The (occasionally) thrilling life of a journalist in DC

July 4, 2010

Yes, I'm still here - just three zones away

Several people have asked why I set up a personal blog elsewhere and stopped updating here. For one thing, it's easier. For another, I'm not sure I want all my neuroses visible here. This was supposed to be a semi-professional site when I (with a lot of technical help) set up this site nearly seven years ago. It looks like my future may include freelance writing to support myself, so I might as well showcase what I've done. I may give updates here of what's going on in my life, but don't count on much. Plus I'm sure the mayor of Lake Macquarie, New South Wales, whose e-mail I get occasionally, would like this domain name eventually.

If you're in DC and wondering where I've gone, I live in Seattle now at the behest of my gal, and I'm looking for work. If you have any freelance opportunities to share, or other prospects related to my background, let me know.

March 20, 2009

Introducing...

We haven't had a grand opening yet, but if you're curious what Jeremiah Lewis and I have been working on instead of blogging, check out Cultural Imperialist. We're writing semi-regular "content" for the site and plan to actually fill in all those categories at the top with their own "copy" over the next few months. We'd love feedback, since we're still not sure if anyone else enjoys our Shallow Spats (TM).

January 18, 2009

And we're back

For those of you who noticed that GregPiper.com didn't go anywhere for a month, here's what happened.

I forgot to change my address and phone number with my domain registration company - first when I moved to Virginia, and then when I moved again inside Virginia. But they always had my e-mail address, which hadn't changed since 2004. Apparently I had also used a credit card with them that I let expire. After "chronic nonpayment" they took back the domain in early December, and if they tried to notify me at all, they didn't try my e-mail. They even e-mailed me to check the veracity of my registration information in November after a policy change at ICANN. Since I don't often update this site, I didn't notice for a while that the domain wasn't working. They never answered my claim that they didn't try all the ways they had to contact me. They just demanded I pay back what I owed, plus a $40 penalty to redeem the domain. Hence, the domain is back up, and you can imagine I'm none too fond of this company.

All that is to say, Jeremiah and I are close to launching what we've been working on, in bits and pieces for nearly two years and most heavily in large pieces recently. We don't have huge expectations for it, but we hope it will be fun for us, and for you. Stay tuned.

November 10, 2008

A weekend of "hot sex and evangelism"

With a title like that, who could resist?

(These events took place the weekend after the election.)

It was the church retreat this weekend in middle-of-nowhere West Virginia, known for its "healing" spring water and people zooming by me on winding highways in the dark across the broken yellow line. I gave a lift to two guys, one of whom argued with me about the evenhandedness of the media coverage in this election (wasn't any, I vigorously asserted) while the other regularly tossed off the exclamation "Jesus" without any apparent reflection on the Third Commandment.

We started with a square dance the first night as people were trickling in, led by a Hee-Haw expat whose calling wasn't interrupted by the flow of prancers leaving the hall. My group lost a guy so, heeding the gospel call to look after widows and orphans, we provided Mr. Feckless's partner with a male on varying spins around the square. I'm not sure I got one dance move right the entire night. "Oh, you're supposed to switch partners every time?"

I wasn't really digging Friday night - the 250 people listed for this retreat are about 235 too many for me, so I shut down socially. The Wi-Fi connection in the meeting house is pretty spotty, so all I can muster in 30 minutes is several failed (and one successful) attempts at updating Facebook and saying hi to my IM list. I do a double-take walking back to the lodge when I pass a guy playing "The Sign" by Ace of Base on his guitar for his girlfriend. (At lunch on Sunday I recognize the guy and ask him to confirm what he was playing. He doubles over laughing and says people love to hear him play it.)

I return to my room, shared with two other guys, to hear them arguing counterterrorism policy in the past two administrations - both are defense consultants and one took a university class by CIA director George Tenet - in the dark, in bed. Twenty minutes later, they're still going at it - political ramifications in the mid-90s of capturing bin Laden? - and I'm wondering when to tell them to shut the hell up or take it downstairs. I have a terrible night sleeping in our sweltering room - the cold weather didn't show up Friday night and my two-foot-wide cot doesn't allow the kind of sprawling that would cool a guy down.

