Have Yourself A Merry Little Car Bomb

Portland’s official 2010 Christmas tree

I didn’t realize when I decided, on a whim, to take the kids to Portland’s 26th annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, I’d nearly end up the victim of a terrorist attack. That would have been a real bummer; imagine if I’d been blown to bits during my first-ever tree-lighting experience. Talk about putting a damper on the holidays. Thank God for the FBI, that’s all I’ve got to say.

The Portland terrorist plot is serious stuff. We’re making national news, and not in a good way. The “mastermind” behind this, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, said, “I want whoever is attending that event to leave dead or injured.”

Not to nitpick the finer details, you Somali-born whacko, but if you’re dead, you aren’t leaving, except in a body bag.

I’m pretty surprised humble little Portland, Oregon would be the target for a terrorist attack in the first place. As far as big cities go, it’s pretty safe. I’ve walked the streets at night, alone, before and never given it a second thought. The worst that ever happened? I had to step around some guy on a street corner who was playing the theme from Star Wars on his saxophone for spare change. More “charming” than “alarming” in my opinion. And it’s exactly what I love about the city in the first place.

I suppose if he had pulled off this Portland terrorist plot, I would have ended up a victim, one way or another. Turns out we were sitting just a few hundred yards from where the van was parked, at the corner of Sixth and Yamhill. Had those explosives in there been real, we’d have been in a world of hurt. At the very least, I might have had that holiday eggnog pouring out all the shrapnel holes in my body, cartoon-style, whenever I went to take a sip.

I’d been warned in advance about going, but for a different reason. On Thanksgiving, my parents mentioned the tree-lighting ceremony here in Vancouver, Washington. “I’d rather go to Portland,” I proclaimed.

“Why?” my mom asked. “There are weird people there.”

I tried to explain how I’m a Portlander at heart, but I don’t think they got it. On Friday, when I told my kids the plan, they said, “Why? There are weird people there.”

OK, for the record, there are weird people everywhere. Mayberry Vancouver is no exception. And you know what? I like the weird people in Portland. I’m dead serious. A few months ago I was walking downtown one afternoon and ended up literally in the middle of an argument between two homeless people. I smiled as I listened to them hurl insults back and forth. It was kind of cute, the way they were competing for that particular street corner as their “home turf.” And last year, while waiting in line for a maple bacon bar at the incredible Voodoo Doughnut, I was serenaded by a flash-mob type of rap group while watching a guy in a cape walk by. I’m telling you, you can’t find entertainment that good on TV. These people are simply marching to the beat of their own drummers, and that’s something I both admire and respect. Then again, I’m a writer, so I’m a bit mad myself. Besides, our unofficial slogan is, Keep Portland Weird. I’m all for that! Sure, I could have gone to the Vancouver tree-lighting ceremony instead, but…yawn. It would have paled in comparison. Portland is in my blood. I go downtown all the time. I love the big-city vibe, the flanneled and bearded and pierced masses, the urban hipness and funkiness that defines the Rose City. The fact that I live in Washington is a moot point. Portland is just across the river, and I feel an affinity for the place that is impossible to describe to the outsider. Or even the insider, for that matter. A while ago, I was telling a friend and former coworker about a weekend adventure I’d had in Portland, and his response? “I never go to Portland. There are weird people there.”

Really? You don’t say…

Anyway, I was stoked to head downtown and check out the tree-lighting thingamajig. I’d never done it before, even though I’ve lived here for 16 years now. In the past, I let laziness get the better of me. I didn’t want to deal with the notoriously fickle late-November weather (typically rainy and cold). Or the traffic. Or the parking. Or the crowds. This year, I decided to suck it up and go for it. Being unemployed, I’ve spent way too much time sitting around the house, staring at the walls. If ever there was a year to get out there and check it out, 2010 was it, I figured.

The ceremony was scheduled to start at 5:30, but because “thousands of people” would be in attendance, the website online suggested arriving around 4:00. (The website did not make any distinction about “weird” people and “normal” people. I figured there’d be a good mix). So we set out about 3:40. Normally traffic would be a bitch at that time of day, but it was apparent most people had the day off, because we never even slowed down. I found a parking garage just a few blocks from Pioneer Courthouse Square, and the kids and I arrived there about 4:15. There was already a decent-sized crowd, but we staked out a good spot with a great view, and settled in. It was about 45 degrees and overcast, but luckily, the rain that had been falling earlier in the day had ceased. There was entertainment, courtesy of the Pacific Youth Choir and local band Pink Martini, who were performing Christmas songs. It didn’t take long to get into the spirit of the occasion.

A bunch of people around me were drinking Starbucks, and there was a bit of a nip in the air, so I asked the kids if they’d be kind enough to fetch dear ol’ dad a vanilla latte. I slipped them $10 and told them to “get something good for yourselves, too.” They were then gone thirty minutes, during which time I veered perilously close to panicking, as darkness descended and the crowd multiplied. I questioned the wisdom of letting them wander off downtown on their own, imagining worst-case scenarios galore (although my imagination isn’t quite as wild as it could have been, because none of those scenarios involved explosives-packed vans), but the Starbucks is right there in Pioneer Courthouse Square, so I reasoned they couldn’t get into too much trouble. Finally, they showed up with my hot coffee in hand. Whew. And did it hit the spot.

While we were waiting, volunteers passed out holiday songbooks for the “community sing-along.” The kids unceremoniously declared that they would not be caught dead singing. I guess they’re “too cool” for that kind of thing. I rolled my eyes and, when the ceremony started at 5:30, belted out “fa la la la la’s” with the rest of the assembled masses, while my kids pretended they did not know me. Whatever. It’s called getting into the Christmas spirit, guys! Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, talked to the crowd for a bit, and then – at 6:10 PM – he flipped the switch, officially lighting the Portland Christmas tree. It was a spectacular sight – a 75′ Douglas fir festooned with cheery holiday lights.

Portland is in my blood!

There was more singing, but the crowd was already dispersing, so we decided to leave, too. After all, we’d been sitting there on the brick steps of the courthouse square for over two hours. We crossed Sixth Avenue, which was roped off and teeming with police officers. There was also a white van parked there, which at the time I barely gave a second glance. I just figured they’d closed the street to allow the massive crowd to cross without waiting for traffic. We took a detour back to the car, because I wanted to get a picture of the iconic Portland sign outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall at night. Plus, we were looking for someplace to grab a bite to eat, but there wasn’t anything kid-friendly or, more importantly, cheap nearby, so we wandered back to the car and stopped at Boppin’ Bo’s – a 50s-style malt shop a few minutes from home – for burgers and fries. I figured, after working my ass off cooking up a Thanksgiving feast the day before, that I deserved a break. (The exploding turkey, by the way, turned out delicious – moist and flavorful. I guess brining really does make a difference!).

Ironically, during the car ride home, K1 – who had refused to sing a note during the festival – suddenly lost his shyness and began belting out Christmas tunes. Why he wouldn’t do this while in the midst of a crowd of 10,000 is beyond me. I turned the music up, because seriously, I was caroled out by that point.

