Musings

New York, Part III

Read Part I and Part II, if ya want. Or read the Cliff’s Notes:

Wife and I spent five days in New York in June. It took me a while to write it all up. If you close your eyes and squint really hard, you can pretend this is a live blog. Just don’t look up when the New York Pride Festival was…

Food

How the hell did I make it to day three of updates before I mentioned food? I’m disgusted with myself. Who the hell cares how I GOT to New York? All that matters is I ate there. And might as well start from the beginning, which was also the low point.

I’m horrible at making decisions. Blame it on being a Libra, I suppose. I’m usually okay narrowing a choice down to two or three options, but from there it’s a non-stop back-and-forth of the pros and the cons. And if/when I’m finally forced to make a decision, it’s buyer’s remorse the entire way.

I think the “Freakonomics” podcast did an episode on this phenomena. The takeaway was to take away choices. People say they want to have a choice, but are almost always less satisfied with their experience if they were given a choice. If you don’t know what the alternatives were, you’ll make the best of the situation. Subway sounds fine if I didn’t know Five Guys was an option. But if I chose Five Guys, I’m spending all of lunch checking my phone for the specials at Subway, even if I haven’t voluntarily eaten at Subway in years.

Regardless, by the time we got to our hotel, after one hour of sleep on a redeye, with bodies feeling like it was breakfast time despite the clock and world saying lunch, we knew that we needed to eat before we did much else.

Oh, and we wanted to see Central Park first.

So I checked Yelp for anything in Central Park. I found one that seemed to have an okay aggregate score. Even better, it didn’t look like there were any other options short of mortgaging the house for Tavern on the Green, so boom. No shifting back and forth between different reviews, no half-hour spent trying to figure out what I want. Let’s just head straight there.

And ignore some of those reviews that say, “Great view, mediocre food.”

My review? To call the food mediocre is being generous. And the view was… I mean, it was Central Park, but… meh.

Central Park1
(The view was not as nice as this)

Well shit, this isn’t gonna do fuck-all for my propensity toward analysis paralysis. The few times I pick the first option, I get burned. Wade Boggs never swung at the first pitch, meaning that pitchers had caught on and were throwing the first pitch right down the middle and getting a free strike. A manager once told him he needed to swing at the first pitch to keep them honest. He swung at the first pitch and hit a weak groundout. He never swung at the first pitch again.

So after figuratively swinging at the first pitch, and ending up with the culinary equivalent of that groundout to second, where’s my next destination? We need to go to TKTS in Lincoln Center. Any guess how many restaurants were on that route? Good restaurants with happy people eating tasty-looking food? Wonderful ambiance, with beer and wine? Oh, I’d say a thousand. Or so it seemed. And they all looked a hell of a lot better than the lackluster meal we just ate.

You’re right, Wade Boggs. I’m never doing that shit again. Did I mention Boggs hit over .300 even with that free strike he gave pitchers?

But, like Wade, we got more hits than whiffs in our New York career. (Double-checking Boggs’s Yankee stats and…. yep). In fact, other than the first lunch and a lamb gyro from a cart in Times Square (really? $18? Maybe you should have the price written somewhere or communicate it ahead of time, cause I wouldn’t have bought that shit if I knew I’d only be getting two dollars back.), every other meal was good.

Two places stick out: On the first night, fresh off our Central Park faux-pas, we went to Becco in Hell’s Kitchen. Again, I had found it online, but this wasn’t an instant Yelp check, I had researched it before we left California. That being said, I still worried when the cab drove by ten to twenty good-looking spots en route. Who knew Hell’s Kitchen was such a culinary hotspot? My only cultural reference to Hell’s Kitchen prior to this trip was Daredevil comic books. And the Gordon Ramsey TV show, but I don’t think that’s intended to be literal.

But while I’m sure that Cajun Italian place is wonderful, there’s no buyer’s remorse this time. Becco was wonderful. We felt more confident in our decision as soon as we arrived. The wait list was overflowing wait list and no, they could NOT moveour 6:30 reservation up to 6:00 because we “happened to” there early in an attempt to make our show. They’re in the theater district. Do you think you’re the first try-hards to hocus pocus that particular bullshit?

becco.jpg

At Becco, their specialty is daily pasta dishes. There are three of them. And here comes the kicker: I didn’t have to choose between them! You get all three. And ALL YOU CAN EAT! Let me repeat that: Three different all-you-can-eat pastas, changing daily. Why do they even need to print the rest of the menu?

The night we were there, they had a spaghetti in tomato sauce. Just plain ol’ spaghetti. Guessing they have to have something run-of-the-mill each night. It was fine. Nothing to write home about. Definitely not going to cede any more of my dwindling stomach space to it. Not when there’s…

An artichoke ravioli in a light cream sauce. Now we’re getting somewhere. The ravs were a bit too big, but my family’s Piedmontese, and from what I can tell, everyone else considers our ravioli to be Mini Coopers. Size notwithstanding, the flavor was very good. I flagged the guy walking around with ravioli refills over once and was happy to do so. So long as it didn’t take up the third corner of my plate, where I had fenced-off a permanently vacant lot of real estate so that it would be ready for the return of the…

Penne pasta with short rib ragu. Oh my freaking lord. It’s been a month and I’m still dreaming of this dish. To be clear, wife is absolutely not a fan of short rib, and she thought this dish was wonderful, too. If there was short rib on a menu and she wasn’t forced to have it in order to get at the ravioli, it never would’ve touched her plate. And now even she is craning her neck around to find the refill guy. So imagine her husband, who likes short rib under normal circumstances, sitting across from her, salivating over the remaining portion on her plate since he’s already devoured his portion and is now just swirling around the pomodoro in a holding pattern.

And let me tell you, that short rib ragu guy was the one circling the least often. It always happens that way, doesn’t it? Like the sausage and pineapple guy at the Brazilian ststeakhouse. No thanks, chicken dude. There’s a reason your sword is still ninety percent full and it ain’t your lack of salesmanship.

So yeah, spaghetti dude passed by four times and every time, we responded with, “No thanks, but if you see the short-rib guy…” When the messiah finally returned, he had to weave his way through the ravenous beasts throughout the entire restaurant. Beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. When our hero finally emerged from the tumult and the travesty, he scarcely had a smittance of his holy grail full. But it was enough.

And fuck all of you patrons with the audacity to sit behind me. Just keep scooping, pasta boy, don’t look at them. What did I tell you about eye contact?!?

The other major culinary win for us was going to be a win whether the food was worthwhile or not. Because HISTORY!  I decided long ago that the next time I went to New York, I would dine at Lombardi’s Pizza. Not because it’s named after a famous street in San Francisco, but because it is, officially, the first pizzeria in the United States. It might not actually be. But it’s got a fancy plaque out front and, more importantly, it’s been featured on the History Channel, which is where all proper Americans get their historical knowledge. And alien conspiracies. I mean, who cares if Paul Revere didn’t actually complete is midnight ride and it was actually William Dawes who delivered the “Regulars are coming.” Dammit, “America: The Story of Us” claimed it was Revere saying “The British are coming,” so that’s how it fucking happened. It is not for us to question what the alien overlords tell us. After all, they built the pyramids.

But Lombardi is credited as the first, and furthermore, they own up to that. So to Lombardi’s we go. Even if I’m not a fan of thin-crust, and if their aversion to shredded cheese seems downright communistic.

Lombardi

But I’ll be dammed, it was fucking good. The crust was what my wife described as “the perfect amount of fluff.” Odd, because Lombardi allegedly trained most of the early pizza chefs and is considered the godfather of that “calling it cardboard-thin is an insult to cardboard” New York-style pizza. I mean, if the guy and the place who invented it thinks dough is not a bad thing, why does the rest of the city want it to be the consistency of a Saltine?

And the no-shredded cheese? Okay, that fucking WORKED. I know real mozzarella is a tender cheese. And I know that the shredded mozzarella that you buy in the store is just an overly-processed facsimile of what it’s really supposed to be. But at the same time, a pizza with strips of mozzerella placed throughout its circumference going to leave some cheeseless territory, like when I attempt cheese toast in the toaster oven. And you need cheese in every bite, right? Otherwise it’s just tomato bread. I can’t be the only one who shudders when a cheeseless pizza is an option on some menus, right? Because without cheese, it’s just bread. The cheese is what MAKES IT PIZZA.

But my worry was unfounded. It turns out that there is enough cheese to go around. I don’t think I took any cheeseless bites, and if I did, there was at least enough going on with the other stuff. And the ninety-plus percent of the bites that DID have cheese were divine. Oh my goodness, I didn’t think pizza was supposed to taste this way, this combination of crunchy and pungent and smooth.

The best proof of conversion? I told my wife that I’m making the extra trek to the Italian store to get some real goddamn mozzarella the next time we do a Boboli. Although I don’t feel like Boboli is sufficient for legitimate mozzarella. Because, let’s be honest, Boboli is much closer to French bread than it is to pizza crust. We might have to splurge and get the Pillsbury.

The Pride of High Line

We knew that Pride was going on the weekend we were in New York. It’s kind of hard to miss it. The entire Island of Manhattan was strewn in rainbow. The Night Bus narrator seemed to be surprised by this. I mean, she knew the Pride parade was the following day, because she warned us about the upcoming changes in the bus routes at the end of our ride. But every time we went around a corner and saw a new building. “Oh, and it’s always fun to see how they change the decorations to… hmm… it’s another rainbow…”

So yeah, we knew there was going to be a big parade. Google was even nice enough to tell us the route of said parade. South of Empire State Building, down to Washington Square Park, then over and back up 6th or 7th Ave. At least, I think. This is from memory. New York peeps, does this sound like an accurate parade route, or did I just give directions to some “Wrong Turn” West Virginia cannibals?

We planned to meet a couple of my high school friends who have been living in New York for a few years. We texted each other in the morning about where to meet up. They asked what we were planning on doing that day, we responded with either the Brooklyn Bridge or the High Line or Harlem. I thought they lived in Brooklyn because the husband posts about a lot of Brooklyn breweries. No, they live in very, very north Manhattan. So they tell us there’s a good spot at the southern end of the High Line, and they can take the A Train (cue the Duke Ellington) there. So that’s the plan. I briefly thought about mentioning the Pride parade, but I thought, “Nah, how could they live in Manhattan and not know about the parade?”

Spoiler alert: they knew about the parade, but not its route.

As for the High Line, it was okay. I had been told it was something surreal and sublime. It was, meh, a nice walk.

For those of you who don’t know, the High Line is an old elevated train line that they’ve turned into an elevated walkway. It’s location is awesome. It was for shipping, not for commute, so it’s right along the waterway, which I’m going to guess is the Hudson River, because it’s on the left side if the island, so I’m guessing it’s not named East.

Seriously, New York, why does one river have the name of an explorer and the other is named after a direction? Some consistency, people!

There are plants along the High Line. The sign said something about nature reclaiming civilization, urban jungle, “Life After People” type of plants. I believe some of them are naturally-occurring, but I have to believe a lot of it is planted to look that way.

Highline

Which leads me biggest problem with the High Line. For all of the nods to reclaiming wasted space with an innovative new urban plan, it’s really just an elevated walkway. I assumed I’d be walking along rickety old train tracks a la “Stand By Me.” But for most of the track, they’ve built the walkway to be a foot or two over the train tracks. With the exception of the newest part, where the sign said they are making an effort to let the track still be seen, you would never even know you’re on a train track. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they took the train track out for most of the southern half of the trail. Even on the newer parts, where the tracks were still visible, they were enclosed by a large chain-link fence, so there’s still no coming in contact with them. It’s like a zoo where you can see the past, but not really interact with it.

Continuing in my “Stand By Me” let-down, there was also no blueberry pie-eating contest. But there was a person selling ice cream sandwiches at the midway point, and they were abso-fucking-lutely awesome. Totally worth the price of admission. Actually, the price of admission was free, so maybe they were worth the price we paid for the sandwiches.

High Line Ice Cream

We finished our trek a little bit early and meandered through the Chelsea Market. It was pretty much what I thought it would be. Lots of good looking places to have a drink or a bite to eat. This information might have come in handy in a little bit, but it didn’t. Instead, in retrospect, this would be a reverse of that first-day lunch. This time, we passed all the good places to end up someplace very mediocre.

The text came in. “Meet us at the corner of 16th and 8th.” Okay, no problem, we’re on 16th and 9th, so it’s only one block.

Except for the barricade. Oops, the block between where I’m at and where I’m going is blocked off. A cop is only letting people in if they have a wristband. And, despite the fact that I looked NOTHING like I was going to a Pride Parade, the cop would hear nothing of me just wanting to get to 8th Avenue.

Wait, you need a wristband to watch a parade?

No, I would later find out that this block, and the next few, were staging areas for the floats. So the wristband was to get you on to a float. I guess I’m fine with that.

But others weren’t. When I finally made it to my friends on 8th, there were some protesters  walking down the street with signs that said “No Wristbands,” “Allow Everyone.” Clearly I wasn’t the only one who needed to get from 9th Avenue to 8th Avenue and didn’t want to go around. I can only assume that’s what they were protesting, because these guys had to know they could still watch the parade, right?  And that the wristbands were just to get ON a float? Or was this some reverse “Little Red Hen” protest? Without working on or helping build a particular float, they just think anyone should be allowed on any damn float they want? Why even have a parade? Just put the floats on display and have everyone climb all over them like a jungle gym, I guess.

But before that, when faced with the initial barricade, I figured I’d just go around. One block down to 15th Street and… same problem. We doubled back and went up to 17th Street. Well, shit. Finally we heard rumor that 14th Street went through, so a few more steps on the Fitbit and I was finally approaching my friends at the corner of 16th and 8th. Now let’s eat and drink and catch up on the olden…

Oops! The place they wanted to go was behind another barricade, blocking off the next block of 16th Street, where another float was being staged, which would require another wristband. Again, at this point, I’m thinking it’s the actual parade route that’s being blocked off, and I’m thinking this is the most fucked-up, non-inclusive parade ever. They go for a block at a time and don’t let anybody in? Maybe I should join that protest!

With the lunch spot my friends had chosen blocked off, they decided to go up a few blocks, hoping to get away from the crowd. I thought about mentioning the Chelsea Market, but nah, these two are locals and probably have a better handle on where everything is. Chelsea Market looked kinda hipster, anyway.

But the crowd wasn’t thinning out. So the next thought was to go across to the other side of the island. The Little Italy/Chinatown area should be far enough away from the insanity. Again, I thought about mentioning that the parade route was supposed to go right down 5th Avenue, but nah, these two are locals and probably have a better handle on where everything is.

Plus I thought that the parade was going DOWN 5th Avenue, and that the parade was already over. That the blockades and such were at the END of the parade.

Nope.

And… Nope.

We tried to cut across 23rd Street, because certainly Madison Square Park would be accessible, and “Hey, have you guys seen the Flatiron Building?”

“Yes, we have seen the Flatiron and, HOLY CRAP, is that an actual live parade, in progress, down 5th Avenue?”

Yeah, we’re not cutting across to the other side of the island.

