Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rendezvous on Mystery Street

Instead of spending time talking about something that happened 10 years ago this weekend, I thought I would devote this post to telling a little story about New Orleans via the protagonist of my 2014 NaNoWriMo novel. This is a brand new chapter of the novel, part of my current editing project. Harper's adventure is inspired by my own 2005 Jazz Fest experience; I did get in for free that year because of a friend and we did have to rendezvous on Mystery Street to make it happen. We wanted to see The Meters like everyone else. I hope this honors the spirit of New Orleans as much as anything else I could write.

I Never Travel Far, Without a Little Big Star
May 2005
Rendezvous on Mystery Street
by Harper Monroe

There are certain places that no matter how many times you visit remain as you saw them the first time. Much like the postcard you tuck into a book or memory box, the image is a little worn around the edges but never less vibrant than the first time you were there. If you close your eyes you can see that place and hear it and smell it and remember the feeling of the sun on your face as you walked around and got to know it a bit better. No matter how long you stay away or how often you visit, that first experience is fixed forever in your brain.

New Orleans has always been that place for me. My first trip to the city took place the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. My dad was big on road trips. My older siblings would have preferred a cruise or maybe Hawaii. My mother wanted a nice hotel and no amusement parks.While I don't believe that I was able to truly appreciate all that the city had to offer at the time, I knew in my fifteen year old heart that I would never be able to get New Orleans out of my system. I vividly recall hearing snippets of music as we walked around the French Quarter (I was too young to go in most places) and I have a stack of Polaroids of colorful people and beautiful buildings to take me back. Jackson Square was full of musicians and artists and psychics. My mom wouldn't let me get my palm read in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral but did allow an artist to draw our family for a nominal fee.

New Orleans is probably the most alive place I have ever been. I would never pretend that it is without its problems (all cities have problems and New Orleans seems to have many of them) but there is still something more vital and more spirited about New Orleans despite those problems.

One of my father's favorite albums is Fire On The Bayou the 1975 release from The Meters. I was obsessed with the song "They All Ask'd For You" as a child. We used to dance around the living room every time it would come on. If you don't know The Meters, I suggest you go out and find some of their music...STAT. The band has not appeared with its origin lineup in decades but as fate would have it, they are reuniting for this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I have never been to Jazz Fest. This is my year.

My friend, Marilee, picked me up from the airport with the greatest news. "I got us free tickets for Saturday when The Meters are playing." No hello or how was your flight; just this little nugget of wonderful. I was expecting to pay for tickets but Marilee being Marilee had figured it all out. "I know a guy," she continued. "All we have to do is rendezvous on Mystery Street."

I did a bit of a double take as I gave her a hug. "Could you repeat what you just said?"

Marilee made a face at me and repeated, "All we have to do is rendezvous on Mystery Street."

"You're using the word "rendezvous" like it's something one says casually like 'meet' or 'connect with'."

"Well, it's what we're doing and it's more fun than just saying, 'We have to meet George on Mystery Street.' A rendezvous with a musician is what you need on this trip so we're rendezvousing." Marilee pushed past other arrivals and led the way to the car.

Now before you get all excited for me and envision my running off with a New Orleans musician, you should know that George is 70 and has been happily married to his wife, Dorothy for 45 years. I know, I know it was too good to be true. However, George plays in a jazz band that is on the lineup for the Economy Jazz Tent the same day as The Meters reunion and he has passes for us. We just have to drive into the festival with him as are the rules (or so I'm told). So we are rendezvousing on Mystery Street in two days.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was born in 1970 as a way to celebrate the unique musical culture of New Orleans and Louisiana. The first festival drew a crowd of about 400 people but would grow in popularity to attract hundreds of thousands by the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition to the Louisiana musicians prominently featured on the multiple stages, international artists from around the world make up many of the main stage acts. Marilee's been going since she was a baby; there's a photo of her as an infant sleeping in her mother's arms as her mom sways to the whatever she was listening to. That photo is the reason she and I became friends in college.

The morning of our day at Jazz Fest dawned beautifully. I was up early despite a late night, drinking coffee on Marliee's porch with her cat, Tchoupsy, watching people walk through her neighborhood to the Fair Grounds. They would have to wait in the long line. I would not. Jazz Fest, like any music festival, has a packed, multi-stage lineup each day. Marliee presented me with two options for enjoying our day: schedule ourselves within an inch of our musical lives or wander the Fair Grounds, stopping when we felt like it with the goal of ending up at Sprint/Sanyo stage for the 5:30 Meters show. I selected the latter option. Normally I'm a planner but planning seems wrong for this event. I want to experience a little bit of every type of music I could from gospel to jazz to Cajun to rock and whatever else the festival could offer me.

After a liberal application of sunscreen and a borrowed hat, we set off to our rendezvous on Mystery Street. Marilee lives about six blocks from the edge of the Fair Grounds so it wasn't a long walk. Mystery Street borders the Fair Grounds and is an incredibly unassuming street. There are some lovely shady oak trees on the corner and that is where we found George. He was standing in the shade near his Jeep. He seemed to know everyone or was possibly just very friendly. He saw us approach and started towards us. After introductions were made, we climbed into the car and ventured into the Fair Grounds. George plays the trumpet but since he has the largest car of any of his band members, he was also bringing two trombones, another trumpet, and a tuba in with him. I sat next to the tuba.

