I do have coffee a lot in Berlin now, since I’m in Germany for several weeks and have chosen the old and new capital as my base camp.

I lived here for eleven years, fifteen years back. That might explain why I can’t see to get a grip on the city. There are places I don’t recognize anymore, renovated, restored, re-done, over-developed. Those are the easiest, since they are merely new. But there are also tons of places that haven’t changed one bit. Not at all. Or, to be more precise, the places haven’t changed, and according to the circular laws of fashion, the outfits of the people who inhabit these places (take, for example Kottbusser Tor, a major hub in the still somewhat cool district of Kreuzberg, which looks as ratty and lost and crowded as ever) have reverted to 80s Berlin chic – black, short jackets, black boots, asymmetrical and bleached or dyed hair. Nothing looks new or clean. It’s enough to creep me out. I have aged, whereas Berlin has remained the same. None of my life has happened. It can’t have. I’m Pamela Ewing’s dream of Bobby.

Germany produces what are arguably the best cars in the world. Germany also makes some of the best kitchen appliances money can buy. You’d expect flying Minis or VW Polos by now, and they might come soon, but free wifi is another matter. Forget free wifi, internet connections are dreadful in general.

In the free world coffee shops are there to provide wifi and barely drinkable java. Not here. And even if you get wifi, it’s bound to break down at regular intervals, about every 15 minutes or so. I’m drinking a lot of Starbucks for that reason, because they are “experimenting” with free wifi. It’s slow. It’s freaking excruciatingly slow. Do you remember dial-up?

Germany also brought you the tear-free onion-hacker. Try to buy one, though. Half the businesses don’t accept credit cards. Instead they use EC-cards, Euro-Cheque cards. Kinda like debit cards but the money is always guaranteed, even in case of over-drafting. But of course that EC business excludes foreigners, American or otherwise. And I can’t shake the feeling Berliners like it that way.

Why? Well, when I arrived I tried to buy a Handy (the, umh, German term for a cell phone). Turns out, pre-paid phones need to be registered to an owner, and in order to become such an owner, you need to have a Personalausweis, the German ID card. I pulled my passport, it’s truly German, but that wouldn’t do. ID card or bust. With pride, the young sales clerk said, that this system ensured that terrorists could not make anonymous, unregistered calls, the way they can in America. He was beaming. I was not. But our faces were both red. My friend bailed me out. I do have a handy now, and if I should use it for stalking people (the clerk was also happy to prevent that), or try terrorizing Germany, my friend will get busted. I tried to pay with credit card.

Germans love soccer and the newspapers’ sports pages are devoted to soccer alone. Well, okay, there’s ice-hockey (yes, they call it that), handball (another sport without an American future), and tennis (but only if a German player defeated a much better foreign player. The devotion to soccer extends to the fitness club I joined here on a very expensively temporary basis, but where they do serve a mean coffee. The urinals sport small goals (yes, down there), with tiny soccer balls dangling from the goal post. You aim, and, if it’s strong enough, “Goaaaal.” If you drink a lot of coffee, as I do these days, you score a lot.

On Wednesday Borders surprised almost no one by filing for bankruptcy. Authors are pissed because the company has not yet paid for the books it sold over the Christmas period. Readers are pissed because another of their local bookstores has bitten the dust.

As a reader it may seem strange that I’ve always had a strong distaste for bookstores. I hate that bookstores have “literature” sections that are a few shelves long, because most of what they sell is not literature. It’s celebrity biographies, books to accompany fad TV shows, and imitations of imitations. For me, they were a necessary evil – a place to visit to sift through the crap and find what you need.

In Dundee, during my university years, we had a handful of bookstores in the town centre, and several littered throughout the West End – the university district. Even by my third year, well before the world economy shat the bed, Dundee’s bookstores were in trouble. They began closing and reopening at smaller premises, with selections more focused on commercial books. The independent stores closed altogether.

A stranger and his friends who were sitting next to me in the Starbucks asked me if I knew the difference between right and wrong. Or maybe he said good or bad. I can’t remember. Is there a difference? Between the words right and wrong and the words good and bad, I mean. I’m not asking if there exists some disparity between the concept of right and the concept of wrong, or the concept of good and the concept of bad. Obviously, these things are opposites of one another. I’m just not certain I know what exactly the other differences might be, aside from the fact that they are opposing concepts.