All in all, we had a great time downtown, and I’ve already vowed to make the Christmas tree lighting ceremony a new, annual tradition. That’s my “screw you” to Mohamud and his failed Portland terrorist plot. Nobody can take Portland away from me.

Normal “weird” people (ha – there’s an oxymoron) are more than welcome, though.

“The Turkey Exploded!”

I had a minor turkey crisis this evening – and there’s still 14 hours before the bird goes in the oven. Hope this isn’t a sign of some impending holiday disaster.

Who wants a Scooby snack? (Image courtesy of dailyworldbuzz.com).

Knocks on pressed wood.

(Stupid cheap prefabricated computer desk…)

I was busy making dinner. Macaroni and cheese, from scratch, because I must be a glutton for punishment. Seriously, who goes to a lot of trouble preparing a fancy home-cooked meal the evening before The Biggest Cooking Day Of The Year? I should have taken it easy and ordered a pizza or something. Only there’s the whole being unemployed thing to consider, plus two growing kids, which would have meant either a ginormous Family Size deal, or multiple pizzas. Frugality won out. I had macaroni on hand. I had cheese. I had the other ingredients, so I sucked it up and started cooking.

I opened the refrigerator to grab the milk, and that’s when I spied it: a pool of red liquid seeping over the bottom shelf, and dripping into the meat and produce trays beneath.

Turkey blood.

“Wow!” K2 (my daughter) exclaimed. “The turkey exploded!”

Well, okay, it didn’t actually explode. The turkey had been defrosting in the fridge since late last week, and somehow a good portion of blood had seeped out of the bag. Still, this was not good. I had water boiling for the pasta, butter melting in a pan, and a major mess on my hands requiring my immediate attention. Putting dinner aside, I busied myself removing shelves and trays and blood-soaked bags of hot dogs and celery. I salvaged what I could – which was pretty much everything, thanks to tight Ziploc bags – but it took quite awhile to clean everything up. And then, because I had the turkey sitting on the counter, and I was planning to brine the thing anyway, I figured there was no time like the present. I would have been doing this tonight, anyway. Just not in the middle of making dinner.

Do you know how hard it is to brine a turkey? Last year I did it in an ice chest in my garage, but was worried the whole time that the temperature wasn’t cold enough. Nobody came down with salmonella, so that fear was for naught, but regardless, I told myself I’d either find some heavy-duty brining bags this year and keep it in the fridge, or just forego brining altogether. You have to understand, I’m a self-professed foodie, so not brining the turkey would have left me feeling empty inside. Even though I’ve been cooking turkeys every Thanksgiving for many years without ever brining them, but that’s neither here nor there. Fortunately, on my trip downtown last week, I stopped at Sur La Table (which is not pronounced “Sir La Tay-bull” but, rather, “Sir La Tob” – oops, my apologies to any Frenchies I might have offended with my funny Yankee pronunciation, although in my defense, we do not sit down to eat at “the dining TOB” here in the good ol’ U.S. of A) and found a package of turkey brining bags. Best of all, they were 40% off. So I bought them. It’s a package of two, so guess what I’ll be doing 365 days from now? Anyway, I muscled open the bag, and this thing is huge. It looks like you could park a cadillac inside.

Step one: fill with 2.5 gallons of water. I’m no math whiz, so I raced upstairs and consulted Dr. Google for a handy, dandy conversion table. That worked out to 40 cups of water. OK, I can handle that. I got a giant soup pot to place the bag in, and spent the next several minutes filling it with water from my 2-cup measuring cup. Took forever, but man, my biceps are going to be ripped now! I then dutifully measured and added the required amounts of kosher salt, sugar, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, allspice, and garlic. Mixed it all together until the sugar and salt dissolved, and then it came time to add the turkey to the bag. I quickly realized this was a two-person task, so I called K1 (son) over. He lifted the turkey and gently put it in the bag, which I then sealed up. It’s like a hangar-sized Ziploc bag with a double fastener closure. And, I might add, a very heavy-duty plastic that feels like a bullet could bounce off it. Nevertheless, I was a nervous wreck, carrying this turkey-taking-a-bath to the now-clean refrigerator. I placed it in there, and then spent another ten minutes shifting it around, moving it, propping it up, turning it this way and that, trying to position it just right so that it’s covered in water and the top of the bag is facing UP, just in case the inevitable worst-case-scenario transpires. Which, I have to admit, has me a little on edge, even now. I know the bag will be okay. I’m confident it won’t rip or split open along the seams. Yet, stranger things have happened, and so I doubt I’ll rest easy until the time comes tomorrow morning to transfer the turkey from the fridge to the roasting pan.

Whoever said the holidays were stressful wasn’t kidding!

Neil Page and Del Griffith. (Image courtesy of nocaptionneeded.com).

I finally finished making dinner, we ate, I cleaned up, and now I’m taking a much-deserved break. But only for a few minutes. Because there’s still a pumpkin pie to be made (from scratch, including the crust), eggs to hard boil, and perhaps it would be wise to get a head start on the cranberries so I’m not totally bombarded with cooking tomorrow. After all, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is on in the morning, and I’m usually so busy I only catch bits and pieces of it. I’d like to be able to relax a little more this year and actually sit down to enjoy it, but I doubt that will happen. Every year, I take it upon myself to whip up this amazing meal for the entire family, parents included. (See above: glutton for punishment).

It’s all worth it in the end, though. I have always cherished Thanksgiving more than any other holiday. There’s something about the combination of a warm home filled with the wonderful aroma of cooking food while being surrounded by loved ones that makes this guy feel good all the way to his very soul.

That, and our annual ritual of watching Planes, Trains And Automobiles. Steve Martin and John Candy. “Those aren’t pillows.” The best Thanksgiving movie ever made, hands down.

What Thanksgiving traditions do you have? Is there anything you do that makes the holiday extra special? Besides stuff your face full of food, of course…

Kids Are Like Pets

I was watching something on TV last night, and there was a segment in which the host had his really smart dog fetch him a drink. “Get me a beer,” he said while lounging on the couch, immersed in a football game. His faithful companion immediately jumped down from the sofa and trotted into the kitchen, where he yanked on a hand towel that was conveniently wrapped around the refrigerator door to get it open. He then grabbed a can of beer from the bottom shelf in his mouth, and carried it back to his master, depositing it in his lap. “Good boy,” the guy cooed, and damn if the dog didn’t look happy performing grunt work for little more than a token scratch behind the ears. At this point, I glanced down at the cat on my lap, the one gracing me with her presence.

“Any chance you want to fetch me a drink, Sydney?” I asked.

There's rum and Coke in that glass! My cat, the lush.

She glanced up at me with half-lidded eyes and promptly fell back asleep, leaving me to ponder my choice of pets. It’s not that Sydney isn’t without her own charms – as far as cats go, she’s very friendly and pretty well-behaved – but let’s face it, the closest she ever got to bringing me a cold drink was, well, dunking her head in my cold drink. And slurping. The first time this happened, there was an unattended glass of milk on the table next to my recliner. I’d left the room for less than a minute, and when I returned, there she was, lapping it up as if she always drank from people glasses. An internal debate raged in my head for fifteen seconds or so. Toss it or drink it? Toss it or drink it?