George spent the short drive into the festival catching up with Marliee on her family (he went to high school with her grandfather) and recommending a few bands we should check out during the day. We made sure to get the time for his set so we could at least stop by. And then we were in.

What I love about music festivals is the access to so many different types of music and performers in one place. Jazz Fest does not disappoint in this regard; you can't help but be drawn in by the sights and sounds of each area of the fairgrounds. There is so much to see and hear and experience once you make it past the gates and onto the fairgrounds. Stages are arranged around the loop of the racetrack for optimal ground seating. The food booths are easily accessible in two main locations with others sprinkled throughout. I could have stayed all day at the Fais Do-Do stage. There's something addicting about zydeco music; I don't know what it is but it just drew me in. Watching the dancers took me back to my family's living room and dancing around with my parents and siblings (before they got too cool). It's both old-fashioned and modern just like New Orleans.

We did as "planned" and wandered the fairgrounds. Marilee pointed out interesting things (of which there was an abundance), gave me directions to the cleanest bathrooms (back by where they do cooking demonstrations), and outlined her plan of attack for food. Marilee takes Jazz Fest food very seriously. She goes both weekends so as not to miss anything. This weekend the focus would be on crawfish: Monica, bread, pies, fried,etoufee, and boiled. Mango Freeze, iced tea, and beer were also on the list. It seemed excessive but Marilee assured me that it would be just fine; she has this down to a science. By the time we stopped for our first food break, I was starving. I could eat crawfish Monica every day for the rest of my life. I would weigh 700 pounds but I'd probably be very happy.

Time flies when you're having fun and eating your weight in crawfish dishes. Before I knew it, it was time to make our way to the Sprint/Sanyo Stage (what a name) to find a spot for The Meters. It wasn't too crowded yet and we were able to find a place with a good view of the stage. By 5:20 the crowd had grown and people were ready. Since I don't write concert reviews, I'll just say that it was an amazing set. I challenge anyone to sit still when this band plays.Once they got to "Welcome to New Orleans" I had made up my mind not to leave the fairgrounds. I figured I could just live here for the rest of the festival and possibly forever. Totally realistic life goal.

The Meters finished the set with another favorite of mine "Hey, Pocky Way." People danced themselves to the gates and exited to Mystery Street. Jazz Fest is one of those experiences that you have to actually experience. Words don't do it justice. I feel the same way about New Orleans. Do yourself a favor and get there and enjoy it for yourself.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Postcards from Detroit

In 1932, Mexican artist Diego Rivera was commissioned to create a series of murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The murals were commissioned by the museum director and Edsel Ford, the only son of Henry Ford and president of Ford Motor Company. The murals known as The Detroit Industry Murals, are comprised of 27 frescoes depicting a variety of images of the production of an automobile at the River Rouge Factory Complex. Although an avowed Marxist, Rivera had a fascination with the industrial complexes of capitalism. He was particularly interested in places like the River Rouge Factory where the entire process of producing a car took place. Detroit, at the height of the Depression and the automobile revolution, controlled everything that went into producing cars. A factory like the Rouge not only housed every part of production but also the railway system to ship supplies in and out and ultimately, ship finished cars to consumers.

I don't remember if it was in reading his autobiography, My Art, My Life, or in some other article about the murals but if I recall correctly, Rivera spent three months at the Rouge complex observing the factory and its workers and machinery. He also had the assistance of the factory's photographer in documenting the factory. He would use those photographs as part of his preparation for the murals. The murals were finished in record time; eight months working his assistants and himself to almost to death. At one point, his assistants protested the poor wages and working conditions much like their brethren protesting the working conditions in factories around the country (when they could find a job that was).

What's interesting about the murals is the depiction of multiple themes of industrialization and industry. The entire production of a car is depicted, including Ford's famous V8 engine and the line workers (check out the DIA's website for an amazing interactive online exhibit; my photos are a little sad). The workers seem one with the machines (very Marxist but also very capitalist at the same time). He also depicts images of chemical manufacturing, showing how this type of science can be used to both harm (images of poison gas) and to heal (images depicting the creation of vaccines). He also weaves in references to an Aztec goddess (important in Aztec creation mythology) and to figures Rivera called the "Four Races" that line the top of each of the walls. There's a tremendous amount of symbolism and meaning within the murals; I'm sure you can find other resources out there to explain them better than I can. The murals were given status as a National Historic Landmark in 2014.

During my recent vacation, I spent part of an afternoon at the DIA viewing the murals again and visiting some other works within the collection. I have fond childhood memories of the DIA, mostly because of the suits of armor that line the Great Hall that leads into Rivera Court where the murals live. I can't say that I really remember the murals from these childhood visits but I know that we walked through that area to get to other parts of the museum my dad was fond of; Medieval and Renaissance art. I've visited a few times as an adult and am always a bit awestruck standing in front of the murals. There's a lot to see and take in. My brother overheard a docent telling a little boy about Rivera's signature; it's teeny tiny compared to the size of the work. I had never noticed or even thought to look before. A nice little discovery on this visit.

