Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Space Camp

I was shown this promotional video back in 1995 in my Young Astronauts club.

Yes, I was a full on nerd at a young age. I stayed willingly after school for my Young Astronauts club and I loved it.

The club was not funded by the school, so any sort of field trips or anything were funded by us. We didn't do many. I think we went to the Science Center in St. Louis once. 

Well in 6th grade, the teacher, Miss Sims, put the club on her shoulders and decided we would go to the Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama. 

My parents scraped together a few hundred dollars, I sold wrapping paper and candy door to door, and I handed over my envelope with cash to Miss Sims with a giant smile on my face. I was ready to become an astronaut.

I was ready for the underwater training. I couldn't wait to land a space shuttle. I was prepared for my moonwalk. This video had me hyped for Space Camp more than anything else. 

It came time to actually go, I crammed into my chaperonage's tan Ford Taurus with their daughter who was also a Young Astronaut, their son who was along for the ride, and another guy from the club that I don't remember anything about. 

I was extremely susceptible to car sickness as a kid, so this was a huge concern. Surprisingly, I felt great most the car ride. That is, until we stopped at a Wendy's in Southern Tennessee where I bragged about how fast I could eat.

Their son that challenged me to eat 3 junior cheeseburgers faster than this double bacon cheeseburger. Being a guy that never backed down from food related challenges, I accepted... and won.

Now the gamble that you take when eating at a rural fast food restaurant is "will my food be fresh" and "how often do health inspectors come through."

This was a gamble I lost shortly after arriving to Space Camp, roughly 25 minutes into a conference where a few hundred kids crowded into a room and an astronaut talked about what it was like to be in space. I tapped my team leaders arm asking if I could go to the bathroom. He said, wait a few minutes and then I vomited all over the construction grade carpeting screeching the conference to a halt. 

The Space Camp nurse gave me crackers and Sprite and had me call my parents with my sweet calling card to tell them that I was throwing up and there was nothing they could do about it. 

As part of the Space Camp experience, you're supposed to get to stay in the "habitat." It's a dormitory that is made up to look like the Space Station. Well, as part of this craptastic weekend, Space Camp had over booked the habitat. So, not having bought the premium Space Camp package, our little rag tag group stayed in the Howard Johnson down the street, where I proceeded to continue vomiting everywhere. (Side note, because of this, I did not eat Wendy's again until college)

So the next day, I woke up feeling really great. I was ready to hit the ground running. Time to land a damn shuttle on Mars. 

Nope... not happening. Turns out, all the cool stuff they showed in the video is part of the premium package. So, we got access to the museum, the centrifuge, and a few small "science" experiments where you basically tried to stack blocks in a tank of water. The worst part of this was that the cafeteria we ate in circled all the cool moon walking and stuff. So while we ate our cafeteria food, we got to hear the joy of all the kids bouncing around like they were nearly weightless.

We did get to try to launch a shuttle which was pretty awesome, except that our pilot immediately crashed the shuttle and because the camp was so busy, we didn't get another chance. 

I rode the centrifuge no less than 13 times that weekend because after a stroll through the museum and a few pictures in front of the Space Shuttle, there wasn't much else to do. 

On our last day, we were shuffled onto a tram where we were driven around and shown the Aviation Challenge Camp, all of the NASA training equipment like the huge underwater tank, and all the discarded rocket parts. 

I stopped by the gift shop on the way out, buying astronaut ice cream and a few models to build and we drove home through tornadoes in Southern Illinois. 

Would I go back to Space Camp? Absolutely. It's a great memory and had some cool stuff. 

However, I would be in charge of planning and I would definitely get to land a damn shuttle on Mars. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

That Christmas Feeling

I miss the child wonder with Christmas.

You all know me well enough, I do not try to hide this, I love Christmas presents. I love getting them, I love giving them. I love the feel of wrapping paper being torn to shreds between my fingers.

I'm a greedy capitalistic, material-good loving, adult-man-child.

Part of the child wonder with Christmas was the un-relenting energy as we bopped around the entire area going to grandma's house for Christmas Eve, going to the aunts and uncles to see their trees, going to my Aunt Mary's for chili, knowing full well there were presents waiting at each place.

I could see my parents' eyes drooping with exhaustion after the marathon holidays. Fighting to stay awake during Christmas mass, their only quiet respite from the screaming, sugar filled cousins.

I miss running around in grandma's woods with Jake and Ryan, falling through frozen ice, shooting paint balls at each other, seeing if we could reach the end of the creek.

But most of all, I miss the thrill of the 2 a.m. gift check. I'd read by the nightlight, checking my alarm clock every 15 minutes to see how much time had passed. (In later years when I had my own basement room, I would quietly watch A Christmas Story on TNT over and over again.)

I'd gently rock Nick and Brett awake, pointing out all the creaky parts of the floors, tip toeing in socks out to the Christmas tree.

We couldn't make out the names written on the packages, signed "From Santa, XOXO" in the shadowed light cast by the tree lights. So we played a game, guessing which ones we thought were ours. The small gifts were inspected, shook, and weighed. We cross referenced the shapes with the gifts we had circled in the J.C. Penny catalog.

And after a good amount of time, the excitement at a fever pitch, we would turn out attention to the three largest gifts, knowing that they were going to be divided between us. Most the time we had no clue about these. Our parents were great at figuring out large items that we needed or would love: a new bike, roller blades, giant Star Wars bases.

After we argued about what came in that size, we'd sneak back to bed for a 3 hour nap, waking up again at 6 am. We'd wake up making enough noise to wake the parents up.

Dad would get the coffee pot going and go outside to have a smoke before manning the camera. Mom would give us stockings to keep us quiet, cutting up some veggies and ham for our Christmas omelet.

And we'd wait patiently for each round of gifts, one to each brother, opening at the same time. We'd have to hold back an energy explosion when our parents presents were sprinkled in between a round of ours. Hoping that mom would quickly inspect her new robe or dad his hockey shirt, so that we could move on with what was truly important, us kids.

And in the post present euphoria, we would start assembling LEGOs, putting batteries in our laser guns, and strapping on our hockey gear for a pickup game in the driveway, eventually passing out for a long nap around lunch. Then, we'd wake up, and have a lazy day in at the house.

These sleepy Christmas days are some of my favorite memories of childhood. Everyone in the best mood they could possibly be, filled with cinnamon twists and joy, wearing pajamas, just happy to exist.

Now, Christmas works almost the opposite.

I'm so excited to possibly be surprised, that I don't look for the gifts beforehand. It would be easy for me to sign into Sal's Amazon account and take a look at it or find a random packing slip laying around. But dammit, I'm chasing the childhood dragon, that rush of being generally surprised and every piece of information I know ahead of time takes a little bit of that magic away.

And I can't wait to snuggle up on the couch, with a nice Scotch, watching The Family Stone or Love Actually, thumbing through the new brewing book I have, or cooking a Christmas dinner while listening to my new records.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Learning the Hard Lessons the Easy Way

When I was a kid, schools and libraries would do anything to get kids to read.

It felt several shades of dirty, especially since I read anyway, so I felt like I was sort of cheating the system. Well, that and I was usually cheating the system.

The first was Pizza Hut's "Book It" program. Your teacher set standards for what was considered a a qualifying book and during the school year, every 5 you read, you got a free personal pan pizza.

The only rules I remember were that the books had to be more than 80 pages, you could only get 5 a month, and you had to write a page report on what the book was about.

By this time, I had a solid collection of about 32 Goosebumps books that I had already read. So, I would read one new book a month and then write reports on 4 Goosebumps books I had already read.

Over the two years my school participated in the program, I ate at least 12 free personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut.

Another one of my favorite reading memories was in sixth grade when our library received a bunch of new computers from Gateway. The school bought some sort of book database where you would read a book, take a quiz on the computers, and if you got 8/10 on the quiz, you received points. You could then turn the points in for items at the library.

Most of the stuff were things like Lisa Frank folders, candy, books, and lanyards.

Being a sucker for prizes, I scanned the window with all of the prizes and zeroed in on what I thought was the coolest thing, a skull pen where you held the spine to write with.

Now these quizzes were worth between 5-20 points depending on how difficult the book was.

I did the math and I knew that I would need 80 points to get the pen and I was determined.

I finished my first book and  I took the quiz. It was somewhere around question 6 when I realized that I could probably fake taking these quizzes. Most of the quizzes were based off context clues and things I could read off the back of the book.

If I read one medium point book, and took two easy quizzes a month, I would have my pen by Christmas.