Well, I ended up drinking it. I figured, cats probably have fewer germs than kids, anyway! It was only later that I realized cats are fastidiously clean and they lick themselves in places that kids probably can’t even reach, unless they’re really limber and flexible (in which case they should be Olympic gymnasts rather than Wii controller-toting enthusiasts). Whatever. I didn’t get sick, so the point was moot.

Somehow, this whole chain of events got me to thinking about how kids are like pets.

Seriously. Consider my argument, if you will…

Trust me, the baby is not amused. (Image courtesy of bhg.com).

  1. Kids, like pets, need to be fed on a regular basis. Often – especially when they’re younger – their food comes out of a can (hello, Chef Boyardee! Nice to meet ya, Campbells condensed soup!). Sometimes, they’ll even come running when they hear the electric can opener. What’s for dinner? What’s for dinner? And they love treats. So much that they’ll probably beg for more. Don’t forget to give ‘em water, either.
  2. Kids, like pets, require exercise. I often take mine for walks, or we’ll play catch with balls or Frisbees. A sedentary lifestyle isn’t good for Fido OR junior.
  3. Kids, like pets, need constant grooming. This includes baths, regular haircuts, and making sure their nails are trimmed so they don’t scratch the furniture and claw it to shreds grow too long.
  4. Kids, like pets, sometimes get dressed up in silly little outfits around the holidays for our amusement. This is why you see a plethora of baby pea pods and pumpkins and bunnies with floppy ears at the tail end of October. Or garish sweaters and scarves when the weather turns cold.
  5. Kids, like pets, need to come in out of the cold. When the weather outside is frightful, we don’t delegate Rover to the doghouse overnight – that’s just cruel! Same with our less-furry offspring. If we did, Child Protective Services would be knocking down our doors in a heartbeat.
  6. Kids, like pets, must be given regular examinations and checkups by licensed people wearing white coats. They both dread these visits, too. Especially when needles and/or yucky medicine is involved.
  7. Kids, like pets, are often spoiled with toys. Said toys often squeak or make other noises that annoy the bejesus out of the very people who gifted them in the first place. Kids, like pets, also quickly lose interest in those toys and probably have more fun with the wrapping paper and boxes they came in.
  8. Kids, like pets, leave behind messes that must be cleaned up. One cat’s hairball is another kid’s upset-stomach-after-binging-on-too-many-sweets. Plus: whether you’re scooping a litter box, depositing dog poo in a plastic bag, or changing a diaper, chances are you’re breathing through your mouth and not having the slightest bit of fun. Let’s face it, they’re all crappy jobs. Literally.
  9. Kids, like pets, sometimes make too much noise and annoy the neighbors. Especially when they’re hopped up on chocolate or soda.
  10. Kids, like pets, are sometimes tied to leashes when walking in public. Particularly when they’re younger, and in crowded places like shopping malls. Fortunately (or unfortunately?), it’s not an acceptable practice to implant them with microchips. Yet.
  11. Kids, like pets, sometimes bite or scratch. Or even hiss. Particularly if they are feeling angry or threatened.
  12. Kids, like pets, shed. “…their dirty clothes on the floor without picking them up and putting them in the hamper where they belong” rather than “fur,” but the overall principle is the same.

There you have it! Next time you find that perfect apartment to rent, but the manager turns you down because you’ve got a schnauzer or a Siamese and they have a strict “no pets” policy, scope the place out. Are there kids running around the complex? If so, look that guy straight in the eye and call him a “hypocrite,” because that’s what he is.

Kids. Pets. They’re practically interchangeable.

What’s In A Name?

I’m getting pretty serious about this whole blogging thing. So much so that, when I spent a few hours at Powell’s Books in downtown Portland earlier in the week, I emerged with a book called Blogging For Fame And Fortune. Now, I don’t honestly expect to get rich or famous here. For one thing, I cringe at the idea of selling ad space – I think that detracts from the “professional” image I’m trying to establish. The truth is, I’m just trying to have fun and hopefully showcase my writing style. It’s one more weapon in my let’s-get-published arsenal. But the book does have tons of good advice on blogging, everything from what to write about to how to market it and which widgets to add. I tore through 100 pages that first day. I’m eating this stuff up.

Finding the perfect domain name is tough! (Image courtesy of drylinehosting.com).

I’d been thinking about domain names for awhile. WordPress is awesome – easy to use, great features, tons of support – but I’m trying to build a “brand name”, if you will. Mark My Words. It’s catchy, and since my name is Mark, and these are my words, well…it’s pretty much perfect. So I thought, instead of having people find me through http://markp427.wordpress.com, how cool would it be if I owned markmywords.com? So I did a bit of research, located a domain name registrar (godaddy.com – so that’s what they do! I only knew their name from those sexy Super Bowl ads they air every year). I eagerly typed markmywords.com into the search field…only to find that the domain name was already registered. To some guy in Virginia, who’d bought it in 2000 and paid up through 2016. Now, there was no corresponding website, so basically this guy was just sitting on the name. He probably owns countless others. People snatch those things up and then turn around and try to sell them for a profit. If only I’d had a crystal ball and registered something like starbucks.com when the internet was in its infancy. I might be a rich man today.

So, I contacted the guy. There are domain name acquisition services, that typically charge $60-$70 + 10% commission to contact the domain name owners and negotiate a sale for you, but why pay somebody else to do your own dirty work? All that information is public, and contained in what’s called a WhoIs database. I sent Carl a brief, polite e-mail. Said I was just wondering if he might be willing to sell the domain name to me. His response was very to-the-point.

I live in America; everything is for sale, only question is how much. This is pricy, but give it a shot.

Which immediately established Carl as a greedy little bastard. I could go on an anti-Capitalism rant here, but I already have a well-deserved reputation as a liberal, so I’ll abstain. I would consider paying, I don’t know, $100 or so for the domain name, but the guy owns it for another six years and I’m sure his asking price is considerably higher. Plus, I’m unemployed. So, I went back to godaddy.com and searched for alternate names. Good news: markmywords.asia was available! Bad news: dot Asia?! I know I’m a celebrity in Japan, but still. I also could have purchased .co (too confusing, everybody would be looking for the missing “m”); .cc (never heard of it); and .mobi (huh?). None of those appealed to me. Then I saw a suggestion box with other alternate possibilities. mymarkmywords.com, themarkmywords.com, markmywordstoday.com. Most of them were stupid and made no sense. But…wait a minute…there was markmywordssite.com. Hmm – not too bad. Makes sense – it’s the website for markmywords. Definitely keeps the focus on the tagline. It was available for $11.95 a year, so I decided to bite the bullet and snatched it up. I was almost giddy with excitement – I owned my own domain name!!

Where's .asia? (Image courtesy of thedigeratilife.com).