Breakfast conversation with strangers means cooing over the spread. But seriously, it was the most rockin' bacon I think I've ever had, and it was flowing like a chocolate fountain at a Hollywood AIDS fundraiser. And also gossiping about what other people are eating: Can you believe that girl put honey on her grapefruit? Gross!

Humiliation in various sports forms is the Saturday afternoon theme. Just like last year, I hit the (free) links for a round of golf with people who brought their own clubs, as I scavenge the clubhouse for a few irons that won't make me look ridiculous. Rules are Best Ball, and I'm paired with a pretty competent golfer, the John C. Reilly-looking bassist for our worship, albeit one whose sudden and frenetic swing takes its cues from Happy Gilmore. His ball often curves to the right on the animal-dropping-littered course, while mine often curves about an eighth of an inch off the ground and stops 50 feet later. (He helpfully tells me on my second swing: "You're not supposed to use a tee after the first shot.") But my short play - all those years of mini-golf - comes in handy on a few greens, where I tap in. And unlike our talented but hapless competitors, we didn't lose a single ball. We're one stroke ahead going into the last hole, but throw the game when Reilly and I both miss our putts. And thus ends my foray into golf for exactly one more year.

My claims to have Forrest Gump status in ping pong collapse like a retarded Tom Hanks' vocabulary when my carmate takes me on in the ping pong clubhouse, whose videogamish, pastel bricks actually turn out to be textured wood. Quickly seeing that I stray far to the right, he goes for the left every time, making me flip an awkward backhand like I was telling a homophobic man "oh, be nice!" Three games later, I've been royally pwned. Later that weekend I take on a good-natured, beefy bald guy with a hot wife - just like my friend John in Seattle - who's studying photojournalism at the Corcoran and working at the Post. The native St. Louisians have never been to the beer church, to my disappointment. Same pwning ensues. (For those unfamiliar with this slang, see here.)

One guy loves Chick-Fil-A so much that he makes Cornhole boards with handpainted Chick-Fil-A logos on them and brings them to the retreat every year, to play on the shuffleboard courts. Who knows how this affects its popularity, but the game is played almost nonstop during free time the whole weekend. Particularly enthralled with the game is a girl in my ad-hoc discussion group for the weekend, a self-professed searcher who is considering converting to Christianity (and whose nonchalant use of "fuck" when discussing her feelings in the group sort of gives her away, although less so these days in evangelical circles). The Serena van der Woodsen-but-brunette looking girl proves to be very popular this weekend, as much because she's fun as because everyone wants to make her fledgling faith stick. The guy playing Cornhole with her apparently taught her to say "Let go, let God" as instructive for how to release the bag when she tosses it. It works for her toss, so mazel tov!

My poor golf performance got me depressed enough to leave the springs in my car, in search of a downtown, anywhere, or at least cell reception. No dice on either, just more cars whizzing by. But I enjoyed one treat: All Things Considered Weekend on NPR, making me feel a little more at home. At dinner the glum continued when I sat down with a table full of happy couples. S has been in school in Seattle for two months,and I'm starting to feel very much the third wheel around couples. I munched the food in silence as they made sickeningly cute chirps around me.

But after our second session with the speaker (see below) I was feeling more hopeful, and enjoying conversation around the bonfire with people I knew a little. I chattered contentedly at the cider container as the staff guy trucked it off for a refill, explaining its brief absence to panicked slurpers who needed more of their apple-y fix. With booze officially discouraged for the weekend, the grown-up kids substituted sugar highs - baked goods, cider, hot chocolate, sicky-sweet lemonade and anything else with 4 calories per gram of pure energy.

Getting a nickname in Mandarin was one of the more interesting conversations over the weekend. I met several people who were either fluent, passable or learning Mandarin - our church is full of Asian girls, suh-weet - and one of them playing with Mandarin flash cards told me my name should be something like "gu gu," or Big Brother. Whether she meant it in a familial or voyeuristic sense, I wasn't sure. Her name, Erin, means "lover" when transliterated. Sexy, we all agreed.