Now, part of the restriction so that you couldn't just take all the quizzes you wanted is that you would have to check the book out from the school library to have access to the quiz.

So I would take all three books out at the same time, return the two easy books the next day, read the medium book, and then spend 30 minutes a month taking the quizzes.

I would nail the medium quiz with a 10/10, and usually could score the minimum 8/10 using context clues and the back cover of the easy books.

Finally Christmas break was upon us. With my chest out, I marched to the library ready to claim my prize.

And this is one of the rare instances where karma really bit me right in the butt. I got my pen, held it, loved it, packed it up and took it home. I forgot about it until after break where I used it in my first hour science class.

The hard plastic spine was not only incredibly uncomfortable to hold, but I actually poked my finger hard enough on one of the spine spikes that I bled. The pen lived in my pencil box as an ornament the rest of the year.

And that folks, is how I learned not to mess with the library.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Aware of My Knee

I'm always aware of my knee. Even on days where it feels fine, I know that it's not right. I know that that knobby mess of sinew is a time bomb waiting to be replaced.

I feel it mostly in my stride and posture. I sort of kick my injured leg out when I walk. It's usually very slight, but noticeable, especially after walking a lot.

Restaurants, dinner tables, and bars are usually the worst. The chairs are slightly too short for me to comfortably sit for a long period of time. If there's an option, I stand.

I often start stirring toward the end of the meal, longingly looking for the server for the bill. I know it makes other people feel uncomfortable or rushed, but if I were panicking as much as my knee is screaming for me to panic, it would be a much worse situation involving me flipping tables and throwing complimentary bread.

I try not to get frustrated, but when the weather dramatically changes like it has recently is when it's on my mind the most.

Generally, the hot humid summer causes my knee to swell. I feel like I'm walking with a peg leg most the time. Just another reason I can't stand the heat.

Then, when the humidity and temperature drop and we go into my favorite season, the knee swelling goes down. I spend a few weeks feeling really off. My knee cap doesn't track right. My skin feels a little loose. Everything basically has to get used to what a normal knee feels like.

Overall my knee feels great in the winter. Sure I get some arthritic pains when it's below freezing, but generally, it's the most normal my knee feels. That is, unless I try to run.

My normal gym routine involves 3-5 minutes of high intensity cardio on the treadmill in the middle of my workout to get my heart rate back up. This part has been very brief and painful the past few days. It feels as if the knee is just bone on bone.

It's the knee on knee that really bothers me. Although brief and only hitting during high impact cardio, it's a reminder that I will have to probably get my entire knee replaced by the time I'm 40. And for someone who is incredibly active (just ask my Fitbit friends) that bums me out.

I'm not sure how I'll feel with an artificial knee. All the examples I've seen are usually much older men, much heavier, much less in shape than I am. They sort of waddle around and groan when they have to stand up. I never pictured myself that incapable.

Who knows? Maybe it'll be better than what I have now. Maybe there will be robot knees by then and I can break into the NHL at age 40. Maybe my long walks will still be long, but cover much less distance. Maybe it will be the exact same as it is today...

Slightly uncomfortable, always reminding me that it exists, and a good excuse to get out of events I don't like.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Dumb Things You Do As a Child

I had a dream the other night that was more of a flashback really.

These kids were harassing my cousin Jake and me. Merciless harassing all day long. We went to one of Jake's sitters house. She was this cool 15 year old that dressed like Madonna meets LL Cool J. She told us to ride by and tell them, "We'll meet you at the crossroads."

Had no idea what it meant. In my dumb kid brain I thought it meant meet us at the train tracks to fight. Don't know why, I guess because the street crossed the train tracks and I knew people always said the other side of the tracks was the bad part of town. Still don't know how that was a threat. But Jake and I rode our bikes over to where these dumb kids were and told them we'd meet them at the crossroads.

This memory is one of those dumb things that sticks with you the rest of your life. Just embarrassing, stupid stuff you do or say as a kid. I have several of these memories.

I had an uncle that was a jerk sometimes.

I remember watching a PBS documentary, was probably 8 at the time, and they were explaining people with dark skin.

My uncle picked me up and I told him that black people and middle eastern people have dark skin because they are closer to the equator.

He laughed at me mercilessly. Made fun of me the entire car ride. I remember feeling really dumb.

It was only later that I realized I might have actually had more information than my uncle, just not all the information. I realized the documentary was probably discussing a theory of evolution where people's skin got darker over thousands of years to protect them from the harsh sun.

This same uncle, as he drove away from grandma Dobyns' house one Christmas Eve, left me with this wisdom, "Go find some yellow snow, it tastes like a snow cone." He laughed and drove away as I spent the next hour looking for yellow snow.

Luckily I did not find any.

Then there was this time when I was at Reach. We did a brain exercise where we had to describe an orange in the greatest detail we could. We had to describe how the skin felt, how the rind tasted, etc. I just remember being really hungry and not having a lunch with me that day.

Something about being an Elementary School kid at the High-school made me embarrassed to bring lunches. I would scrap together $.75 so I could buy a giant dill pickle. That's what I ate for lunch one day a week for that entire year.

Well while describing this orange, we also got to eat the orange. I was so hungry that I pulled the "What's that?" and pointed off to the side.

Not only did I pull this move, but I pulled it on a good friend of mine Paul. He looked right and I grabbed one of his nicely peeled slices of orange and ate it.

He caught me, turned me into the teacher (rightfully so), and I actually still had a slice left that I didn't see, so I had to give him that.

For some reason, that one has really stuck in my mind. It's something Paul probably hasn't thought about in 20 years, but it's going to be one of those things I probably mutter about on my deathbed when my brain isn't fully working.

Memories are weird man.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Having Physical Books in Your Hand

I held out for a while.

Being a literature major, I felt it was my duty to fight the good fight to keep physical books on a shelf.

It was some sort of symbol of how well read I was. Guests to my house could look at my hard bound collected works of Hemmingway and think, "Wow, this guy has some culture." Of course, this all relied on them not noticing how many versions of each Harry Potter and Resident Evil book also sat on these shelves.

And then Sal and I moved 4 times within 3 years and I got tired of carrying boxes labeled "Books."

I donated most of our books to Good Will, purchasing the much cheaper Kindle versions from Amazon. And our three overflowing bookshelves were re-purposed for the record player, Sal's nail stuff, and DVDs/Videogames.

What got me thinking of this was the bookmobile passing us on the highway recently. I thought about the joy a lot of kids are going to miss out on.

Climbing onto those brown and tan caravans that never felt stable enough to have 30 hyperactive kids running around them, was a treat.

For a voracious reader like myself, the Bookmobile meant I was going to bring home 3 new books. For the kids who hated reading, it meant they were free from class for an hour.

There was something about the musty smell of the bookmobile that forced a smile like the Joker's laughing gas. My strategy was typically to get one novel (usually a Star Wars book), one drawing book, and one military gear book. (Also used for drawing cool looking military guys)

There was also my personal favorite. The monthly Scholastic order. Every month, the teacher would pass out a small catalog with all of Scholastic's new books and toys. The class would spend Friday afternoon pouring over what books they wanted, running home to get an envelope and fill it with whatever loose change they had available.

I bought every drawing, joke, Star Wars, and Goosebumps book available.

And finally, like a religious holiday, there was the twice a year Scholastic Festival where Scholastic would set up a mobile store in the hallways of the school and each class would get an hour to flip through all of the books.

I remember sniffing new books at my desk, taking in that boxed book smell, rubbing my hands in anticipation for when I would be home and ready to tear through it.

Basically, I'm a nerd, but it was a good thing. I don't know if any of these still exist for kids, but it was so important to my childhood and my love of reading, that I hope they have something.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Halloween Candy

I'm realizing now how much of an idiot I was when it came to Halloween candy. This comes mostly from friends of mine discussing how much of their children's candy they are going to end up stealing / eating.

So, I went about my candy much like I do a meal. I usually taste everything on my plate to get a baseline of how much I'm enjoying everything. Then, I eat things in order of what I liked the least to the most.

Sometimes there are exceptions to the rule. I usually eat my salad first (unless it's the famous Heartbreak Salad) and whatever the main meat dish is last. I might nibble on bread if there's any left after the meal, but generally those are the only rules.

So the same went with Halloween Candy. The post trick-or-treat sorting was usually one hell of a project. Generally I would wander the neighborhood for 4 hours with a pillow case and I would come back with that thing 2/3rds full. I took Halloween very seriously.

So that night, after wandering for hours, I would come home and dump the pillow case on the floor.

