Month: September 2016

From the Banks of the Muddy Wishkah

Bill Pearse has been hosting a 1990’s nostalgia blogfest this week over at The Pinklightsabre to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s album Nevermind. Today, I have the honor of ending the series with some of my memories from that time…and a few thoughts about Cobain’s hometown, Aberdeen, Washington.

If you haven’t been to Bill’s blog you’re missing out. Dude has some mad writin’ skillz, you should check him out.


Picture stolen from Wikipedia.

Most people haven’t been to Aberdeen, Washington, and that is a good thing. There aren’t more depressing towns in North America, the overcast skies, the deteriorating downtown, the muddy tidal rivers, and the rain…the rain is the type of rain that most people think of when they think of Seattle, but Aberdeen has the real stuff: cold, blowing in sideways, and heavy. There aren’t many reasons to go to Aberdeen unless you are one of those people in search of Kurt Cobain’s hometown, or looking for a meth fix.

In 1990, I was living and finishing up my seventh year of college in Spokane. I worked evenings at Cavanaugh’s Inn at the Park as I tried to cobble together my multiple years of education into something someone else would recognize as valuable. I had a couple degrees but my friends all agreed, we didn’t know anyone from our college who had a real job and that was what I needed, a real job. I had been married for a little more than a year and my wife had started looking for teaching jobs around the state of Washington. The late nights of neon Chinese restaurants and Spokane summers were coming to an end and it wouldn’t be long before my friends and I were separated by the pull of adulthood and responsibilities.

Todd and Scott were the guys I spent most of my time with. Todd worked for an environmental agency in a small office in a dirty part of Spokane and Scott was the Guest Services Manager at Cavanaugh’s. We shared a love of basketball and music. Our empty hours were spent in the rougher areas of Spokane playing pick up games on courts where scores were kept by someone on the sidelines to reduce the fights and in record stores looking for something new.

Todd was the one who found Nirvana first. It was only right. He always had a nose for the new cool thing. He rode his bike to work before it was cool, he smoked cigars before they were cool, and he had an ear for music that introduced me to Teenage Fanclub and The Stone Roses…he was one of those guys. (The last I heard from him he was spending summers in a van down by the Columbia River to windsurf and winters skiing at Whistler before anyone knew Whistler existed.) So when Todd popped the new Nirvana album into Scott’s tape deck and the noise started to fill the car, I held an open mind for as long as I could. I didn’t like it. The lyrics were convoluted and ridiculous. The self-absorbed lead singer was far too dark for me, but I hadn’t been to Kurt Cobain’s hometown at that point in my life.

A few months later, when Nirvana could be heard in places other than Scott’s car, I was in one of the branches of the Spokane Public Library looking through the Yellow Pages for Grays Harbor County which included Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Elma, and Montesano (the four horsemen of depression) because my wife had been offered a job at a small school, Wishkah Valley, near Aberdeen and we were considering moving across the state to start our lives. I looked for restaurants, movie theaters, and other things that could make our stay in a tiny town worth the move. There were no WebPages, no Yelp to help me know anything about this place other than what those yellow pages offered.

A job I was qualified to fill opened in a beach town nearby and before August was over we had moved into a small moss covered house in Westport, Washington. My wife commuted to her tiny school 45 minutes each way. It was a long drive for her, but we decided living at the beach was better than in Aberdeen because we only had one car and, well, I wanted to live near the ocean because I was still a Californian deep in my heart and living near the ocean was a dream I could only fulfill in a place like Westport.

The sun never came out. Never. On days that Seattle had sun it rained in Grays Harbor. On days it rained in Seattle it poured buckets in Westport and Aberdeen. By the time we reached October I understood Kurt Cobain’s depression.

Grunge filled the airwaves and Seattle suddenly became the coolest city on the planet. It was a shocking shift from Day-Glo Miami Vice colors to plaid flannel. I wish I could say I took advantage of it, but I didn’t. I knew people who traveled the two hours to Seattle to see Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains at the Showbox, at the Paramount, or if they were really lucky at the Crocodile, but I never went.

I didn’t really get how big grunge was while I was standing right next to it. I was the age when you figure that life is like that, everything revolves around you and your presence bends the world. There was the MTV Real World in Seattle, the MTV New Year’s Party where Nirvana played a disturbingly sloppy set, and then there was Nirvana Unplugged. Unplugged was where I finally recognized the brilliance of Cobain but by that time he was spiraling into the black abyss. He looked fragile in that pale green Mr. Rogers cardigan as he strummed through the acoustic set in a performance that even I couldn’t deny was otherworldly.