And thus ends my notes. Yes, I took notes to blog later. Is that a blog sin?

The following recounts the discussion theme of our weekend - no wacky hijinx.

Our speaker, a Tennessee pastor who I later learn is pretty hot on the hipster-evangelical circuit, narrates a life with so much anguish and redemption - and using so much wit and verve - that you want to option it for a film. (Jeremiah, always a practical Hollywood type, suggested that.) The narrative starts with our hero, about to turn 50, strolling into the church office and blurting out to his fellow pastors, "I haven't visited my mom's grave in 39 years," followed by much mutual weeping. You see, his mother died in a car crash when he was 11, and his father handled the tragedy by emotionally sealing up for the next several years. Our hero became part of a popular "beach music" band (in the South, this means R&B/funk, he says) in high school, hit the bottle to cope with Mom's death and converted before college. Once's he's off to campus, his girlfriend dies in a car crash, and he screams at God, Why again? But he continues the path to clergyhood.

He meets a girl so pure that she questions marrying him because she's worried she would love him more than God. She's the one! he realizes, and they get hitched after 3 months. Given the popularity of Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth in evangelical circles around this time, they think the world will end in 1975, so looks like the next few years will be nothing but "hot sex and evangelism" for the happy couple, he said. Well, the world doesn't end, and our hero uses his busyness to shut out his wife emotionally. The best way to avoid God is to get busy with church, he says. Our hero, in his 40s, loses his spiritual mentor and again falls apart, but covers up the pain with work.

Visiting Mom's grave starts the process of healing, dealing with his own painful emotions, learning how to open up to his wife for the first time in 30 years of marriage (they're still in regular counseling 7 years later), and reaching out to Dad, trying to get him to finally talk about Mom, whose name was never uttered in the house growing up. Their estrangement finally ends as they flip through pics of Mom at a McDonald's and his dad describes Mom's death: "the day the life went out of us all." (Top that off with our hero's coming to grips with being sexually abused by a neighbor soon after Mom's death.) Father and son, finally reconciled, lose their relationship a few years later when Dad's Alzheimer's hits hard.

It was a gut-wrenching three sessions, as our hero told us, with humor and a quick wit rivaling my own (!), to let ourselves feel pain, to be vulnerable, to pay attention when tragedy strikes us, because it's only then that we'll learn to rely wholly on God and give up our idols - anything we put ahead of Him. It gave me, a person with many beloved idols and a lot of pent-up emotional wreckage, hope for the future.

September 7, 2008

Message about Beer Float Party: The lineup so far and what to bring

Folks, in case you're wracking your brain for what to bring, here's what we have on hand now in limited quantities.

Oskar Blues Ten Fidy Imperial Stout
Bell's Java Stout
Stone Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout
Unibroue Chambly Noire
Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout
Lindemans Kriek (cherry)

Where to shop:
Westover Market (closest to our house)
Arrowine (both Arlington)
Total Wine (McLean)
Wine Specialist
Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits (both DC)
Rick's Wine & Gourmet (Alexandria)
Any Whole Foods

As you can see, there's plenty of room especially for fruited beers such as Lambics (anything by Lindemans) or Kasteel Rouge (cherry) or Dogfish Head Festina Peche (peach). (Beware the Southern Tier Cherry Saison - the cherry is hard to find!) Lighter brews such as Franziskaner Weissbeer (green bottle, monk on the label) can also work - for those who attended Fruit the Beer, the creator of the winning Banana Ice Cream beer used Franziskaner. I have a feeling Spaten Optimator or other doppel bocks would work well.

For ice cream, there's a shop a few doors down from the Westover Market, Scoop Beauregard, in case you didn't stop by a grocery store. If you're in Alexandria, Buzz Bakery has fabulous gelato you can take in a cup. The chocolate pairs perfectly with the Stone stout!