About 30 seconds later, I realized, I had no idea what to do with it, though. I figured there had to be a way to link my existing WP blog to it, and luckily, there was. It took a few brief steps – changing the “nameservers” on my registered domain, and then paying another $12/year to WordPress in order to make it my primary name. But, voila – it’s done! And, for me – considering my long-term goals – worth it. Now, anybody can find me at: http://markmywordssite.com. The WP link will also redirect there. I like that it feels more professional. Plus, it’s just cool, owning your own domain name.

You know what, Carl? Bite me.

This past week I would characterize as a good mixture of business and pleasure. I’d been cooped up too much the week before, and while searching for a job is important, taking time out to do other things and have some fun is crucial. I had a mandatory “Orientation to Re-Employment Services” meeting at the local worksource center early on Tuesday morning, which was kind of a drag, because it’s depressing to sit around in a room with a bunch of other unemployed people. Plus, they made me get up early. The nerve! While a lot of the information was pretty basic – how to fill out forms, the importance of resumes – I did learn a few things, and met one-on-one with an employment specialist, so in the end it was worth it. That afternoon I took myself to the movies to see Paranormal Activity 2 because a couple of the local theaters have $5 Tuesdays. Great price, considering matinees are now upwards of $8. I may have to make this a weekly ritual. The movie was good – creepy, and lived up to the original.

Wednesday was a completely lazy day. I never showered or even changed out of my pajama pants. I won’t make that a habit, but it was cold and rainy, and it felt good to do that. I still looked for jobs, and found a good one to apply for, so it’s not like I didn’t do anything. Thursday I trekked into Portland for the aforementioned visit to Powell’s. Before that, I hunted down one of the city’s infamous food carts, Koi Fusion. They offer up a fusion of Korean and Mexican food, and are always ranked as one of the best food carts in town. I tried a spicy pork burrito that came loaded with both rice and kimchee. Sure enough, it was delicious! I should do a proper review on another entry. It was one of those soaking wet days with constant heavy rain showers rolling through, and I ended up drenched, but had a blast anyway.

I’m not sure what this weekend holds in store. The weather is turning colder, and they’re throwing around the “S” word a lot. As in, snow. Not a big deal in other parts of the country, but here in the Pacific Northwest, a little bit of snow shuts down the city. Sounds like our best chance is Sunday night and Monday, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the kids end up with a snow day, seeing as how the public education system around here goes into a panic the moment a few flurries fall.

Crossing my fingers though, because I love snow.

Pass The Bottle, I’m A Writer

My mom called this morning to let me know she was making a trip to the base exchange (kind of like a military version of 7-11) and wondered if I needed anything. I was about to say I could use some boneless chicken thighs if they happened to have any, when she elaborated. “Anything in a bottle?” she wondered. My mom wasn’t talking about shampoo or Pepto-Bismol, either. She meant liquor, and this is why I’m convinced that I’ve got the Coolest Parents Ever. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth (especially if it’s a Clydesdale), I said I could use more tequila and rum. I stopped just short of asking for Crystal Head vodka because, hey, I wouldn’t want to take advantage of their already good nature. Although, that would make a great Christmas gift, if anybody is reading…cough, cough…

Don’t get the wrong idea. I like the occasional drink, but I’m not one to overindulge in things fermented or distilled, even though some of the greatest writers of all time were raging alcoholics. Hemingway was a connoisseur of the mojito (attaboy, Ernest!), William Faulkner loved mint juleps, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s BFF was gin. Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Charles Bukowski all often wrote while three sheets to the wind. Stephen King famously penned Cujo while drunk, and does not even remember writing it. One of my favorite authors of all time, Jack London, made drinking a part of his daily routine. He didn’t shy away from this fact, and the below quote is – not surprisingly – written beautifully, full of the imagery that made London such a great writer.

I was carrying a beautiful alcoholic conflagration around with me. The thing fed on its own heat and flamed the fiercer. There was no time, in all my waking time, that I didn’t want a drink. I began to anticipate the completion of my daily thousand words by taking a drink when only five hundred words were written. It was not long until I prefaced the beginning of the thousand words with a drink.

So, by all accounts, I should begin each day with a fifth of scotch or a shot of bourbon, but noooo…I stick with coffee instead. With a splash of hazelnut creamer, for crying out loud! Oh, the shame. What kind of writer am I?! My liver thanks me, sure, but I’ll never storm up the bestseller charts with that attitude. There’s hope for me yet, though. A couple of weeks ago, I poured myself a glass of orange juice, and when I was drinking it, I thought it tasted funny. When I realized what was wrong, I laughed. Out loud, for real. The OJ tasted “off” because there was no vodka in the glass! What can I say, I like the occasional Screwdriver, and I’m not referring to anything in my tool box.

All that's missing is the coffee and booze. (Image courtesy of mhpbooks.com)

I may just hit the big time, after all.

It’s funny – and a little sad – that, when people think of writers, they picture alcoholics (although, based on the examples above, there is certainly some truth to that). All occupations have stereotypes, however. Lawyers are smarmy and arrogant, farmers are dimwitted and dull, chefs are temperamental, foul-mouthed chain smokers. I thought I’d take a look at some more stereotypes people have about writers and see how many of them I live up to.

  1. Writers love coffee. Why? Because we need to keep our minds sharp. Probably to sober up after all that alcohol, too! In movies, you often see writers shuffling around in bathrobes, their hair disheveled, with a five o’ clock shadow, drinking cup after cup of coffee. For me, this one is true. I brew a pot first thing in the morning, and occasionally will indulge in the evening, as well. What can I say, I love the java!
  2. Writers own cats. I’m not sure where this one arises. Cats are notoriously independent and don’t require a lot of attention. You don’t have to take them for walks. Throw a little food in their dish, scoop the litter box occasionally, and you’re set. The rest of your time you can devote to writing. This certainly doesn’t pertain to all authors – Dean Koontz is a well-known dog lover – but again, in my case, it’s true. I’ve got a calico named Sydney, and I grew up with cats.
  3. Writers are introverts. They are often cooped up at home, in an office or den, and have limited social skills due to very little interaction with other people. Makes perfect sense, at least when they become successful enough to write for a living and don’t have to work at more traditional “day jobs.” Maybe it’s all that concentration on the fake people we write about, who behave as we expect them to because, after all, we created them. By contrast, we have no control over the real people in our lives. It’s a theory, anyway, and while I do have an outgoing side, I personally have never been comfortable with large crowds and, in corporate meetings, rarely speak up. This one, too, is true.
  4. Writers are depressed. Look no further than at Sylvia Plath, who stuck her head in an oven. Or Hemingway, who ended his life with a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. It is often said that pain breeds creativity, and while this may be true to an extent, I don’t think having a tortured soul is a prerequisite to being a good writer. I’m an optimistic person by nature, and while I sometimes get to feeling down in the dumps – who doesn’t? – I am generally a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, so for me, this is false.
  5. Writers are emotionally sensitive. We are viewed as brooding, sensitive, inquisitive. Why? Because you need to be in touch with your innermost feelings in order to feed your muse, I suppose. I can see the truth in that. Athletes pick up baseball bats and swing at balls; writers pick up pens and jot their emotions down on paper. In order to create believable characters, we need to know how they think and act in a variety of different situations, and in order to do so, we have to have a good grasp of our own feelings and emotions. I have been labeled as “sensitive” and I can’t deny it, so true.
  6. Writers are nuts. Or, to be a little more PC, “mentally disturbed.” Plath is another good example here, as is Virginia Woolf, who filled her pockets full of stones and walked out into a river near her London home and drowned herself. There have actually been scientific studies showing a link between mental illness and creativity, particularly bipolar disorder, and that major depressive disorders are far more common in playwrights and novelists, among other creative occupations. It’s quite compelling, actually. I was going to quickly call this one “false” because, ironically, I often feel like the only sane person on earth! But if you are insane…would you know it? Hmm. Food for thought. I find it interesting that these studies show “creative skills are more common in people with mental illness in their families.” I don’t mean to disrespect the family name, but as a matter of fact, there is a history of mental illness in our family. Am I a product of that? I honestly don’t know. Of course, I’m not “nuts,” but in this particular case I have to say the verdict is out.