Our stop at the museum came after an afternoon out and about in downtown Detroit with my aunt. She's my mother's younger sister and lives about a mile and a half from where they grew up in Southwest Detroit. In the late 80s when others were moving to the suburbs, she and her husband bought and restored a house in the Corktown neighborhood across from Tiger Stadium (sadly now gone but finally open as a park; we saw kids playing baseball there on this trip). I admire my aunt for lots of reasons but her dedication to Detroit is high on the list. She is a Detroiter; she has the kind of attachment and sense of place about her that I only wish to have. She supports Detroit and fights for it and defends it and criticizes it passionately. She doesn't sugarcoat Detroit; that would be naive and naive is not a word I would ever use to describe my aunt. Every time I've come to Detroit alone or with my brother as an adult, she makes sure to take us around on a tour of what's changed and what's going on. I've never asked her but I think it's her way of anchoring us to our true home. She made a comment about Detroit being our "home" on this trip and in some ways, she's right.

Detroit has been undergoing a fairly radical revitalization in the last few years. It seems that everyone has an interest in Detroit these days from the billionaires to the hipsters to the bougie wannabes looking for the next "It" place. Some great things have come out of this; I'm not going to pretend that seeing new buildings and restoration of historic landmarks and homes and of regular old homes and buildings isn't a great thing. However, and I think my aunt would agree, there's a fine line between revitalization and gentrification. I think certain pockets of Detroit are precariously skating that line. Detroit feels a bit schizophrenic or maybe like it's having an identity crisis.

Which brings me back to Diego Rivera and the murals. As I looked at the murals on this visit to the DIA, I got to thinking: what would Rivera paint today? How would he define Detroit industry right now? Would it be the intricate work of the watchmakers at Shinola or maybe the purveyors of Detroit Denim? Or maybe it is Dan Gilbert and his Quicken Loans empire? What about the breweries and distilleries around town? Could it be the sports complexes downtown or maybe the casinos that have taken over Greektown? Maybe it wouldn't be any of these things; maybe Rivera would be a graffiti artist or work in found objects or something else terribly urban and modern. I don't have an answer to this question but I've been thinking about it since Saturday. What is industry anymore?

I'm going to guess that it's not going to be the random beach that's taken over part of Campus Martius Park. Apparently this has been a summer thing since 2013 but this is the first time I've ever heard of it or seen it. It's a beach as brought to you by Ikea. Keep in mind that the Detroit River is not that far away but there is no water here. Just the sandy part of the beach and a grill and tables to enjoy the sun. It seems pretty popular and I guess if I worked downtown something like the beach might be a nice distraction. Not the stuff of murals but an oasis in an urban landscape.

My aunt, brother, and I embrace our Polish roots.

A Rock N Rye slurpee - delicious although we were on the hunt for the Vernor's slurpee but no luck.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Roller Coasters

There is a ride at Cedar Point called the maXair. It's what's known as a giant frisbee in the amusement park business (I looked it up). The one at Cedar Point is one of only two in the world (the other is at Kings Island). It's not a roller coaster so there are no loops or crazy drops but it is one of the most addicting rides I've ever been on. There are 50 seats on the giant frisbee and at the peak of the two minute ride, it soars to 180 feet and twists and turns at 70 mph. There are several moments when you're upside down and several more when you think you might hit one of the large orange poles that support the ride. Mostly, it's the sensation of soaring and not having any control over the air or the motion. You can close your eyes (it's cool if you do at least for a little while) or watch people on the ground watching you. On a sunny day, you can see the beautiful blue sky and fluffy perfect clouds It's peaceful despite the risk involved in being that high in the air, spinning at that speed, and the only thing holding you in is a small seat beat and a plastic shoulder harness. I rode the maXair twice on my recent (and first) visit to Cedar Point. I could have ridden forty more.

I love roller coasters and thrill rides. I can't remember my first real roller coaster (although I believe it may have been Space Mountain at Disney World) but I know that I've always loved them. It's amazing to me that large groups of people will wait in line for hours (sometimes) to ride something that is usually over in less than three minutes. There is a definite rush when riding on a roller coaster; the climb to the top followed by what is normally a crazy drop that segues right into a twist that takes you upside down and around is thrilling. Even old school wooden coasters pack a certain type of punch with their drops, usually in quick succession, and the realization that wooden tracks maybe shouldn't curve the way they do. I imagine it's like what descending into a gold mine was like back in the day.

Lake Erie
            My brother and I try to go to an amusement park each summer. We don't always make it and obviously there was that whole period of time that I lived in other states where this didn't happen as frequently either. Last summer we took a random weekday off in August and went to Kings Dominion. It was a perfectly overcast day and we basically had the run of the park. This summer we decided to visit Cedar Point on our way to Detroit. I've never been to Cedar Point and Scott can't remember when he was there last. Cedar Point is right on Lake Erie and I've been told that you can see Canada from the top of the Millennium Force. I don't know if that's true because I was too busy screaming as we dropped from 300 feet. We visited on a picture perfect day, blue skies, temperatures in the 70s. It was windy though and a few rides were closed because of this.