I spoke to the stranger for a while. There are the big moral ones, I told him. I know those, I remember them. Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. After quite a bit of discussion, however, I came to believe that it may not be too unheard of that there are understandable exceptions to these rules. Perhaps thou shalt not kill unless, and thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife unless. For example, thou shalt not kill if thy brother-in-law accidentally crashes your car into a ditch whilst foolishly operating the car during a period of heavy intoxication. Thy brother-in-law meant no harm, he is just an alcoholic, or maybe he is even addicted to sniffing glue. Regardless of his chosen intoxicant, thy brother-in-law is a moron, but a moron who did not intend to cause the damage he did indeed cause. Therefore, thou shalt not kill the moron. However, thou should perhaps consider killing thy brother-in-law if one day you discover him raping your seven-year-old daughter. Thy brother-in-law is a bad person in this hypothetical, and certainly deserving of thy wrath and the punishment of death. Further, thy seven-year-old daughter might also require death at this point, as thou may not want thy daughter living out the rest of her life having experienced incestuous rape. One might argue that killing thy daughter at this point would be morally justifiable, just as one might put a bullet in the head of a deer, to put it out of its misery after the deer has been maimed by a speeding car. While the killing of thy daughter could potentially go either way in a court of ethics, killing thy brother-in-law is irrefutably justifiable. I suppose it’s possible some might claim killing is never well-founded, but these are the same sissies who would argue that thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, even if thy own wife is in the habit of throwing ashtrays made of thick glass at thy head when she is feeling ignored, which she frequently claims to feel, even though thy wife refuses to perform her marital duties, stating that her marital duties “feel like rape.”

So, because there are apparent special case scenarios imbedded in the large moral rules we as a society agree to, I answered that no, I do not know the difference between right and wrong, or good and bad. Immediately following my response, there were many gasps and looks of befuddlement, and I knew at that moment that I’d chosen the incorrect answer. “Yes,” I should have said. “There is quite a clear distinction between those two concepts. What a silly question!” But I did not say that, and now everyone around the table at Starbucks was glancing at one another.

“One cannot simply create his own set of rules because he does not care for the rules the rest of society follows,” one man said to me.

“No, of course not,” I said, attempting to backtrack. “I’m just saying there are grey areas.”

“There are no grey areas,” the man said.

“There are the laws, and there are the people who choose to break them,” another man said.

“Are you under the impression that I’ve broken a law?” I asked.

“I noticed you’ve stolen a number of sugar packets from the sugar and cream stand,” the first man said.

“That sugar is free,” I said. “Starbucks gave it to me.”

“You aren’t using it in your coffee, though. You’re clearly taking it with you for some other purpose. You can’t just take sugar you don’t plan to put in the coffee you purchased,” the second man said.

“You can’t?” I asked.

As it turned out, you absolutely cannot just take the sugar. That’s one of the big rules, the men in the Starbucks told me, following closely those rules dictating our freedom to kill and covet our neighbors’ wives.

I can’t help but think these men, in refusing to take the sugar on moral grounds, are living very limited lives.

The end.

A couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying a mango margarita at a party down the street, when I was approached from the side by a friendly, neighborhood hippy.

“You know, somewhere on your property, there is an uncut four karat diamond buried by a tree,” she said.

I blinked at Tanya, a woman I know who lives down the road from me. She was dressed warmly in multiple layers of hippy attire for the cool June evening. A pair of purple pants stuck out under a floral patterned skirt and slouched over a pair of Elven-styled shoes fastened by leather straps. A loose knit brown sweater hugged her shoulders.

I smiled. I like Tanya. She is in her early 40s and has long, sandy hair and blue eyes. She stands close to 5’2”, but would probably be closer to 5’4” if she stood a little straighter. Several years ago, she was in a car accident, which left her with a somewhat debilitating head injury. Once she told my husband over a couple of beers that her husband was cheating on her and that he and his girlfriend were plotting to kill her.

“A four karat diamond?” I repeated in a tone not unlike one I use with my children when they tell me they just saw a giraffe in the forest or that a monster named Brian drank all of the maple syrup in the pantry.

“Well,” she hesitated, “it’s either the four karat diamond or a crystal. I can’t remember if I buried the diamond with the iguana.”

“The iguana,” I repeated, taking a long draw from my cup and angling off from the group of neighbors with whom I had been discussing the housing market only moments before. “There’s an iguana buried next to my house?” At 9000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, I was somewhat amused by this thought.

“No, the iguana is buried at my old apartment down in Boulder. I just can’t remember if I put the diamond in the box with the iguana, or if it was the crystal. Whichever one it’s not is buried on your property. It will also be in a wooden box.”

I nodded as if everything was perfectly clear now. A few moments of silence passed between us. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“I’m sorry…why?”

“Because he was miserable in his cage – it was so obvious – so I used to let him roam freely around my apartment. It was the middle of winter and I accidentally left the window open and he got out. It was horrible. I found him frozen solid, huddled up against the building.”