All four of us finally come to the conclusion that we should’ve reached from the get-go: Let’s take the subway. Did you know that New York has a rather extensive public transit system?

Of course, the subway stations near the parade are closed, so now we’re huffing back west toward 7th Avenue. Are you tracking this so far? We started at 9th and 16th, we are now near 5th and 23rd, but are doubling back to 7th.

We go down in the first subway station we see, figure we’ll just take the subway a stop or two and figure it out. Of course, it’s a north-south line, not an east-west line, so no going to Little Italy. But as long as we get past Times Square, the city should be somewhat sane. And the first stop past Times Square is… right the fuck in front of our hotel.

But hey, we finally had that beer! At a Whole Foods…

Technically it was an Asian restaurant inside the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle. And they didn’t have a bad beer selection. The wine selection wasn’t thrilling my wife, but we’re northern Californians, and it takes quite a bit to thrill us with wine. In fact, the best wines we found were Northern California wines. Oh hey, they have Bogle. That winery’s thirty minutes from my house. 

So to racap: We left our hotel on 57th Street, and they left their home on 180th Street, in order to both meet down on 16th Street, so we could walk another ten-to-twenty blocks, in order to take the subway back to where we had started. In retrospect, we should’ve just walked the Brooklyn Bridge, or, I don’t know, just met them at the Whole Foods in Columbus Circle.

The food at the Whole Foods wasn’t bad, either. And it’s between our hotel and the TKTS, so let’s add one more spot to the list of places we could’ve gone for lunch on day one. Oh, and the place that I was really salivating for after that lackluster lunch? P.J. Clarke’s? Yeah, my friend told me it’s pretty good. I should totally check it out.

Damn you, Wade Boggs!

At least my Fitbit was happy.

As for the Pride Parade, it was more or less the same as those in other major cities. I mean, I only saw one topless woman, so maybe it’s not quite as brash as its West Coast counterparts. I’ve never really understood why that happens. At some point, it was determined that the most appropriate way to celebrate homosexual love is to expose oneself in public. This is particularly true amongst heterosexual women. They’re co-opting this celebration just as they have Halloween.

Oh, it’s time to celebrate? Here are my asscheeks.

Don’t get me wrong. I love asscheeks. And breasts, for that matter. And as a heterosexual male, I gotta be honest that the six-packs on the dudes wearing the mesh shirts are impressive as hell, too. I just don’t know why they necessarily all have to be on display at this particular event.  I worry that, when the dress-up becomes what everyone gravitates toward, the original purpose of the event might get lost. And what happens when Aggressive Hetero Dude-Bro starts to realize that he can ogle attractive females at Pride events? Welcome to Mardi Gras 2.0.

Besides, what the hell do these people do with these outfits the rest of the year? I guess they get put in the same spot in the closet as my Silent Bob and Santa Claus costumes. Probably take up a lot less space, too.

New York, Part II

Find Part I Here.

Part Two of my non-chronological, written-after-the-fact recap of my trip to New York. Today’s focus is on some of the adventures in getting around the island: The Subway and the anathema of every tourist trap, the Hop-on/Hop-off Bus.

Subway

I don’t mean to get all West Coast Snooty here. I know New York is known for its subway. I know you had mass transit a century before we started getting around to it. But damn, BART’s got you beat, hands down.

Sure, BART doesn’t go ninety percent of the places you want to go in the Bay Area and you usually have to drive to a station, thus negating part of its purpose. Then again, the New York system seems to have some pretty major blind spots, too. I thought it would be as ubiquitous as the Underground in London. It is not. Good luck getting west of 7th Ave.

New Subway slogan: Harder to ride than BART and less useful than the Tube!

Seriously though, would it kill you to have more than one sign that says which train is coming next? BART only has one or two lines per station, but they still tell us when the next three trains are coming and where they’re heading. In New York, some stations had a fancy touchscreen directory that you could maybe, hopefully find when and where the next train is, but only after swiping through countless ads and screens not related to subway trains at all and whispering sweet nothings in the directory’s ear and cupping its balls just so. Other stations had one hanging sign, usually all the way down at the end of the track, often turned off. Other stations had abso-fucking-lutly nothing.

However, I like your idea of a local/express option. Locals stop at every stop, expresses only hit the major ones. There’s a lot of times I would like to have my BART train skip all the stupid stations where nobody gets on or off. And when Subway trains were listed as local or express, it was easy enough to figure out. Sure, with no forewarning, you pretty much had to wait till the train was on top of you to figure out if you should board or not, but at least the train itself was (usually) labeled. On the way out to the Mets game, we were told to take the express, and were quite happy to see 80% of the stations going by. On the way back, we couldn’t tell if express trains were running at all, so we boarded a local and took forty minutes to get back.

7-train.jpg

(Speaking of the 7 Train to the Mets game, here’s the only verification that we took public transit. Giraffes tend to get nervous underground.)

But then there are the expresses that aren’t listed as expresses. Rat bastards! The 1, 2, and 3 lines run on the same general track through Manhattan. The 1 Train makes every stop, the 2 and 3 do not. As far as I could tell, that was not designated on any map. Fortunately, some nice locals told us to hop over to the 2 train. Well, they didn’t tell us, because we didn’t ask, because we thought we were pros at this little system after four days. Fortunately there were two other tourists rude enough to ask some locals how to get to Times Square, and the local told them to transfer to the 2 train. I overheard and was rather appreciative.

A couple more things I found odd about the subway. One was the cost. It cost the same whether you’re going one stop or to the end of the line. Boston’s T Line worked the same way. BART works the opposite, where the farther you go, the more you pay. That was great when I was heading to and from the Mets game. But when I only had to go two stops, it was kind of a pain in the ass. Maybe it’s done to discourage laziness. Or maybe it’s done to encourage people to venture out of their comfort zone. From a political economics standpoint, it makes the tax very regressive, not something I would associate with a city that just nominated a socialist. Any time anyone, rich or poor, near or far, pays the same dollar amount, that burden rests more on the poor. I also assume that the rich or middle class are the ones likely to go farther, or to visit lower Manhattan from the far ‘burbs. Whereas the working poor are more likely to only go one stop or two stops, doing groceries or errands.

The last thing I found weird was that people went in and out via the same turnstiles! What sort of chaotic morass is this? BART entries CAN go both ways, but they’re always programmed to go only one direction at a time, and they change based on time of day. In the morning at an inbound station, maybe four of the five turnstiles are for entry, but in the afternoon, they’re showing exit. In New York, they’re all entry and exit AT THE SAME FUCKING TIME!!! The outward direction doesn’t require a ticket (hence the universal $2.75 fee for each ride – they only “charge” at the entry), so the turnstile is always freely flowing in the outward direction. The inward direction is locked until the metrocard is swiped.

Eventually, though, I came to be fine with this. Even maybe preferred it. Obviously, the only time you’re going to have a large influx of traffic is when a train just arrived. And giving them access to all of the turnstiles helps expedite matters. I’m reminded of Oakland A’s games where 30,000 people were just released from the stadium, yet can only use three turnstiles. But under normal times, it wasn’t hard to avoid having two people trying to use the same turnstile in opposite directions at the same time. All you do is look up, see someone approaching one turnstile, and sidestep over to the next one. We do it on the street all the time, right?

Hop-on/Hop-Off Bus

Hop On

I have a love/hate relationship with Hop-on/Hop-Off Busses. They’re something of a necessary evil. Most of the cities they run in are a bit too large, too spread out, too diverse to do piecemeal. If you’re going into a city blind, a quick jaunt around the city is a good way to get the lay of the land, maybe make some plans for the rest of your trip. My wife had never been to New York before, and I wanted to make sure we weren’t just doing the things I wanted to do. So either she reads through seventy-five travel websites, or we do a two-to-three hour circle around Lower Manhattan.

Completely logical. And yet…

It’s hard to not roll your eyes at people espousing how much they know about a place based on their hop-on/hop-off “experience.” Even after I spent the better part of two days riding it, I had to roll my eyes at myself.

And of course, once you’ve bought the 48-hour pass, you’re pot-committed. You can’t do ANYTHING else for the next 48 hours because, dammit, you paid for the damn bus.

An unlimited subway ticket would’ve been more affordable. If only I hadn’t bought the fucking AirTrain ticket instead.

But aside from my general issues with these tour bus companies, there were some rather specific problems with the New York varietal. I went on their website like a good boy. I purchased it online like a good boy. At which point I had to… go down to their primary office in order to stand in line in order to turn the vouchers I just purchased in for actual tickets. The line at the office included people who had already purchased, people who were looking to purchase, and people looking for information. I think there were some Broadway shows being sold there, too.

And no, that last sentence was not for humor and exaggeration. There was some sort of Broadway package being sold in the same place, and in the same line, as the hop-on/hop-off bus.

The end result was a twenty-to-thirty minute wait to get a physical representation of a product I already purchased. Have they not heard of kiosks?

Once I finally got the ticket, I had to walk three blocks to catch the actual bus. En route, I passed maybe ten guys hawking the hop-on/hop-off bus I had just purchased. These guys are as ubiquitous, and as subtle, as the guys in Vegas slapping their hands with strip club advertisements. I assume they must be paid on commission, because they’re fucking vultures. Even when we told them we had already purchased, they only took a step or so back, still watching us warily. They’ve been burned by that line before, like the Girl Scouts at the store who know that the whole “I bought cookies at the office” is complete bullshit. And I can only assume that, had I purchased from one of these guys standing right by the bus, if I would’ve had to walk the three blocks back to the office, and stand in line for a half-hour, with a voucher they had printed.

And speaking of printing the ticket, take a look at how convenient this motherfucker is to carry around a densely-populated metropolis:

And of course, I had to unfurl the whole fucking thing every time I decided to hop back on a new bus. So that they could scan the…

Holy fuck, it’s a goddamned QR Code? Like, one I could very easily have just downloaded to my phone back at the hotel when I purchased the product on their website? When the hell was this business model constructed, 1988?

Once you’re on one of these buses, you’re at the whim of the narrator. Most of them have a live narrator, who speaks into a microphone, that you can listen to by plugging in earphones to the side of the seat. You can also change the channel to listen to a pre-recorded narration in any number of languages. Sometimes the pre-recorded is the better option, because the live narrators are a complete crap shoot.

The first one we had wasn’t too bad. He was a cranky old-timer who started the tour with colorful stories about all of the adult theaters that lined Times Square in the seventies. He then complained about Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, and mocked a guy for liking the look of the latter. On the downside, he had a tendency to get lost in the script and repeat himself. Sometimes it was understandable. He’d say an Empire State Building anecdote when it first became visible, then repeat it again five minutes later when we stopped in front of it.

Empire

But the repeats started coming closer and closer to each other. Shortly before we “hopped off,” (does that sound dirty?), he went overboard, repeating the same sentence, literally word for word, back to back.

I probably should’ve checked him for a stroke. But hey, I gotta get off to see that 9/11 Museum and berate other people’s lack of humanity. I can’t be bothered saving somebody’s life.

There was also a point that we went quite a few blocks without him saying shit. I didn’t notice it at first. Just assumed we had hit one of those spots in Lower Manhattan where there’s nothing interesting. I mean, what the fuck is a flatiron, anyway?

Flatiron

But no, turns out Dude was on his phone. He popped his head back up the stairs to look around a bit. Said something about the intersection of fuckwit and twattle, then popped back down the stairs. Dude was giving directions to someone. After an extended period of time, he got back on the microphone.

“Yeah, so this is Tribeca. Stands for Triangle Below Canal. And Robert de Niro lives right…”

His phone rings and he’s back talking to his buddy. But now his convo is bleeding through the microphone. No. I said twatwit and fuckle. My bus never goes to fuckwit and twattle.

Rather entertaining, but eventually we had to take advantage of the “hopping off” aspect, so we didn’t get to stay long enough for him to rant about all the Chinamen in his fine city nowadays.

We got off at the 9/11 Museum. And at this point, I’ll just say that I did the 9/11 Museum. Not much I can add if I want to stay tongue-in-cheek and/or irreverent. For now, just… wow.

When we jumped back on the next bus, after waiting about forty minutes and seeing three buses from the competitor company, the one that doesn’t advertise itself as “most buses in Manhattan,” drive by, we were relegated to the lower deck with the forty other people who were in line by then. No air conditioning. And for even more “fun,” the new narrator screamed every statement he said, each of which started “Alright, folks, this is…”

Fortunately we weren’t with him very long. But this was the first time I opted for the joy of the prerecorded narration. He was also the narrator that was most adamant about tips.

Our third experience was the Night Bus, which unfortunately did not take us to Hogwarts. But fortunately it was our best narrator. Not the brightest. No real history or architectural knowledge, as prone to distraction as the dog in “UP.” Most of her commentary followed along the lines of “I don’t know why that’s here” or “There used to be another building here” or “A lot of my friends like this pizza place.” Kinda felt like my four-year old was narrating.

But you know what? She was the best narrator we had. Nice and genuine. She started out the tour with a profound statement: Some buildings are really impressive during the day but you can’t even see them at night. Some buildings don’t do anything during the day but light up beautiful at night. And some buildings are wonderful no matter what time of day.

She’s the only one we tipped.

The following day, we took the uptown bus loop. It said it went to Harlem, but that’s being generous. It went just far enough to see the Apollo Theater, then it hightailed itself south like a wave of anti-gentrification, with a cursory announcement about Malcolm X as we skedaddled down the street named after him. Good job, bus company. Wouldn’t want to see where the Cotton Club or the Polo Grounds used to be. Langston Hughes, anyone? Y’all know there’s a huge artistic movement named after Harlem, right? But never mind. There’s the Apollo. Watch out for minorities. And hey, now it’s on to museums for the uber-rich.

The uptown loop also had no live narrator. I think it was supposed to have a live narrator. Other buses we saw had narrators. There was an employee on the bus with us, but he was just checking people’s tickets and playing on his phone while taking up a primo seat most of the time.

And the pre-recorded needs a little help. A bit obsolete. When it was describing the Tavern on the Green, it said it was closed for remodeling. I thought that was odd, because we had seen it our first day, one of the wonderful lunch spots we passed right after our shitty lunch. Then the recording went on to say it would hopefully be re-opened by the summer of 2013.

Hmm…. Might need to stop paying two hundred salesmen throughout the island and update the recording instead.

Also, the narrator changed when we got into Harlem. Not sure if “random white voice” was deemed inappropriate for Harlem. Or if the random white male behind the voice refused to talk about Harlem. Or, more likely, the route has changed since his 2012 recording.

The recording also repeated the same thing on both sides of Central Park, just like the live dude on the downtown loop. And it must’ve said “Watch out for low-hanging trees. Your safety is important to us.” about twenty times.

Maybe HAL was having a stroke. Again, I didn’t bother to check.

Of course, the best part about the uptown loop was getting to re-enact one of the best scenes in cinematic history. I present to you: The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Giraffe!

Stay Puft

New York, Part I

Wife and I went to New York (and Boston) back in June, so what better time for a patented Wombat Travel Blog. In the past, I’ve done this two ways: writing and posting what we did each day (the “Live Blog” approach), and waiting till the end to post one big summary.

