Monday, December 31, 2007

It's official (unedited)

The Queen is now a wife.

There was little doubt. Little did I know I'd have an important role in it happening, but I did.

Saturday was quiet and low key for me. I dipped my feet in the pool in the afternoon prior to the wedding, but otherwise it was an uneventful day leading up to the wedding, held on the public beach in Marco Island. It wasn't crowded on the beach at 4:15 p.m., but there were numerous people who were curious as to what was going on, as one would expect.

Other than the bride's simple white dress, you wouldn't immediately realize there was a wedding about to take place. I suppose the fact four women wore the same basic black dress, while four men wore matching black shirts and tan shorts, gave something away. The most obvious sign was the metal arch we constructed and tied flowers around. That stood near the water, with the bride and groom underneath it during the ceremony.

While it wasn't particularly wavy that day, the small waves lapping at the shore were enough to make it difficult to hear the minister as she faced the wedding party. With about 15 of us standing behind her watching, we heard very little. Oh well, it was your basic ceremony, I didn't miss anything fascinating.

My job began immediately after the ceremony. The Queen forgot to bring her marriage license. Although the minister is supposed to have it before the ceremony, it was decided it could wait. That's where I came in. I was nominated to run back to the house where The Queen and her husband were staying. I'm not sure if there was a reason why the signing of the license couldn't wait until Sunday, but I was asked to fetch it, with a sense of urgency about the whole thing.

There I was, running across the beach toward my car, directions in hand. I was on a mission. Despite a little trouble finding the bag containing the manila folder which contained the envelope with the licenses in it, I succeeded, much to the relief of The Queen, who was standing by on my brother's phone, hoping I would find it. (She wasn't sure where it was, but was convinced it was in the bedroom of the house. She was right, but my delay in finding it caused a moment of panic.)

If not me, then someone else, but as far as I'm concerned, if it wasn't for me, The Queen and her boyfriend wouldn't be husband and wife.

While I enjoyed having an important job on the wedding day, I missed a couple entertaining moments.

The area of the beach where we chose to hold the ceremony, was down the beach a little ways from the public access point to the beach. That was to get away from the highest concentration of people on the beach. As it turned out, we chose an area near a decent size hole somebody had dug into the beach, which seemed to be entirely covered with tiny shells. The only indication of sand along the Marco Island beach was right at the edge of the water.

After I departed, the minister -- an older woman -- managed to step into this rather sizable hole, and down she went. She wasn't hurt, it turns out, and most people thought it was funny, although they had to hold in their laughter when she fell, I learned.

While I missed one of those "America's Funniest Videos" moments, I also missed the starstruck goofball offering the celebrity a beer. When we arrived at the public parking lot for the beach, several people were standing around waiting for the rest of the wedding entourage to arrive. The celebrity was amongst them.

A shirtless dude in his 50s, holding a bag of chips, immediately recognized the celebrity, which surprised me a bit. He didn't think twice about jumping into our circle to say hello and shake his hand. I thought it was a bit bizarre that this guy was so enamored by an actor young enough to be his son, but even old guys can be starstruck, I guess.

But it didn't stop there. The dude found his way to where we were on the beach and made sure to greet the celebrity again. At this point I knew the guy was creepy. He seemed to watch our wedding entourage for quite a while from a short distance, seemingly pointing out to a few people he was talking to that the celebrity was part of our group. I found that rather tacky. At a bar, I understand it, but when the celebrity is at the beach for a wedding, leave him be.

While a few people were fascinated by the idea that a wedding was taking place on the beach, and a few others were aware that a celebrity was amongst the wedding party, most people paid no more than a glance if they were passing by, which I thought was nice.

The celebrity stalker, however, wasn't finished. I missed it since I was on my mission, but the stalker had returned to the parking lot prior to the wedding party, waiting for the celebrity to make his way back. Now with a shirt on, the stalker jumped out of his vehicle, with a beer for the celebrity, and proceeded to talk to him again, pointing out he is buying real estate in the area and is a semi-retired life coach who thinks he could help the celebrity. I was a bit dumbfounded when I heard the story, but I bet crazy shit like that happens to the celebrity all the time.

I'm guessing the one thing the life coach doesn't teach is tactfulness.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Surreal (unedited)

I've seen touristy Florida before, but somehow the surrealness of it still boggles my mind.