Neither of us are particularly chatty when it comes to strangers but we did end up talking to two groups, one in line at the Raptor and the other on the Gemini. The wait for the Raptor was about an hour, the longest wait we had all day. In front of us was a little boy sporting a Darth Vader shirt ("Chillin' Like A Villain" it read), bright red hair, and the kind of enthusiasm only children under 12 have for anything. He was with his grandparents and was excited to be riding the Raptor for the first time. His grandmother started the conversation with me asking if I had ridden the Raptor before and when her grandson heard me say no, he asked me if I was scared and if I thought it was going to be cool. Yes, I told him to both questions. We talked about the park a bit and she told me he had recently ridden Space Mountain for the first time. We didn't get to ride the Raptor at the same time; they went before us. I saw them a little later on heading towards the Blue Streak and the little boy looked perfectly content and excited to be on another roller coaster. He made me wonder if any of my grandparents would have ever ridden giant roller coasters with me.

The other conversation we had occurred on the Gemini (and I do mean on the ride). A brother and sister were sitting in the car in front of us. She was probably 11 or so and he was 8 or 9 (so my brother and I except Scott is older than me). As we ascended to the start of the ride, the two of them turned to us and started telling us how awesome Gemini was and that the blue car always cheated (it's a dual run coaster so the cars leave at the same time and run on parallel tracks - we were on the orange car) and that we should ride Millennium Force and to avoid the Slingshot (which you have to pay extra for anyway). I can barely say anything other than "This was a bad life choice" or "Are you f-ing joking" when experiencing the first drop or extreme loop on a ride (these are exact quotes by the way) so I was impressed and slightly uncomfortable with their conversation skills. These two were just chatting with us like it was no big thing. They had absolutely no fear of what was about to occur. Their excitement was so awesome; it made me realize that I want to be like them every day. When the ride ended, we exited and moved on to other rides. They got right back in line for the Gemini. I assume they're still there hoping that this one time the blue car won't cheat and the orange car will win.

Our favorite rides of the day were the Millennium Force, Magnum XL-200, and the Gatekeeper. The Magnum was the surprise of the day; we got through the line quickly both times we rode it and it was a shocker. When it was built in the late 80s, it was the tallest, fastest, and steepest coaster in the world. I can absolutely agree with all of these things. During our second ride, the woman in front of us almost lost the small purse she had after a drop and a turn. Impressive. It also includes tunnels; I love tunnels and roller coasters that take place in the dark. Not actually being able to see what's coming makes a roller coaster even better in my opinion.

We finished our day enjoying ice cream in the breeze of Lake Erie. I was able to accomplish on of my summer goals by enjoying my first Superman ice cream in probably twenty years. It tasted exactly as I remember it from my childhood...delicious.

Waiting in line for the Millennium Force - finally a picture where Scott is making a face not me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Heirloom Tomatoes, Creamsicle Cakes, and Rage

I made a deal with myself when I came back from California that I would cook more and try some new recipes I've been saving. I do this all the time; I find recipes and then I never make them. For whatever reason, this promise made me think of a story from my childhood. I have no actual memory of this event. It's just what my family has recounted. Over and over and over again. It goes like this:

I used to rock hats pretty regularly.
When I was around 4 or 5, my Grandpa K (my mom's dad; K is for Korzeniowski) ended up babysitting me one day. I'm sure this was not on his list of favorite activities but he did it because that's what grandpas do. He was a quiet man; later in life he would inexplicably become a raging country music fan and do a daily crossword puzzle to keep his mind sharp (two things I also love). He also had the most amazing head of hair; not a hint of gray even when he was in his 80s. I wish I could say the same thing about my own hair. Anyway, he had to watch me the whole day so that meant he had to make me lunch. I assume I also took a nap at some point and played in the backyard (making mudpies, a hobby of mine at the time). Later on my mom asked me about my day with grandpa. I told her grandpa fed me dog food.

My mother loves telling this story, particularly the part about the dog food. My grandpa did not feed me dog food; he fed me chili but my 5 year old self saw dog food. However, I ate it and didn't question his choices which says something about our relationship. I had probably never had chili before. How would I know? If I ever get married, my mother will tell this story at my wedding.

I've never enjoyed cooking. I can cook and am pretty good at it as long as there's a recipe or it's something I've made a million times. I'm not saying the dog food/chili incident has anything to do with my cooking habits but it's a funny story to tell when I think about food and cooking. When you're single and don't have roommates, cooking is not as easy or as much fun. You either have to make sad meals for one, figure out how to cut recipes without losing the taste, or resign yourself to eating the same thing for days. Freezing leftovers is an option but I always forget about them and end up of throwing too much food away. Wasteful.

However, I need to challenge myself in this area. There is no reason to eat frozen food or eggs or cereal for dinner (at least not all the time). I am capable of making a homemade creamsicle cake so
clearly I can get more inventive in the kitchen. I decided to start simply with a recipe that involves virtually no cooking but would require me to do two things I'm not particularly fond of doing:
  1. Use a food processor. My food processor and I have a hate/hate relationship for no apparent reason.
  2. Go to a farmers' market on a Saturday.
I know, I know. I'm a white woman in my thirties who lives in a quasi-urban area. Farmers' markets are supposed to be my thing like fancy coffee and wearing yoga pants as real pants. I like supporting local farmers and other small businesses. I enjoy buying delicious sourdough bread from this one baker because it reminds me of the delicious bread I used to buy at the Oakland Famers' Market. The cucumbers and peaches I bought on this trip were some of the best I have had this summer and the grape tomatoes were the definition of perfection. The flower guys are the best; this time around I got a crab dip recipe, pointers for how to store the baguette I purchased if I wasn't going to eat it right away, and a beautiful sunflower that is still alive a week later.