This one will be a hybrid. There was a lot to do, little free time, and as an added bonus, this trip was sans in-laws, so it had alcohol! So I’ll be up front and admit that I’m writing a lot of this after I’m already home. And I intended to get it out quicker, but it’s grown past 15,000 words, so that took a while. But I’ll still split it up into five somewhat chronological and/or logical daily(-ish) posts, giving the faux-impression that it’s live. Hopefully it’s no more confusing than my usual fare.

But yeah, I know “Welcome to Margaritaville” has been closed for weeks and Pride happened a month ago.

As background, Wife’s never been to New York. I went there twice before. But the last time I was here, there were two giant identical towers on the southern edge of the island. I’m guessing nothing’s changed since the nineties, right?They don’t randomly, like, build 50-story buildings on a whim, right?

Oh hey, look what’s going up across the street from our hotel:

plane

One more caveat: We left the child at home with the in-laws. She made us take her giraffe stuffed animal with us. So most of our touristy pictures will feature not us, but a stuffed giraffe. Enjoy!

Flight Redeye. Nuff said. We got a “free upgrade” to the emergency exit row. Not sure how, not sure why. They just called our name over the loudspeaker and asked if we’d be willing to open the door if need-be. I said sure. I know they try to sell those seats as an upgrade, so maybe if they can’t sell them, they give them away. But how do you pick the two people in a plane of 150 for the free upgrade.

Even better, we went from the fourth boarding group to the first. More time to get on that midnight flight and promptly fall asleep. Oh crap, I have to stay awake through the drill so I can answer “yes” when the flight attendant asks if I’m willing to open the fucking door. I’ve been through this rigmarole before. You can’t just nod, you have to say “yes.” To prove you know English. Because, as we all know,  “yes” is one of the last words anybody learns in English. It is the true barometer of English comprehension.If you can say the word “yea,” you are certainly capable of following complex instructions while plummeting toward your death amongst 150 other people similarly circumstanced and taking it all wonderfully in stride.

I read a book to keep me awake until the obligatory “yes,” and when I went to put it away, the seatback in front of me was way too far to reach. So I just put the book on my lap. And nothing helps you get to sleep faster than constantly being worried that you’re going to drop your book. Eventually I tucked it in next to my body.

But here’s the rub. If I’m planning on sleeping the whole flight, the extra foot room doesn’t do me much good. If anything, it made it a bit awkward. The seat in front of me will usually prevent me from slumping too much. Without that natural cocoon, I wasn’t really sure how to position my body to get comfortable. Do I sit straight up, with my legs stretched out in front? Do I curl up and tuck the legs under? Do I open my legs in a whore-pose? I didn’t know then and I still don’t know.

Also, my original “ungraded” seat was a window seat. I had booked it that way so I could lean up against the fuselage to sleep. My wife was similarly planning on leaning against me, but now neither of us had support to the side, and instead we both just lie there like a couple of unwrapped mummies. Plus, now I was in the aisle, so any time my elbow went into the aisle, someone brushed against it.

And all of a sudden I was wondering if my original seat was still available. I bet the rat bastards that were originally in this seat paid extra for a chance at sleep! And dammit, the plane didn’t even crash so I didn’t even get to open the door! Of all the luck.

So while I don’t entirely believe in the accuracy of my Fitbit at tracking my sleep when I’m in and out of consciousness, according to it, I slept one hour and three minutes on my overnight flight to New York. Can we say “refreshing vacation?”

At least Giraffe got some sleep:

sleeping.jpg

AirTrain

After we landed, it was a chore just getting to where our New York experience could begin. We had to take the “AirTrain” from JFK airport to the subway station, then ride the subway into Manhattan with somewhere between one and three transfers, depending on how well I’m reading this map. The AirTrain doesn’t really go anywhere other than the subway, but it still is counts as its own entity with an entirely different ticketing system. We waited maybe ten minutes for the first train.

When the train finally arrived, naturally everyone flocked in. Then some dude got off the arriving train and waved us all away from getting inside. He kinda, sorta looked official, because he was wearing a red coat and who would wear a red coat unless it was required by the job? Plus he seemed to have a walkie-talkie sort of contraption.

Anyway, when he comes out of the front of the train and does his big wavy-hand, don’t-go-in-this-train move, some patrons had already started to sneak into the other three doors of the train. So red-coat dude follows some of those patrons in and shoos them back out onto the platform. Like “C’mon patrons, why the fuck would you just be walking onto a commuter train like that? Don’t you know you gotta be invited first?” This maybe takes two to three minutes. Then we’re all standing there in front of an empty AirTrain, doors wide open, wondering if this is some prank.

Dude talks into his walkie-talkie, gets an answer that seems to please him, then announces that this train is going to Howard Beach. Well shit. There are two spots to catch the subway, and Howard Beach was not the subway that would get me to where I wanted to go. In fact, only about ten percent of the people standing around are going to Howard Beach. They get on the train, red-coat dude goes into the train and pushes a button, then hops back out onto the platform with us and sends the poor souls off to their doom.

At least that’s what I’m guessing. It definitely seemed like a super-villain move.

After that, trains started coming more frequently. And I know they started coming more frequently, because I had to wait for three more of them. The next one, red-coat dude announces, is an inter-terminal train, so it’ll only go around in a loop and never make it to the subway station. The next train, wouldn’t you know it, is another fucking Howard Beach one. But at least this time I can verify it because the electronic sign that had previously just said a very ambiguous “Inter-terminal and Howard Beach and Jamaica Station trains all run on this platform” is now actually saying “Approaching train is a Howard Beach train.” That key piece of information was missing for the past fifteen minutes. We had only a red-coated, walkie-talkied dude to base our information on. And I’m not saying I don’t believe him, I’m just saying in this day and age, I believe the HAL that programs the digital instructions sign a little more than a fallible human.

BART always says what train is approaching and how long you have to wait for the one you actually want, by the way. Probably more on that tomorrow.

So twenty minutes and four trains after arriving on the platform, we’re finally on our way to Jamaica Station. Along with a shit-ton of other commuters.

And this is where the fun begins.

There’s no ticket booth at JFK, so you pay when you get off the AirTrain at the subway station. I guess I understand this policy. The inter-terminal train needs to be free, and the government wouldn’t want to make them accidentally pay for something they don’t need, right? Man, the government HATES when people overpay for things. That’s why taxes are so easy to file.

Unfortunately for me, whereas I could have bought at a leisurely pace while waiting the twenty minutes for our train, now all 150 people had to purchase their exit ticket at the exact same time. There were four ticket machines.

Now I’m totally admitting what happened next was my fault. I could have slowly taken my time to ensure I wasn’t making a mistake. I could’ve told all the people jostling for position behind me to go fuck the right off. I should not be susceptible to peer pressure. But I’m also the guy who looks in his rearview mirror every time I have to make a left turn, and if there are cars behind me, I’m gunning a much narrower gap.

So, while puffing out my back to protect myself from the Black Friday crush behind me, I selected which ticket I wanted to buy. I selected AirTrain. The next screen asked if I wanted to buy a discounted 10-trip ticket. With ten people clearing their throats behind me, I quickly thought it would be a good idea. I had just been looking into subway discounts, such as 7-days, unlimited rides for $32. So when I saw “Would you like to buy 10 discounted trips for $25?” I thought, Sure!

Do you see my error? Yeah. I just bought ten trips on the AirTrain, NOT the Subway. Because I’m clearly going back to the airport eight more times in my five days here… Fuck.

Well, I figured, maybe an MTA card is an MTA card and this one will allow me to get into the Subway anyway, right? Wrong. This ticket allowed me to exit the AirTrain portion and not a damn thing more.

So then I had to buy an actual subway ticket to complete my journey. Woo-hoo!  My first hour in New York, I hadn’t even made it outside of a protected environment yet, and I’d already spent a frivolous twenty bucks on something I didn’t even need.

Bring on Saks 5th Avenue!

Cuckoo for Coconut

I really like the latest food fad.

Which worries me. Because a fad is bound to fade. And I don’t want another bacon.

Remember bacon?

Bacon was once a breakfast staple. Then somebody decided to put it on a burger. And it was good. And the world said, “Wow, I hadn’t thought of that.”

But let’s face it: bacon is awesome. Fat, crunchy, and salty are the cornerstones of any healthy diet.

Sorry, did I say healthy? I meant American.

The real fad part of the bacon journey wasn’t when it took its natural spot atop hamburgers, though. That came in the early aughts, when we started bacon-wrapping everything. Some of it was great. For instance, if you cover your meatloaf with bacon, it protects the outside, and the fat renders down to keep the whole thing moist. Plus the salty and the crunchy still work.

Hell, Emeril Lagasse made an entire career out of it.

But then we went overboard. Some things aren’t meant to be wrapped or rendered in fat. Ever been able to actually eat a bacon-wrapped item on a stick? The bacon loses its structural integrity as soon as you bite into it. Unlike a corn dog, where the rest of the sheath remains intact as you eat it, once you bite into a bacon-wrapped hot dog on a stick, you’re stuck with half a slice of bacon hanging from your mouth (or falling to the ground) with the remaining “entree” being 100% hot dog.

I have yet to meet the french fry that can hold onto its bacon bit all the way to my mouth. And don’t get me started on cheesy fries.

Then we started infusing things with bacon. Of course, to “infuse” something is supposed to mean steeping it in liquid over time. But in practice, it usually just means you add a flavored syrup. With a bacon infusion, you’re losing most of what makes bacon good. The crunchy is gone. The wonderfully-marbled curve of fat, that mouthfeel of heaven, is replaced by a vague smokiness. And I don’t care how many times the Food Network repeats the lie, smokiness and fat aren’t the same taste.

So when you take a shot of bacon-infused vodka, you’re basically just gulping down some alcoholic seawater. I tried a bacon soda once, which I’m pretty sure was just a dirty dishrag strained through a sugar cube.

When Peak Bacon hit, you couldn’t swing a blood pressure monitor without hitting some bacon-flavored contraption. When someone, probably Guy Fieri, proposed bacon-wrapped, bacon-infused bacon, we should have known we’d gone too far.

Remember the chocolate-covered bacon? Yeah, nobody could admit this at the time, but it was never all that good. You never got the proper mixture of the different flavor profiles. It was usually a sweetness on the front, although not too sweet because it was usually dark chocolate, followed by a flood of salt. You never fully got the chocolate flavor, and even the bacon was just lost in the salt. Some brands have forayed back into that realm recently, when you can do it with neither fanfare nor eye-rolls, and I think some of the modern candy bars are getting closer to a proper blend of bacon and chocolate, but it usually needs to be done with bacon bits, not giant strips in the middle.

Of course, I never would have admitted to that opinion back during peak bacon. Saying anything with bacon wasn’t wonderful in 2002 was kind of like admitting to being a communist in 1952. You only did it behind closed doors with people who had sworn a blood oath. Nothing said “Unamerican Activities” more than “it’s a little too much bacon.”

And then, poof, before you knew it, bacon became blase. That bacon-wrapped everything booth at the state fair went from an hour-long line to a walk-up-and-get-it booth. I think the last time I was at the state fair, the deep-fried catfish had a longer wait than the chocolate-covered bacon. Cause deep fried never goes out of style!

All of a sudden, a restaurant that carried more than one bacon item seemed like it was trying too hard. Saying a new bacon idea sounded intriguing became the equivalent of shouting out ‘Murica. If you’re not doing it ironically, you might need an intervention.

That’s the way fads go. Put bacon on your ice cream now, and you might as well be wearing a mullet.

Over the past decade, we’ve had a few smaller food fads, but none of them have approached the bacon craze. They tend to pop up for a season or two then fizzle out. For a little while there, I thought bleu cheese/gorgonzola was poising itself for a breakout. It started popping up in more foods, starting, much like its bacon forebear, in burgers and pastas. Salads started to come with bleu cheese dressing AND bleu cheese crumbles.

But bleu cheese is too intense, too pungent, a flavor for a lot of people. It has a tendency to overpower whatever it is paired with. So does bacon, but maybe we’re learning. Whatever the reason, it never went mainstream. I don’t envision any gorgonzola cookies in the near future. We never bleu-cheese Torani coffee flavoring. No bleu-cheese margaritas, although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it in martinis. Bleu cheese seems to have settled into an accoutrement, slowly expanding its foothold over the past twenty years.

And I’m good with that, because I like bleu cheese and I don’t want it to go away.

A few years ago, New York Magazine predicted that the “next bacon” would be pumpkin. There are certainly some parallels. Pumpkin’s grown from its dessert roots. It went the coffee route instead of the burger route, because tying yourself to an addictive chemical seems a pretty sure bet. I’ve started seeing dinner pumpkin casserole recipes pop up in my social media feed. Last autumn, there were at least three cereals that came out with pumpkin-spice flavors.

But while I can see pumpkin extending its autumn empire more, I can’t imagine it expanding its borders to become a year-round flavor. It’s a hundred degrees where I live right now. When my armpits and crotch are setting new world records in the World Cup of Moisture,  a nutmeg and clover-flavored squash sounds about as appealing as an adult diaper. For dinner.

Which leads us to the current trend. I wrote about it a little bit in my Hawaii posts, but I love me some coconut, and the month of June seems to be prime-coconut time.

Like some of the previous fads, the flavor can come from multiple sources. Unlike bacon, the extra sources are usually still legitimately coconut. The shredded coconut has a texture that’s rare in other foods, almost crunchy and chewy at the same time. As a milk or water, it has a sweeter element to it.

And, of course, there’s the Torani flavor.

Over the past few summers, coconut seems to be venturing beyond its home base of desserts. It’s made some pretty serious inroads into the coffee and health food fiefdoms next door.

You didn’t know the dessert and health food fiefdoms are next to each other? You must not have the same culinary map as I.

So far, I’ve been loving this coconut expansion. As I mentioned when I was in Hawaii, my wife is no fan of the flavor. She was hoping to give me so much coconut in Hawaii that I would be done with it when I got home. No such luck. All she succeeded in was making me aware that these wonderful Coconut Clusters are available in Costco on the mainland, too!

And hey, I just saw them at Starbucks:

coconut

Then there’s the whole coconut oil, coconut water thing. Coconut oil was briefly being sold as a healthier alternative to vegetable oil. Then there was backlash because it has more fat. Somehow it’s the second decade of the twenty-first century and we can’t figure out that healthy and non-fat aren’t always the same thing. As for the coconut water, I’m not particularly a fan. It doesn’t really taste like coconut, nor like water. It’s just a sweet water. Maybe it “hydrates,” but it doesn’t quench my thirst. But unlike the oil, coconut water doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Every time I’m at the grocery store, there seems to be some new flavor.

But this is where I start to get worried. Because if coconut expands too fast, or if it starts to cross over into non-coconut friendly areas of the menu, there will be a backlash. The M&Ms were fine. The coated seafood? Okay. Potato chips? I’m starting to get worried. Sure, the chips “made with coconut oil” are one thing, because they don’t taste like coconut. Trust me. But I just recently saw a bona fide “red curry coconut” flavored chip. Naturally, I bought it.

