Sunday, December 14, 2014

Mele Kalikimaka

Hawaii has a good PR department.  Really, though, how hard is it to sell the place?  Tropical weather and beaches, volcanic geomorphology, sunrises with coffee, sunsets with Mai-tais... it is not hard to find a positive spin.  I would guess that the Hawaii travel bureau writers have one of the world's easier jobs.  But do you know what you don't read much about?  The public showers at Ala Moana State Park.

We spent Thanksgiving with a motley collection of family, sharing a house in Kailua, Oahu, living easy.  Nothing much to report, just food, drink, good company, warm weather, and salt water.  But due to a change in our flight schedule, C and I ended up with an extra day to kill at the tail end of the trip.  Homeless for the day, we made our way to Honolulu, ultimately claiming space on the sand at the Ala Moana State Park beach because, well, you have to get your fill of heat and sun and salt while you can.  A day at the beach, however, means sand stuck to sunscreen and sweat, a grim combination when staring down the barrel of a red-eyed flight back home.  But no worries, we thought, public showers offered a chance to legitimately bathe, change, and fly home in comfort.

Satiated on the sand, we ambled to the showers with shampoo and soap.  The space had a bench for changing, cinder block walls, stagnant water with other fluids floating (source best left unconsidered), ants, band-aids, hairballs, and two hooks offering space to hang your possessions, hoping against hope that you could keep your towel and clothes off of the floor.  There were two shower heads, one at regular height, the other—designed for pets? for feet?--stuck out at thigh level.  Guess which one was taken when I walked in?

No problem, though.  Disrobing without touching the ground required a complicated choreography, a dance that took some time to bring to completion, plenty of time for the other gentleman to finish.  Or rather what should have been plenty of time.  But this may have been his first shower this year.  He was going to town with the scrubbing.  Naked I had the choice of standing awkwardly watching the orgy of soap or turning to the ankle washer.  Lesser of two evils, I tried to lather my hair and soap my body, scooping water in cupped hands to toss over my shoulders and head as needed.  Half-bathed, I scurried back to my towel.  There was no slow down of activity under the other shower-head, and he was re-lathering as I left.

But at least he didn't talk to me.  Next door, C wandered into a similar physical space.  Both showers were open, but another woman was at the bench.  C stepped up, starting getting out of her two-piece.  The other lady exploded.

“I would appreciate some privacy!”

Privacy in a public shower in Hawaii's largest city?  Unsure how to respond, C stammered.  “I, um, will just be a minute.”

“Don't look at me!  This,” referring to her body, “is disgusting!”

C, flustered, only half out of her bathing suit, scooted silently to the shower and rinsed.  A quick pat-dry, then get the hell out of there.  Best not to try and reason with the other woman.

We walked back to the rental car, past the out-door showers on the beach which, in hind-sight, may have been the better option.

A few pictures from the trip (but none of the showers):


Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Welcome to the Cobras in Alaska post-mid-term election analysis edition of the blog.  The mid-terms are always exciting because no one shows up at the polls.  Anything can happen once the votes are counted.  I thought I would take this opportunity to run through the highlights in Alaska, like Representative Don Young proving, again, that you can insult an auditorium of high school students and still get swept back into office by a significant majority.  Young effectively blamed the entire student body for the recent suicide of a classmate and “used profanity and started talking about bull sex when confronted with a question about same-sex marriage.”  It will take more than that for the good people of Alaska to turn him out of office.  I suppose proving yourself immune to corruption investigations gives a guy a certain amount of confidence when the vote count starts coming in.

Luckily, Alaska went on and made marijuana legal.  Presumably the voters anticipated another Young term and thought it wise to provide legal access to a wider range of self-medication options.  After hearing that the legalize it measure had passed, I decided to pull into the grocery store on the way home today from work.  I wandered around the produce section looking for a selection of pot strains.  It turns out that the grocery store isn't stocking weed, nor will they.  What was the point of passing that measure again?