I go to the market in Old Town Alexandria. I've been going for years so I'm familiar with the layout and most of the farmers and vendors who come out weekly. I don't go every week; maybe once a month. I still get a little overwhelmed at the sheer volume of things for sale (it all looks so delicious) and I feel a tad guilty that I can't buy something from everyone but such is life. This is not what I don't like about farmers' markets. No, what gets me about the market is the other people. Not the regulars who know what they're shopping for and who walk with purpose around Market Square. It's the amblers, the stop in the middle of the flow of traffic-ers, and the people with insanely large baby carriages that drive me into a rage. There is not enough room for this kind of nonsense. By all means bring your children, but don't bring a small car. If you don't know where something is, step to the side so others can get by you. These are the people that make me unleash my inner Miranda Priestly. All I want is heirloom tomatoes and you are in the way.

I don't normally buy heirloom tomatoes (scratch that, I have never bought heirloom tomatoes) but I wanted them for this very simple, no cook recipe featuring heirloom tomatoes, avocado, red onion, french bread, garlic, and cheese. Basically everything that is good and delicious in life. The only things I had to make were the herb dressing (Erin-1, Food Processor-0) and roasted garlic olive oil. To get to the heirloom tomatoes I had to dodge two large baby carriages (with super cute babies so there's a positive), an ambler, a couple in matching workout clothes who were criticizing people for not bringing their own bags, and a trio of young women, sipping coffee and stopping every five seconds to complain about their other friend who stood them up that morning. They're the ones that stopped in front of the tomatoes. Yes, I asked them to move. Politely. Did they listen? After the third request. One of them rolled her eyes at me. Youths.

Did I have to go to the farmers' market? No, but I wanted to. There was something about this meal that made me want to go there. I wanted to have the full experience of talking with the people who grow the vegetables and watching people buy unnecessary items and discuss the price of eggs with some random guy selling them from a card table. I wanted to see other people get exasperated with the amblers and baby carriages and get recipe tips from the flower guy. That's so much more summery and fun than going to the grocery.

I truly believe that I'm turning into the little old lady I will be one day faster and faster every day. If it's not old lady concert rules, it's dealing with the youths at the farmers' market or questioning the choices of a person who crosses a busy street while texting. I don't mean to be a curmudgeon but sometimes I can't help myself. 

I started my week with heirloom tomatoes and home infused olive oil and ended it with a simple dish my mom told me about, another Grandpa K original: cottage cheese, onions, and pasta. Easy, simple, and surprisingly delicious.

Glacial Pace meme

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Short Story Hour: Pickles and the Masked Marauder

Welcome to another Pickles adventure! If you want to read previous Pickles stories, click HERE.

Something was up. Pickles didn't know what but there had been a flurry of activity around the house in the last few days. She watched most of if from one of two perches: the back of the couch and the top level of her box fort. This morning, her human rolled out the box on wheels from the hall closet and laid it on her bed. Stacks of clothes were being amassed. Pickles had been shooed out of the laundry basket twice (so warm) and was now watching the activity suspiciously from the couch. She could see into her human's bedroom from where she sat.

"She knows. Look at her watching me pack." Amelia glanced at the cat as she folded and packed her suitcases.

"Pickles is naturally curious and suspicious. I think those are her finest cat traits." Danny was sitting on the other end of the couch, watching the end of a baseball game. "You travel for work so it's not like she's being left for the first time."

"True but normally you or Natalie come here to watch her. She never goes anywhere so it's not as upsetting." Amelia was looking forward to their two week road trip but was feeling guilty about leaving Pickles behind.

"She will be fine. Your parents will spoil her rotten. I read somewhere that cats don't have any concept of time so she probably won't realize how long we've been gone." The cat had moved from her perch to Danny's lap and was staring at him.

"Right. Pickles never forgets. Anything."

The next day
The car was packed and ready to go. The only thing left to do was put Pickles in her carrier and drop her off at her "grandparents'" house. Amelia's parents were looking forward to two weeks of cat-sitting. From what Amelia could gather, they had purchased a cat jungle, toys, and treats. Amelia's dad told her he planned to buy the cat's affection. He was prepared to hand feed her treats if it came down to that. It wasn't that Pickles didn't like other people; it's just that she liked Amelia (and to a lesser extent, Danny) so much more.

Amelia waited until the last possible second to get out the cat carrier. She couldn't decide which part Pickles hated more: the carrier or the car ride. Hopefully, today's trip would consist of minimal meowing and sad cat noises.

"Pickles!" Amelia called out to the cat. Pickles had been hiding all morning.

Pickles was under the bed. This was the second best hiding place in the apartment (the best was in the closet among her human's shoes). She watched her humans walk around the bedroom looking for her. She heard her name but chose to ignore it. If she could stay hidden she wouldn't have to face her nemeses: the carrier and the car. No matter what she did, they always won. Pickles backed further under the bed. She thought, "If my human can't get to me, I won't have to go. I'm a genius."