Then saw a menu that put shredded coconut on steak. And to that, even I have to say: “Dammit, coconut, you’re going too far!”

I’m sorry. I take it back. Oh, coconut, I’m going to miss you when nobody will be caught dead trying a new fusion of you.

There might be one saving grace from the future backlash: if coconut becomes the summer flavor. The first time I noticed the new incarnations was at Peet’s Coffee two summers ago. They had a coconut latte. It was delicious. They had a coconut black tie, a mixture of cold brew coffee and condensed milk that they usually do with chicory. It was also delightful. I kept going back to order them. Then one day, probably in early September, I popped in to order a coconut latte, and the barista said, “Sorry, we just switched over to pumpkin spice.”

Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be. A little bit of forewarning would’ve been nice, but whatever. I guess I’ll just wait until May to get my fix again. Shit, how far away is May?

But maybe that will keep things fresh, like the McRib of good taste. Wow, did I just write McRib, fresh, and good taste in the same sentence?

But seasonal flavors have a way of lasting past their shelf life. Pumpkin spice isn’t going anywhere. We roll our eyes at it, but the phrases Autumn and pumpkin-spice are damn-near synonymous. Just like eggnog has its hold on December, although it seems to be ceding ground to whatever the hell “gingerbread spice” is.

So maybe coconut will become the summer flavor. I don’t know what’s so summery about it, because as I said, I don’t think sweetness quenches thirst. But I’m not going to question it as long as it stays relevant.

And I’ll just ignore the fact that Peet’s now keeps the coconut black tie year round. Dammit! Don’t ruin it, guys.

In the meantime, I’m going to go put my head in the sand.

Or maybe my feet.

With a pina colada.

Eating Habits of the Elderly

My mom came to visit last weekend. Always an adventure. But between the “fun” of having someone in our space constantly and the “why is grandchild getting tired of me” and the off-hand comments on our parenting, I found a few oddities about her choice of food.

I found a few of her choices odd because they align with my in-laws, who we dine with more often. My mom grew up in the suburbs of Southern California, my mother-in-law grew up in the rural foothills of Northern California, and my father-in-law grew up in Vegas, so there shouldn’t necessarily be too many common threads between them, geographically.

Except that they were all firmly entrenched in the Baby Boom era. Which means they grew up in an era where Kool Aid was considered healthy and Wonder Bread was the preferred avenue toward the mandatory carbohydrate input of the day. And the only proper spice to put on any dish is salt. And if that’s not enough, add a little more salt.

So it must just be the children of a certain age that have a couple of tendencies toward what I might call double-wide culinary school.

And, other than a few go-to’s, all three of the eaters in question are prone to the finer things in life. Their tastebuds have definitely progressed beyond their meager beginnings. I wouldn’t necessarily call any of them foodies, but they’re not those “same five dishes we’ve always had” types. Especially the females. My mom won’t bat an eye at a Thai restaurant and my in-laws love to discover new gastropubs in San Francisco (provided they have been well vetted by a known source). My mom and mother-in-law are both very good cooks. Both of them can make Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner for twenty, and are even sometimes willing to tweak one recipe or another. One at a time, of course, but still. My father-in-law watches every single competition show on Food Network and my mom is hellbent on visiting every Bobby Flay restaurant in the world.

And yet… And yet…

Mustard. 

I love mustard. I will put mustard on just about anything. I’ll take mustard over mayo on a sandwich any day of the week. I hate when you’re at a conference that’s “providing sandwiches,” because those sandwiches are inevitably half mayonnaise, and the mustard is relegated to tiny packets. So there I’ll be, standing over the trash can, trying to scrape off the mayo and using my teeth to open the five mustard packs it’s going to take to offset the slimy meat and… you know what? Screw it, I’m just going to have a mustard sandwich.

My jaw hit the floor when I saw Alton Brown put mustard (and cracked pepper) on a grilled cheese sandwich. My life has never been the same.

And don’t get me started on In n’ Out’s mustard-grilled patties. They’re a slice of heaven, but I can only get them right about 1/3 of the time. Every other time they assume I want animal style.

“Can I get a double-double, mustard-grilled?”

“Okay, one animal-style double-double.”

“No, just mustard-grilled.”

“Okay, mustard-grilled with pickles.”

“No pickles. Just mustard-grilled.”

“Okay, thousand-island dressing.”

“No, I don’t want fucking animal style. I just want fucking mustard-grilled.”

Blank stare. “Okay, I’ll just write animal style, and I assume the cook will know what to do.”

And there’s I’ll be, scraping shit off of his burger over the trash can.

About a year ago, the in-laws were over for a barbecue. Burgers and hot dogs. Of course, all three of the baby boomers prefer hot dogs over Brats or Polish or Italian or Hawaiian, but whatever. I get out the condiments and…

“Do you have any mustard?” Father-in-law asked.

I hand across the mustard. He looks puzzled, turned the bottle over in his hands, put it down.

“No, I mean mustard.”

See, the problem was that I had given him what I consider mustard. I don’t remember which specific type it was. I can’t imagine it was anything overly spicy. Nothing with horseradish, no Colman’s English, no nuclear-orange sweet and hot. It was probably a generic stone-ground. I probably had some better stuff on hand, but I wouldn’t waste it on my in-laws.

And don’t get me started on the coffee swill I bust out when my mom is visiting.

But no, my father-in-law didn’t consider this particular bottle to be mustard. Of course, we all know what he meant by mustard. He wanted the neon-yellow sourpuss mustard. Good, old-fashioned American brands like… French’s. Or Heinz. What I had handed him was a natural-looking yellow-brown, with a couple of speckles indicating that it did, in fact, come from a plant. Maybe even a mustard plant.

I know the seeds are only for effect. I worked in a homemade ice cream shop in college and can attest that the beans in the vanilla bean don’t add squat to the flavor.

Well, I was a tad bit embarrassed at this barbecue to discover that, although I had three different types of mustard in the fridge, none of them were what he was looking for. I resolved to have some the next time they were over, and he settled for ketchup. I was smart enough to not bust out the malt-vinegar ketchup.

The earlier incident had been lost to the annals of experience. We now keep a bottle of French’s yellow mustard around for the in-laws when they visit. I never thought more of it, and often forget it’s in my refrigerator, even though I see it next to the good shit every time I open the refrigerator.

So while my mom was visiting, I absentmindedly asked her if she could put all the condiments out while I was cooking the burgers. Three guesses which yellow condiment was waiting for me when I got outside.

And look, I’m not opposed to the yellow mustard. It serves its purpose. It gets the job done. It’s cheaper and usually more accessible than the good shit. When I’m scrounging together a mustard sandwich from the Subway spread, chances are it ain’t Grey Poupon I’m slathering on the soggy bread. When I’m at the ballpark, if yellow’s all they’ve got, I’m still getting a hot dog. Whereas, if Coors Light is the only beer they have, I’m getting water.

Although I have noticed that more ballparks are giving good mustard as an option. Just sayin’.

Yellow mustard is a perfectly fine product. But if there’s a yellow mustard right next to a stone-ground horseradish mustard, is it really a question which one you should grab? Well, evidently, it is, because I now have one Baby Boomer who refuses to eat the latter, and one that, I don’t know, doesn’t know it exists? Because what surprises me the most is that my mom opened the refrigerator, saw this, and it never even occurred to her to grab more than one.

mustard

Oh, and that mayonnaise is also only there for when Baby Boomers are in tow.

Bisquick

I’m a little less understanding about this second culinary foible.

Whenever my wife’s sister is in town, we do breakfast at the in-laws. I usually try to steer us toward a restaurant. We have a wonderful breakfast place that specializes in mimosas. I am usually overruled.

Breakfast at the in-laws is usually a smorgasbord of chaos. Mother-in-law cooks up bacon and then leaves a bunch of options out for us to cook for ourselves. There are eggs, which I usually opt for. And then there’s a giant batch o’ Bisquick.

I could have said “pancake batter,” but I’m striving for accuracy here. And whatever the fuck Bisquick is, it ain’t pancakes.

The name implies it started as a biscuit mixture. That might explain the odd baking soda-esque tinge that remains on my tongue whenever I eat a Bisquick pancake. Maybe if I were to eat the pancake with a big ol’ batch of country gravy on top, it would taste a little better.

Bisquick officially lists itself as “Pancake and Biscuit Mix.” So even they have acceded to the fact that they are usually used for the former. Didn’t bother changing their name to Panquick, though.

Oh hey, they also say you can make waffles with their product. Just… let me see here… well, it’s the same as pancake batter, but with a little oil. Are they aware that waffles are supposed to taste different than pancakes? No? That might explain why I also didn’t know that until I was twenty.

My mom is on the same Bisquick-wagon my in-laws are on. About six months ago, she was excited to make some Mickey Mouse pancakes for my daughter. She had been practicing! Because it’s super hard to make Mickey Mouse pancakes. You have to… make three pancakes… but simultaneous! And connected! I assume it takes up a whole semester at culinary school.

But sure, Mom, knock yourself out.

She goes to our pantry and comes out a few hours later like a bewildered spelunker returning from the Land of the Lost.

“I’m sure I’m just missing it, but I couldn’t find any Bisquick.”

“Oh yeah, I usually make pancakes from scratch.”

Blink. Blink.

“From that standard, in-every-kitchen-in-America, Betty Crocker cookbook right there.”

Blink. Blink.

“The one you gave me twenty years ago when I moved out?”

“Oh. Um. Okay. I just. I don’t think I’ve ever made them that way.”

So for this visit, my wife decided to get a box of Bisquick at the store.

“Oh, thank you. Thank you so much,” my mom said when we showed it to her. I think she was more excited at the Bisquick than she was when I told her a grandchild was on the way.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going all hipster, anti-processed food here. I am perfectly fine with boxed meals. If I could eat Zatarain’s Caribbean Rice fortnightly, I would. I survived a good portion of my bachelor years on Rice-a-Roni, Pasta-Roni, and their ilk. My mom probably had to look behind three boxes of Shake & Bake and a barricade of Mac & Cheese (for the child, naturally…) in her ill-fated search for the Bisquick.

But I’ve got a few problems with Bisquick. First and foremost is the taste. There’s something acrid to it. Something that tastes like they couldn’t figure out if they wanted to taste like biscuits or pancakes (or waffles), so they split the difference and banked on being nondescript enough or ubiquitous enough that nobody would notice. It is not a flavor you would find when you go out for breakfast. Fortunately the IHOP/IHOb rebrand wasn’t alluding to International House of Bisquick. All of these Bisquick-lovers opt for fluffy, flavorful pancakes when we’re out for breakfast, yet don’t bat an eye settling for substantially less when at home.

I suppose I get that a little. I love getting Eggs Benedict when I’m out for breakfast. Because poaching eggs is a pain in the ass. And I can only assume hollandaise sauce would take effort. And I’m guessing the packet hollandaise wouldn’t taste as good.

But there’s a big difference between Eggs Benedict and pancakes, and it’s my biggest problem with the Bisquickers. PANCAKES AREN’T DIFFICULT TO MAKE! Bisquick requires three ingredients: Bisquick, milk, and egg. The Betty Crocker recipe adds four more ingredients: Flour, milk, egg, brown sugar, oil, baking powder, and salt. And I can’t imagine either of the Baby Boomers I know are having issues with brown sugar, oil, baking powder, or salt.

Seriously, I’m shitty at baking because I never measure things correctly. My wife’s the baker and I’m the cook, because I like to toss it in the pan and sample and add a little of this and try to offset a pinch of that. Who does my wife get her baking ability from? Her mother, who loves to bake. My mom makes enough Christmas cookies to feed a battalion. They both make homemade pie crusts and cakes that I would have to buy from the store.

You know what pie crusts and cakes and cookies all have? Oil. And sugar. And probably some baking powder.

Yet neither of them can be bothered to put the extra three minutes and one dirty measuring spoon into a morning meal.

So my mom made a batch of Bisquick pancakes for my daughter. She used the number four mold this time, since my daughter just turned four.

Then she put the rest of the batter in the refrigerator.

Two days later, she busted out the two-day old Bisquick batch. Even my daughter thought that was much. Those refined four year-old taste buds took one bite and said no, thanks.

So my mom made another batch.

Look, I love me some leftovers. But all three of these Baby Boomers are prone to hold on to every morsel of leftover food. A refrigerator becomes a veritable minefield of day-old, week-old, and when-the-fuck-did-we-have-Chinese food. I’m prone to a bit of this, myself.

But Bisquick batter? The whole fucking box cost five bucks. It’ll last twenty years. I may only be a teacher, but I think I can afford a little batter dump.

But then I have to remind myself that our parents grew up during the Great Depression.

Right? Like in “Grease.” The malt-shop, poodle-skirt, Elvis-Presly-pelvis-shaking Great Depression.

A Writing Retrospective

A couple weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in almost 200 days.

Or rather, I didn’t do something I had done every day, for just under 200 times in a row.

On May 16, I did not write. No blog entry, no flash fiction, no in-progress novel.

Oh, I wrote plenty on May 16. Notes on essays, probably some e-mail responses, but those don’t count.

Prior to that Wednesday, however, I wrote. Every day, all 195 of them from November 2 through May 15, I created some typed content. I wrote on Christmas. I wrote on New Years Day. On Valentine’s Day. On St. Patrick’s Day. The day AFTER St. Patrick’s Day. I wrote the day I flew to Hawaii, and every day when I was there. On the day I flew to a curling bonspiel, and after every game I played while I was there. I wrote while camping (although it was only a one night camping trip, so I wrote before I left and after I got back).

More specifically, during that streak, I typed at least 444 words into the website 4thewords.com. That website is also the reason I know how impressive my streak was. I don’t even know what my best streak was before this. Maybe twenty days? I mean, I know I sure as shit never wrote on Christmas before. Or any of those other dates written above. Except for Camptathalon, of course.

But 4thewords keeps track of my streak, which thereby makes it easier to maintain said streak. My character gets special wings when my streak reaches a certain number of days.

The website and its various carrots are also the reason that the streak was as impressive as it was. I wrote about it after NaNoWriMo. Wow, the number of throwbacks in this blog post makes it feel like those clip shows that sitcoms used to run in April before everything was available on demand.

But because of 4thewords.com, for the first time ever, I continued writing after November was over. Every day. Some days it’s a struggle. Some days, I drudge back downstairs at 10 PM to put down some drivel. Naturally, I get wordier that time of night. Or maybe, since I’m typing this in 4tw, it might be better to say I get as wordy as a talkative wordsmith crafting his wordiness for a living.

What happened on May 16? It was a conscious decision to not write. No, I didn’t wake up with a general “fuck it.” But, with the finite amount of time available to me between the child being put down and my impending crash into unconsciousness, I opted for what was behind Door #2. The AP Test was two days away and I still had a handful of essays I wanted to return  to the students taking the test the following day.

So I said “Fuck it.”