It looks like I missed posting in October, which suggests I should have lots to summarize.  But sitting here now, I can't think of a thing.  Except that I found the Hells Angels' club house.  C was out of town, what was it?  Late September?  I ran a 10k, had a reasonably respectable result, and celebrated by going for a long walk through mid-town.  Out on some side street, I walked by this:

I thought about taking some pictures, but something about the pole mounted surveillance cameras made me think that doing so would trigger the release of burly guys in denim intent on smashing my Nikon... or worse.  So I just kept walking, finding the above picture on Google maps.  Curious, I later conducted a search of the interwebs, learning that the building is “fortified” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been the safe house for drug deliveries.  I guess it is just as well that I didn't knock and try to make friends.  Think legal marijuana will cut into their profits?  Hope they can continue to make rent.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What Happens When Nothing Happens

This post is brought to you by two failures.  First, a failure to get out of the house, and second a failure to find a narrative thread.  As to the first failure, I expected to have some blog-fodder from the Alyeska Climbathon, an event that took place yesterday where participants have ten hours to ascend the North Face trail at Alyeska ski resort, a trail covering approximately 2,000 vertical feet over a little more than two miles.  Racers climb the trail as many times as they can in the allotted time, taking the tram back to the base between each lap.  I was signed up, and thought it sounded like a fun way to spend a day.  But I woke up yesterday to steady rain and a forecast in Girdwood of more of the same.  Driving 40 minutes south and slogging through run and mud all day sounded, well, less fun.  So I stayed home.

At home, I took a stab at drafting a blog post on a trip we took to Nome, Alaska earlier this summer.  But that just gave rise to the second failure.  After typing for awhile, I thought I had a decent lede, though perhaps a bit long for a blog post:

A group of us had settled into the living room, although it was a separate room in name only, sharing floor space with the kitchen, dining room, and hall of a small house in Council, Alaska.  Our host was in the kitchen, putting together lunch for the unexpected crowd.  We were at the end of one of the three roads that spill out from Nome, Alaska, getting ready to eat thanks to L, an old colleague and friend of my father-in-law D.  L was raised in Nome and, though she now lived elsewhere, was coincidently in the area over the same weekend as our trip.  She had dinner plans in Council, some 70 miles outside of Nome, but, rural Alaska being what it is, felt free to invite us along.  Our hosts, expecting three for dinner, came to have five extra bodies to feed.  Of course, rural Alaska again being what it is, our host was another D's old friends and colleagues.  And so we found ourselves in the midst of a reunion.  

With lunch preparations underway and the initial batch of memories calibrated for truth, we had settled alternately into couches, chairs, and on to the floor.  L's reminiscences moved further back to growing up on Norton Sound in far west Alaska.  “Oh, man!  We ate fish every which way you can think.  Baked fish, boiled fish, fried fish, dry smoked fish, wet smoked fish, stink fish, . . .”

“Wait. Stink fish?”

“Oh yea. Stink fish.  It is where you put the fish head in a jar, bury it, and come back after it's gone rotten.”

I looked over my shoulder with some concern into the kitchen.  Luckily the woman taking the reigns on lunch appeared to be slapping ground beef into patties.  She had lived in Nome and Council for many years, but was originally from Nevada.  At a glance, she looked to come from cultural stock likely to show up at a potluck with potato salad or deviled eggs.  The risk of finding rotten fish on my plate appeared minimal.  Relaxed again, I turned back to the group to find Lorena had moved on to fish eyeballs.  “Pop 'um out of the fish and pop 'um into your  mouth.”  Those burgers were starting to smell pretty good.

But at the end of the day, I couldn't find a story to tell to tie together the disparate tales from the trip.  So I scrapped the whole thing.  Well, except for the bit above, which I copied here to make this whole post appear longer than it really is.

So, without sore legs and muddy shoes and without a story to tell about western Alaska, I'll rely on the old standby of posting pictures.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

When the Lights Go Out on the Eighties

I'm pretty sure the pop duo Hall & Oates is stalking me.  They were stalking everyone in the early eighties, with hits spilling from any speaker loosely connected to a radio station.  When the fickle fame cycle had run its course and pitched Hall & Oates into the void, I would have thought I was done with them for good.  Then a few years ago I saw a ski-film clip featuring John Oates.  He had parlayed all those gold-records into a house in Aspen with a recording studio in the basement and had become a ripping tele-skier.  (I can't find the clip anywhere on the internet, but this 2008 article talks about his skiing.)  It looked like the guy spent his days skiing and nights playing music.  Huh.  That dude made some good choices in life, I thought, and assumed I was once again done with Hall & Oates.