I would first find all the Almond Joys, Mounds, 100 Grand, anything with coconut in it, Heath bars, black licorice, wax lips, and Good and Plentys and throw that crap in the trash immediately. I can't believe people had me hauling pounds of that dumpster garbarge around for hours.

Then, I would pull all KitKat's, Smarties, Crunch Bars, and Tootsie Rolls out. These were things I would eat if I needed to, but generally wasn't big on. The nice thing about these candies is there's high trade value for them. I could turn two KitKats and a Smartie into a Baby Ruth and Snickers.

Then I would separate the candy I liked into two different piles.

You had the fruity stuff like Starburst, Skittles, Life Savers, Sour Patch Kids, Swedish Fish, Licorice, Warheads and put that in one pile.

Then the candy bars I loved went into another pile. Snickers, Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, Three Mustkateers were my most loved candies. I felt like Smeagol in Lord of the Rings. "Yes, my precious-es, I will eat you in April when I've finished all my other candy."

Here's the problems with my system.

  1. There was a lot of candy sniped by my two brothers and probably my parents. When you're dealing with that quantity, it's really easy to make a few candy bars disappear. 
  2. Candy that did survive until December, again took a back seat to the PEZ and Crown Candy chocolate I usually got in my stocking, pushing out it's scheduled eating another several weeks.
  3. Usually mid-December there would be a purge where most Halloween candy left was dumped.
  4. And if candy made it to February somehow, usually it was a stale, melted, former shadow of itself.
I think back to how many delicious candy bars I missed out on because I'm such a strange kid. It makes me a little sad. But then again, I'm an adult with an adult wage, and I can buy a full sized Butterfinger if I want to.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Movie Theme Night

Sal and I are preparing for a rare weekend where we have nothing planned. This usually means a couple bottles of red wine, cooking a labor intensive but well worth it meal, and renting movies on Amazon.

Sometimes we'll think of a theme for our movie binge weekends. It was when discussing our next theme and shooting down some of Sal's ideas that I realized I have very specific buckets I put movies into.

We started a rock marathon a few weeks back and had a solid list of about 12 films. We managed to only get through two of the films on the list. Sal wanted to add Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and my immediate reaction was, "That doesn't fit with the rock theme."

This movie is literally about two people trying to track down their favorite bands secret show, but somehow in my brain I didn't think of it like that.

Instead, I sort of put it in my... Zach Braff's People Coming to Terms with Change Indie Movie list.

Other films in this bucket are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Garden State, Wish I Was Here, and Away We Go.

And then I've got stuff like The Totally Rad 90s bucket. This includes Singles, Empire Records, and Reality Bites.

And then The Totally Excellent Late 90s Teen movie like Can't Hardly Wait, 10 Things I Hate About You, She's All That, and American Pie.

And then there's also The Totally Groovy Nostalgia Flick from the 90s about the 70s. This very specific bucket has Detroit Rock City and Dazed and Confused.

Then there are buckets based off of directors that keep a similar style or writing. Judd Apatow (This is 40, Knocked Up, Superbad), Wes Anderson (Royal Tenenbaums, Grand Budapest Hotel, Rushmore), John Hughes (Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink), Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Mallrats), and Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind, Science of Sleep).

When I think of rock movies like above, I think about Almost Famous, High Fidelity. Walk the Line.

Basically what I'm saying is, if you want to have a themed movie marathon with me, I probably have very specific movies that I group together. I'm probably more difficult than it's worth arguing with.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Mission Impossible

It was never said out loud, never really discussed, but there was always this feeling that Baptists were this weird Christian cult when I was younger. I think it was the way that the Catholic clergy would sort of acknowledge their existence as if, "Well, they have fallen. We would welcome them back, but they have a long way to go. Their message is mostly right, but they get some stuff wrong."

And the Lutherans were almost treated as the halfway mark between being Catholic and being one of those weird cultist. "Well, they technically left the church, but most of our traditions and teachings are in tact. Really, they just lack sanctioned leadership."

I never actively thought much about Baptists. North County was a Catholic stronghold. I never really had to consider Baptists. In fact, I was unsure if they actually existed outside of the south.

So in high-school, we started seeing flyers for these war games called Mission Impossible. You met at  First Baptist Church - Harvester on a specific day, paid $5 for the bus ride and crew that set things up, and were whisked away to a farm out in Lake St. Louis.

I had a pretty close-knit group of about five guys at the time. Eric and I debated for roughly a week as to whether or not do this. We didn't know how closely affiliated with the church it was, both of us growing up Catholic, didn't want to be put in a weird situation.

Turns out, two of the other guys in our group actually went to that church. It was sort of one of those punch you in the stomach, "Oh yeah, the world is much larger than your views and lifestyle" sort of moments. They had assumed we were Baptists, we had assumed they were Catholics, turns out, you can totally hang out if your beliefs don't line up as long as you're not a jerk face.

So they talked us into going.

I was 16 at the time. I remember being able to drive Eric, Ben, and me. We showed up at the church, gave our five dollars, got out team assignment, and then were shuffled into the church while we waited.

Inside they handed us cards and asked us to fill out our contact information. For the first time in probably a decade, I thought, "I should really call my mommy and find out if this is OK."

I think I gave our old North County phone number and address. Either way, I know that I didn't end up getting any calls or mailings, but Eric did.

Anyway, we bused off to this farm and the set up was beyond anything I imagined.

The game involved you getting a mission (a piece of paper) from your base, sneak to the center of this huge field where a tent was set up, get the mission stamped, and then get back to your base.

They had rented a cherry picker and had it extended as far as it would go and set up two spot lights on it. The spot lights were hooked up to sound systems. So if the spotlight caught you, you would hear gun fire and have to give up your mission.

They had the Army ROTC crew in camouflage chasing us around. If they caught you, you went to jail and had to stay there until you heard a buzzer signifying your jail time was up.

They had dug tunnels out of certain parts of the terrain where you could crawl to the center base.

It was an incredible set up.

My team ended up having a lot of non-church goers from my high-school on it. We were doing pretty well. Every quarter they would tally up points and we were typically in the top 2.

Then, our team leader suggested everything is fair in war and we needed an edge. The team leader started handing us 3-5 missions at a time. That way, one or two could get torn up on the way to the base, but we would still have 3 points we could get stamped.

Now, as a side note, our team leaders were all part of the church. There's a part of me that thinks they were told to do this as a sort of morality test. And we failed terribly.

The last quarter of the game, we tripled our score, leaving all the other teams in the dust. We thought for sure, we were going to win this.

Then the game ended. We were sat around a big bonfire and told to wait until the bus arrived. This is when Eric and I felt really uncomfortable. One of the youth pastors asked for everyone to hold hands and pray. And then when done praying, he asked everyone to hug as a sign of brotherhood.

Eric and I went to two Catholic churches with a very hands off philosophy. The worst part of the Catholic service is when you had to shake hands with the people that had been coughing and sneezing all around you.

In a sort of homoerotic but survival mode, Eric and I just sort of put our arms around each other like true brothers for a long embrace, not giving a chance for any of these sweaty strangers to touch us. If they approached we sort of stared them down a little.

After the hug session, they announced that my team won, but were disqualified because we cheated. They gave the win to the second team, which I believe was $10 Wal Mart gift cards to each person.

So I guess this comes to the, "What is the point of this? What did you learn?"

Well, I learned that Baptists aren't cult members. In fact, I married one and now have many swell Baptists in my life. 

I learned that either cheating doesn't pay off or that I'm just terrible at cheating. 

I learned that when faced with hugging sweaty strangers, I would rather have a long bro-tastic embrace with a buddy of mine.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mall Ratting at Mid Rivers Mall

A few years ago, I posted about how empty my childhood mall, Jamestown was. (See Mall Ratting at Jamestown Mall)

Well, this weekend I went back to another one of my childhood malls, Mid Rivers in St. Charles.

This was one of the brightest spots about moving to St. Charles. I would earn my allowance, save it for a month, and then get dropped off at the mall.