If you have any questions, e-mail me at gregpiper@gmail.com. Don't worry about impressing anyone - just find something that interests you and bring it!

September 5, 2008

Greg Piper, media darling

In case I haven't personally mobbed you to tell you how excited I am about being excerpted at The Week for my blog post on Sarah Palin at The Moderate Voice, where technically I'm still a contributor, I'll tell you now.

The “gorgeous” Palin is not just John McCain’s new “attack dog,” said Greg Piper in the blog The Moderate Voice. “She is his Obama, just as Joe Biden is Obama’s McCain.” Palin “is as entertaining as Obama is inspiring,” and Democrats are “furious that Republicans have someone just as telegenic and spunky as their man.”

August 21, 2008

Costa Rica, Day 4: Ziplines and blasphemy

SUNDAY, APRIL 27

(For pics, click here.)

Zip-line day is here! S and I jump in another bus, headed for the canopy. This is a prime tourist area, both for foreigners and Costa Ricans coming in from the big cities. We sit through orientation with our fun-loving zip-line guides with a bewildered Asian guy who is clearly having trouble keeping up with the Costa Rican English accents. Press down on the line with your hand to slow down, when you get the hand signals from us, they say. S isn't taking any chances - she'll do tandem zips with a guide so she doesn't have to pay attention to anything.

Not me - I whoop, holler and otherwise make a hullabaloo as I zip through the canopy at what's probably 35 miles per hour. We're all wearing leather gloves so we don't completely bloody our hands when pressing down on the line to slow down. There are both stretches where we're in the thick of the forest, with trees a few feet away on either side, and long, open stretches where you can look around before remembering in a panic that you're supposed to be watching the guy at the end for his hand signals. They also have another line at the end that they can whip out to halt your momentum about 10 feet before you hit the tree at the end of each line. I have a couple close calls, but it's all fun.

Then there's the Tarzan Swing We're maybe 50 feet in the air, from what's basically a little lookout tower, and you just grab the rope and jump. It's a hoot, and I made a Howard Dean-esque noise similar to "YEEEEAAAAHHH" when I did it, but forgot that I'm supposed to keep my legs tucked in so I don't accidentally kick the crap out of the guys at the bottom who need to slow my momentum after the first swing so I don't hit the platform. Hence the yelling at me for keeping my legs down. All is forgiven, though - they like my brazen attitude, especially in contrast to S's creampuffery.

From the hostel it's another shuttle bus, this time to volcano country. We pass through the bumpiest road yet, running through several mountain villages - they all have pubs with the standard Imperial and Pilsen logos, regardless of the remoteness - and at one point pass by a motorcyclist who fell off and bloodied himself something awful. All the villagefolk were hovering over him and a doctor was an hour away. The terrain reminds me of Eastern Oregon, where my folks grew up, but the bright-red parrot on the pole in the middle of the general store reminds me this is Costa Rica.

This is beginning to feel like U.S. Marshals as we get to a bunch of little speedboats that will take us across the lake to Arenal, the volcano and town. It's all very picturesque, especially as the volcano gets bigger as we approach. But the boat guys are the least helpful of anyone yet, making us lug our own bags on and off the boat, and not being especially helpful for knowing where we need to go. After dropping off the others in the center of town, our boat/van driver says he doesn't know where our hostel is. We drive around until we find a guy who knows where it is, and head there, a couple miles from town, down a bumpy road (get out!) where the volcano is only a field away. It's not customary to tip drivers in Costa Rica, but this guy went enough out of his way to justify a couple bucks, and he said no worries.

Our hostel manager is the most colorful yet, sporting a giant mustache and probably in his 50s. The first actual Costa Rican we've met who runs a hostel, he could pass for a slimmer Eliot Gould from Ocean's Eleven. His wife walks by outside and he says she's just getting back from church. My curiosity piqued, I ask which one, and he says Catholic - "but I myself am an atheist." O-Kay, I think and awkwardly smile. We found the one out-and-proud atheist in Costa Rica. But he's friendly to a fault, and gives us several detailed dinner recommendations. No point calling a cab (which are still only $4) when you can walk, so we stumble down the gravel road in the darkening sky, trotting past a weird-looking cemetery and into the Costa Rican equivalent of outer Vegas.