I squinted at her.

“The iguana?”

She nodded somberly and pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes.

“No, I meant why did you bury a diamond—or a crystal—on my property?”

“I don’t know,” she began shaking her head. “Maybe it was a ‘put your money with your love’ thing? Derek and I wanted to buy that house and camped out there on the property border several times. We ended up not qualifying for the loan.”

“Oh.”

A few more moments of silence passed between us, but I couldn’t leave it alone.

“So, I gotta know. How did you get this diamond?” And what did it do to you to merit burial?, I completed in my head.

“Oh, this guy I knew gave it to me. He was part of the Rainbow People and we’d had a fling…he had several of these diamonds. He gave them out to a bunch of us. I wasn’t the only one.”

I nodded, imagining vividly the scene in which the Rainbow Man handed out diamonds to all of his hippy lovers. In my mind, they surrounded him in a forest glen with only the moon to light their faces.

I like hippies. That is to say, I don’t dislike them. Living where I do outside of Boulder, I have ample opportunity to comingle with the pagan unwashed. I even know a few by name: Marley. Moonbeam. Dharma. I don’t really know a Dharma, but I know of one. She and her life partner, Greg, live in an eclectically decorated apartment and have unusual friends. They are very funny.

In the small town just down the mountain pass from where I live, there are numerous hippies. It is a virtual hippy haven. When they are not crowded around a trashcan bonfire or on sofas on another hippy’s front porch, they congregate outside of a small diner called The Mercantile. “The Merc”, as it is known by locals, serves up home style vittles to the locals, as well as to a multitude of cyclists who make their way up the canyon trying to get away from the bustling metro-center of Boulder. The Merc offers things on its menu like burgers and jicama fajitas to their equally sweat-caked clientele and smells chronically of coffee and syrup no matter the time of day. It’s lovely. Truly. When Simon Smithson and Zara Potts came to visit recently, this is where we met. They called it “charming”.

I’m relatively content in my current lifestyle, but I imagine that if I wanted to reinvent myself and I had no ties, becoming a hippy would be reasonably attractive:

Certainly, I wouldn’t have to negotiate as much laundry as I currently do.

I could wear organically grown flowers in my hair without pretense.

I’ve never observed a hippy at the gym or jogging down the sidewalk, so I assume I could give up on the guilt I feel for not having a regular exercise program. This is not to say that hippies don’t exercise. As a matter of fact, hippies love kung fu. I love that hippies love kung fu.

I could be unabashedly and unapologetically polyamorous.

I could wear loose-fitting floral print cotton fabric paired with…other loose-fitting floral print cotton fabric.

I could throw myself full-time into causes I believe in and acquire a deep tan.

I could drink mate tea judiciously, eat hummus copiously and fart freely.

I could stop buying diapers for my one-year-old and let him just work it out naturally.

I could trade in my laptop for computer time at the public library where I would write free-style prose in between letters to my local members of Congress.

I could nurse my children openly and uncovered in public, as well as the children of my friends.

But there would be a darker side, too. I would have to force myself to like Reggae, which unlike Slade Ham’s recent experience with a world-class flag waver, might permanently bum me out. I once went to a reggae show in the back of a dirty restaurant in the heart of Boulder and aside from getting secondhand blitz-krieged by the bud cloud in there, I was cooked. Not only could I barely keep my eyes open after awhile from the repetitive rhythm, my knees were shot from repeatedly lifting them in the only reggae dance I know, which involves a sort of funky step not unlike an asynchronous military march. I spent the next 12 hours on somebody’s fully furnished porch waving away flies and some guy named Reefer who kept trying to gnaw on my arm.

I’m also not ready to give up Starbucks. While I’m not a regular there and will naturally gravitate toward the locally owned shop, I do occasionally find myself without a choice and before I know it I’m siphoning that brown mega-corp nectar through a straw like a half-crazed, sleep deprived mosquito. And everybody knows that if I were a hippy – a real hippy – that just couldn’t happen. Real hippies don’t go to Starbucks. They just don’t.

And then there is the body hair issue. It’s one thing to allow one’s leg and underarm hair to grow to the point of resembling a Silverback gorilla, but my face? I have eyebrows. I mean, I have eyebrows. And those little strays that sometimes pop out on my chin. Let’s just say that I am no stranger to tweezers and if I let my eyebrows unfurl across my face like a barbarian nautical flag, I’m just not sure I would be…OK…anymore. As a hippy, I assume that hypocrisy is carefully monitored by the clan, and if they caught me tweezing away at the mirror in the doorless, unisex bathroom – regardless of the fact that I could donate 6-inches of pit hair to Locks of Love – I would be done. Voted off the island. Washed away in a recycled rainwater sea.