A pair of shoes stopped in front of Pickles line of sight. They were not her human's shoes but the new human's, the one that was around all the time now. Pickles liked him; they had similar napping habits. She was fairly certain that she had been discovered. Her choices were to move further back or to make a run for it. She moved further back.

Danny crouched down and saw Pickles in the exact center of the space under the bed, just out of arm's reach. "She's under the bed." Amelia joined him to assess the situation.

"Of course she's in the exact place where we can't reach her."

Amelia was used to this. Pickles did it every time she had to go to the vet. "I've got this. I can fit under the bed just enough to get her to move towards us. Be ready to grab her when she bolts." Amelia laid down on the ground and shimmied her way to just under the bed. She could just pet Pickles and that little movement forced the cat to move. Pickles moved quickly but Danny was ready. He scooped her up and held her. Amelia got out from under the bed and took the cat from him. "You're no match for two of us, Pickles." Pickles meowed and tried to wiggle out of her human's arms.

"Sorry little one. Into the carrier you go." Amelia closed the carrier door and tried to soothe the howling cat. "You're fine. Nothing bad is going to happen to you."

Nemesis: 1, Pickles: 0

A few days later
Pickles sat in the doorway still as a statue. The house was nighttime quiet; the click of the AC was the only noise this time of night. Daytime was for napping and snacks; nighttime was for doing cat things. This mostly translated to night patrol duty, trying to get into closets, and knocking things off shelves. The challenge for Pickles was the sheer size of the house; compared to her human's house, this place was a mansion. There were so many rooms to explore and items to knock over. She couldn't let the other humans see her work. That wasn't the cat way.

She glanced left and right down the hall and saw that the coast was clear. It was finally her time to do a thorough patrol of the house. Pickles couldn't believe the amount of windows this place had. There were even some so high up the walls that she'd never be able to look out of them. Her night patrol duties started in the kitchen; she jumped on the counter, looked out the window over the sink, checked the top of the refrigerator, and ended by looking out at the backyard through the patio doors. It was as it should be until she go to the patio doors. Something was out there. Pickles approached the doors cautiously, not wanting to startle her "prey" with her movements (sometimes Pickles jumped in cat ninja mode while on night patrol). She was as close to the glass as she could be, her front paws rested on the edge of the door. Her eyes focused on the intruder. She had never seen anything like it before.

The intruder was at least twice as big as Pickles and taller. He (she assumed it was a he) was playing with the bird feeders on the patio. Several plants were overturned; Pickles suspected this creature was responsible for that too. He turned towards Pickles and she saw black ringed eyes and paws that were very unlike hers. The two animals stared at each other. Neither moved nor made any sounds. Pickles puffed herself up, thinking she looked intimidating (she did not). The intruder made a little noise and Pickles responded with a growl she typically reserved for spiders and the vet. Her growl didn't seem to phase him one bit. He walked closer to the window and tapped on the glass. Pickles growled again and meowed loudly. She swatted at the glass to make him go away. The intruder made a final noise, grabbed a handful of seeds, and made his way off of the patio.

Pickles paced in front of the door. Her mission was clear: she had to protect the house from whatever that was. Her human had left her here for a reason; Pickles understood this now. She settled in for a long night staring out into the dark and protecting her new humans from the menacing evil that lived in the backyard.

The day before Amelia's return
Amelia's parents, Barbara and Jim, enjoyed having their daughter's cat stay with them. Amelia and Danny checked in occasionally from their road trip and Barbara assured them that Pickles was just fine.

"She seems incredibly interested in the backyard. Every morning we find her sitting right in front of the back door as if she's been there all night. She looks like she's on a mission." Barbara told her daughter in their last phone call.

"Pickles likes to patrol. Maybe she's watching out for all those birds and squirrels you seem to attract." Amelia's parents had multiple bird feeders, a bird bath, and left out food for the squirrels. She was surprised they didn't attract other woodland creatures.

"Than must be it. Your dad thinks we have a raccoon. Maybe she's keeping an eye out for him."

Barbara and Jim were up earlier than normal this morning. They had a full day of errands to run and wanted to get them out of the way. Jim was in the kitchen first and heard a growling noise as he walked into the room. His first thought was that something was outside. Instead he saw Pickles, standing on her back legs, all puffed up, and making the awful sound he heard. He looked out onto the patio and there it was, a raccoon. The raccoon was right up near the glass and would tap on it and make a sound. This made Pickles growl more and swat at the glass. Jim wanted to get a better look at what was happening but ended up bumping into a chair instead. The noise startled the two animals; the raccoon ran off across the yard and Pickles meowed at him.

"So it is a raccoon! You've been trying to tell us we have an intruder. Good work, Pickles. I'll have to figure out how to keep the raccoon off the patio and away from the tomatoes. Let's get you some breakfast." Pickles flumped down and Jim rubbed her belly. She had done her best to protect these humans from the creature. She was a hero. She was also tired; patrolling was exhausting. She hoped her favorite sun patch would be back today; right on the stairs, right in the way of everyone.

Back at home
The car ride home was uneventful. Pickles got into her carrier with no hiding or protesting and hadn't meowed once. She was tuckered out and ready to be home.