On Friday afternoon I made a cameo at the local Pubix grocery store. I was looking for a little booze and figured a state that sells single cans of beer in its convenience stores would sell liquor in its grocery stores. I was wrong. You could get beer at Pubix, you can get plenty of wine at Pubix, but vodka and gin, those are taboo. Instead I had to go across the highway to a Walgreen's, which has a separate little liquor store. Why there wasn't a normal liquor store in the area I don't know.

The area where we're staying is on the outskirts of Naples, and it's bizarre. There are tons of resort developments all clustered together, along with housing developments. The housing developments around here aren't that spectacular. They look like nice houses, decent in size, but these aren't gigantic mansions. I'm sure they're high buck nonetheless, and it's odd to see that some of these developments have gated entrances. It must be a vanity thing. Burglars in Miami are never going to find their way across the state to some remote area outside of Naples, and if they do, I'm sure every home in the development has a security system. The gated entrances seem to be a bit of overkill, but it must make people feel better about their status in life.

What I can't figure out is what the hell you do around here if you live in one of these developments. I guess you go golfing somewhere on a daily basis, or perhaps you have a boat docked somewhere and you drive to your marina. But I'm use to real cities, like Minneapolis, where parks, corner convenience stores, neighborhood hardware stores, bars and restaurants all intermingle. You don't see any of that. I'm sure people know their neighbors and have places to go and things do to. Perhaps they all drive into Naples to go bowling, see a movie, check out a library book or rent a DVD. But you don't do that around these developments, for whatever reason. I don't care how much money you have to have to live here, I don't care how sterile and white it is around here, I don't care if the beautiful gated neighborhood is simply a winter residence for people with too much money, it seems so artificial and bland.

From there the surrealness got worse. After talking to my buddy Roast Beef for an hour, and learning he's getting married in February in Maui, marking another chapter in his bizarre life, I headed to Marco Island for cocktails with the wedding entourage. Wow, that was more entertaining than I would have imagined.

My cousin, The Queen, is getting married to her longtime boyfriend. Her boyfriend grew up with a dude who is a bonafide celebrity. I have seen him in at least seven movies, including two as a co-star, so yeah, he's a celebrity. The bar we were at was on the water, so it draws its share of people each evening. When the wedding party arrived there after the dinner, word of the celebrity's appearance spread quickly.

Our group gathered upstairs from the bar, on a patio overlooking the water. There were about 25 of us from the wedding party up there, taking up a bunch of room. But a few people wandered up there for a while, some obviously trying to get a look at the celebrity, who is quite down to earth. At one point he sat down to chat with the boyfriend's mother, who watched her son's friend grow up, move away and become a celebrity. I was quite impressed.

When those who worked their way upstairs decided it was a good time to interrupt the wedding party for a picture, the celebrity politely obliged. People would thank him, and he would thank them in return. It was fascinating to watch. The boyfriend said that it's a lot worse a lot of places he goes, this was a low-key night.

The funniest thing to watch, however, was Mandy. She is The Queen's friend and co-worker who has a boyfriend, evidently. How would I describe her? I'm not sure. Vapid is not the right word, but that was the first word that came to mind. She's very plastic looking -- probably 100 pounds, soaking wet with a toolbelt on -- and probably highly fascinated by celebrity. She certainly was fascinated with the male celebrity that came to his buddy's wedding without a woman on his arm.

I never was introduced to the celebrity, even though I was within 5 feet of him many times during the evening. Mandy made his acquaintence quickly, however, and wouldn't let him get too far away.

Mandy pounded a few drinks, fawned all over the celebrity, clutching him whenever she had a chance, and made it obvious she wanted to be a starfucker. Many of us in the wedding party were talking about her through the night, as she turned out to be quite a source of entertainment. Ultimately he shot her down, and she seemed a bit pouty. Given she was drunk by the end of the night I'm sure she has no clue how embarrassing she was, and she probably doesn't care. But watching Mandy in action was worth the price of admission and the perfect cap to one of the more surreal days I've had in many, many years.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Soul searching (unedited)

I still feel guilty that I have so little appreciation for this past Christmas. I should be thankful for all the blessings I have, and I am, but somehow that doesn't keep me warm at night.