I remember traveling to California over a Spring Break and walking through a mall, there were Nirvana shirts everywhere. Girls wore flannels, combat boots, and ripped jeans in 90-degree heat. It was California grunge. It looked like grunge from a distance, but it wasn’t the real thing, it was the cleaned up corporate version stamped out in t-shirt factories around the world and shipped back to places like Wichita so kids could be cool. They didn’t realize the darkness of Aberdeen, they didn’t get that Cobain’s angst wasn’t like Kiss’s devil worship kitsch. Jocks liked Nirvana, popular kids liked Nirvana, and the outcasts who liked Nirvana were mocked for wearing a Nirvana shirt when they should have known better. Cobain’s lyrics resonated with kids who were grounded from their BMWs over the weekend, kids who hadn’t seen the Wishkah River when the tide was out and the mud looked like black tar.

It happened in a hurry and then it was over.

It wasn’t until years after Cobain’s death that I bought my first Nirvana album. By then the internet and iTunes made the purchase much easier than committing to flipping through the record stacks, picking an album that everyone already owned, standing in line with that album, and spending money on a Nirvana album as opposed to something I couldn’t hear on the radio.

For me, it’s still hard to separate Nirvana from Aberdeen. I hate Aberdeen. There isn’t much to see other than closed businesses, empty sawmill lots, and a busy Wal-Mart filled with desperation. People who survive there are heartier than I am.

Cobain hated Aberdeen too. The town motto is “Come as you are” and I do wonder if Cobain ever missed his hometown: The gray skies, the rain, the grit and dirt that soaked into him and made the world bend to his music.

Brain Research in Europe

The brain is an amazing blob of goo. It remembers, it stores, it draws up memories while you are walking down the street about the time you were in 7th grade and lost your voice while trying to talk to a girl you thought was pretty, and as we age it starts to betray us. Like all the bits and pieces of the human body there are ways to lengthen the longevity of your brain until the inevitable day when you fall in the kitchen and break a hip.

One of the best ways to keep the old noggin fresh is to experience new things. Your brain can get lazy if you do the same thing everyday, new experiences create mileposts in your mind. For example, think about what you ate for breakfast last Tuesday; now try to remember what you ate for breakfast when you were in Oslo three years ago. That Oslo breakfast is stashed in there because you hadn’t realized salmon could be served in 12 different ways, or that salmon was one of the cornerstones of a good breakfast. It was a new thing and your brain made a little marker so the next time you experienced it you wouldn’t stand there staring at the salmon wondering what the hell to do. (This probably has something to do with evolution and preventing you from getting eaten by a Wooly Mammoth, but I don’t want to stash too much science into my blog, because we all know science is boring.)

The brain can also get worn out when it has too much new stuff to milepost. Reading something challenging can make your brain tired. (I have officially given up on Infinite Jest and am currently seeing other books after dedicating myself to reading it over the summer…my Kindle says I made it 10% of the way through and have 44 hours left. Pathetic.) Doing difficult math, memorizing the periodic table, and learning a new computer program are all ways to stretch your gray matter so it remains alive and kicking, but the best way to pump your brain up is travel.

Travel bombards your brain with new experiences, unless the travel you are doing is to see all the Wal-Marts in the USA. A new city is full of new experiences and your brain is alive with activity, it is one of the reasons why travel is exhausting and it is one of the reasons why travel can push your date with the kitchen floor off for a few years.


There are some things that I believe we should all agree to keep exactly the same everywhere in the world because I am done learning about toilets, showers, public restrooms, and cutting in line.


This picture has nothing to do with this post, but I couldn’t resist adding to my blog. I almost walked by this photography studio in Vienna without getting a picture. Aren’t you happy I stopped? 


The European toilet is something I have spent too much time thinking about. Maybe because I had lots of alone time to consider why the toilet engineer decided that designing it like this was the way to go. In Austria there was a dry porcelain platform in the toilet for some unknown reason. In other countries there were toilets with two buttons, one button, a lever, infrared sensors, and various levels of water in the bowl.

These differences might seem minor and easy to navigate, but after a long day walking all over Prague the last place you want to make a mistake is in the bathroom of St. Vitus’ Cathedral. I’m not asking for too much, I just want a standardized toilet for the world to use. (Bill Gates has also spent a lot of time thinking about toilets, so I’m in good company.