We settle on a meat, meat and more meat grill with all outdoor seating. It's practically empty when we arrive, though a few parties come in later. Our waiter is the most sycophantic person I have ever met, theatrically recommending everything and telling us everything we order is excellent, as if our tip will put his kids through college. The act is a bit much, but I fight the urge to tell him to tone it down. Plus the margarita is strong, so no point ruining a good thing.

This place ends up being a souped-up Sizzler, and the most expensive of any restaurant we try, with a bill in the mid-$40s (U.S.). Later regretting my naivete in ordering the Costa Rican surf and turf, these heaping piles of steak and fried seafood are mocking my stomach's reticence. Happily, God sends us a scrappy little street dog, who scrambles up to the table, waiting expectantly for food to fall. There's no way I'm finishing thismeat, so over S's protests, and considering I'm not biblically starving the kids to feed the dogs, I shave off pieces of steak and feed the little guy. The servers couldn't care less. But I had to make slow motions - if I brought the steak down too quickly, the little guy would hastily retreat, as if I were going to beat him. After I went to the restroom, S said he ran off, evidently thinking I was gone forever.

We return to the hostel lugging a (figurative) ton of meat from dinner, only to realize there was no communal fridge (this place does separate cabins instead of dorms). Costa Atheist offers to make space in the beverege fridge in the office, so our styrofoam containers join the bottled water and Imperial. Then it's off to bed before our big day - myself rappelling down waterfalls, and the risk-averse S opting for horseback riding.

Costa Rica, Day 3: Coffee with Batman

SATURDAY, APRIL 26

(Writing this 4 months later, full of gin as I fly westward, it's a little hazy. Some details may be fanciful. For a photo slide show of this period, click here.)

Getting ready to leave Manuel Antonio, and the Dutch guy who was burned so badly he slept on the floor next to the TV is up and awake. So is the giant Italian who reminds me of a coworker's husband, a famous chef in DC. Both are half naked, and enjoying some early-morning weed. I catch bits of comprehensible English here and there. Societies founded on leisure, for sure. I'm still kicking myself for not getting Microsoft Mike's contact info - my strategy of asking a friend at Microsoft "can you track down a guy named Mike whose startup you bought last year?" proved fruitless. He was a fun guy. Perhaps I'll reconnect with him when word of his next startup reaches me.

We take another long, bumpy ride - there's really no other way in Costa Rica - to a little (tourist) village in the middle of nowhere and wait to transfer to another shuttle bus. There are dolled-up dancers doing whatever style is prominent there - it looks fairly traditional. Also a veritable pet store of parrots is perching from trees around the cabins, dropping half-nibbled fruit to the ground and forcing me to do some fancy footwork to avoid getting beaned.

Up the mountains we go, past various farm or wild animals - it's hard to tell this far up - to Monteverde (Green Mountain, I think). It reminds me of Leavenworth, Washington, a German enclave full of fake old-world charm, though of cours this is the Costa Rican version. The guy behind the counter named Ran - in S's e-mails with the hostel I always imagined him a tall, dark local - is actually a pudgyish white guy who looks like he played in a punk band 10 years ago. He could probably pass for Eurythmics-era Annie Lennox without her makeup (although I think he's wearing some). I have a feeling he could break into a Johnny Rottenesque pillage while he's frenetically booking our outings in Monteverde.

Sadly there were no sweet dreams, or God-queen-saving, in this hostel. Masked by its funky-dorm decor, which includes some pretty good local rock on the stereo, rocking chairs on the porch and Internet cafe/wifi (plus a kickass in-house burrito counter), this place is about as urban as you can get. In Manuel Antonio the birds woke you up - here it's motorcycles at 5 a.m. about 10 feet away, a window that doesn't shut all the way, and ditto for blinds. The social vibe is also different - Manuel Antonio felt cozier, like you could relate to the people better. People are still chatting and cooking dinner together here, but we don't quite fit in, like we're 2nd-semester transfers who missed the friend-making at orientation.