The day of 15 year old Dan at the mall would go something like this:

  1. Grab a slice of cheese pizza from Sbarros. Sometimes I'd get orange chicken at whatever Chinese place was there at the time.
  2. Wander through Hot Topic looking for a Nirvana, Goldfinger, RX Bandits, Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish, Finch, or New Found Glory shirts. Didn't usually buy, just looked.
  3. Wander through PacSun when they were still focused on skate shirts. Find some good stuff and make note because I would never spend my precious allowance on clothing. I'd then bring my mom back and play dumb like I hadn't looked at clothes and hope she would buy me a shirt or two.
  4. I would then go get a frozen coffee drink. As a non-coffee drinker at the time, this would give me the best caffeine highs of my life. This is when the mall visit got interesting.
  5. Now before GameStop took over, there were three video game stores in Mid Rivers Mall: FunCoLand, Babbages, and GameStop.
  6. FunCoLand was always first. It had the nicest guys, but was also the smallest. It was best for finding older games for older systems.
  7. Then I would go to GameStop to check the bargain bin they kept on the counter. Games that they no longer had cases for sold for $1. 
  8. Then, still riding the high of my caffeine rush, I'd go to Babbages. Babbages is still the largest video game store I've ever been in. I'd chat up the guy at the counter, who often would point me toward some weird, smaller Japanese video game, and I'd walk out of the store with the strangest games like Mr. Mosquito and Incredible Crisis.
  9. Then I would return home to listen to Limp Bizkit and play my new games until 3 am when I would finally crash.
Most of my best memories in St. Charles come from these mall days.

What 31 year old Dan found was a cocktail of nostalgia and slight sadness.

The signs were already there. It's exactly how I remember Jamestown starting to close down. Three shops adjacent to each other and then in the middle of them is what looks like a shop, but you soon realize it's a window display for another business.

There were still tons of people there, but something doesn't feel right. It's like people are at a wake. No one really talking. No one jumping on the trampoline kiosk. No one in line for the movie theater. Half the food court was shut down.

The most depressing part of my visit was walking through the Tilt Arcade. No one was actually working in Tilt, not even at the prize counter. In the back corner was 20 or so unplugged or broken arcade cabinets parked like some sort of 80's grave yard. The games they did have were either from 1992 or boring one button ticket earning games like Deal or No Deal. (Which they had two)

Even the stock at huge stores like V-Stock were lacking. Shelves were only 2/3 full. And what was there were things no one wanted.

St. Louis was once the mall capital of the United States. But now, we only have a few malls that show strong numbers.

It's a combination of the two newer malls in Chesterfield spreading the already fledgling mall crowd too thin and Amazon.

It's a bummer. As someone that loves having a low-key weekend wandering the mall, I realize the life of these places is quickly running out. My only hope is that Amazon creates a virtual mall for my future VR headset and I can walk the Amazon mall from the comfort of my own home.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Music Videos as Short Films

When I studied film in college, we barely spent 2 weeks discussing Music Videos as short film. I got the sense that the professor felt that since they were no longer used as marketing trains for bands, (this was 2006 - 2007) they were somehow not important pieces of film.

Well, thanks to YouTube the music video has made a come back launching careers like Macklemore and Pomplamoose.

It's something I've thought about a lot lately as Sal and I have been having late night dance parties any random Friday night where we have nothing to do. We'll take turns shouting out a song we want to hear, put it on YouTube, and blast it.

Some videos are iconic like Micheal Jackson's Thriller, visually disturbing videos like Soundgarden's Black Hole Sun, and visually stunning videos like Daft Punk's Around the World and Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice.

The thing is, all of these music videos have directors. And sometimes those directors spend 3-5 minutes doing a visual art project. 

But then there are directors that somehow tell a really complicated story in their time. And the one I'm most impressed with is when they capture human infatuation with someone they love. 

I'm going to start with Third Eye Blind's cover of Beyonce's "Mine." This is really the video that sparked my brain to think about this. It came up randomly one night while I just hit play on the music section of YouTube. 

It's a view from the singer's eyes about a girl he is obviously in love with. All the little things he notices about her. Her silliness wearing giant pixel glasses, the wind blowing through her hair as the sun captures her natural beauty, and the way she laughs. And when you do see the singer on screen, he's happy. His attention is focused on her. 

In melodramatic more angsty teenager way, Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends" tells the story of young love torn apart because a young man decides to join the military during war time. This one is actually filmed like a movie, with scene's between the music, adding almost 3 minutes to the music video. 

It shows the struggle of being apart when circumstances are beyond your control.

And then there's Death Cab for Cutie's "A Movie Script Ending" showing the heart break of driving with a lover to the air port to see him off for what feels like forever. You can't enjoy simple things with your lover, like getting Chinese takeout, because you already miss him so much. 

And although, somewhat of an overused trope, Eve 6's "Here's to the Night" has a love struck man, supposedly filming a party, but very obviously focusing on the girl he likes. There's stimulation going on all around him, but he still zooms the camera past all his dancing friends to focus on this one girl. 

When you start thinking about Music Videos as short movies, it can change the entire feel of the video. Certain songs that weren't landing before might have a new emotional grasp on you when you see a story play out in front of you. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

My Childhood Utility Drawer

You know how every has that junk drawer in their house with a deck of playing cards, loose screws, a little change, and sometimes a hammer?

Well I had that when I was a kid, but it was much more fun.

I blame it on the Adam West Batman show. I used to watch the hour block of Batman everyday at my babysitters house and I was always amazed that no matter what sticky situation Batman and Robin found themselves in, they had a gadget to get out of it.

I also watched a ton of sitcoms, especially TGIF (Full House, Family Matters, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Boy Meets World, etc) and SNICK (Are You Afraid of the Dark?, All That, Keenan and Kel)

So, in my young impressionable mind, I learned 1. to be prepared for any situation and 2. wacky adventures would pop up and you needed the tools to overcome them.

My first move was Christmas one year. My brothers and I would go through the Sears catalog and circle the stuff we wanted. I found a 101 Magic Trick set and quadruple circled it. To me, that seemed like buying a tool box before getting specialty tools.

Turns out this kit was a bust. There was the magic wand that would get longer by you tugging on the white capped end. The deck of cards that were tied together by a very obvious string that you could pretend to drop and pull back up like a yo-yo. And then there was a normal deck of small, cheap cards, and a book with 50 card tricks. Only one of the tricks kind of worked and it involved doing a swap-a-roo with the 6 and 9 of diamonds and hearts.

I then started building my specialty tool collection.

Arcades and skate rinks were primed for this. While my friends would turn in tickets for candy, I grabbed fake dog poop, a small screwdriver set (which snapped first time I used it), knotted metal rings, Chinese finger traps, an over sized checkers board, and one of those peg games you see at Cracker Barrel.

Beyond that, there were all these old quarter and dime machines that still had toys in them in my cousin's basement. The keys were long lost and we weren't made of quarters and dimes, (We were like 10, come on.) so we broke into them using a hammer and flat head screw driver. Ryan would pry the lid open as much as he could and I would reach my scrawny little hands in there.

I scored moldy temporary tattoos, a plastic Riddler shot glass, a dozen or so bouncy balls, and weighted dice.

These stayed in the same drawer until I left for college. It was one of those regrettable things where I just couldn't justify moving it and I knew my parents weren't going to hang onto this stuff. I went through it all, and realized that out of all the years, only one of my sitcom pranks worked and it was glorious.

That, was the exploding cigarette.

It was a small tin, much like what you get Altoids in, filled with these little seed looking things. You'd sort of pack the seed into the end of a cigarette and as the person was smoking, the seed would heat up until it popped, exploding the end of the cigarette.

I pulled a pack out of my dad's Blue's jacket, stuffed one in a single cigarette and waited.

A few days later, my dad came in the house laughing. "Did you do that? It scared the hell out of me."

My only regret is I didn't get to see it happen.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to See the Foo Fighters

Last night, after just about 15 years of trying to see the Foo Fighters, I finally got to see them.

It's not for lack of trying. Every time I'm about to see them something happens.

November 1, 2000 was the first time I tried to see them. They were playing at The Pageant. I had recently turned 16, so I was free to actually drive to the show. And coming out of my dark Korn, Sliknot, Staind phase, I was excited to have happy rock back in my life.

I asked around and only my friend Megan wanted to go. I offered to drive if she procured the tickets. She agreed. She went to Sears to buy tickets from customer service. Yes children, there was a time where Sears was the quickest way to buy concert tickets.

I even remember a week before the show, I was working at Bandannas and the Point played a supercut of all of their hits at the time. Mind you, this is only 3 albums in and they had roughly 15 hit songs. This is even before probably their biggest hit Times Like These. I was amped.

Now, I had only known Megan for about a year at this time, so I didn't know one of her major character flaws. If she had a boyfriend, she would ditch you in a minute.

The Saturday before the concert, Megan met a guy through her older brother. This guy was really into fishing, hunting, camo, and Megan. And she was into him.

The day before the concert, Megan told me she had a new 18 year old boyfriend. The day of the concert I tried to call Megan. She didn't answer until 7 pm, where she answered her phone at the Pageant, and screamed over the crowd, "Me and Nathan are at the show. Where are you?"