Actually, after I “fucked it” (fuck ited? wordy wordsmithed it?), I logged onto the website to make sure I didn’t lose my streak. They have a special item that extends a streak without needing the 444 words. I had five of them in reserve. Then I got back on the donkey the next day. I’m now up to 216 days, which they count as 195 legitimate days + May 16 + 20 more days since.

So don’t worry, I didn’t lose my wings. Had I not owned one of those items, then I guess my students would’ve just been a little less prepared for a nationwide standardized exam. Gotta have my priorities, after all. Now I have four of the mulligans left. I’ll earn back the one I used next Monday when my streak hits 222. Who knows, maybe I’ll just get a hankerin’ and take a week off from writing. Of course, this is coming from the teacher who has 120 sick days banked, so it’ll take a much more legitimate “fuck it” before I lose that streak.

But still, maybe I should take Christmas off this year.

Oh wait, Christmas is with the in-laws this year? Yeah, I’ll be writing that day.

So what are the results of this newfound verbosity?

On a sidenote, I just looked up verbosity on thesaurus.com, and evidently there’s a word called logorrhea. Like diarrhea, but with words. I definitely need to use that word more.

Okay, here are the stats: I just passed 197,000 words written on the website. Not bad.

They’ve come in all forms: blog posts, which have allegedly become more frequent; flash fiction, and I promise there are more of those on the way, I can only post them after I lose the contest, but I’m 0-for-4 so far, so I’ll start posting them weekly in the summer; e-mails, letters, and Facebook posts (don’t judge); and, of course, the novel-in-progress.

I started the novel way back in NaNoWriMo, 2014. You can read the basis for it here. And a sample chapter that’s four years old. It fizzled out after about 25,000 words, but the idea was still there. Over the next four years, I managed another 15,000 words. In the past 200 days, I’ve added another 75,000+ words to be on the cusp of 120,000 words. That’s too long for a first book, but a lot of those frivolous words will be edited out. I’m guessing it’s closer to 80,000 legitimate words.

How did I triple the output? Well, this will be a shocking answer to some: I actually sat my ass down and wrote. For 200 days. Not always on the book, but I run out of e-mails eventually, and if I want my 444 words, I’m going to have to move that pesky main character along.

I always knew where the book was going. Since I first started, I had this grandiose final scene in my head. Some of the dialogue’s been ready to go for four years. I’ve known where the characters will be placed and exactly how much of the big picture would be revealed (gotta keep a couple things for the sequel, after all).

But getting to that final scene is sometimes a problem. And by sometimes, I mean always. For four years. I’d often get stuck mid-scene. How do I get the characters or narrative through a particular scene? So historically, I would get to a spot, the main character dangling precariously from the precipice, and then I’d take a few days off while I mulled how do get him to the bottom of the cliff. Or a few weeks. Or years.

Then maybe I’d figure it out, and I’d sit down to write the scene, and I’d write 1,000 words and, wouldn’t you know it, the fucker’s still up on his clifftop. Because I forgot I needed a little internal dialogue or a scatological description of how scared he is. And then I’d get frustrated that I spent two months deciding where this scene was going and I finally sat down to do it and I DIDN’T EVEN GET TO THE FUCKING PART I JUST SPENT TWO MONTHS FIGURING OUT!

Here’s how that same scene has played out over the past 200 days: I blog for a day, write a flash fiction over the weekend, and when Tuesday rolls around, I guess I have to write the actual book. So I write 500 words. That’s easy enough. Nothing has to happen in 500 words. He shits himself. Then the next day, he wipes for 500 words. After three or four days, I finally get to the point where I just say “Fuck it” and describe him scrambling down the cliff. Three days later he’s finally engaging in the dialogue I’ve known he was going to get into at the bottom of the cliff.

There are chapters that I know for a fact I will chop 1000 of the first 1500 words. But a lot of times those words were necessary for me at the time, because they helped me work through what the character’s going through. I gain insight into my characters and their world that can be edited to be implied instead of explicit.

It’s the same process I would’ve gone through before, just without the winter of contemplation in between.

So here I am, 120000 words later and guess what? I’m finally to that culminating scene! The one that’s been in my mind since page one. Woo Hoo! Easy sailing from here!

And how’s the scene going? The one that I’ve known the intricacies of forever?

Well, I’m blogging right now.

Because, goddammit, this “easy” scene is just as difficult as any other scene. Maybe moreso because it’s the culmination of four years and 120,000 words of character and plot development. One of the characters who’s supposed to be there is dead. There is a character that showed up around the 70,000 word mark that is vitally important now. rDi I just have him stand around and pick his butt while the corpse of the dead character does something important? Just because I know Darth Vader’s going to reveal he’s Luke’s father doesn’t mean I know how Luke’s going to get there in the first place.

Come to think of it, how the hell is there a Death Star-esque bottomless cylinder in Cloud City? Is everything in the Star Wars universe built by the same contractor?

I think there’s something else hindering my process right now. Do you ever get to the end of a book and slow down your reading? Not sure if you’re ready to be done with it? Well, this book’s been in my thought process for four years. What am I going to write the next day? Sure, I have plenty of new books I could start, but which one should I do? I feel like I’ll be so lost when I don’t have this specific existential weight on me. If I’m not thinking of this specific character and plotline, will I suddenly become aware of a lack of substance in the rest of my life?

Meh. Maybe I’ll take another day off.

But until then, it’s a shit-ton of logorrhea.

Substitute for Love

“I couldn’t find the worksheets you wanted me to hand out-,” the note back from the substitute teacher began.

Oh, you mean this pile right next to the note? The one that has a post-it reading “Third period handout” on it? You couldn’t find that one? Okay, cool cool.

“I saw Ferris Bueller in your cabinet,” the letter continues. “So I showed the class that. We made it to the parade scene.”

Thanks. Good to know from which point I’m won’t be continuing the movie that they weren’t supposed to be watching.

Ah, substitute teachers. The educational suppositories. If only I could just give my students the day off, like in college. Chances are they’d be less-far behind.

We had an incident with a sub recently that got me thinking back on some of the best sub stories.

And of course, all of these stories are “alleged.” Probably didn’t happen. For entertainment purposes only, as my bookie used to say.

First of all, I understand the thankless nature of being a substitute teacher. I’ve done it a few times. When I do it during my prep period, it’s not too bad. There’s a good chance I’ll know one or two of the students. It might even be a non-shithead! We can all dream, can’t we?

I’ve been the other kind of sub, too. The poor, poor paragon of power amidst a sea of hormonal wannabe Che Gueveras. No rapport, and even though you’re pretty sure the offensive lineman sitting in the seat that belongs to Jocelyn Nguyen, you can’t really prove it.

Some subs go the intolerant dickhead routine, writing everyone up, including poor Jocelyn for letting the quarterback be sacked last Friday. I heard about one sub that walked the entire class to the admin office. And I’m sure every single one of those students stuck around en route.

Other subs go the disinterested route. Look, I’m just here to read my book and if y’all could just create the illusion of decorum, then we can all make it through the day.

Allegedly there are substitutes who are approachable and nice and enjoyable to the students, but I’ve never seen one. But hey, if a woman can sue the state of California that Bigfoot exists, then I maybe there’s a mythical, quality substitute teacher, too. Living with Elvis and Hitler in an airplane on the moon.

There’s a reason that most teachers are loathe to take days off. Its a pain in the ass. You have to write a lesson plan that is way more detailed than a regular-day lesson plan. If I didn’t tell the kids yesterday to bring their textbooks tomorrow, then I’m going to have to find something in the nether regions of my filing cabinet, which means I have to go in or hope that the teacher next door to me can figure out my filing system in time to get something off to the copy center all while getting their own shit in order. There can’t be any direct instruction or anything beyond basic comprehension questions, and the basic comprehension questions aren’t going to take the students very long, anyway.

Plus, as noted again, it’s not like the sub is going to follow the lesson plan anyway, unless the most difficult thing they have to do is push play. Hell, pushing play ain’t as easy as it used to be with LCD projectors and external speakers and SMART Boards. So here I am, two o’clock in the morning, hoping to stave off the squirts long enough to e-mail off an exercise in futility. I might as well go into work. My usual genuflection at the altar of the porcelain god goes something like this: “It’s two a.m. If I can make it the next three hours without puking, I’m going in.”

And did I mention that unused sick days roll over and if I can bank more than 180, I can retire a year early? I’m sixteen years in with over 120 banked, so shit, howdy, guess whose students are going to be catching his Spanish flu in the morning?

Of course, sometimes a sub-plan isn’t left, or the worksheets truly are missing, and then you really do have to put on the Ferris Bueller. Having subbed, I know that the third-worst thing is having no lesson plan. Actually, I take that back.  No lesson plan is the second-worst thing a sub can encounter. The second-worst is a lesson plan that I can tell is only going to take fifteen minutes to complete. Have students do the first five vocab terms, then right in their journal about their last bowel movement. 

The worst substitute lesson plan?

“The students are working on a project. They know what to do.”

We, who are about to die, salute you.

At my school, we seem to have a new batch of subs this year that have been interesting, to say the least. There’s a new variation on the “tough ass” guy, and that’s the “I know you’re trying to get over on me.” Dude, you can’t let the kids know you fear them. It’s blood in the water and they’re one sniff away from a feeding frenzy. Add to that a little wrinkle of technophobe, and you have the hilarious recent substitute in my department, who kept screaming for the students to put their phones away because she knew they were filming her and putting her on the YouTube. The students were not doing anything of the sort. Prior to her meltdown, the substitute hadn’t been doing anything worthy of taping.

And yeah, there’s use for technology in the classroom. I can now put my assignments on Google Classroom and cut out the substitute middle man. If I were a sub, I’d love showing up and seeing “the assignment’s on Google Classroom.” As long as the first slide on Google Classroom doesn’t say “Work on Project.”

But you know what? At least, if the students have a laptop out to be on Classroom, they shouldn’t be a nuisance. If they’re occupying themselves trying to get around the district’s porn filter, the substitute is in the clear.

Hey, speaking of porn and substitutes…

And again, let me say this is all alleged and probably never even happened. I’m a wannabe fiction writer, after all. This is surely all made up.

One of the teachers in my department needed a sub last week. None of the rest of us got a good look at him, but by most accounts, he was a well-mannered twenty- or thirty-something who followed the instructions on the lesson plan. The day went off without a hitch.

Then the teacher came back.

The next morning, she was futzing around on her laptop, doing the usual e-mail checking and whatnot. When she minimized the browser, guess what was hiding behind it?

I bet you can’t guess.

Want a hint?

It starts with porn- and ends with -ography.

I was the first teacher she came to. Just kind of casually, while I’m teaching my class, she pops her head in and wants a little advice about the naked lady on her computer.

Hmm. That’s a tough one. Give her some clothes, maybe?

“Should I mention it to the principal or do you think I’ll get in trouble for it?”

Not really sure how the reporter of this particular incident would get in trouble. Would the principal think that, after working for the school for five years, she randomly decided to download a pornographic picture to her work computer and then, rather than just delete it, she reports it so nobody would suspect her? And how conveeeenient that she just happened to download said porn right after a sub day. The perfect cover! What level of inception is this?

By lunchtime, everybody knew about it. The principal told her to alert IT, but more importantly, every other teacher in my department knew about it. Of course, the rest of us are all men, and we were rather upset that she hadn’t bothered to “run it by us” before shipping it off to IT. I mean, how can we make a bona fide recommendation on a course of action without seeing the evidence? We strive to be professional and thorough!

But alas.

A few things to get out of the way first. It hadn’t been set as her wallpaper, which was my first thought of when she said it was behind her web browser. Had it been wallpaper, I would guess virus. But shit, I can’t even read fivethirtyeight.com through our web filter or update Microsoft Word without consent, so it’s hard to believe some random porn virus is making it onto her hard drive.

It also wasn’t a website. It was just a jpeg, or maybe a bitmap. I don’t know what type of file, because she didn’t show me. Or any of us. We don’t know if the model was blonde or brunette, and let’s be honest, that’s the truly lacking bit of info.

We debated if it came from a student or the substitute. Neither option looks good for the sub, by the way. He’s either walking around with a porn flash drive, or else he’s giving students unsupervised access to the teacher’s laptop. As a teacher, I’m almost more comfortable with the former.

We’re now pretty sure it was the sub. The logistics make more sense, particularly with what IT found out. The picture came from an external device at 2:06 PM. Woo-hoo! That was my guess! Looks like I know the mindset of pervs!

Also, my co-worker wasn’t off-campus that day. She was at a “leadership meeting.” I know, I know. We mock our students for ditching class but staying on campus and then we do the same thing. They don’t even serve beer at these leadership meetings! So shortly after school ended, she went back to her room. She said the substitute was fumbling around with something around her computer. In retrospect, probably taking the flash drive out and putting up the web browser to cover up the incriminating photo. This might also explain why the dumbshit didn’t REMOVE the incriminating photo. Because, let’s be honest, this wasn’t the first time he’d climbed upon this particular horse.

Come to think of it, I bet he has a picture that fits that description.

At first I found it funny. I mean, who hasn’t been in a situation where you’ve got ten minutes to spare and are pissed that there’s no porn within reaching distance? I can’t tell you how often a flash drive o’ porn would come in handy. You know, you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. Or you’re at the farmer’s market and those melons just look so scrumptious. Everyone says long walks on the beach are romantic, but what if you’re having a long walk by yourself?

Maybe this guy was just exercising his right to take a break at work. Remember back in the good old days when we had cigarette breaks? Now nobody smokes, and all of a sudden we’re tied to our cubicle until lunchtime. Those rat-bastard business owners were the culprits behind the anti-smoking campaign, because now we have no excuse to stop working once every ninety minutes to feed an addiction.

Maybe it’s time to institute the mid-morning and mid-afternoon masturbation break! Come on, you know all of those people who work from home get them, why not the rest of us? We need we get the CDC to classify porn as an addiction! Who’s with me? Show of hands! Wait, where are your hands?

The CDC classifies addictions, right? That’s why The Walking Dead started in Atlanta. The zombies are just junkies shuffling toward their next hit. I make that same groaning noise most Saturday mornings.

The more we heard about this particular story, however, the less funny it became. As the layers peeled of the onion, or the clothes of the porn star, the substitute came out like a less-polished knob.

As I mentioned, the picture appeared on the computer at 2:06 PM. What I didn’t mention was that school is over at 2:20 PM. So there were students in the room when he whipped it out of his pants. The flash drive, that is. I hope.

Maybe he was just getting it ready, hiding it behind a browser so that he could be ready to reward himself for a (hand-) job well done as soon as the students left the room. Nothing’s worse than having to wait to open windows when the urge to wank is upon you, right? I’ve heard tell of some teachers doing the same with a flask in the desk, so who am I to pick one vice over the next?

After lunch, my co-worker asked her final-period TA about the substitute the day before. “What was going on the last fifteen minutes of class? Were the students up and walking around? Was the sub out talking to them?”

“No, he was behind the desk.”

Woo hoo, I win the prize again!

“What was the substitute like?”

“He was really nice.”

So far, so good.

“He talked with me a lot. Joking around with me about stuff.”