So yesterday I began my adventure to Florida. I flew standby thanks to Monica, and although my travel to south Florida didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked, I made it to West Palm Beach around midnight. Three hours later I was arriving in Naples.

Spending several hours waiting for an open seat at the Newark airport gave me a lot of time for soul searching. If I was to tell Rush this, he'd probably comment about how the exercise took me 20 seconds or that I probably failed to find anything during my search. But having a lot of time to yourself, not knowing when or if you're flying to south Flordia, turned out to be too distracting to work on my "Snakes on a Sudoku" puzzles or read a book. I worked on the puzzles for a while, but ultimately I would end up pondering my life, and what it all means. I'm not sure I answered many questions, but I pondered quite a bit.

As if I hadn't had enough time for that at the airport, I drove for about two hours to get to the resort. I enjoy being out on the road, I wish I could spend more time and money on the highways of life. It's often a great experience. I miss making road trips to Michigan to visit Roast Beef. If I manage to live past 58 and can actually afford to retire I doubt I'll be buying an RV and driving around the country, I'll be too old and cranky for long days on the road, I'm sure. I have to find ways to do these things now, while I still have a good heart and energy.

Driving down the east coast of Florida wasn't that exciting. Highways at night in Florida aren't much different than anywhere else in the country. When I reached Alligator Alley, however, and started heading west to Naples, I got a charge out of that. As soon as I hit Allegator Alley it was noticably different from my journey down the Florida Turnpike.

There were plenty of lights, billboards and businesses along the turnpike, but Alligator Alley offers almost none of that. At 2 a.m. there aren't a ton of cars crossing the southern portion of the state, there are few exits and few signs of life in the form of billboards or gas stations across Alligator Alley. There's a sense of alienation while driving across Alligator Alley at night.

I haven't driven through the desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, day or night, but from the descriptions I've heard, driving across Alligator Alley overnight is a lot like driving through the desert at night. Given the millions of people who flock to Florida for retirement, and the millions more who flock here for warm weather in the winter, it seemed odd to be driving for 80 miles through the state and see so few signs of life, relatively speaking. But the open road, the general darkness all around me, the techno music on Y100 from Miami and a little fog here and there made for an enjoyable trek to Naples.

Despite all the uncertainty and doubt I dwelled upon in Newark, driving across Florida was a nice contrast, full of optimism and hope. I already know I can't repeat 2007, but at the end of the year I can say I'm better off than I was at the start of the year. And that's something I have to build on, it's the only way I'll survive.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

All I want for Christmas... to forget it happened.

I’m a lousy human being, I must be.

I had so little lust for the holidays this month that I don’t deserve to live. Most people enjoy the holidays, even if they don’t have a lot to be grateful for. I don’t have an embarrassment of riches, but I have enough that I should be grateful, yet instead of grateful all I have been is slightly annoyed by the holidays.

My brother has had to adjust to dividing his holiday time between his family and his wife’s family. I don’t have that problem, and for that I should be grateful. My friend Chuck has lamented the pilgrimages she and her husband have made to spend time with both families. I don’t envy that. Nice problem to have, but I don’t envy it.

I have a Christmas Eve tradition I’m less than enamored with. I buy one or two final gifts during the morning, stop by Doug’s house to drop off a cheap gift that either his family – or at least his children – will enjoy, then head to mom’s house so she can go to the earliest Christmas Eve mass available.

I have to be at her house so I can stay with my sister, who gets kicked out of her group home on Christmas Eve so the group home staff can have the night off. I don’t mind doing it, but it seems like it has become a tradition, and while some people love tradition, the thought of making the pilgrimage to mom’s house each Dec. 24 for the next 10 years is not particularly appealing. If the ghost of Christmas future was to visit me tonight and show me I’d be spending my next 10 Christmas Eve’s that way I probably wouldn’t handle the news too well.

I also tend to spend Christmas Eve at mom’s. After dinner I watch TV and go to bed, rather than drive home, only to return in the morning. During this Christmas Eve I had to make an evening journey to the gas station, as I have a bad rear tire that has a slow leak, and since I can’t get it fixed until the 26th I have to fill it a couple of times a day to avoid it going flat. As I drove up University Avenue to a gas station I passed a bar that appeared to be open at 9:30 p.m., which surprised me since 99 percent of bars close on Christmas Eve. I was very tempted to stop in for a few drinks. I could have used them.