I was crushed. I ended up sitting at home alone that night being really angry. I probably put on Staind because I was so angry.

The worst part was, I found out Nathan didn't even like the Foo Fighters.

I was in Columbia for the next two times the Foo Fighters came through.

The next time was over a decade later. Foo Fighters at Scottrade Center on September 17, 2011. Tickets went on sale in August. It was one of those things where the tickets were slightly too expensive to just buy them, so you had to talk to the significant other and make sure it was ok. Sal felt the same way.

By the time we got home from work that day and talked about it, the show sold out, and the aftermarket tickets were incredibly more expensive.

So we decided we would wait until pay day and see what was available. This is one of the few times where I can say waiting paid off. Before the next payday was when I broke my leg.

Completely buried in medical debt, unable to walk for months, we decided that the Foo Fighters show was not going to work.

So last night was a huge deal. And the show was great. Dave sat in his giant metal throne thanks to his broken leg, but still rocked. You could tell he just wanted out of his chair so he could jump around.

Unfortunately, with my bad knee and the lack of sleep Sal and I have been getting, we didn't make it past 10 pm. The lawn is not my friend anymore.  Luckily, that was already about 2 hours into the set. They ended up playing until 11. We felt like we got our fill.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Bunch of Idiots Sitting Around Playing a Card Game Online Instead of Socializing Like a Normal People

A recent trend among my friends and I are playing card and board games.

There was a solid 15 year period where I didn't touch a board or card game. I didn't have any use for them. Why would you pull out a game when there were so many other things to do? I was busy driving around St. Charles, watching my sweet DVD collection, and going to concerts.

It started when I went to Salt Lake City in 2007. My buddy Allen had this game called Killer Bunnies that we played several nights while I was there. The game was so fun, I ended up buying it and most of the expansions before I got home.

My love of the local, real life game faded a bit with graduating college, getting married, moving across state, getting laid off, etc. We didn't have time or friends nearby to play a game that needed at least 3 people to be fun.

Then there was a night where Sallie and I were sitting in bed next to each other playing "Words With Friends" which is a straight rip off of Scrabble.

There was a point where we both sort of looked at each other and thought, "This is really stupid, why don't we just bust out the Scrabble board so we don't have to look at this screen anymore?"

So for the next several weeks, we would sit in bed playing Scrabble against each other.

Our re-found love of games didn't really spill into the party arena until a game for terrible humans was released. Cards Against Humanity is a game much like Apples to Apples, except most of the cards are violent prompts with Hitler answers.

The first time we really played it was Christmas Eve 2011. Nick and Brett came over to our house and the four of us played through the entire deck because it was so hilarious. There were times where Nick was laughing so hard at a well placed poop joke that he couldn't read the rest of the prompt and drool was spilling from his mouth all over the coffee table.

Recently Sal and I got the itch to start a puzzle. We went to Target and after pouring over some really dumb puzzles of flowery fields and cartoon characters we didn't know, I found a puzzle of Scottrade Center in the clearance aisle. 1000 pieces for $3. Can't go wrong with that right?

Well, we worked on the puzzle several Sunday nights in a row, making slight progress. Soon we realized that it was a cheaply made puzzle. It was one of those where the picture was sort of blurry enough on certain parts of the crowd and the pieces could sort of be forced to fit that we weren't sure if we were actually making progress.

We gave up on that puzzle, but maybe we'll pick one up again soon. It was relaxing to do while watching TV.

A few weeks back, Brett, Rosie, Sal, and I were sitting around my brother's loft downtown wanting some entertainment we could all play. My brother was talking up Settlers of Catan, a game that was popular among my friends already, but I had never played it.

It was a blast. Unfortunately, it's only a 4 player game and somehow Sal and I tend to hang out in groups of 6 most often. So it hasn't come out since that first night, but I'm itching for more.

While we were shopping for Settlers of Catan, the guy at the comic book shop talked up a card game called Boss Monster. I just bought this using a gift card from my birthday. I can't wait to play it. I really can't.

It's weird having this love of the board game all of a sudden again. In a way, I feel like it's some rebellion against the screen. It's a way to keep people's attention span long enough so that their nose doesn't get buried in their phone browsing Reddit and you can just hang out like normal people.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Defender of My Mouth

I've never liked things near my mouth. I think it started the first time I went to the dentist and they started poking me with that damn hook and then I had to do a fluoride rinse that tasted like bubblegum dipped in sewage.

And because I don't like things near my mouth, my tongue has become the defender of my mouth. Anything gets near my teeth, it springs into action and attacks.

If I didn't have teeth, I'm 90% sure my tongue could do chewing for me.

I'm fairly sure my tongue even fights sickness. I rarely get strep throat. Yes, my tonsils do a pretty good job, but I think they get to sit back a little bit while the tongue keeps nasty things out.

If I do get a sore throat, it's because of my sinuses and that's all on my nose, which frankly has been doing a terrible job since I was born.

My tongue becomes especially problematic when I have to go to the pesky dentist.

A cleaning takes a ton of concentration on my part to keep my tongue from hitting all the tools coming into my mouth. I've had my tongue polished before and trust me when I say, it tastes awful.

I had to get a few cavities filled on Friday.

My first tooth was numbed up without much issue, but then my tongue realized trauma was happening.

The dentist brought the needle in for a second time to numb another tooth and my tongue sprung up and was like, "NAH MO-FO! This is my mouth. Who's house? Tongue's house."

My dumb tongue sprung up and knocked into the end of the needle. Yeah, tongue had a lot of fight in him until he went complete numb seconds later.

The next several hours my teeth were hurting, both sides of my mouth were completely numb, and I couldn't talk because my stupid tongue was hanging out of my mouth drooling everywhere.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Experiencing It Again for the First Time

One of my podcasts discussed the question, "What do you wish you could experience again
for the first time?"

I ignored a large portion of the rest of the podcast because I was thinking about my answer

This first came that came to mind was seeing Ghostbusters 2 in theaters when I was 5. I went with my Aunt Laura and Aunt Debbie with some of my cousins. I remember hiding my eyes during the courtroom ghost fight. I also remember it being one of those experiences where I thought, "I'm going to remember this forever."

Also the first time I saw Clerks was with my cousin Jake. We rented the black and white indie film from the local Blockbuster. Super surprised we were able to rent it considering we were both around 10 years old. I remember thinking... wow, movies don't have to be blockbuster action flicks. They can actually be potty-mouthed, everyday life.

And then I remember seeing Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back when they released it in theaters in 1998. Hearing the full wall of sound, seeing the ships flying, the ATAT getting knocked down... it changed my life. Enough so, that I can even forgive the prequels.

Video games play a huge part of my life and there are a few times I wish I could experience again for the first time.

I was blown away by Super Mario Brothers 3, Punch Out, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but the first time I played Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo was a life changing event. I still play it about every 18 months. Hearing that opening theme, seeing the colorful sprites, finding all the hidden areas, and just seeing how robust a game could be with branching paths was incredible.

And then came the Playstation.

My cousin Ryan bought Resident Evil almost immediately after it came out. It remember we both sat on the edge of his bed, lights out, drinking malts from Crown Candy, trying to figure out this horror game with puzzles meant for adults. It was one of the most gratifying things I've accomplished to date.

And along the same theme, Jake and I sitting cross legged on his floor, eating BBQ potato chips, playing Metal Gear Solid is another one of those memories.

Even the sound of the Playstation 1 booting up gives me goosebumps.

Basically, for the past 20 years, I've been chasing the feeling of first playing both of those games. If you look at my game collection, 80% of it is Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, or a clone of either of those.

Then there's events.

My first Blues game against the Blackhawks in 1991. I believe this is also the first time I had stadium nachos.

Going to WWF Badd Blood 1997 when Shawn Micheals took on Undertaker in the cage. After pleading with Brett for the better part of 45 minutes to go to the bathroom, Brett decided he needed to go to the bathroom 15 minutes into the match. My dad and Brett missed the introduction of Kane. The demon Kane came out and ripped the cage door off it's hinges and Nick and I flipped out.

And to this day, all of these events are still incredibly important in my life. I still go to Blues games, I still go to wrestling events, I still play those games, and I still watch those films.

It's amazing how certain things can resonate with you and you want to feel it so much again that you chase it all throughout adulthood.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Camping and Parenting

Over the weekend, Sal and I went camping for the first time in 8 years.