One of my lifelong dreams (besides going on the Gong Show and managing a country-music star) was satisfied in Monteverde: visiting a coffee farm. There are a handful within 10 minutes of town, and we picked the Santa Elena cooperative. We pass a dining table on the porch filled with four varieties of coffee beans under glass as we walk into the associated gift shop, which offers samples of several brews. Costa Rica's version of Michael Keaton greets us, decked out in a logo'd polo and baseball cap.

Any good coffee tour includes a healthy dose of self-righteousness, and it's probably 45 minutes before we actually step onto the farm. Stopping halfway down the steepest, windiest road I've ever experienced - built specifically for the coffee business here - we get a primer in local history, and the coop's efforts to stay afloat as much bigger coffee growers with less emphasis on quality push their way in. (There are other coffee tours in the area by bigger brands, but Costa Keaton emphasizes the coop is nonprofit.) Apparently Costa Rican coffee drinkers are just as clueless as Americans when it comes to what's in their cup. But the coop is making a comeback, no doubt in part from American buyers - they sell through a Montana mail-order company.

Oddly, when I ask Costa Keaton if he's seen the seminal coffee documentary "Black Gold," about Ethiopia's struggle to get a fair price on the world market for its premium beans, he gives me a blank stare. Progressive activism here takes a much more blue-collar turn, I guess. (Organic production is rare, for one thing - it's far too expensive with little benefit, Costa Keaton says.) But the views from this spot halfway down are stunning - we can see a waterfall in the distance, as well as the Pacific.

The actual coffee farm we visit, one of several in the coop, is lush with agricultural porn. Our guide has been working the family farm his entire life, reminding me of a Costa Rican Balky Bartakoumous, and doesn't speak English, so Costa Keaton translates. We see several little coffee plants in their early stages, lots of other flora (banana trees are everywhere in Costa Rica, and they look like giant phalluses before blooming), and the highlight of the visit for me, sugar cane.

There's a giant hand-turned press in the middle of the farm, like something you'd see slaves turning to generate electricity. Balky feeds some sugar cane he just ripped off the vine through the press as we take turns, two at a time, turning the contraption, while the juice from the cane runs out. We all get cups - it's pretty close to sugar water, but not corn-syrupy, a clean sugary taste. My flamboyant inner-Queer Eye takes over as I giddily crank.

Later we visit the processing factory where the beans are cleaned, stored and roasted. It's much less glamorous, reminding me of the Queens warehouse district near S's parents' house. Since it's not harvesting season, there's no activity. We go to a giant warehouse filled with dirt, where apparently worms do something to the beans. There's a children's mural on the wall, another exercise in small-time pomposity.

Dinner that night is at a fairly Americanized sitdown place, similar in style to a Thai restaurant. I can't remember in the least what we ate, but it was good. Then we went to the grocery store across the street in Costa Leavenworth. They have some good beer, so I grab a bottle. Also tiny tins of sweetened condensed milk, which is essential to Vietnamese style coffee and which I've been unable to find in the U.S. (it's hard to keep a giant can for long after it's opened), so I pick up a couple. Our cheesy American-ness shows as we tipsily peruse the aisles, laughing and pointing.

August 17, 2008

With Greg Piper as Steve Martin

So the wedding of my cousin to That Guy We Saw A Couple Times was pretty memorable. For those wondering, my guitar performance didn't disappoint - in the larger sense.

The class divide was pretty apparent in the guest list. I was in my full suit in near-record high temperatures - outdoor ceremony, mostly in the shade - but discarded my jacket after the family photos. The rest of the family mocked my outfit - they were decked in polos, khakis and TLC "Creep" video-style open-collared, untucked shirts. The groom's side was even more casual, with several people in shorts and clothing seen in 50 Cent videos. My younger cousin, the bride's brother, and his fiancee look way too much like Jim and Pam from "The Office."