In short, being a hippy looks easy to the outsider, but I’m not so sure it really is. People call hippies “slackers” or “lazy”, but I am beginning to suspect that the opposite is true. Modern culture blocks any effort that is less than heartfelt and the modern hippy often finds him or herself bracing against the waves that a counterculture life seems to attract, thus making life harder in the end.

In fact, every aspect of modern life is a blockade to the hippy. Certainly most restaurants don’t fit the dietary requirements. Transportation is limited to automobiles that rhyme with Schmolkswagen and that require regular maintenance and parts replacement due to an unspoken “circa 1965” clause. Hippy parents can find good, holistic education at certain institutions such as Waldorf, but places like Waldorf require money – money which, unless said hippy is a trust fund recipient, is entirely unattainable given the lack of top shelf jobs for people who refuse to shave or wear sleek, black pantsuits. Even entertainment is somewhat limited. Movie theaters are out as there are no hippy-approved snacks at the movie theater snack bar. Plus, they’re air-conditioned, which just seems, well, wrong as I don’t believe hippies mesh well with climate control. Simply put, a life decision to be a hippy is fundamentally a decision against being part of popular culture. This may be an obvious observation, but those who pull it off with any measure of success have my respect and fascination.

Tanya has managed it brilliantly in spite of a partially debilitating head injury.

Realizing that she has a special gift and that the trauma to her brain could very well at some point render further information gathering difficult, I pressed ahead with my interrogation.

“So, where did you bury it?” I asked, quickly adding that I would return it to her should it be found. A little too quickly, perhaps.

“I don’t remember exactly. It was a big tree.”

I nodded. There are hundreds of trees on my property.

“I think it was by the cabin,” she told me. “On the south side. Or maybe the west.”

“Was the tree to the south – or the west – of the cabin, or is that the position of the diamond – or crystal – in relation to the tree?”

“Both. Neither. I don’t really know.”

I nodded, crossing my arms and thinking about what it would take to dig a ring around every tree that fit that description. Surely there were at least a dozen. Or fifty. Clearly, she didn’t care. It was obvious she didn’t recognize or even want the value this could bring, having no doubt decided during her stint with the Rainbow People that American currency holds no power over her. But me, I would know just what to do with that money. Er, diamond. Or crystal. But I bet it was the diamond. Why else would she have said anything? I began making plans about how I would methodically start digging the next day at first light. Better yet, I could tell my 6-year-old that we were going on a treasure hunt and that there was actual treasure beneath one of the trees and that it was her goal to find it. I could bribe her with chocolate. Nilla Wafers. Or even just a non-scheduled private showing of Shrek. When she found it, I would take it straight to an appraiser. I might even stop at Starbucks along the way and wear a sleek, black pantsuit.

Man, I love hippies.

I love my country. Not in a weeping, slightly creepy Glenn Beck way, but in a sincere but emotionally reserved way. I’ve had people comment that I don’t often write about England, so this is going to be the first in a series of love letters/handy guides to English culture. In this first one I’m going to discuss our oft maligned cuisine, because that’s the tangent I ended up going on…

Driving across the country always feels like freedom. Music blasting, singing at the top of your lungs to songs you would never begin to admit you have on your iPod, and single-handedly keeping Starbucks in business as the plains of Eastern Oregon and Idaho blur together out the car window at 105 MPH. A good road trip is never hard to find. Every time I take to the open road, I realize I don’t do it enough. It’s the idea of the unknown, new beginnings, adventure, and of course, my unfounded fear of serial killers that keep my foot firmly planted on that gas pedal.

Stories and media tell us that the Pacific Northwest is the favored stomping ground of serial killers. So, were I a logical human being, it would be clear that the apex of my terror, for this road trip, should be in Oregon. The sense of impending doom lay waiting in the thick, lush ground cover and moss. The humidity aiding nature and speeding up decomposition, leading to my untimely outcome. But, no. Not me. Utah is the state that makes my skin crawl. I’ll admit it, I have an irrational fear of Utah. Moreover, I have an irrational fear of serial killers in Utah.

On my latest adventure, I had made it not only through Idaho (which smelled like a port-o-potty vulgarly punctuated by neon beer pong ads), but had also covered a solid portion of the Grand Master Flash anthology, pocket dogs resting soundly in the backseat, night falling around me… A success story in the making. So, you can imagine my horror when I see the sign, flashing its distasteful orange message at me with a sneer: I-80 closed.

