were just flabbergasted. But the moment Nyle introduced himself onscreen, light bulbs flashed on in their heads. The bartender looked from Nyle signing on the TV and to my friends signing at the bar. Intrigued, he asked my friends some questions. He wound up enjoying the entire show.

My dad and the lakeside bartender are only two stories of the impact that Nyle is making on ANTM. Hell, my girlfriend’s grandma, 93 years old and still going strong, watches the show. (When she saw Nyle’s photo on the local paper, she asked, “Is he wearing anything behind that?”)

I know there are countless other stories of unlikely viewers tuning in to ANTM, inspired by the Nyle phenomenon.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any novelty in what we’re seeing. We’ve all seen deaf people on TV before. Linda Bove first appeared on Sesame Street in 1977. Marlee Matlin won the Best Actress Oscar in 1987. Sean Berdy has been making pre-teens teens go gaga for four years now. Nyle isn’t even the first deaf person on a reality show— I remember one on Survivor some time ago, and I’m sure there have been others.

Look a little further and you’ll find that there is indeed something special about what Nyle is doing. He’s embracing his role as the ambassador of the deaf community. He has a chip on his shoulder and he’s kicking ass, both on the show and in the business of breaking down stereotypes. He has also stepped into the role of de facto champion of our community, spreading awareness of our culture and our language, all the while radiating a genuine pride.

In an era where technology advances and ideological disputes threaten the survival of our community, Nyle is one of the few bright spots. He’s fighting the good fight, and restoring some of my optimism in the process. Here are some of the tweets he’s sent out lately:

I hear you all right, bro.

Say what you want about reality shows—there’s too many of them, they’re obnoxious, and their content is too often fake and overdramatic. But it turns out that the reality show is the perfect medium for turning stereotypes upside down. Nyle is not playing a character onscreen. To a certain degree, there’s no script. He is himself: a deaf and proud native ASL speaker.

(And also someone who happens to have a face and body that turns people’s hearts into jelly and ramps up their, well, libido.)

We are all witnessing the Nyle phenomenon. Tyra Banks is fanning herself over him. KISS’s Sophie Simmons, daughter of KISS frontman Gene Simmons, has declared herself a member of #TeamNyle.

He’s a runaway train, gaining steam by the minute. His damn mug hijacks my social media feeds at times.

But that’s okay. I’m enjoying the ride.

1And when one of the judges asked Alexa, “When did you develop your chest?” That just slayed me. “Develop?” He sounded like a basketball coach talking with his big man: “When did you develop your post game?” Oh man. What a marvelous euphemism.