"I think two weeks with my parents wore her out. I didn't think that was actually possible." Amelia let Pickles out into the familiar surroundings of the apartment. She and Danny went to unpack the car.

Pickles stretched and sat for a moment, considering her domain. She was much happier with the smaller space and fewer windows. Her adventures with her masked adversary had been fun but she felt as if she had accomplished nothing. He was still out there somewhere, stealing bird food and making messes. They would meet again some day and Pickles would be ready.

Until that time, she would keep up her patrol duties and hone her cat ninja skills. A cat could never be too prepared. But first, another nap. All heroes needed their rest.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Back in Alameda

I'm not aware of any songs about Alameda so instead we'll begin with this.

Wasn't Michael Douglas's hair something to behold? It is worth a little time going back and watching episodes of this show if you have nothing better to do and are interested in binge-watching mid-70s cop shows. And you should always be interested in binge-watching mid-70s cop shows.

Anyway, I spent the last week in San Francisco attending a conference on employee engagement at a super fancy hotel with 300 other HR and organizational effectiveness professionals (I know you're all envisioning a raging party - I don't believe I was invited to it.). Presenters included HR representatives from companies like Hulu, Tesla, Clif Bars, Columbia Sportswear, and Stitchfix. I wonder if they took a bus together from the Silicon Valley or something equally hilarious and ironic all at the same time.

Since I was attending the pre-conference workshop on Monday, I arrived Sunday morning with a plan to visit the place where the blog began - the island of Alameda. I haven't been back to California since I moved away three years ago. I keep up to date on all things East Bay through my friends on Facebook and via email but it's just not the same. July is an excellent time to visit Northern California weather-wise and part of the beauty of work travel is visiting people you know while still doing your job. That's a win in my book.

The plan was to meet my friends, Joe and Sue, at the West Oakland BART station and then we'd have a drink at Forbidden Island before going to see a show at Altarena Playhouse. This plan combines two of my favorite Alameda pastimes: drinking at a tiki bar and going to the theatre. It also meant that I got to see a bunch of people I would not have otherwise seen.

To say Alameda is a unique place would be like saying DC is a political city. I believe I once described Alameda as being both provincial and hipster. It has a old time-y quality to it that's juxtaposed with cool kid things like artisanal cheese shops, hipster parents and their ironic statement babies, and multiple apiaries. People often joke that Alameda is where "hipsters come to breed" but it's not really a joke. It's a truth. Alameda is affordable, pleasant, and just cool enough for those leaving "the city" (San Francisco) to raise their families.

I loved living in Alameda. My move to California came at a time in my life when I needed a change and I needed to be outside of the Virginia/DC area. I didn't know anyone when I moved out there and that was both awesome and incredibly scary. While I never felt at home in Alameda, I felt it was the right place for me at the time. It was close enough to my office in Oakland so my commute was never bad. There's plenty to do and lots of restaurants and coffee shops to please every taste. Altarena Playhouse is a landmark; it's one of the oldest continuously operating community theatres in the Bay Area. There's a bowling alley, tiki bar, and two decent donut shops. What more could you want in a place to live? I remember having a conversation with a friend not too long before I moved that the only thing missing on the island was a Target. Had there been a Target I would never have to leave the island (except for work). It would have been glorious.

Guess what? Alameda got a Target! And an In N Out Burger! I leave and the Target opens. Joe was kind enough to drive my past the new store as we made our way into town. Look at how pretty it is.


Of course, it's also located near my first apartment so it would have been super easy to get to and enjoy. As excited as I am for Alameda, I have to admit that I'm surprised it's there. Given that Alameda is one of those places where no matter how long you live there you'll never truly be a local, a Target seems too off island. Island residents tend to dislike chain stores of any kind but the feedback has been pretty positive for Target. That's a great thing. From what my friends told me, it's only one part of more planned development on the island. This includes redevelopment of the old naval base and additional improvements and new businesses. Change can be hard but it's also necessary to move forward.

Many of the sessions presented during the conference focused on the importance of storytelling in employee engagement. Several presenters discussed the idea that personal stories are as much a part of a company as its products and services. It's those personal stories that create the culture of an organization and make it a place people want to be. Had I never lived in Alameda, I doubt I would have started this blog and started telling my story and stories as I've done over the four years since the Island was born. Many of the friends I saw on this trip are champions of this blog and for that, I thank them. It was nice to visit even if just for a little while. Maybe next time I'll get to stay a little longer and buy some unnecessary items at Target (as one does when traveling) and have a burger at In N Out (seriously, please come to the East Coast). What's nice to know is that even though I'll never be a local, I'll always be welcome in Alameda.

I brought Angry Unikitty (from my Lego figure army) with me on this trip. I may have played tourist a bit in San Francisco. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

That's not how this works...

It's hard to explain the allure of movies like Sharknado or Sharknado 2. Neither film was particularly good but both were so bad that they were amusing. Two hours of ridiculous is sometimes exactly what I need in my life. I've written three posts about the movies and experienced my first true live tweeting event last year during the sequel's premiere. To say that I was excited about the third installment would be an understatement. I planned to live tweet with the wonderful Jessica (check out her blog Neek Confessional when you're done here) and was excited that the third movie was taking place at least partially in DC. What could be better?