The last camp trip we went on, we left before night fall because it was a 4 hour float trip where 9 of the 10 couples on the trip, were broken up by the end of the 4 hours. Sal and I were the 1 couple together and we decided to get out of the poisonous environment and sleep in our own beds.

We left the tent with friends of ours (who drank way too much and we later found out were on drugs). They returned the tent where it sat on various shelves of ours over the past 8 years.

Last week I pulled the tent out only to find that our friends never put the poles back in there.

Should've definitely checked that years ago. I think the "statute of limitations" on shaking them down for a new tent was over at least 7 years ago.

We bought a new tent and were the Swiss army knives of survival. We had a dry kit with toilet paper, matches, an LED latern, paper towels, allergy medicine, itch cream, bug spray, 3 different sun screens, etc. We had the easy snacks and hot dogs ready to go. We were ready.

We went to a place in Steeleville Missouri called Brown's Canoe Rental. We were greeted by a rough shack and folding table where we checked in and were shown the beach where we could pitch our tents.

It was a pretty cool spot. There was a harder ground only 50 feet from the river's edge where the tents went. So within 15 minutes, we had our tent up, tables up, chair in water, and beers in hand.  The weather was perfect, sunny, low 90s, plenty of shade. Really, the ideal setup.

Some of our friends came with their kids, and this is where I really loved camping. I got to be the "father" figure to keep them entertained.

Archie is almost 1. We put him in the water in this chair thing and that dude was loving life. He kept taking my hat off, pouring the water on his head, laughing, just being a real dude.

Then I got to teach the two girls how to skip rocks. I blew them away when I skipped 5 times and made it across the river. They kept practicing and kept asking if they were doing it right. Eventually, Clementine nailed a 4 skipper.

There was a bridge that was about six feet off the water. At one point the girls asked if I was going to jump off the bridge with them. No hesitation, hell yeah, I'm going to jump off the bridge. We spent roughly an hour jumping from the bridge, floating underneath it, and climbing up the other side.

And then came the discussion of the Snipe Hunt. I brought it up, remembering going to the woods and turning out all of our lights when I was a kid.

Soon the adults had swapped stories of what a Snipe was. I discussed the opossum / raccoon hybrid while others spoke of a peasant like creature.

We talked about various capturing techniques.

I brought up the freezing them with beams of flashlights. Another spoke of chirping, "Snipe" while dragging a plastic bag across the ground.

I decided to go against the more intense "scary" Snipe hunts I remember and told of a shy, but cuddly animal, much like a Leprechaun. If able to catch one and pet it, good luck would follow.

I told them that I and another master Snipe hunter would lead the charge and that they would have to take the pledge to protect the Snipe and to only divulge the secrets to people they trusted.

The kids were amped up, ready to go on a Snipe hunt. Unfortunately, one of the dad's there was being a butthole all day and didn't want the Snipe hunt to happen. He killed it before it started.

But not all was bad. Smores came out and the girls made me some incredible smores. Like I really don't know how they got everything perfectly melted. Most of my smores involved burnt marshmallows and cold, unmelted chocolate.

Sal and I went to bed around 10:30.

Some of the other people decided it was time to share a box of wine. So while Sal and I attempted desperately to sleep, we got to hear really intelligent debates about gun control, obesity, how to off a lantern with literally one knob on it. We got to hear a couple argue over a flashlight that wasn't working, got thrown into the woods, and then they realized it wasn't theirs.

According to my Fitbit, I had one nap of 40 minutes and another for 120 minutes. Around 5 am, I got up to use the restroom. I heard the lightning and thunder rolling over the hills. I decided trying to sleep wasn't worth it and started packing up some of our stuff.

Soon Sal came out of the tent with the same intentions. We picked up all of our stuff, took a bunch of trash to the dumpster and were out of the campsite by 5:45. The storm hit right as we got on the highway. Our friends got a bit wet, we however, got home by 8 am and were able to sleep in our own bed for a few hours.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Technology Is Ruining the Human Experience

We went to this ultimate 90's concert last night. Everclear, Toadies, Fuel, and American Hi-Fi were playing an outside venue called the Bootleg and there was a really great Green Day cover band playing inside between the bands.

I was stoked. I had a really good sandwich. I had a couple delicious craft beers. The weather was perfect for an outside show. I was into it.

And then during Fuel's set, we all felt a breeze above us and heard this buzzing noise. The singer's eyes went above us, then everyone started turning around one by one, and there, about 30 feet above us, was a drone filming the crowd and show.

For the next few minutes, people kept turning around and taking pictures, and the singer kept looking toward the sky with disdain.

Fuel was done, our drone friend left, and you could see it flying a hundred feet above the Grove, but it was no longer in venue.

Now this was a great show. The venue was able to break down and then set up each band in about 12 minutes with that awesome Green Day cover band keeping us entertained between sets.

Then the Toadies came on stage. They were the band I was really there for, and they were killing it. And my ears were ringing. And I was having fun.

And then our drone buddy came back. And there was this terrible Big Brother feeling.

And then the phones came back out. It was so bad at one point the singer acknowledged it when he dedicated Possum Kingdom to the girl that muscled her way up front just to turn around and look at her cell phone and talk to her friend.

And the worst part of this show was when a guy we met at the show tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Mr. Story, you're a tall guy to stand behind. Mind if I get in front of you."

I let him in front of me and immediately he held his phone up in front of my view so he could record crappy audio synced up with under lit video.

This continued throughout. Drone, phones, drone, phones, drone, phones. We ended up leaving 35 minutes early because I was steaming and not having fun anymore.

Can we just have a raw human experience anymore? This was a rock show. Something to come together and sing along. A place to get frustrations of daily life out. Instead, everyone is so worried about Instragraming their terrible concert footage in the constant pursuit of likes.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Little Man

My favorite columnist at The Post Dispatch, Bill McClellan, is semi-retiring. There's a great write-up in the Riverfront Times explaining several months of drama and questionable financial decisions within Lee Enterprises, but the gist of it is Lee Enterprises bought Pulitzer when they didn't have enough money to cover the debt. Ever since, quarterly layoffs continue to happen at Lee's papers while somehow the board members still get bonuses. Bill McClellan, always one to defend the little man, took a buy-out to save some of his younger peers' jobs.

This is severely reminiscent of when Sallie was laid of from a McClatchy paper years ago.

I've always stuck up for "the little man." I don't really know when it started. 

It's possible the comic book heroes of my youth put this "hero" complex in my mind. I think that's why I was so drawn to the Punisher. 

It might have been when I transferred to a new middle school and the first people to take me in were the "nerds." And when I gained popularity, I saw how often they were picked on. 

Anytime I found myself in a situation where I might fight someone in high-school, it was rarely defending myself, usually defending others. 

I filled out one of those surveys to find out which political candidate matches my beliefs most ( and found that Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were my top two matches. I was sort of hoping with an election that had roughly 20 people running, I would match up with someone besides the top Democrats, but here I am. 

As I was falling asleep last night, both of these topics on my mind, it occurred to me the reason why I typically tend to side just slightly with the "left wing."

You see, the way I look at politics is a sort of Venn diagram. On one side is economic issues, the other social, and in the middle is religious. Most people put a little more importance on one side or the other with religious beliefs informing either side, but all three are intertwined. 

Social issues tend to be my focus. 

And it's weird, my thoughts are very Conservative when it comes to personal liberties. I don't feel like you should tell anyone how they can live their life as long as it's not hurting anyone else. That's why I support both gay marriage and gun rights.

At the same time, I think there should be federally regulated systems to help people that need it. No one should be on the street or hungry. I support socialized healthcare and some form of welfare (although the system is broken in it's current state) and I would pay more taxes to make sure it was funded. 

And if I'm willing to pay more taxes, I certainly believe the rich and companies should have to pay more taxes.

Most states are currently in more and more debt. The government is racking up a huge deficit. Throwing more money at the problem won't solve it, that would require a complete audit of every bill and spending line at both the state and federal level, but it could help. 

It's dizzying. Neither of the major parties have an identity that makes sense anymore. In their constant effort to please a voting base, all candidates start sounding like parodies of themselves. If you gave me a character sheet and told me if they were Republican, Democratic, Green, or Libertarian, I could fill in the rest of the bubbles with 90% accuracy.

Basically the gist of this is, thank you Bill McClellan, I like sticking up for the small guy, I'm not ready for another election year, and somehow in my sleepy mind, I tied those together. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Places I Want to Go

Now that our European trip is over, I'm already thinking about the future experiences.