So, there you have it. Funny – I set out to disprove these stereotypes – but based on my personal responses, I’ve pretty much done the opposite. Oh, well. I’ve always said that stereotypes exist for a reason, and are based somewhat on fact. My apologies to any lawyers and farmers reading me (the chefs probably started cursing me out three paragraphs ago, so screw them).

Off to pour myself a glass of whiskey…

You Take The Good, You Take The Bad

I was talking to a friend not so long ago. She had been down in the dumps lately, going through a bit of a rough patch, and so I gave her a bit of sage advice. “Just take it one day at a time,” I said, and followed that up with a sorta-funny comment in which I said, “I’m not talking about the sitcom about a divorced mother and her two teenage daughters who live in an apartment building with a womanizing superintendent named Schneider.” She laughed – because we’re the same age and have a shared fondness for late 70s/early 80s sitcoms – but then an amazing realization struck me as the opening theme from One Day At A Time rattled around in my brain: television theme songs – particularly sitcoms – are excellent sources for advice on a wide range of topics that you can relate to everyday life.

Did Schneider ever actually FIX anything? (Image courtesy of usatoday.com).

This is it. This is it.
This is life, the one you get
So go and have a ball.

This is it. This is it
Straight ahead and rest assured
You can’t be sure at all.

So while you’re here enjoy the view
Keep on doing what you do
So hold on tight we’ll muddle through
One day at a time, One day at a time.

Right? That’s wisdom there. And it’s catchy, too. We only get one ride on this merry-go-round we call Life, so we might as well make the most of it and enjoy ourselves. I don’t think you’d get better advice if you paid $300 an hour for a counseling session with the most esteemed psychologist in the world. This kinda makes me think that a cable subscription – with access to Nick At Nite’s TV Land – may be the best investment anybody can make.

The more classic sitcom theme songs I thought of, the more advice I was able to gather from them. These songwriters were geniuses! They really had their pulse on society – the common problems Americans were facing – and knew exactly how to deal with them. Want further proof? You’ve got it! Dealing with a lot of crap? Need a reminder that life is full of both ups and downs?

You take the good, you take the bad,
you take them both and there you have
The Facts of Life, the Facts of Life.

I’ll bet Mrs. Garrett doled out those very words to Tootie and Natalie. (But not Jo. She was pretty headstrong). Know somebody who’s got a lot of stress in their life and having trouble coping? Let ‘em know…

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.

Here’s one I’m taking to heart these days. Got a pal who’s out of work? Want them to stay positive? This is the ultimate making-lemonade-out-of-lemons reminder:

Keepin’ your head above water
Making a wave when you can

Temporary lay offs
Good Times

Ain’t we lucky we got ‘em?

Don't worry, life is dyn-o-mite! (Image courtesy of pollsb.com).

 

I suddenly feel fortunate to be unemployed! I’ll never despair, either, because I know that…

There’s a time for love and a time for living.
You take a chance and face the wind.
An open road and a road that’s hidden
A brand new life around the bend.

It worked for Tony Danza and Judith Light, so why not me? If you know somebody who does have a job but is complaining that he’ll never get ahead, just tell him…

Fish don’t fry in the kitchen;
Beans don’t burn on the grill.
Took a whole lotta tryin’
Just to get up that hill.

Sure, it takes a lot of hard work to succeed, but with a little perseverance you, too, might wind up in a deluxe apartment in the sky! Economy’s got you in the dumps? You and the missus need to take in a female roommate? Don’t worry…

Come and dance on on our floor……
Take a step that is new…..
We’ve a loveable space that needs your face,
Three’s company too.

You’ll see that life is a frolic and laughter is calling for you…

Advice isn’t limited to the big problems in life, either. Wondering what to serve for dinner? There’s a suggestion for that, too!

Tossed salads and scrambled eggs.

Let’s say you know somebody whose life is just flat-out miserable. There isn’t one good thing happening, and he’s at his wit’s end. Simply remind him not to despair, because despite everything else, at the very least he’s got friends…

So no one told you life was going to be this way.
Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA.
It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear,
Well, it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year.

But, I’ll be there for you, when the rain starts to pour.
I’ll be there for you, like I’ve been there before.
I’ll be there for you, cause you’re there for me too.

I’ll bet that cheered him up!

See what I mean? No matter what sort of curveball life throws in your direction, if you turn on your TV and wait long enough, your problems will melt away, thanks to the glorious, noble, intelligent, and wise folks who write television sitcom theme songs. They’re like a cross between Plato, Freud, and Stephen Covey.

With a dash of some greeting card writer thrown in for good measure.

Hey, I’m an optimistic person. Maybe NBC needs a new sitcom theme song writer for next season?

I Could Be Plucking Chickens

I’m midway through my 3rd week of unemployment and the reality is beginning to set in. Meaning I’m starting to actually feel jobless, as opposed to being on vacation or having a (really) long weekend. For one thing, the State of Washington keeps reminding me of this fact. Every time I check the mailbox there’s something new from them. Information about my claim. Seminars on finding work. I found out today I have to attend a mandatory 2-hour “Orientation to Re-employment Services” meeting next Tuesday at an ungodly early hour. Great – that’ll be fun, hanging out with a bunch of losers who can’t hold down a job! Err…wait a second…

Plus, the novelty of being home all the time is wearing off, and I’m beginning to miss human interaction. Sure, I see the kids before and after school on the weeks that I have them, but during the day it’s just me and Sydney The Cat. For the record, she loves that I’m home all the time now, because she gets a lot more attention than she ever did before – and also gets to sleep atop the down comforter on my bed when I’m working away at the computer – but once I’m too poor to afford the Friskies canned food that she is so fond of, I’m sure her enthusiasm will wane. I do see people if I happen to stop by the grocery store, but in the middle of the day they are either old folks, harried moms with crying babies and toddlers in tow, or other unemployed guys like me. No offense, but I don’t yearn for any of their company. So, when a former coworker stopped by the other evening to deliver a bunch of resumes he had kindly had printed up for me, is it any wonder I burst through the door the moment he pulled up and dashed outside to meet him? It was like a scene from one of those cheesy romantic comedies, in which soft music full of violins is playing while two long-lost lovers run in slow motion through a field of wildflowers toward each other. Only, of course, not at all like that. Because it’s November, and there are no flowers in bloom right now. And also, right, the fact that we are both in relationships with women. Details, details. But it was good to see somebody from my previous life again.