I'll tell you what - the other two Sharknado movies. The third movie was many things: a long-form commercial for NBC and all of its holdings, ridiculous (in a less than good way), sort of funny, but ultimately just boring. It didn't have the same humor as the first two. Basically Sharknado 3 was trying too hard. It was too Sharknado-y if such a thing is possible. More importantly, it left me with way too many unanswered questions and none of them are about the science of these movies. If you have questions about the science of the Sharknado movies you should not be watching.

Let's dive in (see what I did there?) to the twelve questions left unanswered by Sharknado 3:
  1. At the start of the movie after an inexplicable run through DC (more on this in a moment), Fin shows up at the White House to receive the Medal of Freedom from President Mark Cuban. Why is April, his wife who apparently loves him very much, not with him for this very important event? Sugar Ray is there (he played April's brother in the second movie) but she's not. Now she is pregnant and travel could be an issue but the woman gets on a space shuttle later in the movie with no mind to her unborn child so she couldn't have taken a train? I don't understand.
  2. The entire sequence in DC is confusing. I've lived in the area a total of 12 years and I could not for the life of me figure out where Fin was for most of the section. It was filmed here so obviously they used real streets and scenery but none of it makes any sense. Is this how everyone views DC? Do all non-residents (and I'm grouping the DMV as residents) believe that the White House is next door to the Capitol? Do you think that the Secret Service just knows where a person would be and is automatically able to just be there?
  3.  Why would the nation blame April and Fin for all the sharknadoes? Are they wizards? Do people believe in magic now? In the first movie, there's this bit of dialogue towards the end about government conspiracies being responsible for the sharknado so I get the paranoia but I don't get this. Is the movie trying to make a statement about fame and blame? 
  4. What happened to Fin and April's son? The daughter, Claudia, is a central figure in this movie (she's 18 now, totally knows her way around a gun, and watches a sort of dorky guy die after kissing her - you know, normal teenage girl stuff) but no son. There is a quick line about him after Nova reappears ("Still not a stripper.") but that's it. And then the decision is made to make Nova seem like she's going after Fin...a lot. And in a creepy way. If the fourth movie does not bring this guy back and let him finish the sharknadoes once and for all, I quit all further Sharknado movies.
  5. Has Frankie Muniz aged? Or is he living in some sort of environment that preserves his youthful appearance? He's 30 years old. 
  6. As in the first two movies, cameos abound in Sharknado 3. However, the third movie moves beyond musicians, NBC personalities, and original Mtv VJs. There seemed to be more political figures and pundits in this movie than any of the previous ones. Is appearing in Sharknado 3 (or future movies) the new way to maintain political relevance? Michele Bachmann, Anthony Weiner, Ann Coulter, and Jerry Springer (technically a politician) all make appearances. 
  7. While we're on the subject of cameos, do you want to know why the next Game of Thrones book isn't done? It's because George R.R. Martin is too busy making a cameo in Sharknado 3. He dies just like all of your dreams about finding out what actually happens in the book.
  8. We've established that no one knows how the White House or DC works, but I have to ask do you really think this is how military bases work? There is no way in any version of the universe that these clowns would be allowed on a military base because Fin's the guy that saved New York from a sharknado. I don't care who he knows and who his dad ends up being (more on this in a moment) that's not how this works.
  9. Nova was a favorite character of mine from the first movie. It was disappointing that she was not in the second one; April is boring and terrible. Nova is a better lead. My question is this: why did she and Fin end up in their underwear after the first plane crash? Is there some phenomena surrounding a crashing plane that sucks the clothes off of a person? Furthermore, where did they get their new outfits once they got out of the water?
  10. The cameo you've all been waiting for: David Hasselhoff! Actually, I wasn't waiting for this at all but I can totally see him as Fin's dad. Makes absolute sense. But let's be honest, who would trust David Hasselhoff to pilot a space shuttle
    PS - Benefit Cosmetics was on of the favorites on this tweet. Day made.
  11. Sharknado 3 is one big commercial for NBCUniversal from the move to Orlando to the other properties like the "Today" show and NASCAR but what about the fact that the mission control center for NASA was really a Comcast call center? I have no proof of this whatsoever but seriously this is the only thing in the entire movie that makes any bit of sense.
  12. Lots of improbable things happen at the end of the movie involving a space mission, sharks living in space (a rejected Muppets title - probably), April in space, and April giving birth in the belly of a shark as it plummets from space back to Earth. As I'm not concerned with the science of this movie, the only important question to ask is this: Should April live or die? The makers of the franchise want us, the viewing public, to decide her fate. You can vote over at SyFy if you're so inclined. I would counter this question with this: Does it even matter and do we care? April is my least favorite character so I wouldn't be sad if she wasn't part of the next movie. I think the missing Shepard son needs to own the fourth movie and maybe take on the mantle of sharknado slayer from his dad. He and Nova can reunite and they'll both have a reason to continue the shark revenge plan Nova has had since the first movie. That's the only thing that makes sense in the grand scheme of these movies. 
There you go; I watched Sharknado 3 so you don't have to. You can thank me later.

Esurance meme
Frankie Muniz
Other images by me