Sal and I will be returning to England next year in May for two of our good friend's wedding. We'll be spending time in Manchester, Burnley, and Liverpool. There's a chance we also sneak away to Scotland for a few days.

I've been itching to continue our away hockey trips. Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal are all really high on the Canadian list.

We also have friends that live in Pittsburgh, New York, and Washington, so a Northeast trip to see the Flyers, Penguins, Rangers, Devils, and Capitals is also in the near future.

And now that we've reconnected with Sal's cousins in Orlando, jumping on a Blues Florida trip is possible.

I know Sal's big trip she wants to do is to wine country. We're thinking that would be a great 10 year anniversary trip. And from our friends that have been to Napa, they said don't spend more than 3-4 days there, so it would probably turn into a trip to San Francisco as well.

And then there's my beer meccas.

I would love to go to Portland, Oregon / Yakima, Washington, the hot bed of the American hop where most bars have their own personal beer.

And then there's the beers I love the most. The ones worth going to the source for.

Sal and I have a little work on our finances to do before our next trip is officially booked, but it's fun thinking about the possibilities. 

Bill Watterson said it best in the final Calvin and Hobbes comic, "It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy... let's go exploring!"

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Eurotrip - London and Dublin Pt. 2 - May 17-20

The Adventure

Just as how we were feeling by this time in the trip, this has taken a long time to write because I was getting tired.

London was a whirlwind and in all honesty, we probably should have booked our trip home straight from London, instead of returning to Dublin.

We had roughly from 2 pm on the 17th until we passed out around 10 pm to explore. The first day was filled.

We were staying in Soho Square, per a tip from a friend of ours. He told us, "That's where all the best food is."

But no time for food now. We also booked this area because it was so close to everything we wanted to see it. So the first day, we dropped our bags off and walked the 12 minutes to Piccadilly Circus (giant shopping district / Times Square area), then another 5 minutes south to St. James Square, and then only another 5 minutes to Buckingham Palace.

I was getting annoyed. There were thousands of tourists from many different countries, not knowing where they were going, on some of the narrowest sidewalks I've ever seen.

Not having anything in particular to check out, we got some ice cream from a cart and then wandered around Green Park to the North of Buckingham Palace, which turned out to be a great surprise. It was a beautiful park, void of the tourists in the other areas. There were some World War II memorials throughout, the coolest of which was the Bomber Command Memorial.

From here, we went to Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, saw the London Eye, and then we were sort of tired.

We came back to our Hostel, had a beer, and then got some incredible Indian Food at Gopal's of Soho.

I'm glad the meal was good because the rest of the night was a little rough. Our Hostel as it turned out was cheap for a reason. It was roughly a 10'x8' room with a futon mattress thrown on a full sized bed frame, a sink, and a window.

There was no AC, which wouldn't have been a problem a few days before, but it had heated up and rained so that it was humid.

On top of that, we had a nice Indian couple getting drunk across the hall, singing Indian pop songs until about 11 pm.

And to top it off, all I wanted was a good shower at this point. We shared a shower with roughly 10 other rooms in our area. And when Sal and I finally brought all of our shampoo and soap to the bathroom and turned the water on, we found that our shower did not drain very well. So for the next two days, we took 3 minute showers in overflowing water filled with god knows what. Luckily, I didn't get a foot infection.

The next day we woke up and left the hostel as soon as we could. The British Museum was only about a 10 minute walk east from where we were.

I feel this museum was incredible, but the mounds of tourists really made certain areas stressful. There were two certain kind of tourists that I became really racist toward by the end of our trip because lines means nothing and they have no qualms about pushing right through you.

The Rosetta Stone is a perfect example of this. 50 people sort of queue up in a half circle, as one person leaves, the next person steps up. After 5-6 minutes, Sal and I finally make it up to see the Rosetta stone, and my god does it have a presence. You just find yourself in awe of this artifact you've only seen in textbooks.

I start raising my phone up slowly to try and get a picture of this thing and as I do, three arms reach other my shoulders and start flashing their bulbs. As that's happening, I feel this small elbow get me right in the kidney as they start pushing through.

We left the museum exhausted and walked about 35 minutes south to the Imperial War Museum. This was the highlight of London.

Each floor of the massive museum is dedicated to another subject, like World War I, the Holocaust, Fashion during war time, home life during war time, spies in the Cold War, and British Heroes. I just can't describe how it's designed. It would take a book. So here's a picture of Sal dressed up as a British trench soldier.

Travel to Dublin

Heathrow Airport is probably the worst airport I've ever been to, and I've been through Dallas.

The lines are long, the security overly tight, the foreigners I spoke of that wandered the sidewalks were now wandering the halls of Heathrow. Sal and I were both chosen for random security checks of our bags where we had to dump out the contents in front of everyone while they went through it. I was chosen for a random security check of my body where a nice overweight British man touched my no-no parts.

When we finally got through, all I wanted was a taste of home. I wanted a simple Chicken club sandwich.

It took another 30 minutes to find a place with this staple. Everything was "British Food, Pasta, Jamie Oliver's British Cuisine...." just gimme a chicken sandwich.

Dublin Part 2

We really didn't have much time in Dublin again.  We ate at a hip pizza place called Skinflint and then bought a bottle of wine and watched TV in our hotel room until we fell asleep. Turns out we were staying in the famous O'Donohgues where the Dubliner writer's club often met and drank.

We entered our taxi the next morning, our minds already on the pizza we would order as soon as we got home. Our nice Irish Taxi Driver told us how they all love Obama, but feel like the lower houses keep him from doing anything. He doesn't like John F. Kennedy, Bush Jr., Bill Clinton, or most Germans. But he loves America, specifically Wisconsin, Chicago, and Las Vegas. And he told us next time we come to Ireland, get out of Dublin. That's where the real Ireland is.

Coming Home

Sal and I were put in the last row of a giant airplane on the way home. The worst part of this is the landing. It was rough to the point of Sal feeling sick and me praying thinking this was it and we had no windows to know how close to the ground we were.

And it's nearly impossible to get into the United States. We spent an hour and 15 minutes of our 2 hour layover in Toronto going through US customs and having 40 security checks done.

Lesson learned, don't leave the country, you might not get back in.

And the pizza that night... that pizza was awesome.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Eurotrip - Osnabruk, Bremen, Hamburg - May 14-17

The Adventure

We had hit a wall. We were both travel weary at this point and we looked at out calendar and say in our final 6 days we were going to go to 5 cities. Morale started dipping.

We arrived back in Osnabruk and had a very relaxed day. It was needed. We sat around, read a little, might have napped. This was in preparation for going to a German barbecue for one of Axel's friend's birthdays.

Most the people we drank with our first night in Germany were there. It surprisingly was exactly like American's BBQs. I was sort of expecting something different since the British do this BBQ light version. But sure enough, there was a 22 inch charcoal grill with pork steaks and sausages on there. We sat around the fire drinking beers, eating meat on bread. Was an all around great time.

The next day we traveled to Bremen for dinner and to meet Axel's best friend. We didn't get to see much of the town, but it had an awesome river running through the middle of it and is the headquarters for Beck's Beer.

From Bremen, we went to Hamburg, which most of the German's agreed is the second coolest city under Berlin.

It's a harbor town. So of course it was rainy and sort of cold. Despite the weather, we took a 3 hour bike tour of the entire city. It was incredible. Something from a movie. Something I didn't think existed.

Hundreds of feet tall cranes lifted shipping containers onto huge ocean worthy ships. Cruise ships, bigger than anything I've ever seen docked to reload supplies. And Hamburg is also the proud city of the second largest red light district under Amsterdam, called the Reeperbahn.

That's right, on our bike tour I soon found myself staring at a walled off street. This is when the tour guide told us that this is where you can get legal prostitues, and since I've never walked the street, I now had to do it because it's tradition.

So, lead by the tour guide, my buddy, and two other German men, I walked through the gates of the world famous Herbertstra├če. Now the reason I went through and Sallie did not is because posted on the gate of this place is a sign that says, "No juveniles under 18 and no women." In fact, every German had a story of some drunk woman wandering down the street and getting beat up by the prostitutes.

So I enter the gate and am greeted by what looks like the French Quarter in New Orleans. The street smells of booze, sweat, sex, cigarettes, and vomit. On either side of the street are shop windows. And these shop windows have sort of cubicals in them where the prositutes sit and show off their goods. If interested, you walk up to the window, knock, negotiate what depraved act you want to commit, and then if a deal is struck, you get invited in.

Luckily for me, it was 10 am, there was only 2 prostitutes, and there was a guy distracting them already. It was an uncomfortable place to say the least.