“Nothing has changed at work,” he said, and while I didn’t expect anything major to have happened in the half a month I have been gone, a small part of me was disappointed to hear that the company hadn’t completely imploded once I left. Not that I wish them trouble, but how rewarding would it be to hear that I was like the Ace holding together that particular house of cards, and the moment I was removed, the whole thing came tumbling down? Instead, I’m like the upside-down three in the bottom corner, I guess. I want life there to go on without me, maybe just not exactly smoothly, know what I mean? Let there be a minor hiccup or two along the way, just enough to give The Powers That Be a momentary pause and have them ponder, for a few seconds, the wisdom of letting ol’ Mark walk out the door without a fight.

Wow, have I got an ego today.

Lord, she had enough money to buy a Mercedes Benz. Or 50. (Image courtesy of markmuloski.com)

That’s okay. Maybe it’ll fire me up and give me the strength to fight harder for a Bigger, Better Gig. It’s kind of like how the kid who never amounted to much in high school wants to come back to his tenth reunion a huge success. Like Janis Joplin, who returned to Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, Texas for her 10th reunion a huge star. She showed up dressed from head to toe in her signature hippie-like attire – beads, bangles, sunglasses, a garish pink boa – “look at me now, suckers!”. Thumbing her nose at the establishment that had mocked her. I’ll hold off on the boa, but sure, I’d like to walk back through the doors of my former employer one day a successful writer.

Or, maybe I’ll be doing something else that I can’t even fathom right now. Odd jobs apparently run in the family. My parents, who have taken quite an interest in my blog, have been suggesting topics for me to write about. My mom e-mailed me a few days ago with an idea – writing about the unusual jobs my relatives have held over the years. I thought, hmm, yeah, sure, but how outlandish could those jobs be? Let’s just say I was surprised. The people from whom I am descended, it turns out, found some quite interesting ways to bring home the bacon! Who knew? Like, for instance…

  • My grandfather (mom’s side) was an arm hole presser in a coat factory. And he took a job washing milk bottles when he quit school at age 13.
  • My grandmother (mom’s side) assembled glove boxes for General Motors automobiles.
  • My grandfather (dad’s side) worked on the assembly line at Stokely-Van Camp taking hot bottles off the washing line before they were filled with ketchup.
  • My grandmother (dad’s side) worked on the life-jacket line in a parachute factory.
  • My great-grandfather (mom’s side) was a coal miner who developed Black Lung Disease.
  • My great-grandfather (dad’s side) assembled dolls in the Horseman Doll factory.
  • My dad’s cousin was a chicken plucker.

Interesting stuff, I have to admit! Makes me feel kind of pathetic, having been stuck inside a cubicle most of my working career. Sure, I worked some retail jobs in high school and college, but the most exciting thing my grandkids might hear is, Your grandfather sold overpriced luggage to people who had just stuffed their faces full of Hot Dog On A Stick in the mall. Not very bad-ass, is it? Not that I want to make dolls or rip the feathers off of chickens, but at least my relatives had stories to tell! By contrast, the stories I tell (my writing) are made-up and happen to other people.

But hey, at least I won’t die from some horrible lung disease, right?

Beware Of The Sombrero

Last night, my girlfriend and I went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant we’d never tried before. Naturally, the first thing I did when we got there was texted my brother. Because I’m such an attentive date! And also, he’s got this rule pertaining to Mexican restaurants that I have found surprisingly accurate. There are subtle variations, though, and I needed his input.

We didn’t even know the name of the place, to be honest. My girlfriend (GF from now on. For Gloriously Feminine. Or Genuinely Funny. Or…well, it’s gotta stand for something else too, but I’m drawing a blank at the moment) knew it as “that place with lots of neon,” so for a second or two I got excited, thinking I might hit it big at blackjack until I realized that we were in Portland, Oregon and not Las Vegas. She added hopefully, “It might still be good, though.”

“Neon has nothing to do with the quality of a restaurant’s food,” I said. “Remember my brother’s rule when it comes to Mexican restaurants?”

My Brother’s Rule is quite simple: if a Mexican restaurant has a sombrero hanging on the wall, the food will be crap.

Uh-oh. Probably not the best food here! (Image courtesy of happy-sombrero.com)

I don’t know why this is the case. Maybe it’s because that kind of tacky decor is a white person’s idea of what a Mexican restaurant should look like, and if the joint is run by gringos, then the food will be marginal at best. Whatever the case, My Brother’s Rule has proven itself eerily prescient since I first heard him utter those words. Mind you, it’s okay if the place has a sombrero in it somewhere, it just can’t be hanging from the wall. Case in point: we were in Fresno for a wedding last year (because why else would you go to Fresno? People pass through Fresno but they don’t go to Fresno unless they are forced to at gunpoint have a really good reason), and decided to check out a local Mexican place called Bobby Salazar’s. I’d done research beforehand, and this small chain of restaurants in Fresno had gotten positive Yelp and Citysearch reviews, so I figured their food would be decent. The moment we stepped inside, though, my brother paused and said, “Uh-oh.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“There’s a sombrero,” he said. “But we might be in luck. It’s sitting on a cabinet.”

That’s when he explained his whole Sombrero Rule to me. The food turned out to be delicious, by the way, which just goes to show that there are subtle variations as to the placement of the sombrero that can totally affect the outcome of your dining experience.

Which is why, when GF and I walked inside last night and were seated at our table, I whipped out my cell phone.

Hey, I texted him. We’re in a new Mexican restaurant and there’s a small paper sombrero hanging from the ceiling. Will the food be good?

Bad sign, he responded.

I replied that the wait staff and cashiers were Latino (at the risk of offending anybody – hey, my kids are part-Hispanic anyway, so I’m down with the culture and the people), which one would expect anyway, but, Remember, this is Oregon.

Is the salsa good? he asked.

The salsa was good, I said. And the cadillac margarita I was sipping was also a winner (though GF’s margarita came with a little paper umbrella, which was almost reason enough to get up and walk out).

My brother’s final consensus was that the food would be good. The sombrero, after all, was a small paper one – kind of like a party decoration – and hanging from the ceiling, rather than a hook on the wall. And, as it turns out, he was correct, once again. My carne asada, which was the house specialty (our waiter, who was quite the character, actually said “attaboy” when I ordered it), was delicious, and GF really liked her enchiladas suizas, too.  Our meal even included dessert – a scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with strawberry and chocolate sauce and accompanied by a crispy, cinnamon-coated fried tortilla chip that was muy bueno. All in all, we were quite pleased, and will surely return someday. That little paper umbrella even proved its worth, as it was pouring rain when we left and I opened it up and held it above my head as we walked across the parking lot to her car.