I warned you it was going to go south, right? Because this is when it became not as funny for me.

Because what, precisely, made this guy think he absolutely could not delay seeing a naked woman while in a classroom of thirty teenagers? Was it just a rough end-of-day? Or was it one particular conversation with one underage girl? When I was thinking of it as a simple “wank at work,” it was funny. A victimless crime. But if it’s a more focused action… well, I don’t know. Huzzah for not following through on your urges, I suppose. But there are plenty of temp jobs where I’m sure he could wank away till he’s chafed raw. Then why would you become a substitute teacher, where there are always other people in the room?

Oh course, we all know the answer to that one, right?

Look, I like porn as much as the next guy. Or at least, that’s what I thought. But I’ve never carried it around on a flash drive, a twenty-first century version of pocket pool. I’ve never been so consumed to see nudity that I use another person’s computer in a room occupied by thirty teenagers. I’ve also never forgotten to take down said picture on said other-person’s computer. I mean didn’t he see the “Danger, you’re pulling out” warning when he removed the flash drive?

Or did he just think the pull-out warning was for the picture? Hey-ho! I’ll take “The Obvious Joke” for $500, Alex!

Most importantly, I’ve never spoken to a seventeen year-old girl and then felt the overwhelming urge to see a naked woman right then and right there. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. So maybe I don’t like porn as much as the next guy. And you know what? I’m perfectly fine with that.

 

 

Curling, Parts 1 through %$@*&$

Since my last effort at real-time blogging seemed to work, I’m trying it again. Only this time, instead of Hawaii, I’m off to lovely Seattle. And I ain’t going for no fun-fun time vacation, neither. This time, my game face is on. It’s curling bonspiel time, motherfucker!

No, I won’t be live-tweeting every shot. I won’t be attaching a GoPro to my broom. I probably won’t even post the thing until after the weekend is over. What I will write down my thoughts and reflections after each game, as my team works our way through the weekend tournament. The highs and the lows that inevitably come from these tourneys. The “I curl better than John Schuster”, followed by the “Why the fuck do I do this stupid sport?”.

One of the reasons I’ve chosen this particular bonspiel to live-blog is that we’re here to fucking win it!

Don’t I always want to win? Sure. But this time, there’ll be no Olympians in my way. This bonspiel is called a Five-and-Under. It’s not for toddlers, although that would be friggin’ awesome on a whole nother (hilarious) level. In this 5&U, everyone in this tournament must have less than five years of experience. This is my fourth year, as with two others on my team, and our skip is aging out this year. So if we’re ever going to win it, this is the time.

This is my third time at this particular event. Two years ago, it was a mish-mash of different players thrown together at the last minute. We won our first two games, but lost our third, which is the first elimination game. The team we lost to went on to win the entire tournament, so as far as I’m concerned, we might have been the second-best team there. We would have lost to that team whenever we faced them, but so did everyone else. Second-place may be first loser, but who’s the one that lost first, hmm?

Last year, my team was a bit more purposeful. We combined two players from our team with two players from a team that went all the way to the final game. They lost that game against the same team we lost to. So combine the first loser and the last loser, and what do you get? We lost our second game, which is actually better than losing your third game. It isn’t an elimination game. Instead, it drops you into the “B Bracket,” and we went on to win that bracket. Not bad, but there were some personality conflicts. Shaq and Kobe all over again.

This year, it’s finally the team I’ve always wanted to bring. A team of people I like playing with that also has a chance to win. Me and the guy I’ve played with all three years (he’s the skip that is aging out) finally convinced two of the guys we curl with locally to venture out of California. Well, it wasn’t the two guys that needed the convincing as it was convincing their wives. But we finally did that, and now we’re ready to go 5-0 and take the crown.

Let’s do this.

Game One. 

Game one only counts in the standings. But it still counts in the standings.

Three of the four curlers on our opponent team have been curling less than a year. Oh, and one of those three hadn’t shown up yet, so add some fatigue to their inexperience. Yes, you can get fatigued while curling, especially if you’re taking extra shots and are the only sweeper.

Their skip, the only person with more than one year of curling, could hit some draws. Unfortunately for him, we made him draw every end, and he could only hit “some draws.”  A draw is where you’re just trying to slowly go around a guard and have your rock sit in the house. You’d think that would be easy. It’s not. Give me a guard or a takeout any day over a draw to the button. The difference between a draw and a rock that sails through, hitting nothing, is two-tenths of a second on your delivery.

In our first end, we scored two, and thought we were going to cruise to victory. We played the second end a little loose, and all of a sudden, they had two points in the house. We took out one with our final shot, but they had one more shot and a wide-open draw to score a second point and tie the game. He came up short, so they only scored one. Whew!

That scared us enough to bear down. We scored two in the third end and four in the fourth and cruised to victory.

These are the types of games that can be dangerous. We didn’t hit all of our shots. Far from it. Yet we won 12-2, and we were being generous to keep it that close. We could have scored fifteen or more. There were two ends where we had all eight of our stones in play. We would put two in the house, then set up six guards. If we wanted to, we could’ve put more of them into the house. At least I think we could have, but I was light on a lot of my throws. A better team could’ve taken advantage of that.

Like the team we’re playing tomorrow. They beat some of my friends at the same time we were playing. Every time we looked over, we assumed we’d be playing our friends next. They were up 4-0. Then they were up 5-3. After we were off the ice (a 12-2 game tends to go faster than a close game), they gave up three and lost 6-5. Ouch. They made the mortal sin of continually scoring one point per end, which is a very precarious way to play. In the final tally, they won five of the seven ends that were played, and the other team only scored in two of the ends, but that’s not what matters in the end.

Our friends said we should have no problem beating this next team. We’ll see. It’s hard to judge which part of their game was the fluke. Were they a lucky team in those two ends, or were they good enough to keep limiting their opponent to one point at a time? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.

The only other item of note in game number one was the double balloon. At a number of bonspiels, they have a cowbell stuck to the end of a balloon. If anyone on your team hits a double-takeout (Removing two opponent stones from the house with one shot), you ring the bell and move the balloon to your sheet. It sits there until another game steals it with a double-takeout of their own. Whoever ends the game in possession of the balloon gets a free pitcher of beer.

I’ll repeat that: A free pitcher of beer!

The goddamned balloon had been in our goddamned possession for damn-near a half-hour. When our skip got in the hack to take his final shot, he turned around to look at the balloon. “Okay, we still have the balloon, so I’ll just throw a guard.” When his fucking shot was halfway down the fucking lane, some other fucking team rang the fucking bell.

I’m a little bitter. Can you tell? Nothing is so demoralizing as, in the midst of sweeping our final shot, knowing that I’m now going to have to pay a whopping thirteen dollars for my next pitcher of beer. That bell was worse than the bell that starts the final day of school. Something so close, and yet just out of reach.

We had time to play one more end. We discussed with the other team the possibility of playing one more end just to set up doubles. We tried to convince them that they could use another end as practice. Heck, that was the only reason we had played the final end, already up 10-2. But this time, they just shrugged. The spirit of curling says that the winner buys the loser beer, so they were getting free beer regardless of if it came via us or a balloon. Besides,the way they were playing, we couldn’t guarantee their ability to put stones in the house for us to take out.

So pitcher on me! Worst. Thirteen Dollars. Ever.

Interlude.

The curling club that’s nice enough to give us their ice for this shindig has their own league that runs on Friday nights, so the organizers of our event usually find an activity in Seattle for us to comradarize at that night. Last year, it was a Mariners game. This year, they’re out of town, so we went to a grown-up mini golf and duffleboard place, instead.

What’s duffleboard, you ask? Good question. It was a question most of us had, and oddly, it was not defined on their website. I guess they just want you to come on down and check it out.

Duffleboard is part shuffleboard, part mini golf. They set up a “green” on a table. You use a stick with a flat end, like the letter T, and push the golf ball across the board. You get points based on where the ball ends up. On a soccer table, you push the ball from corner kick territory and are supposed to bank it off of a defender into the goal for the equivalent of a hole-in-one. If you missed the goal long, it was two strokes, three if it was on the near side of the goal, up to five or six for missing the defender and leaving the ball out in the middle of nowhere. Another table was set up like SafeCo Field (hole in one for hitting it through small holes in the home run fence, two for a slightly large hole without a defender, six if you couldn’t push it out of the infield). There was also a Seahawks #12 table. I’m sensing a Seattle theme. Then we came upon a basketball one, which I found odd because Seattle hasn’t had basketball in twenty years. The table had a picture of Key Arena. I don’t think that’s even standing anymore.

The duffleboard was fun. More fun than the actual mini golf. The mini-golf course was seven holes making the word “Seattle.” However, to make it grown-up, the letters are all chopped up with boards and kegs and awkward lanes. To wit:

I get it. I’ve played mini golf with the daughter, and one would assume adults need something with a little more nuance, a bit more adversity. But this place also had beer, and one would think that drunk adults might not need too many wrinkles. Just think of the joys of stimulus-response time if they were to put in a windmill

In the end, the duffleboard was much more fun, cheaper, and we didn’t have to wait a half hour for a tee time. They might want to pump that up a little on their website.

One more thing from Friday night. The bar didn’t take cash. Card only. I really wanted to go all economics teacher on them and mention that fiat currency is “good for all debts, public an private,” but decided against it. Because they had beer and I really, really wanted to incur a private debt.

Game Two. 

Curling is a team game. And thank God for that. Because I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn in game two, but we still managed to take the W.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on myself. My first two shots were beautiful. Pristine. We had one beautiful stone fully covered underneath a proper guard. In fact, maybe I should wax a bit more eloquent about that first end. We only scored one. It wasn’t even the one that I had put in the house, because that got jostled out by the best player on the opposing team – a twenty-year old girl who could pretty much hit anything out of the house whenever she wanted. I can’t throw upweight half as well as her.

So the end itself wasn’t all that spectacular, but did I mention I hit both of my first two shots? Because in case you hadn’t heard, I did.

The next twelve shots I took? Yeah, best not to talk about them. Maybe my hangover was starting to fade too much.

There were at least two ends where neither of my rocks ended up in play. That’s bad. It doesn’t give the rest of my team much to work with. Unless I want to claim that I was keeping it wide open for my teammates to take out the other team’s stones. Yeah, yeah, that was my plan all along. Like when Kobe bragged about giving his teammates so many rebound opportunities when he missed.

Mind you, not all of my shots were horrible. Many were, but some were not. Unfortunately, the non-horrible ones still weren’t very good. The best I could call them was “something my teammates might have a chance to do something with.”

But hey, we won, right? I’d rather play shitty and win than to be on top of my game in a loss. After we scored one point in the first end (did I mention my shots in the first end? No? They were magnificent!), the other team came back and scored two in the second. In the third end, we couldn’t get anything going and, starting with their wee-lass doubling out two of our stones (what’s the point? She wasn’t even old enough to drink her free pitcher, so she might as well have kept our rocks in play), neither team let any stone stick around. The result was a blank end, meaning nobody scored. That was intentional on our part when it came to the final shot, because it’s better to hold onto the hammer (final rock) than to score one and give the hammer back to the other team. Especially if we’re already down one.

At that point in the game, I was nervous. If they could take out our stones and were already up by one, then it would be difficult to score more than one, and we had already seen what this team will do if you keep scoring one against them. Or zero, as we had just done.

But in the third end, we scored three. We didn’t deserve it. In fact, I thought we only had two, but there was a stone, way in the back of the house, still in play by maybe only an inch, that counted. It had been sitting there for five minutes, just minding its own business, laa, laa, laa, don’t mind me, and what do you know, we score three.

That’s when the wheels came off the other team. Their second was still shooting lasers, but everyone else on the team was missing. Did I mention I’d rather play shitty in a win than play well in a loss? Annie fucking Oakley over there was the Reverse Wombat in this particular game.

So we made it through to the  quarterfinals. Because we’re 2-0, we are still alive whether we win or lose the next game. If we lose, we head to the B Bracket. If we win, we’re into the Championship Round. Goal number one of any bonspiel is to still be playing on Sunday. Mission Accomplished!

Good thing, too, because the team we’re playing next looks solid. They played right after us, so we stuck around to do a little scouting. The team they played came from our sister club, so we’ve played them pretty regularly. Our sister club team, who we’re comparable to, fell behind 4-0, but made a game out of it, coming back to 4-3 before giving up one in the final end.

So there’s a chance there, if only our fucking lead can get his fucking stones in play.

Oh, and there will be karaoke off ice while we’re playing. Expect a second interlude.

Game Three.

Fuck.

A.

Duck.

I swear, those of you reading this as one full post after the fact will believe that I, like the masterful storyteller I am, went back and changed my Game Two write-up for juxtapositional purposes. I promise that is not the case. The reason I decided to track my progress through this weekend was because this ain’t my first go around, and most bonspiels come with highs and lows in rapid succession. And we just experienced the fuck out of those highs and lows.

Remember when I said I’d rather play shitty and win the game than play wonderfully and lose? Well, I played great in game three.

Seriously, let me take a moment to explain some of my wonderful shots. Draw to the button? Yeah, I hit three of those. Guards? No fucking problem. There was this one shot – there were two guards, one ours, one the other team’s, that were about two feet apart from each other. Behind the gap, sitting right on the T-Line (that’s the horizontal line that goes through the middle of the house, making a T, or maybe a t, depending on your angle). I threw a take-out that went right through the port, knocked their rock out of play, and then rolled just a little to the right, under the cover of one of those guards I had just passed through. If I were to pull a John Elway and walk away at the height of my curling career, it might’ve been after that shot.

My vice (that’s the guy who shoots third – vice skip, right before the skip) also had a double takeout that end. Ring the cowbell, motherfucker! We scored four points in that end, to go up 5-3.

Then we lost the game.

At least we held onto the double-balloon for the free pitcher of beer this time. Trust me, we needed it.

Prior to that four-ender, the other team made an odd decision. They were up 2-1 in the third end, and with their final shot, the house was wide open. According to Hoyle, you should blank the end – throw through, intentionally score zero, hold onto the final shot. Instead, they drew for one point and gave us the hammer back. The following end was the one we scored four. That’s why Hoyle says what Hoyle says.

After that four-ender, we stole one, which means we scored one despite the other team having the final shot. We were feeling good. This game was following the same pattern as game two. Take a few ends to feel out the competition, then exploit their weaknesses and keep stealing points. We were up three with three ends left to play. Ninety percent of the time, the team who’s up by three with three ends left will win. All we have to do is play conservative and not give up big ends.

Oops.

They scored two in the next end. Had we been a tad more conservative, we might have held them to one. Feeling all Big Johnson, we went for a knockout and forgot about the counter-punch.

No problem. Only two ends left, and we’re up one with the hammer. If we score two, they’ll have to score three. Early in the end, we got one near the button that they couldn’t do anything with, and we guarded it. There were a couple times we could have tried to get a second rock in, but instead we just guarded the fuck out of that one rock. Once it was secure, we tried to get a second rock in, but the guards work two ways. We probably waited too long to try to get that second point, but whatever, we go to the final end up by two.