Then I ran across the Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers van session cover of “I can't go for that."  The van sessions stuck me as a pretty clever way to market a band in the new digital world, and the Hall & Oates tune was good.  I ran across Fitz and the Tantrums doing their song “Money Grabber” with Daryl Hall, which sort of clued me in that the whole Fitz sound was just an extension of the Hall & Oates Philly soul thing.  I read about and found Daryl Hall's “Live from Daryl's House” show, where he basically just invites artists over to jam with a great backing band.  The songs performed, which include a healthy sprinkling of old Hall & Oates tunes, are good.  The Fitz clip above came from one of the Live from Daryl's House shows, though I didn't catch that at the time.  Were the light-rock and r&b stylings of a long-forgotten band suddenly becoming relevant to me?  And if they were, did that mean that I was losing all credibility as a punk and metal fan?  And why were Hall & Oates suddenly everywhere?

And by everywhere, I really mean Anchorage, because on Thursday the paper reported that John Oates was performing a benefit show (raising money for the American Cancer Society) the following Saturday.  This had gotten out of hand, and I figured the only way to put the Hall & Oates revival to bed was to go to the show.  There were only three-hundred tickets available, but the show was not sold out when I checked.  So, last night, C and I went to Chilkoot Charlie's to see what would happen.

What happened, it turned out, is that before John Oates came on stage Koots evacuated us from the building.  A staff member appeared on stage and started talking with some animation into a dead mike.  We ignored him.  He moved to a live mike.

“Um, I need everyone to leave.  Really.  Through this exit.”  Two emergency exit doors leading to the front parking lot were now open and daylight—still fifteen hours of daylight up here—penetrated the dark corners of the bar.  “Technical difficulties and we need you to evacuate.”

People continued to ignore him.

“This needs to happen now.  Start moving.”  Nothing.  “You can take your drinks with you.”  Ah, there was the trigger.  The room emptied.

I have no idea why we were evacuated in the first place, but when they let us back in all of the power was off.  The facility started lighting candles, and so long as you had cash kept selling drinks.  The woman next to us, two empty shot glasses and a full beer in front of her on the bar, was doing her part to keep the place in business.  She wasn't too pleased with the turn of events.  “I paid $100 [remember, this was a benefit] for this?!” she slurred to anyone in ear-shot.  Everyone else seemed to be having a good time.  

Eventually Koots fired up a generator to power some small PA and the amps, and put a lantern on the stage.  John Oates and his band came out and started to play.  Old songs and new.  The guy was an entertainer straight through, telling stories between ripping guitar lines like ski lines in that film I saw many years ago.  But I guess you don't make a multi-decade career out of music if you can't perform when called to.  After the show, they auctioned off a couple of guitars to raise more money, the lights came back on as if on cue, and we came home.

Now, in the cold-light of day, I'm puttering around our place and humming "Maneater." It looks like the Hall & Oates haunting will continue after all.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Revisiting Recent Posts - Sounds, Reviews, and a Rigorous Quirk Analysis

Long time (or, frankly, brand new) readers may recall that C and I went to New Orleans last month.  Or they may not.  I forget most sentences I read before I reach the period, which makes comprehending a paragraph something of a struggle, and is why I pepper conversations about current events, literature, grocery lists, or anything else built upon the written word with a lot of strategic guess work.  Which is to say I would not blame you for forgetting that I recently wrote at length on the Crescent City.  In fact, I hardly remember doing so myself.  But to jog your memory, I have two (maybe three) follow up items to cover related to that trip.

The first requires me to really stretch the capabilities of the internet and enter the brave new world of multimedia.  Did you know you the internet is capable of transmitting sounds?  Yeah, me neither, but it turns out that it is.  I think it works a little like a record player, though I have yet to find the grooves.  But in any case, this allows me to stretch my interests in comparative urbanism by offering a sonic comparison of the Louisiana urban and rural environments.  To wit:

Exhibit A: Sounds, Royal Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana.


Exhibit B: Sounds, field , Loyd Hall Plantation, middle of nowhere, Louisiana


Make of it what you will.

The second involves the power of user reviews.  We stayed at a B&B in New Orleans and would not hesitate to return in the event we ever go back to the city.  At our departure, the innkeeper came "hat in hand" (as he characterized it) and asked, if we were so inclined, if we would post a review of his establishment on one of the many internet sites dedicated to such things.  As a small business relying in no small part on the tourist trade, it would seem their success ebbs and flows with their rankings.  Sure, no problem.  As stated, we enjoyed our stay, wished the inn great success, and were more than happy to do so.