Think about how many directions there are for using a toilet in an airplane, and people still get it wrong. Some idiot threw a diaper in the toilet on my flight from Stockholm to NYC. The diaper got stuck in the metal flapper that opens to allow the waste to get sucked into plane’s belly and created a real moral dilemma for those of us who like to leave things better than we found them.

I don’t care what type of toilet we agree to use, but please don’t choose the Austrian toilet.


The dreaded Austrian toilet. 


I took three cold showers in Amsterdam. I didn’t take them because I had been out wandering through the red light district; I took them because I couldn’t figure out how to turn the temperature up from where the last person using the shower left it. (I stayed at one of those places with a shared bathroom.) In Copenhagen, the shower was like a tiny bathtub with an upper and lower area. The person who designed this shower must not have been Danish because form did not follow function. I couldn’t stand in either area because it wasn’t flat and I didn’t want to be rushed to a hospital in Copenhagen naked and half covered in frothy soap. Maybe if I was as athletic and as small as Simone Biles I could stand in one of the levels and have a shower, but I’m not an elf sized sprite, so I spent two days trying different showering techniques. Nothing worked well. I felt like a baby in one of those plastic baby bathtubs parents use for the first six months of a child’s life except I am not a tiny baby and nobody was pouring cups of warm water through my soapy hair saying, “That’s a good boy.”


Danish design?


Take a cold shower and just in case…

In Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Munich the showers were all similar so I know that Europe can get a standard shower method together. It really isn’t that difficult.


Public Restrooms

In Prague, next to the Astrological Clock —one of the busiest places in the city—I saw a young girl (6 or 7, I’d guess) squatting to pee into a gutter. The look on her mother’s face is what I noticed…the mom’s face said it all, “We tried to find a bathroom, but no one would let us use it so here we are peeing in a gutter.” I’ve been there. I’ve been there with kids, kids who say they don’t need to pee and then two minutes later have to pee so bad that you believe they are going to explode. I’ve been there myself, looking for 20 minutes for a public restroom and then having to decide if a night in a Hungarian prison is worth peeing under an overpass.

I know there are lots of places with public restrooms, but almost all of them require some form of payment. Why? To pay the attendant? For cleaning? To pay for the water being used? Whatever, we have these same costs in the USA but we don’t charge to use the bathroom 95% of the time. If you guys in Europe don’t figure this out, I’m going to start selling disposable, biodegradable urine bladders to tourists so they can pee in a dark corner and then toss the waste in a garbage bin. #EuroPeeBag™

Line Cutting

Most people do not cut in line in the USA because we know our fellow Americans: We are violent, short tempered, and packing heat. Standing in line for an extra two minutes is okay if you know you might get shot, but in Europe where the risk of getting shot for slipping into a line is minimized by strict gun control (also known as rational thinking) people do cut in line. At one time, I thought the cutting was limited to Italians because they were the boldest line cutters but it isn’t just the Italians who seem to believe that anyone who starts standing in a line at the end of it is a sucker, most Europeans operate on the understanding that a line a type of suggestion, “You could stand here, or here, or up here. You decide.” (Germans do not cut in line. If there is one group who are stricter about lines than Americans it is the German people. You might not get shot, but getting yelled at by someone speaking German is almost as violent.)


Airplane line cutters…


The old slide into the bus line method.

I don’t know how to solve this problem but here’s a suggestion, how about putting the rules for lining up in more than one language. I realize that English is the universal language, the language of business, the only language I can speak and understand, but I started to get the feeling that most of the signs in Europe were there for Americans and Brits to follow. Why not explain how to line up in English and Italian? In museums, a few signs about flash photography in Japanese might help. If you don’t want kids jumping on your holocaust memorial put the signs in Swedish. Don’t want little packets of chewing tobacco littering the world; maybe some instructions about not sliding those into the airplane seat pouch in Norwegian would cut down on that kind of thing. Don’t want drunks sleeping in their own vomit in a gutter? Okay, that sign should be in English, but the British kind with words like centre and colour.


Group of Brits getting ready for their 2 AM meeting with a Prague gutter.

Standardizing a few things doesn’t take away from the culture of the place, for example, if Sweden wanted to keep their toilets in those little unisex rooms that would be fine. I certainly don’t want to make more places like the USA we have enough influence on music, movies, and other forms of mindless entertainment, but it would be nice if we could agree on the basics. I don’t need biscuits and gravy in Prague (for the record, I don’t eat biscuits and gravy because it looks like somebody barfed on a plate) but I would like to see a sign by the central square that has an arrow pointing to a public restroom. If not for me, then how about for all the families with young kids who don’t need to be peeing into a gutter by the astrological clock.

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