Ever the comedian, I am.

Get your kicks on...the wall of your friendly neighborhood casual-dining establishment. (Image courtesy of tinsigninfo.com)

As infallible as my brother’s Sombrero Rule is, I think there are other, similar rules one can apply to restaurants. Like, for instance:

  • Pizza restaurants with A) animatronic or costumed mice, B) video games, or C) both should be avoided at all costs. Unless you are feeding 6-year-olds who don’t give a damn about cardboard crust. Which, let’s face it, if you’re in a place like that, you probably are. Or you’re a pedophile. Newsflash: the pizza there probably tastes a whole lot better than prison food.
  • Japanese restaurants that advertise fried rice on the menu. Or, conversely, Chinese restaurants that serve teriyaki. These are two separate and distinct cultures, and combining their cuisine is like listening to some horrible mash-up. Think Madonna and Led Zeppelin, “Stairway To A Virgin.”
  • Casual dining chains with an overabundance of kitschy, faux-antique decorations nailed to the walls and spilling from the shelves. Things like “vintage” highway signs (usually something to do with Route 66) and Elvis Presley album covers. In my experience, these places overspend on decor and underspend on chefs who can actually cook, and servers who can serve.

Are there any similar “restaurant rules” that you follow?  Warning signs that make you think twice before eating someplace?

Crystal Skulls And Giant Dogs

It’s odd seeing Facebook status updates from my friends reading TGIF! or some similar variation of the theme.  When you’re unemployed, Friday is just another day.  It’s really no more special or different than Monday, which is kind of sad.  I loved loving Fridays!  Fridays were like a beacon in the dark, a light at the end of a tunnel.  A goal to aspire to.  Friday signified that the weekend was here.  Ahh, the weekend!  Now I can sleep in!  Err…wait a second.  Well, now I can go do something fun during the day instead of having to work!  Umm…yeah, hold the line.  See?  For me, it’s all arbitrary.  I might as well feel the Wednesday love or get all excited about Sunday evenings. You know what else I miss?  Hating Mondays.  Every story needs a villain, and Monday was like Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, and Cruella Deville all rolled into one.  How I despised Monday!  Couldn’t wait for Friday to swoop in and kick his ass!  Every week was like an epic adventure.  I loved watching Friday slip through the gates of Mordor and carry Monday to the very top of Mount Doom, tossing him into the volcanic crater bubbling with molten lava and saving humanity, with a noble assist from humble little Tuesday.

Into the fiery pit of Mount Doom, Monday!! (Image courtesy of giantbomb.com)

Alas, now it’s just another random day.

Last night, however, was not just another random night.  I got a chance to see how The Other Half lives, and lemme tell ya – I want in!

I have these friends, E and J.  They started out as business associates – E owns an apparel/promotional marketing company, and J is his partner (literally – she’s his wife).  I introduced them to KNA, my former employer, and before long they became our vendor of choice. We struck up a personal friendship, and a year ago E and J suggested I stop by for dinner sometime.  J is Filipino and promised me an authentic home-cooked meal.  I love Filipino food – my ex-wife was half-Filipino – and so, I jumped at the chance.  We finally settled on a date: December 29.  Perfect!  I was on vacation that week (Christmas break) and kid-free.  That day dawned like any other.  Overcast, mid-3os.  The forecast was for rain.  Imagine my surprise, then, when a freak snowstorm developed mid-afternoon, just as I was showering and getting ready to make the trek over to their part of town.  Portland isn’t a very snow-friendly city; the littlest bit shuts us down.  Plus, E and J live on the side of a hill on a very steep street.  Suffice it to say, we had to scrap plans that afternoon.  “We’ll do it again,” they said, but because Life Happens, it was ten months later before “again” rolled around.  We finally decided on November 4th.

Naturally, all day yesterday, I kept waiting for Mother Nature or Fate to step in and derail our plans a second time.  “Hope it doesn’t snow,” I joked, and even though it was sunny and quite warm – 65 degrees – I kept a wary eye on the sky all day.  When I heard a distant buzzing sound drawing nearer to my house early in the afternoon, my first thought was “tornado!” rather than “leaf blower!” (which it turned out to be).  When it came time to leave, I half-expected to find my car had a flat tire or a dead battery.  On the road, I waited for the inevitable overturned semi.  Even as I pulled into their neighborhood, I feared I might find their house a stack of kindling at the bottom of the hill, compliments of a mudslide.  Fortunately, none of these events came to pass, and I pulled to a stop at their curb at 5:40, without incident.

My first reaction? Wow, my friends are well off! Their house was just like one of the Street Of Dreams homes they put on display every year.  Three levels, professionally landscaped, extensive stonework and fountains and their own private waterfall cascading through their backyard.  There’s a stone island with a firepit in the center and cozy outdoor chairs, surrounded by water (they’ve got a moat!!) that you cross a bridge to reach.  And I haven’t even seen the inside yet.  I rang the doorbell, and was greeted immediately by barking dogs.  Oh…right.  I forgot they had a dog.  Not just one dog, though.  Not even two dogs. They’ve got three of ‘em.  Which is all fine and good – I’ve got nothing against dogs – but I’ve only ever owned a cat, so I’m not real familiar with how to act around them.  Especially considering that two of the dogs were English mastiffs.  Seriously, they were approximately the size of horses.  E opened the door, and there they were, sniffing me and pawing me and slobbering on me (the dogs, not my friends, though they seemed happy to see me, too). It was a bit overwhelming at first, but by the end of the evening I’d made good friends with Lyla, the largest of the trio.  Over and over, we played tug-of-war with a piece of rope.  She kept grabbing it in her mouth and shoving one end into my lap, so what could I do but play along?  She was strong, too.  Literally pulled me right off the couch while I tried valiantly to hang onto my end of the rope. Dogs are fun, it turns out.  Even ones the size of minivans.

J was busy cooking, and the (enormous and ultra-modern) kitchen was filled with the heavenly scents of Filipino food.  I was drooling before I’d taken three steps.  E offered up a drink.  I asked for white wine, but it was a late harvest Gewurztraminer which was too sweet for my tastes, so he kindly offered to mix me up something else instead.  He suggested a vodka tonic with cranberry juice, which sounded great to me.  He then grabbed what had to be the biggest bottle of vodka I’d ever seen, a Belvedere roughly the size of a lamp.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised – this was merely keeping up with the oversized theme (the house, the dogs, the kitchen). He mixed up my cocktail (which was awesome – Belvedere is considered a “super premium” brand and you could tell by the smooth finish) and gave me a grand tour of the house.  It’s every bit as beautiful inside as you would expect.  The second floor landing is roughly the size of my living room, though I didn’t have the heart to admit as much.  “Talk about wasted space,” he said.  Hell, rent it out to me – I could live there and have plenty of room!  Eventually we found ourselves sitting outside on the upper deck, immersed in cozy patio furniture, listening to music over flush-mounted ceiling speakers that are part of the surround sound system that pipes music through the entire house, with a giant upright space heater taking the chill off the breezy November evening.  We drank our drinks and ate lumpia (mmm!) while chatting about this and that.  Soon, it was dinner time, so we went back inside and pulled up stools, eating at the polished granite bar.  J had made chicken adobo and rice, and a side of marinated cucumbers.  They asked if I’d ever had it with a fried egg on top, and though the combination sounded odd to me, I was game to give it a try.  When in Rome and all that jazz.  They served me my plate, with the egg sitting atop the rice, and when I broke into it with my fork, the yolk spilled over the rice.  The combination of chicken and egg (which came first? who cares??) and rice was absolutely delicious.  I’d have never thought of that, but after one bite I was sold.