Back home I drafted a review which C and I posted to both Trip Advisor and Yelp.  I also posted a review for a restaurant in Natchez, Mississippi that I thought was fantastic--creative and well executed cocktails, delicious food, historic setting.  However, I just checked and my Yelp reviews do not show up.  Neither business has many reviews on Yelp (just seven total each), so it is not like my review has been lost in the crowd.  Perhaps an algorithm quarantined them.  A new user claiming to be based in Anchorage shows up and posts two 5-star reviews of places on the Mississippi, then disappears back into the river mists.  Yelp probably thinks I'm a shill.  For whatever reason, the reviews are invisible.  So, I've decided to provide links here and my recommendation for good eats and good sleeps in the south:

La Belle Esplanade, (New Orleans B&B)
King's Tavern (Natchez restaurant)

The value of my doing so is negligible; the vast majority of my blog readership was with me on the trip and already has a pretty good idea about the places.  But I can't let Yelp keep me down.

The third item that will (finally) bring this now extended update to an end, wraps in Portland as well.  I described in earlier blog posts observations in both cities: a devil--red suit, horns, palatable desire to doom souls to an eternity of damnation--biking the streets of New Orleans and waving with some vigor as he passed a church; and Darth Vader in a kilt, on a unicycle, playing the Star Wars theme on the bagpipes in Portland.  But in the great quirkiness competition, I give the nod to New Orleans.  In Portland, you get the sense that the weird is a bit affected.  Darth Vader probably spent the last year learning the bag pipes and working on his unicycle balance for the sole purpose of taking it to the streets in order to out-quirk his neighbor.  In New Orleans, you got the sense that the devil was just headed to work and may not have even known what he was wearing.  Maybe it is the weight of all that sediment flushing out the Mississippi, but it seems the weird runs deep at the river's mouth.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

First the Wine, then the World

“Excuse me.  Do you know where the food trucks are?  The ones that were on the TV?”  The woman—maybe in her seventies and put together for travel, all function and no fuss—stopped in front of me and C on the corner of Salmon and Park in downtown Portland, her head turning back and forth to stare down the cross streets, hoping to see a kimchi taco beacon guiding the way.  The whole food truck thing was clearly getting out of hand.  We knew where there were some trucks, a full city block full in fact, and were headed there ourselves, though I have no idea if they had ever been on the TV.  We pointed her a few blocks further on, and then set off ourselves for bowls of meat and mole.

We lived in Portland eight years ago.  Being on a student and minimum wage budget at the time, food trucks were a common enough dining option.  There were a handful clustered on Third Avenue, a few with a permanent spot on Pioneer Square, and solitary operations that had staked territory on random corners.  Now, there are thriving neighborhoods made up entirely of portable food, old parking lots entirely given over to kitchen-equipped panel vans, and tourists seemingly visiting the city for the sole purpose of eating from a paper plate while huddling underneath a tree.  But then the proliferation of food trucks was not the only thing that had changed.

In the years since we have been gone, downtown has filled in a bit, developers have put up new buildings, the city has picked up new energy.  It was still “Keep Portland Weird” weird—where else are you going to find Darth Vader in a kilt and on a unicycle playing the Star Wars theme song on bagpipes?  But in between the  unicycle and street punks, there were also hour-long waits for doughnuts and a whisky bar that calls itself a library and requires a membership to get in.  And get this: memberships, which just give you access to the place so you can spend money on booze, start at $500 and are at capacity with a waiting list to join.  I'm not sure that is a business model that would have succeeded in Portland eight years ago.  But now there is more of everything: more money (apparently), more restaurants, more coffee, more stores, more visitors, and more public spaces devouring parking lots (which I support).  So less parking, but more of everything else.

There were also thousands of people attending something called the World Domination Summit.  When asked, a woman serving our coffee one morning explained that it was a conference for people to exchange strategies for dominating the world with their next BIG IDEA.  I'm no expert, but it seems if you want to dominate the world the first step would be to not tell thousands of other people how to do it too.  Rather than rub elbows with our soon-to-be overlords, we instead fled to the hills. 

If you ask anyone from Portland what they like about the place, every time—absolutely every time—he or she will say that what makes Portland great is that it is one hour from the beach and one hour from the mountains.  And it is.  Mt. Hood towers over the city and tails south into the Oregon cascades, with world class wilderness escapes at the ready.  The Oregon coast beckons to the west with sea stacks looming in the fog.  But we opted instead to explore Oregon's agricultural assets, and found ourselves in the vineyards.