The venue had the charming features of one bathroom for 100 people and no amenities outside the employee kitchen. That meant regular trips to the loo - when it wasn't occupied - to fetch paper towels to dab away the sweat. Mom and I were wiping our brows on a regular schedule.

Cassie's 2-year-old Sean provided much entertainment unbeknownst to him. Naturally curious, he also screams unpredictably. We were chilling (not literally in this heat) in the big chairs outside the wedding garden when he went off. Reviewing the landscape of screaming kid, old and young and the frequent jokes - sport on my dad's side of the family consists of clever one-liners - I remarked that this was like the movie "Parenthood" with Steve Martin. Little did I realize that I was him.

I was supposed to start playing for the lighting of the Unity Candle, and I was ready. After my embarrassing rehearsal the day before, I had been determined to practice until my fingers fell off, which they nearly did. Halfway through the song, I hadn't messed up "Canon in D" in any meaningful sense. Then the Spirit of God swept through the wedding garden in a gust of wind like nothing that came before or after the ceremony, lifting up my songbook from the music stand and flinging it into the garden to my right. This was during the do, do-do-do, do-do-do, do-do-do-do-do-do-do section of the song, which everyone knows. Stunned, I pressed on for a few seconds until I realized I had no idea where I left off. I couldn't even remember the damn chord progression. I flailed my fingers against the strings and fretboard, finally remembering D, A, B minor, F sharp minor, G, D, G, A and repeat. So that was basically the second half of the song - plucked chords. "Thank you for that, Greg," the pastor said. After the ceremony the sound guy/MC said I did good. "For about halfway through, yeah," I sheepishly replied. "Family and friends are always better than a professional," said the Colonel Sanders-looking guy matter-of-factly.

The rest of the wedding entertainment was provided by Sean, who had to be tugged up the steps to his parents by his female counterpart, and who characteristically screamed once up there, also tugging on Mommy's Dallas Cowboys cheerleader-style dress (I'm only half exaggerating) and kicking his parents. My younger cousin, Office Jim, scrambled to the side of the platform to distract Sean with funny faces, later joined by the bride's mother, who later acted out the process of learning that her waterproof mascara worked. The ceremony ended with white doves being released. Apparently one of them came back to the tree on the platform and then flew away again during the reception, also at the inn.

My second cousin, adopted by a rich Portland family several years ago after her single mother's mental problems became too much, has become an awkward teenager. A self-described klutz who falls in giant holes, she has the uncanny ability to get food on her forehead, somehow smearing on mustard and cake icing about 10 minutes apart at the reception. She just returned from a five-week vacation with her family with stops including Singapore and Sri Lanka, where her parents are old friends with the ambassador (nicknamed "Soggy"). He lent them a bodyguard in Europe after heading back to Sri Lanka. She has a boyfriend and a purity ring (boyfriend's view on such unknown) and is writing a book inspired by her travels about a Russian mafia hit and kidnapped American kids. I told her it sounds like a Mandy Moore movie. "Chasing Perestroika," perhaps?

Our family gatherings usually involving televised sports and napping, this was an odd event, I remarked to my older cousin, who spent most of the reception criticizing our second cousin's new boyfriend without having met him. A handful of couples took to the stage to dance - Sean again tugged at Mommy's dress and kicked his parents - while we continued our tradition of sarcasm and one-liners. The champagne was labeled Piper Sonoma, so my fellow beer-snob uncle said it was "Greg's Private Reserve." Older cousin had returned from a summer of looking for odd jobs in Las Vegas, and was now considering going back to college. "Go work with [Office Jim]" in financial services, I said. The question on everyone else's lips was, in the midst of marriages and engagments across the family, whether I would be joining S in Seattle. (That's a post for another time.)

Husband asked his new wife if he could exit his tuxedo and she grudgingly obliged, remaining in her cheerleader dress as he transitioned to his family's proud 50 Cent tradition. All the relatives were skedaddling, and the wedding professionals continued their pattern of delaying traditional wedding practices, such as the throwing of the bouquet, until almost everyone had left. Bang-up job, guys. We left as 50 Cent and the guys lit up cigars.