They score two. Fuck a duck.

Our skip was heavy on two draws in a row that would have cut them to one. If we cut them to one, we win the game. In the grand scheme of things, if one person is going to hit their shots and the other is going to miss, you want the lead missing and the skip hitting. Not vice versa. As games two and three demonstrate.

So what do you do when a curling game ends in a tie? The skip on each team draws to the button. The closest one wins.

I hate this practice, but it’s a necessary evil, especially in knock-out bracket play. I coordinate the league at our home club, and I give the loser of a draw to the button the equivalent of the NHL’s overtime loss. It’s worth one point instead of two. A team that is 3-3 with a DTB loss is better than a legitimate 3-3 team, worse than a 4-2 team. Because, especially at our level, a draw-to-the-button a brutal crapshoot.

I had no faith in my skip making the draw to the button, having been heavy and outside on his last two shots. But, DAMN, he got it within five inches of the button (Thanks to my phenomenal sweeping). Five inches is nothing. I’ve scored many of these competitions, and twenty or thirty inches is usually good enough to win. Hack, I’ve seen seventy-two inches win (seventy-three is the maximum, meaning you missed the house entirely). So five inches, we’re punching our ticket to A Bracket.

The other team got within three inches.

Fuck a duck.

Welcome to B Bracket.

We played well, even excellently at times, for one hundred minutes. For fifteen minutes at the end, we fell apart. Such is a bonspiel.

Hey, guess who we’re playing in the morning? The two people that the skip and I played with last year, that we separated from to go our own way. Grudge-match extraordinaire. At least we’ll finally figure out which two people on last year’s team deserved the accolades.

Again, I promise I did not add this shit in to the top to add suspense.

Interlude Two.

I wasn’t in much of a karaoke mood after that last game. The guy that runs it even came up to me, said I killed it last year, and wondered what my first song would be. I told him we had just suffered a gut-wrencher and to give me a little time.

Fortunately, the spirit of curling brought one pitcher our way via the loss, the double-takeout balloon gave us another one, and then I was finally ready to sing.

I started with “As Good as I Once Was,” by Toby Keith, at the request of my skip, who was not feeling as good once as he ever was after that last game.

I followed it up with “Baby Got Back” and “Chocolate Salty Balls.” Then it was home to (write this up and) get ready for tomorrow morning. Did I mention our first game is at 8:00 AM?

Game Four.

Boy, am I glad I didn’t punctuate last night’s come-from-ahead, two-inch loss with some form of “I’d rather get blown out in a game than lose such a close one.”

I was definitely thinking it, but I wasn’t stupid enough to write it. Maybe even thinking it was a bad idea.

Game four started off bad, then got worse. In the second end, we gave up three points even though we had the hammer. The two flashes (when the stone hits nothing and sails right on through, waving like the beer bottle in the Laverne & Shirley credits) that our vice had were bad enough, but the two flashes that our skip had right after definitely didn’t help. Four misses in a row tend to be problematic.  When a quarterback throws four interceptions in a game, that hurts the team’s chances of winning. Our opponents only had one rock in play when we missed the first shot. By the fourth, they had three.

But the fun wasn’t over, as we gave up one more point the following end, and before our bodies had acclimated to the ice, we were down 5-0. In our defense, we battled back to 5-3, but down two without hammer in the final end doesn’t give you a lot of options. But hey, at least we were hitting some of our shots. And our skip’s final shot, going through a port smaller than the one I had hit in game two, in order to almost knock out three opponent stones, was a helluva shot and almost brought us back from the dead!

New team motto: Playing best when it matters least!

I remember reading, a long, long time ago, before the Cubs and Red Sox ended their respective curses, about the different types of painful sports losses. There’s misery and agony. Agony is acute, misery is more pervasive. The Cubs have tended to have more misery. Usually in last place, losing ninety games a year with no big prospects or future or hope. The fans don’t expect to win and wear their “lovable losers” badge with a sense of pride. The Red Sox, on the other hand, were usually a good team, fighting for division crowns, often making the playoff. Yet every time they thought this was the year, Bucky Dent happens, Billy Buckner happens. Agony.

After this weekend, I can speak from experience. Neither is great. The misery route sucks more while you’re on the ice. Slumped body language, looking at the clock to see how much longer you have to endure, trying to be a good sport when really you want to scream expletives at the top of your lungs through sobs in the corner.

But the good news about sucking is that, by the end of the game, you’re already resigned to the fact. Even though that last game was against people we know, with every ounce of pride on the line, and even though I will be reminded of that loss umpteen times whenever I curl against them, or even see them, in the future, this shitty showing ain’t going to be the one that I remember when I look back on this tournament.

Giving up three, then losing by two inches? That one’ll stick with me for a long, long while.

Billy Buckner was a career .289 hitter with over 1200 RBI. Ask him what he’s remembered for.

Conclusion

Two and two. 2-2. W, W, L, L.

Doesn’t matter how I write it, it doesn’t look any better.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended a bonspiel with that exact same record. And in that order. If I did it in the opposite order, two losses followed by two wins, I’d be called the C-Bracket or D-Bracket champion. But win, win, loss, loss usually equates to some bullshit title. In this case, we were called the sixth place team. The seventh-place team got a pin for winning the B Bracket. Kinda like College Football, it’s all a matter of getting those losses out of the way first.

At least they made this bracket so the 2-0 teams weren’t eliminated if they lost their third game. Been there, done that. Nothing’s worse than watching the teams that played horribly still alive on Sunday while you’re eliminated because you had the audacity to win early.

Not sure why my teams tend to start strong then finish weak. In theory it’s because the competition gets harder as the weekend goes along, but in practice, that’s not always the case. Hell, the final was between a team from our sister club (who we’ve beaten more times than we’ve lost to) and the team that beat us by two inches. And the way they both played that final game, I think we would’ve had a damn good shot.

Then again, it’s always easy to make your hypothetical shots when you’re sitting in the warm room with a beer in your hand.

Maybe it’s a fatigue thing. We are well into our thirties and forties, after all. Maybe it’s that other teams adjust better. Not sure. If we lost the same way each time, that would be one thing. Sometimes the front end (aka me) falls apart. But this weekend, the best player on our team lost his touch and didn’t get it back.

I guess that’s why sports exist, though. If we played the two-inch team ten times, we’d beat them seven or eight. The Patriots would probably have a similar record against an Eagles team with a back-up quarterback, but who is the Super Bowl champ?

And all things considered, going 2-2 in a curling tournament ain’t such a bad thing. Hang out with friends, drink lots of beer, get more than my money’s worth. At least that’s what I’ll keep reminding myself over the next few days when I’m hobbling around like I’ve been doing lunges all weekend long. Oh wait, I HAVE been doing lunges all weekend.

Obviously, I didn’t post this multiple times over the weekend. Something about getting back to the airbnb at midnight after a few pitchers might be conducive to stream-of-consciousness drivel, but not for editing and publishing. I’ll go back and clean it up a little, but I promise, all of the entries (before this one) were written in real time. I wanted to capture the ups and downs of a bonspiel, because my bonspiels typically go through these highs and lows. The good shots linger for a short time, while the misses get scorched in your brain for longer.

It’s like ol’ Blue Eyes said, you’re “flying high in (3:00 PM on Saturday), shot down in (seven hours later).”

But the real bonspiel experience was the plane ride home. My club sent 23 people from Sacramento to Seattle this weekend. Eighteen of us were on the same flight home. First at the bars and restaurants, then sitting at the gate, then walking down the aisle, there were familiar faces everywhere. Here are the husband and wife who beat me and lost in the B Final. Over there are members of a team that went 0 and 3 in their very first bonspiel away from home. Right behind me is a family of three who shifted their lineup at the last minute because their fourteen year-old son wanted to play on an all-teenager team. The teenager’s team went 2-2, winning the middle two games, while his parents went through a grueling 1-3 weekend, their only win coming in the E Bracket against the team I had played first – the ones with three years of experience combined. Who even knew they made an E Bracket?

Maybe I shouldn’t complain too much about my 2-2 weekend after all.

Cat-astrophe

My mom was visiting last week for some time with her granddaughter. While she was here, she proudly claimed she “fixed” my cat’s dietary issue. Three thousand dollars later, the cat came home from the hospital.

And boy, are my arms tired.

Sorry, don’t know how to punch that particular line. Line that particular punch? How does one verbify punchline?

Sorry, where was I? Oh, right. My mother almost killed my cat.

In her defense, we didn’t know what she was doing was wrong. However, the problem wouldn’t have gotten quite as acute, or cost me quite as much money, if grandma were not visiting.

My cat is eighteen years old, far past the life expectancy for one of his ilk. One of the few twentieth century kitties still roaming around. He’s been with me from my mid-twenties into my mid, um early forties. Through six moves and six “roommates,” if you count wife and child as roomies.

In fact, he is the longest-tenured roommate in my life, surpassing my mom. I moved away to college one month shy of my eighteenth birthday. The cat came to live with me, small enough to fit in my hand, in November 1999. So last November, he had been living with me for eighteen years, one month longer than I lived with my mom.

No, I don’t think she was taking it out on him.

The cat hasn’t been fully healthy for a few years now. He has trouble keeping down food. Lots of kitty vomit around the house. Thankfully I’ve got a toddler, too, so we can just wait until they’re both done and replace the carpets. Of course, he’s always hungry because he pukes up what he just ate. If Oprah still had a show, she’d probably book him for a very special kitty-bulimia episode.

Despite always whining at his bowl for food, he’s really not a fan of cat food. He’s never liked the dry shit (his words), but more recently, he’s not a fan of the wet food, either. He’ll take two or three bites and leave the rest for the other cat to hoover. Then Old Dude counter-surfs for human food. He’s pretty spry for an old dude, especially when I’m sitting at the kitchen table trying to enjoy my own goddamn food that I had to work pretty goddamn hard for, cat, so maybe you best go get your own fucking job if you really want to eat your own goddamn taco meat.

At his last weigh-in, before the tuna incident, he was down to nine pounds, which isn’t particularly healthy. Meanwhile, the other cat in the house has ballooned up to fourteen pounds. We’re now under instructions to make Fatty lose weight. Do you know how hard it is to make one cat eat more while making the other one eat less?

So when my mom decided to feed him some tuna while I was at work, I didn’t think much of it. She said he liked it and she was going to feed him more tuna the next day. Sure, Mom, more power to ya.  

Oh, did I mention he’s been diagnosed with kidney problems? And the worst thing for bad kidneys is a lot of protein? There isn’t any protein in tuna, is there?

Of course, he was diagnosed with kidney issues four years ago, which was the first time I ran a blood panel on him. The vet said his kidney levels were a little elevated and I might want to do something about it. It’s good to know that animal doctors are just as vague as human doctors. A little elevated? What the fuck does that mean?

We opted out of any specific kidney-related diet or behavioral changes that year. Said we’d fix his diet and make him do little kitty aerobics and make sure he never went outside and, I don’t know, make him floss more. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say when you’re being chastised in a doctor’s office?

The following year, they ran another panel and came back with the same answer: slightly elevated kidney functions. Alright fine, the flossing didn’t work. Speaking of flossing, the poor bugger actually had to have a tooth removed that year. He’s down to three of the good teeth left. It hasn’t affected his ability to eat, but it has given him a really gnarly Billy Idol sneer.

But this time, we figured he was fifteen and showed no interest in getting a driver’s permit, so we might as well splurge and get him the kidney diet. And wouldn’t you know it, the skinny cat that is very finicky about what he eats… didn’t like the kidney food. He had a tendency to avoid it and then, when forced to munch on the day-old crap in his bowl, proceeded to vomit it back up.

Meanwhile, Fatty has some of the best kidneys you’ve ever seen in a five-year old cat. You could eat off of those fuckers.

When we took him back for his Sweet Sixteen checkup, wouldn’t you know it, his kidney values were a little up. At this point, we figured fuck it. Whether we give him the good shit or the bad shit, he’s going to get the “D-” in kidney class. Dude’s sixteen years old, so let him enjoy life. Let him eat what he wants to eat.

Except maybe not tuna.

A couple days into grandma’s week-long visit, I noticed he was walking a little wobbly, but whatever, he’s eighteen now, I’m surprised he’s not using a walker by now.

The diarrhea was a bit off-putting (in MANY ways – the bed comforter will never be the same). And by the time my mom left, it was clear that he was not just having a senior moment. There was something clearly wrong with him. He was dehydrated, which you wouldn’t think you can spot in a cat, but you can. He was having trouble walking up stairs. When he tried to sit, he splayed out with his back legs, then flopped. When he face-planted in front of the water bowl, I didn’t think he’d ever get up. I lifted him and there was almost nothing there. When we got him to the vet the next morning, he weighed at seven pounds, and I think that was being generous. Two pounds may not sound like that much of a difference, but it was a quarter of his already-depleted body weight.

The first thing the vet said when they saw him was that they didn’t think they had what he needed at their place. He was going to need a legitimate animal hospital. Of course, they still ran $350 worth of tests.

If you guessed “elevated kidney functions,” give yourself a gold star.

By the end of the day, he was in the hospital. The new vets commented on the lack of detail in the previous blood work. “It would be nice to know how far ‘off the charts’ his BUN is.” I agree.

The new vets decided to hydrate him. I could’ve told them he needed that. Then again, I wouldn’t’ve had a fucking clue HOW to hydrate an animal that chooses if and when he will drink water. I learned that, even at the best of times, cats don’t hydrate themselves enough.  It’s not like with humans, where you can just spike the water with some Crystal Light or EmergenC or lime or vodka to get them to drink more.

Wait, I’m not supposed to be hydrating myself with vodka? No wonder my marathon training’s stalled out.

They gave my cat electrolytes. It’s what cats crave!

They also wanted to keep him for forty-eight to seventy-two hours to see if any of the treatments were working.

Our initial deposit was three thousand dollars. Yikes. I knew it would be expensive. We have an odd sense of what medical procedures cost in this country because they are usually paid by an insurance company.  Many people are surprised that a quadruple bypass heart surgery actually costs a bit more than the $20 copay. And the rest of us that are on the same insurance plan as you would really love it if you put that last chicken wing down next time, cause our premiums keep going up.

So I know that services cost money, and if this place is going to staff around the clock, said staff needs to be paid. Particularly those staff of the veterinary PhD style. Not too mention all the shots and specialty food and supplements can’t just be covered by some random government MediCat bureaucracy.

That being said, $500 for an ultrasound seems excessive. Pretty sure my cat isn’t pregnant.

Can’t I just get Kaiser or Blue Cross to pay for it? Or maybe claim it as a tax deduction? Animals can now be classified as therapy necessities. Isn’t keeping them alive, then, a psychological necessity. Can I at least claim moving expenses since he had to live in the hospital for a few days?

This is where my cat might want to give extra bonus purrs to his mommy in the future, because the asshole father that he’s been living with for eighteen years was ready to cut bait and run. It’s not that I’m miserly or heartless. Had I received a guarantee that he would survive, I would’ve happily paid it.