With wine in belly, we made our way back to town and to the airport, a flight to catch.  It was a quick trip, just a weekend tacked onto a day of work, but long enough to make me first remember and then miss some of the many benefits of Portland.  Trail runs in Forest Park.  The Saturday Farmer's Market.  Two-dollar hamburgers at Jake's.  Ready access to cheese.  And, of course, that whole one-hour to the beach, one-hour to the mountains thing.  Downtown still smells like piss.  But then I suppose you have to have something to excite the senses of lost tourists as they try to find those food trucks from the TV.  Consider it a street-level amuse bouche.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

New Orleans

"Oh, we went to California once.  We slept with the windows open.  Can you imagine?"  The woman paused, lost in the memory, staring out the window of the Canal Street streetcar as it rattled past faded businesses in the one-time commercial heart of the south.  "Down here I seal the air conditioning in.   I don't want to lose a drop of it."

I can't blame her.  We were in New Orleans in late June, still weeks away from the smothering embrace of summer.  But it was hot and no fooling.  And indeed, part of our orientation at the bed and breakfast that was to be our home for five nights included the express instruction to leave doors and windows closed lest the proprietors find they are pumping cold air out to Esplanade Avenue, presumably at considerable expense.  So we too slept with the windows shut.  But we relished the heat at other times, let it slow us down and force a languid rhythm to the day, a rhythm perhaps common to the tropics but a bit foreign to us in Alaska.

We were in New Orleans with no agenda, meeting my parents for a chance to visit and catch up while seeing a new-to-us part of the world.  We spent the first four nights in the city, then set off for a two-day road trip around the lower Mississippi river, poking about isolated sugar cane in Louisiana and antebellum homes in Natchez, Mississippi before returning to New Orleans for one more night.  It was my first time in the area, and I'm wondering now how it took me so long to get there?  And when do I get to go back?

If the quality of a place is measured by the number of "good mornings" heard, or passing conversations about the weather had, on any walk taken further than the bathroom, then the deep south wins.  These people do friendly right.  Likewise if the unit of measure is brass bands.  New Orleans falls off the map entirely if the important factor is the quality of sidewalk repair and upkeep, but I'm not so sure that that matters to me.  What does matter is food, and this place takes food seriously and does food well.  Better than most.  And as near as I can tell, food is the single most important factor in the average resident's day.  After learning you are visiting, do the strangers you meet want to know what you did in their city?  No, they want to know what you ate.  "You had a po'boy yet?  Where at?  Parkway?  Yeah?  Now you liked you that po'boy."  The final pronouncement made as fact.  After all, there can be no question but you liked you a po'boy from Parkway.  Our cab driver on the ride to the airport summed it up nicely: "Going home? Oh, you're going to miss the food!"

I'll miss the brass bands too.  And Spanish moss.  And the stories about union soldiers haunting homes to this day, standing guard over stains of their own blood that have worked into wooden flooring and cannot be removed.  We saw the stains at a plantation near Cheneyville, Louisiana, though I couldn't tell you if they were really blood.  We never saw doors open on their own or hear foot steps crossing empty rooms.  But why muddy southern Gothic romance with observation?

New Orleans doesn't feel like any place else.  It is the kind of town where you can look up to see a devil, red face paint and horns providing the finishing touch to a body suit and cape, commuting by bike, waving with vigor at three gentlemen exiting a church.  I assume he was touring New Orleans' many houses of worship, but he may have just been on his way to dinner.  We couldn't find a Starbucks (though we didn't really look).  Unlike Anchorage, I can't imagine the city getting excited about news that an Olive Garden is coming to town.  It was a refreshing change of pace.

And the pace is likely dictated by the heat.  I'll miss the heat.  And maybe I'll miss the fact that we were on vacation, which is always more fun than going to work.  But definitely the heat.  Because sometimes you need the sensation of skin crawling away from the sun's relentless push, wiping sweat off of your face, welcoming a sudden breeze and a shade-draped sidewalk providing unexpected relief.  After all, we sleep with the windows sealed shut at home too, though it has nothing to do with air conditioning.

Some pictures and captions follow.

We hit the tourist high-points in New Orleans, like riding the St. Charles streetcar:

 And visiting Jackson Square:

And having beignets at Café Du Monde:

And finding all of those neighborhoods that haven't succumbed to gentrification:

We watched the moon rise above the French Quarter:

And we drank absinthe, which apparently put me and C in a reflective state of mind:

Outside the city, we went exploring beyond the levies on the way to Loyd Hall Plantation and found a community built on 40 foot stilts and a rotting paddle wheel boat:

And we admired the Big Muddy in both Natchez and New Orleans:

But mostly we drank coffee and sat in our rooms admiring the art work:

Until next time.