Thus ended the summer of weddings. Next family wedding, of Jim and Pam, is June 2010 at a new winery, after she gets back from grad school in Vermont. (The mid-Willamette Valley, where most of Dad's side lives, is prime wine country, especially for pinor noir.) The pressure is on me now. Maybe another Spirit of God will gust in, tossing the songbook of my plans into the garden. But that's for another post.

August 16, 2008

Everybody's workin' for the weddin'

Never. Again.

I accepted my aunt's request that I play Pachelbel's "Canon in D" at my cousin's wedding, which is today. It would have helped if I cleared up four months ago which song I was playing in the "Wedding for Guitar" songbook, instead of asking a month ago. It would have helped if I had starting practicing more than two weeks ago. Ditto for having the right guitar to practice on - all I have in DC is my acoustic, but for the sound to carry at this large outdoor wedding, I need my electric and amp, which is here in Oregon. I've been practicing on it for roughly six hours over the past two days, which may not sound like much, but I'm about ready to elope with myself to get out of playing this wedding.

My fingertips are turning ash-colored, as if they were being tortured cinematically. I'm getting guitar-elbow, a condition that results from sitting down with a sparkling-green fake Les Paul and fingerpicking over, and over, and ovvvvveeeeer. My index finger feels out of joint and I can't pop it back in. And my back muscles on the right are strained from lugging this blubberous amp I haven't hauled around since college. I've missed out on two nights of general carousing with my friends here to flop my fingers savagely against a fretboard in this record heatwave in my old room, because I was too naive to just say "no thanks" at Easter.

Today at the rehearsal - which I was reminded of six hours beforehand - everyone was looking at me with these "seriously, he's playing?" eyes. They smiled and shook my hand, but I could tell as I stumbled past them to find a chair, dragged my cord to the outlet at the top of the gravel hill, and fumbled through Pachelbel's Purgatory that they were just as incredulous as I that I was the Official Entertainment. This so-called rehearsal is incredibly vague, so I'm just practicing 50 feet away from the action, as they move around and echoes of liturgy waft up to my hillside perch. There are no mikes on, so I'm clueless as to what's going on. (Greg...Greg...) Greg! I look up and my cousin is yelling, because we're at the point, following the lighting of the Unity Candle, where the pastor says "thank you for that, Greg."

The ad-hoc sound guy is giving me a good-natured hard time. I become aware he's talking to me as I bite my lip and press on, with a rhetorical question that ends "practice, practice, practice." Thanks for reminding me, Font of Wisdom. As soon as it started, the rehearsal is over, and I have no idea what the program is. Auntie tells me I sound good, exaggerating out of pity, and I say I still don't have it down. "Just fake it," she says. Of course!

Hey, that sounds really good! my soon-to-be-Mrs. cousin says as everyone vacates. They thought it was a DJ up there but I said you were playing. Really good! she chirps. If I were blind and grabbed her face, I would probably say "you feel sincere."

Stay tuned - I'll have a followup in all its gory detail after the wedding.

UPDATE 8:46 a.m. Pacific: I woke up and my fingers are delicate blobs of flesh that recoil with pain with every touch. I picked up the guitar and played the first few notes and winced. This is what Eric Clapton meant when he said playing was "muhr-duh on the finguz." Pressing on, I played through a couple times as gently as I could while still fretting (physically and emotionally). Then I made the mistake of lightly touching my hot coffee mug with my fingers, which created fire like in a tough-actin' Tinactin commercial. Even typing this now is painful, but document I must!

A Puff of Everyday Life

Praise for Piper

"[A] thoughtful, interesting writer, and pretty damn funny sometimes, too."

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-- Joe Gandelman, Veteran journalist

"Piper's mordant wit and sense of style is matched only by his awkwardness in social situations."

-- Adam Faber, Seattle political operative

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