Okay, maybe not happily, but I would’ve paid it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good gamble. If they had said, “Pay the three grand and your cat has a seventy to eighty percent chance of survival,” I would’ve jumped at it. But the “pay three grand and it might not do a damn thing,” is a bit of a hard sell. Can I at least hedge my bets?

So my first instinct was to remind my wife and myself that he’s an eighteen year old cat. Hell, we could give him a kidney transplant, a brand spanking-new robotic Kidneytron 3000, and he still might die from a hairball in two weeks. It’s not like we resuscitate people on death row or anyth… Wait, we do? Oh, for fuck’s sake, can I just charge my cat with some special circumstances?

So we ponied up the three grand to get our seventy-two hours of hospice care before having the awkward conversation with our daughter. Hey, at least the kitty hospital had 24-hour visitation rights. I don’t think many human hospitals have that kind of compassion and understanding. On the first night, we visited the cat only to find him still heavily sedated from his visit to the first vet, even though it was ten hours or more since the administration of said sedatives. They just escorted us into the cage area to give him some pets that he did not seem to notice.

By the evening of day two, they were able to put us in a little family-visit room before ushering him in like a prisoner being granted a conjugal visit. They even brought his dinner, hoping that seeing his family would bring his appetite around. He scarfed down the food, showing no interest in the water. Woo-hoo!  His demeanor was a bit trepidatious at first. Then he became ornery. I cringed when he tried to leap down from the steel table-tray they had put him on, despite still having a PICC in his front leg. I intervened and lowered him down to the floor myself, and he walked over to stare forlornly out the window. Did I mention it felt like a prison visit?

This was the first point that I started to think the three thousand might not be going to waste. Because this pissed-off stare, accompanied by a “are you shitting me?” meow is precisely the way my cat of the last seventeen years would react. Not the lethargic wraith of the past few days. He was pissed at being cooped up inside. Now he was saying, “if you could just put me on the opposite of this goddamned window, I’ll find my own fucking way home, thank you very much, and if you want to be helpful, you could have some goddamned dinner ready for me when I get there because I might have to kick some fucking ass while en route.”

Just no tuna.

His magical numbers in his blood had come down a bit the next day, but were still very high. Of course, not having a baseline, it was hard to say how close these numbers were to the normal “elevated kidney functions” he had been coping with just fine for four years. We were given the option of taking him home or keeping him in for one more night to see if the professionals could bring them down any more. Since we hadn’t used up all of the deposit, we were playing with house money anyway. Sure! Keep him one more night. And lets buy a round of Alpo for the house while we’re at it.

Day three brought more or less the same results as day two. Meh. It’s not like that $750 would’ve gone to anything more worthwhile.

We arranged a pick-up, which ended up being delayed a half-hour or so because all five visitation rooms were occupied. Saturday night’s alright for fighting, huh, frisky folks? Bow-chicka-wow-wow.

Oh, and we still hadn’t used up our initial mark. Seventy bucks coming back our way! Woo-hoo! Don’t call it a comeback!

Kitty’s back home and all is right with the world.

Except for the home care element. We have to do is make him take a pill every day.

And shoot some white liquid down his gullet after every time he eats. He hates it. Scratches and bites the shit out of me and my wife. Half the cream ends up on his fur, he spits the other half of it out. It looks like the culminating scene in a… uh… genre of movies that often have punny titles about shafts or moistness or… college coeds.

We’re supposed to feed him and shoot our wad down his throat once every eight hours. Not sure how feasible that is in a dual-income family. And if we hadn’t been a dual-income family, I doubt we would’ve made it this far into the process.

We also get to hydrate him subcutaneously. I hoped that meant a pill, or worse case scenario, we fill a syringe with a couple ounces of water. Until they rolled in the IV stand like it’s a goddamned cancer ward. Turns out we have to put 100 milliliters a day. One of those IV bags is a liter, so we have to get a tenth of that bag into him each night. We have to use a different needle every night. We didn’t have a standard needle depository like you get from the human hospitals, paid for by insurance companies, or from f=your friendly-neighborhood drug dealer. So we’re putting the discarded needles in an empty Baskin-Robbins quart. Can’t wait to explain that needle collection to CPS.

Fortunately, you can lift the skin on a cat’s back and they don’t feel the needle going in. Unfortunately, it takes a couple minutes to get the 100 mL in, and cats aren’t known for sitting still when you want them to. After I take the needle out, he’ll sit still for the next three hours, but as soon as it’s in his back, he has the burning desire to waddle over to the other side of the couch.

I’ve also noticed (or at least my bloodied hands and forearms have noticed) that the cat tends to be less amenable to the injected-water thingy on the second or third day in a row. I think the initial vet said most customers only to the subcutaneous fluids two-to-three times a week. Having poked my own hand when he bolted out last night, that sounds like a capital idea. Now where the hell is that Baskin-Robbins quart, so I can dump the feline-and-human-stained needle?

The vet tech said that sometimes the needle will go through two layers of skin and you’ll be dumping water out the other side. That happened on our third attempt. She said all I had to do was pull back on the needle a bit and it would be back inside him. Nope. Then I was just spraying the water all over the initial opening. That was fun. I tried to re-engage, but the sweet spot was even harder to find when it was surrounded by matted fur and a very cantankerous, wet, pussy cat.

Just like those movies I was talking about! Just kidding, just kidding. I would never compare my cat to a…

Oh, who am I kidding? He’s been sedated, had things shoved in his mouth, and has more needle holes than a crack whore. Is there really any line of work he could go into other than prostitute or porn star? Maybe it’s time for him to start earning back some of that precious coin.

After all, he’s eighteen years old. I  hear there’s quite a market for that age.

Bouncing Birthday Bacchanal

Just went to my first children’s birthday party, and… Holy schnikey, y’all!

This wasn’t the first birthday party my daughter, nor my wife, had gone to. This was the first one, however, when I couldn’t find something more important and painless, like a root canal, to skip it for. I’ve already had my vasectomy, so either I show up to this one or I admit I’m a horrible father. I’ll have plenty of other chances to do the latter as the years go by, so I might as well go to this party.

Also, my daughter is approaching the big four-oh. Not forty, but four. Oh! I’m going to have to be present for that one, too, so I figured this was a good chance to do some advance scouting. It turns out that a middle-aged man randomly showing up to watch a bunch of little kids frolic and play is frowned upon.

The first few birthdays my daughter went to were at other kids’ houses. The kids in question put invitations in her cubby at daycare, so I guess we’re counting them as “school friends.” I don’t know whether my daughter was specifically targeted or whether it was a “Just put an invitation in everybody’s cubby.” Again, this is key intelligence we need before our own child’s birthday.

My daughter’s other recent birthday party was for the child of my wife’s friend. Not sure if it’s an upgrade or a downgrade to go from “school friend” to “forced friend.” I’ve seen pictures from my fourth birthday party, and it was attended by a whopping three other kids, all of whom were children of my mom’s friends and who I had virtually nothing in common with by the time second grade rolled around.

Still had to play with them through sixth grade, though. What is the magic age when you finally get to invite only the people you want to your party? Five? Ten? Sweet Sixteen?

Hold on, I’ve planned a wedding before – the answer is you NEVER get to only invite the people you want.

The party I went to last weekend was that of a girl from our neighborhood. My daughter plays with her at the local park. My wife and her mother coordinate via Facebook Messenger. How did my mother accomplish these things in the 1970s? They must have just shot signal flares up into the air when en route to the park. It’s either that or, GASP!, plan in advance, and who the hell has the wherewithal to do that? What happened if my mom had pre-booked a park visit and I wanted to binge-watch an extra episode of “Sesame Street?” Oh yeah, we only had three channels and they all showed soap operas during the days. Never mind.

The first thing I noticed about this particular party was the number of children present. My rough estimate was the high forties. How does a five-year old know fifty people? My wife and I were in our late-thirties when we got married, and we only managed to get close to a hundred guests. And again, most of those people we didn’t really want to invite.

Except for you. If you’re reading this and were at my wedding, you were TOTALLY on the good list.

Allegedly this girl got fifty people at her birthday party by inviting all of the kids in her daycare class. So maybe I was right about the invitations we’ve got. It’s like Valentine’s Day, when even the freak in the class gets the generic Flintstones Yabba-Dabba-Heart card.

But this fact, by itself, doesn’t equate to the cacophony of children that were there. We’ve had some birthday “invites” stuck in my kid’s cubby that we didn’t feel inclined to attend. Usually we ask our daughter if she gives a shit about the kid in question. At other times, she never even needs to know that the freaky kid that still watches “The Flintstones” is having a party this weekend. If she has a problem, she can fucking learn to read.

So maybe this kid with the fifty friends has some secret draw. Maybe she’s the candy pusher in the club. Maybe she has a future in wedding-list design. Or maybe the norms at her particular daycare are more stringent than at ours. Her party was at 10:00 in the morning, and she was scheduled to be at another kid’s birthday party at 4:00 that afternoon. Maybe the whole Stepford-lot of them were going to follow the same path throughout the ‘burbs like some goddamned Hale-Bopp Comet.

Let’s do the math. If the contingent is fifty kids, there’s only fifty-two weeks in the year. Take out some of the major holidays and they probably have to schedule two kids each Saturday. Hell, our neighbor-kid’s real birthday might not even be until mid-July, but this was the weekend she pulled in the birthday party lottery.

What kind of daycare has fifty kids in a class, anyway? State law says there shouldn’t be more than sixteen kids per adult, so unless they’re in some multi-purpose room with five adults casing the perimeter, there shouldn’t be that many kids.

So maybe what was really bringing fifty kids together was the location. This particular party was held at a place called Bounce U. Like its name implies, this business is a giant warehouse with a shit-ton of inflatable bounce houses inside. The warehouse was divided into two rooms, each with four or five inflatable bounce houses. Our party just under thirty minutes in the first room, then moved onto the second room while, presumably, another group of hopped-up ought-somethings piled into room number one behind us. Twenty to thirty minutes later, the well-oiled machine deposited us into a party room for pizza and cake. Three groups in the business at a time, one more congregating in the lobby area, and never the twain shall meet. I guess it’s more than a twain, put quadrain ain’t as poetic.

Seriously, it was flawless. Disneyland could probably learn a thing or two from this company about each group thinking they have the run of the place.

Our particular group had two “Party Pros” assigned to us. Their shirts say “Party Pro” on the back. They’re, like, fifteen years old. I was skeptical at precisely how much partying they had on their professional resume. Talk to me when you’ve graduated from bounce houses to keg stands.

When we finished the cycle and were preparing to leave, I saw three or four more “Party Pros” in the front lobby, waiting for the parties that they were about to go all pro on. None of them cracked eighteen. In fact, I don’t think I saw an employee of legal voting age the entire day. The logical part of me knows there must be an adult supervisor somewhere, some shadowy silhouette behind a one-way mirror like the creepy banker in “Deal or No Deal,” but I never saw any definitive evidence.

When the children were in the rooms with the giant inflatables, it was a study in groupthink and societal interaction standards. All of the children would swarm toward one bounce house. Five minutes later, they would all go on to the next one, leaving the previous Mecca looking more like Chernobyl. At any given time, there would be thirty-plus kids on one inflatable, while at least one other one was not being used at all.

I kept looking for the one kid to buck the trend, but he or she never arrived. No future real estate mogul who would lay claim to the dessert oasis inflatable, knowing that it would soon blossom into the next Las Vegas.

Can anything really blossom into Vegas? Is there a word for growing into degradation? MardiGras’ing?

Remember that scene in “A Beautiful Mind,” where he analogized some scientific theory to hitting on women at the bar? That all the molecules swarm toward the hot chick? I think that was the point. And the kid never grew up. That was the whole movie, right?

Anyway, instead of a bar at happy hour, the schizo scientist could’ve just gone to a kid’s birthday party at Bounce U. The untapped potential of perfectly viable viaducts was on regular display. Only at the birthday party, it wasn’t even the hot chick that all the molecules were going toward. It was whatever bounce house the hive-mind deigned worthy at that particular moment.

“Seriously, kid. The slide RIGHT NEXT DOOR, with three kids on it, works the exact same as the one you’re waiting in a line with thirty other kids for right now. Don’t believe me? Check back with me in four minutes.

The worst case scenario was in the second room. If they make “A Beautifuller Mind,” the whole damn movie could take place in this five hundred square feet. One inflatable in this room had an Ultimate-Ninja/Most-Extreme-Championship-style “jump across the giant balls without falling off” course. It was the only inflatable with a rule, which was “only one person on a ball at a time.” There were three balls, so the most you could have on the “course” at any time was three. More often it was one or two, as somebody would have fallen off or some kid was standing petrified on the second ball, contemplating a two-foot leap like he’s Indiana Jones about to pull the skull idol off the pressure plate.

Meanwhile, there would be ten kids lined up on the ledge, ready to take the first leap. Okay, maybe not “lined up,” but “clumped up.” You’ve seen youth soccer, right? Regardless, at any moment there were four times more kids waiting to jump than actually jumping. Nothing like waiting in line for five minutes in order to have ten seconds of fun. I guess we’re preparing them for Disneyland, huh?

And while these kids spent eighty percent of their time waiting for the ball jump, three other bounce houses went virtually unused. There was a pretty cool mountain-shaped bouncer, getting steeper as it rose, no handles. Like going up a slide, but a slide in the form of a very malleable bounce house, where you’re guaranteed to not reach the top and will instead slide back down in an orgiastic bouncefest. Or at least that’s how I assume it would have worked, because I never actually saw a kid use it. All the kids were too busy standing not-so-patiently on the ledge next to the ball jump. Maybe it’s reserved for the single adult employee.

As for my kid? She just followed the birthday girl around. Painfully so. At one point, they were supposed to make a “silly face” for a group picture. She turned to look at what face the birthday girl was making, then made the same face. Sigh. She’s a bit of a follower.

In her defense, the birthday girl was the only person she knew there. But my wife claims she followed the same M.O. at  the other birthday parties she went to. At her last one, there were five kids from her daycare class, but she still followed the birthday girl around.  Hell, her “bestie” only has that designation because she was the first one to invite my daughter to one of these shindigs. Daughter followed her around the whole party, decided they were best friends, and only now, a year later, is she starting to realize that their personalities aren’t all too compatible.

Wife’s not happy about this particular aspect of daughter’s personality. Not too happy about it myself, but for different reasons. Wife can’t stand it because it’s so opposite of how she engaged with others as a child. I, on the other hand, see a mirror upon my own upbringing.

And by “upbringing,” I mean everything up through last week or so. Never been the social butterfly. Put me in a large group of people where I only know one person, and I’m probably only talking to that one person.

It kinda sucks seeing the worst parts of your personality manifested in a three-year old who doesn’t even know she’s supposed to bury that shit. At least I’ve grown enough so, if said person is the person of honor, I won’t incessantly follow them around. I’ll probably just sit in the corner, check the scores of the game, and nurse my beer.

My daughter doesn’t really have those options, and someone sitting in the corner without beer and sports on the TV is probably just a freak.

Maybe I need to load her some “Flintstones” cartoons.