The most awesome vodka bottle I've ever seen. (Image courtesy of crystalskulls.com).

After dinner E and I hung out in the living room watching the Blazers game and talking while J picked up their daughter from soccer practice.  When they got back we had warm pumpkin pie with ice cream, accompanied by a small glass of Crystal Head vodka over ice, another high-end brand that is “quadruple-distilled and triple-filtered through Herkimer diamond crystals” and advertised by Dan Aykroyd, the actor.  The bottle is a crystal skull.  How awesome is that?  I dared to ask E how much it cost. He told me it was $55.  First time in my life I ever drank vodka straight up.  And actually enjoyed it.

9:00 rolled around, and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, since some people had to get up early the next day for work, so I thanked them for the wonderful dinner and the great hospitality, and made the long drive back home.  Back to reality, as it were.  I don’t have anything even remotely approaching a moat at my townhouse, though sometimes when it rains really hard the gutters overflow and I have to deal with really big puddles in the backyard.

Not quite the same thing, is it?

Aloha? Oy!

When you are unemployed, you start to develop certain routines.  Not wearing pants, for instance.  And your sleeping habits change.  When I was working, on weekday mornings I was up at the crack of dawn.  Even on my kid-free weeks, that meant a few minutes after 6:00.  Although I’ve only been jobless for seven full days now, already that seems absurdly early to me.  I shudder at the mere thought of getting out of bed anytime before 8:00.  On the flip side, I’m staying up late – often until midnight now.  I didn’t want to develop this habit, but if I’m not tired and I have no need to get up early, why fight it?  I’ll simply heed my own internal body clock.  Listen to my personal circadian rhythms.  Or, you know, stay up watching Hawaii Five-O.

Funny thing about that show, by the way.  It has gone and done the impossible: made me nostalgic for Hawaii.

Who decided to paint it pink, anyway? (Image courtesy of Honolulu Advertiser)

Trust me, I never thought this would happen.  I was born in Honolulu, and lived there for 9 of my first 14 years, thanks to my dad’s three separate tours of duty there.  Maybe he had some deep, dark Air Force secret that he lorded over his superior’s heads, because seriously, who gets assigned to Hawaii three different times?  (Speaking of deep, dark Air Force secrets, one of the few times we weren’t stationed at Hickam AFB on Oahu, we lived at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio.  According to folklore, when the UFO crash-landed in Roswell in 1947, the alien remains were shipped to a hangar on Wright-Patt.  I asked my dad once if this was true.  He denied any knowledge, of course, but the conspiracy theorist in me could swear that a fleeting look of – guilt, maybe? – crossed his face as he laughed off the very notion.  Hmm…could a threat to blow the lid off a decades-long alien conspiracy result in three separate plum assignments to Hawaii?  Food for thought, Mark).  Anyway, Hawaii wasn’t the paradise everybody assumes it is.  I mean, it was, if you call palm trees and trade winds and sandy beaches and 80-degree temperatures year-round paradise.  Me?  I call it monotony.  Don’t get me wrong, it was fine and dandy when I was younger, but as soon as I hit junior high (middle school as it’s called now), I was bussed to a school off base where a lot of local Hawaiians also went, and that was the first time I’d ever heard the term “haole.”  Let’s just say it wasn’t the most pleasant couple of years of my life, and when we left for good in 1983, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Just some "haole" at Waikiki Beach. (Image courtesy of mom).

But now, whenever I watch Hawaii Five-O (which is every week, because seriously, it’s a great show), and they show familiar scenery – Waikiki, the North Shore, the Hilton Hawaiian Village – I feel these weird pangs of nostalgia.  I have no idea where they are coming from, or why they are happening.  Last night’s episode was a triple whammy.  First off, the action started out on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.  We used to take a ferry over there with our bikes, and bicycle around the island.  Then, there was a shot of Tripler Army Hospital, which stands out like a sore thumb because it is a pink building perched on the side of a hill.  And also, where I happened to be born.  Not that I have very many memories of that particular day, but the flamingo-colored building was an ever-present landmark there, kind of like the way the Eiffel Tower always looms over Paris.  You know, if the Eiffel Tower were pink, that is.  Finally, there was a scene where the characters were enjoying shave ice.  Oh man, that brought back fond memories of Matsumoto’s heavenly shave ice; all the flavors were wonderful, and everybody who was “in the know” (haole, my ass!) ordered the optional  scoop of vanilla ice cream on the bottom.  As the ice cream melted and you sucked it through your straw so it blended with the tropical flavors of the shave ice…well, let’s just say, that’s a treat you’ll never forget.  So, all these scenes on the hit CBS television show are opening up the memory floodgates for me, and making me think that…hmm…maybe things weren’t so bad there, after all.  I do have some fond recollections of the place.  Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, for instance.  Hiking through bamboo forests.  Gathering passionfruit that had fallen to the ground and bringing them home, where my mom would make these unique (and delicious) freshly-baked passionfruit cookies.  Pulling the rope to ring the giant bronze bell at the Byodo-In Temple.  Talking to the parrot that lived in a cage at the top of the stairs outside Trader Vic’s in the International Market Place.  Ordering steaming hot bowls of saimin everywhere (even McDonald’s).  One time, we were watching them film an episode of Magnum P.I., and Tom Selleck asked my brother, who had been admiring the infamous sleek, red Ferrari, to kindly refrain from touching his car.  Ha.  Good times, good times.

No, we're not twins! (Image courtesy of mom).

By the way, I am convinced that my brother and I are celebrities in Japan.  Hawaii is teeming with Japanese tourists, you see, and these camera-toting strangers were forever asking my parents if they could take our picture.  Because we were just so gosh-darned cute, I suppose!  And also, we had blonde hair, which is definitely not common in Japan.  Plus, my parents had this annoying habit of dressing us alike, so people were always thinking we were twins.  Even though there was a two-year age difference. Oh, those wacky Japanese.  We were a novelty to them, and to this day we joke about the fact that, in photo albums all over Japan, there are pictures of these identically-dressed blonde boys from Hawaii.  If I’m ever in Tokyo and some stranger points me out in a crowd and says he knows me, well, I guess I’ll have a pretty good inkling why.

I am at the point now where I can actually – gasp – see myself going back there on vacation someday.

Come to think of it, I also wouldn’t mind taking a trip back to Dayton.  ‘Cause I’m telling you, I think dear ol’ dad is hiding something…