After the tour took us throught the shopping district, we dropped Axel's car off at his friends house and we took the train back downtown in order to watch the Hamburg football match and have dinner with Axel's friends. Unfortunately, Sallie started feeling a bit sick after spending so much time in the cold and in cigarette smoke. We called the night, hoping to get decent sleep before heading to London the next day.

Leaving Hamburg to go to London, and finally Dublin part 2. 

Hamburg airport really didn't stick out to me at all. I have trouble remembering much, other than the main area is not set up well. A tired Dan and sick Sal wandered back and forth with our luggage looking for the British Airways ticket counter. We found it, we through security, and got on the place. Easy peasy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Eurotrip - Berlin Germany - May 11 - 14

The Adventure

We hit the ground running in Berlin, mostly out of necessity.

Our train arrived roughly 4 hours before we could check into our hotel. Luckily, we packed light and just had our backpacks with us.

The good news was that Brandenburg Gate was on the way, as well as the Tiergarten.

The bad news is that a protest had happened there only a few days before and the police had roughly the half mile around the gate completely blocked off.

Not speaking German and not being connected to German news, Sal and I had no idea. We just thought maybe there was a way you had to go in. So we wandered around the perimeter of the police blockade for a solid 45 minutes before giving up.

This did however allow us to walk through the Mall of Berlin, which is a huge grouping of very old buildings. After eating a quick lunch and getting some coffee, we gave up and went to the hotel hoping we could check in early.

That did not happen. However, I asked if we could get a beer at the hotel bar at noon and the guy smiled at me and said, "But of course, this is Germany."

We sort of got the layout of the city the first night we were there and went by Checkpoint Charlie. It was cool seeing the Checkpoint... but it's also the most miserable place to deal with tourists. It's situated in the middle of a very busy street. The sidewalks are very narrow, and at least 20 nationalities all speaking different languages are fighting to get a picture of the Checkpoint station.

That night we found a great craft beer and German food spot called Das Meisterst├╝ck. Our server was a really nice guy that helped us choose from the 130 beers they had at this place. We chatted him up more and he knew St. Louis because of Urban Chestnut. Also turned out that he was a brewer, having done a 3 year apprenticeship, his first designed beer was going to be tapped the next night. He wrote the address of the place on a coaster and told us to come on down.

The next day we hit Museum Island. It's a convenient place with 5 of Berlin's best museums and the Cathedral all located on the same grounds.

These museums blew us away. There weren't ropes holding you back from exihibits. There weren't tons of tourists or field trips. You just walk into rooms and there's ancient Greek and Roman statues just in the room with you.

One of the museums had rebuilt an entire Greek temple entrance and a huge piece of a Babylonian city gate.

It was as if they were throwing Egypt in your face. The museum had just dozens of sarcophagus and papyrus just laying around. And then there was the bust of Nefertiti, one of the most treasured Ancient Egyptian pieces of art. You could feel it in the room. Things were just heavy in there. Everyone immediately went silent when they entered the doorway. (That might have something to do with the 4 armed guards stationed in the room as well)

It was an unbelievable day that we didn't think we could top.

Then came our last day where we wandered the Tiergarten (huge park in the middle of the city) and went to the Berliner Dom. This was one of the most unexpected tours we did. At first, it looked like a larger version of what we saw in Dublin. I was slightly disappointed at the 7 Euro entrance fee. 

Then we started going up stairs. And up more stairs. And more. Every now and then there would be an little exhibit showing the construction of the Cathedral. Then, after the 26th flight of stairs, we opened a little metal door and found ourselves on the roof of the cathedral looking out onto the entire city. It's cliche to say, but we were breathless at what we were seeing.

In America, the fear of litigation would keep most places from even considering this part of the exihibit. But as a German told us on the first night, "I don't get why you put leashes on your children. We just trust our people will do what's right and if not, they will learn a lesson." That seemed to be the philosophy for every place we went. Trust that people won't be idiots. It made the experience much better.

Food and Drink

We had several more doner kebabs and sausages, but one thing that surprised us is the Italian food. Apparently Berlin is a hot tourist destination for Italians and you can find really great pasta everywhere. Fantastic pasta at Rosengarten am Engelbecken and Fontana di Trevi.

We did end up going to Hopfenreich to try the debut from Lenny's Artisanal Ales, a delicious smoked India dark ale and hung out with the brewer for a bit more.

Beyond that, I had so many beers, most better than the last. This was sort of a dream trip for a beer drinker like me who really enjoys German beers more than any other flavor.

Leaving Berlin to go back to Osnabruk

We had planned on doing souvenir shopping on our last morning, but didn't realize there was some sort of German holiday. From what was explained to me, it sounded like Easter. Something about "Christ has risen to heaven." Either way, this meant just about every store in Berlin was closed.

It was also around this time that we realized that 15 days was too much. We were starting to hit a wall and we still had 6 days left.

The train ride back was fairly uneventful. Slightly more full than our way there, but we still were able to secure seats.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Eurotrip - Osnabruk / Dortmund Germany - May 8 - 11

The Adventure

Our buddy Axel picked us up from the train station and showed up the 10 cent tour of Osnabruk. We got to his house, dropped out packages.

I was thinking that we were going to need a nap, but Axel, sensing our energy level instead offered us a beer.

Now, before I launch into how the rest of the Germany trip was, and before you judge me, I have to set out some rules of Germany.

  1. You do not drink tap water. Not in a restaurant, not at home. It's considered cheap and most places won't give you the option. You buy bottles of water. 
  2. Beer is cheaper than water. Yes, water is roughly $3.50 a bottle whereas beer is closer to $3 and you get a bottle deposit of about $.50 if you return the bottle to the vendor. 
  3. Germans drink beer with lunch, dinner, and before bed. Doesn't matter if it's Monday and they are working, that's just how the culture is. BUT, saying that, it seems they do not drink to get a buzz like many American's or the Irish did. 
  4. Beer is served usually by the liter in Germany. To put that in perspective, it's roughly 2.5 standard bottles of American beer. 
Axel's balcony overlooked all of his town. We could see the local cathedral, the town square, the mountains in the distance, and all the green trees. The weather was perfect. Really, this encouraged beer drinking. 

It also happened to be Osnabruk's May Fest. Every May, the town celebrates spring time with 9 days of drinking, eating, and music in the town square. It's a huge deal. Axel told us that 650,000 people came to May Fest in Osnabruk this year.

What happened over the next several hours is a blurry alternating beer, sausage, music, meet someone new, beer, sausage, shots, meet someone new pattern. We met about 12 of Axel's best friends, briefly were lost in Germany without any of our German friends, went to a packed German night club, ended up at some biker bar, and then ate my new favorite food, Doner, at 3 am.

We messed up bad.

The next morning we had to wake up semi-early so that we could drive to Dortmund to see a football (soccer) match. We all hated life. It was a bad hangover that lasted until the ball dropped.

And we found ourselves in a sold out 86,500 standing room only stadium. Sal and I were right next to what's called the Yellow Wall where the biggest fans of the team sing songs the entire 90 minutes, waved flags, shout names in unison. It's indescribable how loud and huge that place was. It was like something out of Harry Potter. Sal and I sat 10 rows back. The image below is from our seats.

We spent our last day in Osnabruk going to Axel's families horse farm. The place was gorgeous. It was one of the few times I thought, "Yeah, maybe I could live on a farm instead of in a city." 

Food and Drink

It was as early as the first night in May Fest that I knew I was about to have some incredible food. We were eating sausages from street vendors and they were better than anything I've had in America. 

The Donar, which is basically a gyro served in pita bread with either Tzatziki or a curry sauce is one of my favorite new foods. This stuff was only $3 and you could get it anywhere. 

Obviously the Germans love their lagers, pilsners, and weizens. All of the beer was just unbelievably good. I understand now why Axel made fun of American beer when he was over here. 

But, the cream of the crop was when we went to Rampendahl

This small brew pub opened in 1430 in Osnabruk and has been making beer since. The best Weizen I have ever had in my entire life was served of course in a liter mug, for about $3. And the food... half the menu was traditional Bavarian (southern Germany) and the other half newer German food. I ordered a pork knuckle, which I've never had before, and the thing was the size of my head and served on a pillow of saurkraut. Just everything about this meal was unbelievable.  

Leaving Osnabruk to go to Berlin

The train strike also ended on Sunday, which was a relief as we were about to get on a train Monday to go to Berlin.

This train ride was much more relaxing. 4 hours across Germany, train was only 1/3 full. Sal was able to nap and I read in peace.