This means I have to reroute myself. I can’t drive through Wyoming and continue on into Colorado. I have to drive through the state of Utah.  This wouldn’t be so incredibly bad, but I have no GPS; I also have no sense of direction. Under normal circumstances, my inability to discern my right from left is comical, something that gives everyone a good chuckle, myself included. This time however, I’m alone, in Utah; I’ve gotten off on one of those no-man’s land exits in search of a gas station with wireless internet (or a map, do they still make those paper things?).

For the record, I also have a bizarre fear of Wyoming–it has less to do with having my arms chewed off by some glass-eyed polygamists and more to do with being abducted by rodeo clowns. The latter, for some reason, feels like a much healthier, safer option; I see the result as something that would end up in the pages of Penthouse Forum as opposed to an A&E or History Channel Special titled “The Girl Used as Mulch for Community Garden to Feed Underprivileged Developmentally Disabled Inner City Youth in Mormon Sustainability Project.”

After eighteen hours on the road, I realize there is no way in hell I’m going to get out of the state of Utah before I have to sleep. It’s 1 a.m. I’m exhausted. My eyes are dry and feel like they’re bulging out of my head. My body vibrates from the road, or the coffee, I’m not sure which. I pull into a motel, check in, get the pocket dogs situated in the room and fall into bed. There, I lay awake, waiting to be hacked into tiny bits by some toothless yokel in Green River and served as scrapple to unsuspecting travelers for breakfast. I know this line of thought is getting me nowhere and instead decide to think about what I’m sure every person thinks about while trying to fall asleep under these conditions.

Midget Porn.

I’m enthralled by Midgets, I have always wanted one to live with me, in the small space underneath my stairs. I’d make him, or her, a cute little nest akin to Jeannie’s bottle with a fancy, albeit small, chandelier and furniture from the children’s section. I’m even more intrigued by Midget Porn, which is odd because, as I lay there thinking about it, I realize I have never seen any. It is, however, something that I manage to work into conversations, and I think, is always a fun dinner party topic. As I wait for the serial killers to bust down my door and slice me to death with Post-It’s, I grab my laptop and start surfing. I can see the headline now: “Woman Abducted from Green River Hotel While Surfing Midget Porn.” My mom will be so proud.

Even my sister has seen little people porn. She and her boyfriend were having a date night, the kids had been dispersed to friends houses for the evening. Apparently, some of the neighbors got wind of this, and as a gag, left a bag full of Midget Porn, or Dwarf Porn as she refers to it, on her doorstep. Rang the doorbell and just ran off. As she tells me this I laugh, never revealing my secret desire to ask her what she did with said porn.

As Doug Stanhope says, “Midget porn is the comic relief porn you look at after you’ve just jacked off to something really uncomfortable.” You have to understand: I’ve never really thought about Midget Porn as particularly arousing (and yes, I do read Playboy for the articles, thank you very much… Doesn’t everyone?), but as more of a curiosity, like Supercross or The Polyphonic Spree. I like to think of myself as worldly, in my own special way, a countercultural anthropologist, if you will.

I finally get some of what I imagine to be quality midget porn on the laptop, or as quality as you can get without relinquishing your credit card information. Much like all things in life you think you love or desire so much that it hurts, until you get them in your possession: deep fried Twinkies, a pet pony, Jake Ryan. You realize, sadly, you should have left well enough alone. That the romantic mythology is so much better.

With tired eyes I watch a man enter a hotel room, wheeling his suitcase behind him. He opens his luggage and out pops an abbreviated woman with hair the size of her person and yellow as Big Bird, rigged out in cheap lingerie. I laugh audibly at the squished little lady and worry a bit since the majority of him is of regular stature. I have to cover my eyes as he places her on the bed. Those truncated little legs in garters are way more than my highway addled mind can bear. I can’t take it. Those puffy little fuckers creep me out. There I sit, in my underwear and wife-beater, on a scratchy bedspread in a cheap motel room in Bum-fuck Utah. With my eyes pressed closed, covered by my hands, I have to wonder: did I watch The Wizard of Oz and Under the Rainbow too many times as a child? Maybe spending all those Thanksgiving Holidays watching the movie Freaks is to blame.

I snap my laptop shut, lay down under the cardboard cleverly disguising itself as sheets, and as I close my eyes I see my suitcase glaring at me from across the room. I try to drift off to sleep before a scantily clad, pint sized serial killer pops out of my suitcase of doom and takes me away.

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An empty cargo boat is sitting in the Puget Sound with nothing to do.

I see as many as three of them at once sometimes from the window of my apartment.

Tonight, my girlfriend is going to cut my hair, which might be the reason the Northwest is in a recession.