I should be grateful that I can count on having dinner on the 24th at mom’s house and spending time on the 25th with my extended family. Some people have to compromise during the holidays, some people don’t have the luxury of going home, wherever home is, and some people don’t have much family to spend the holidays with. One of my former co-workers only has a twin brother to spend the holidays with, so Christmas is a highly pointless time of the year for him. A lot of people would envy my situation.

And why shouldn’t they? Not only did I have family to spend the holidays with, Monica stopped by my mom’s house so we could exchange presents. The fact that I warrant time for her to stop by my mom’s house during her Christmas day travels should be enough to make the day worthwhile. It was definitely the highlight of my day.

So why would I prefer to forget today? In addition to my lack of enthusiasm for Christmas, I crunched my mom’s car.

We gathered at my aunt and uncle’s house. Mom asked if I’d be willing to drive. I accepted, without hesitation, despite the fact that it was snowing and the roads were crappy. I’ve driven through such crap for years, I wasn’t concerned.

We had almost made it to our destination when I slid into the back end of a Jeep Cherokee. We were off the freeway and within a mile of our destination when I pulled into a turn lane. Everything was fine as I slowed down, but when I needed to stop behind the Cherokee, the car wouldn’t stop. We slid right into it. I angled the car a bit so that I crunched the corner of mom’s car. It wasn’t a high-speed crash, but the headlight of her car versus the corner bumper of the Cherokee was hardly a fair fight. Thankfully my aunt and uncle’s Cherokee only has a minor scrape to the bumper. Yeah, that’s right, I rear-ended my relatives.

At the gathering, everybody noted “that’s what insurance is for,” and God knows my mother can afford the insurance deductible, but it’s four weeks before she leaves for two months in Alabama to celebrate her retirement, and now she has to deal with the hassle of getting the front end of her car repaired. Nobody was hurt, but that seems like little consolation tonight. It’s hard to enjoy your evening after a stupid crash like that.

All I wanted was to get through Christmas and move on with life, now I’ll never forget it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Back in time (unedited)

I’m not part of a blogosphere, but the one blogosphere I’m occasionally tuned into has a new “meme” circulating. (I still don’t understand the how and why of the term meme, even after trying.)

Members of the Wand of Wonder have been tagging each other to write a letter to their 13-year-old selves. I wasn’t tagged, so I’m not going to write that letter, but I did think a lot about what I would write if I could actually deliver a letter to myself way back when. The purpose of the meme seems to be to review your life since age 13, and write about what you’ve learned since that time, usually revealing things that a 13-year-old version of yourself would never expect. I’m looking at the exercise from a far more practical perspective, obviously.

And I’m assuming that if I am writing a letter to myself at age 13, it would be delivered in an envelope. That’s crucial to what I would do.

My letter would explain in careful detail to 13-year-old Fonzie that the letter is coming from Fonzie circa 2007. It would also contain a separate letter stating “do not open until your 21st birthday.” Why?

This is where the “Back to the Future” mythology enters the picture. Knowledge of the future, and changing the course of human events, will alter the future. We learn that over and over in the trilogy.

Let’s say I write a letter to my 13-year-old self, telling young Fonzie about all the good times and bad times that are forthcoming, all the things I did or didn’t do. Chances are that would greatly alter the course of my life, and my life as I know it today would cease to exist. In theory my new life would be better than the one I have now, but there’s no guarantee. That’s a gamble I’d be willing to take, but cautiously.

One Wand of Wonder blogger gave his 13-year-old self stock tips. The right stock tips and other information would easily alter the course of his life, perhaps for the better, but there’s no guarantee.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to arm myself with profitable information, but if I had that information at age 13, as soon as I was able to put that information to use, whatever age it turned out to be, my life would change forever. Perhaps I’d go on living the same life for years, never taking the stock tips seriously until some time in my 20s when I realized how valuable the information is.

I wouldn’t want to take the risk that I’d never go to college. That would definitely change my life dramatically.

But if I waited until my 21st birthday to provide young Fonzie key information, I’d likely have made the same choices up until that point, never knowing how the content of the second envelope would change my life.

So why 21? A couple of reasons.

When I turned 21 I still had nearly two years of college to go. My last two years of college were a great experience, but I’d give myself a lot of advice about how to shape my future beyond college.

I was working on the college newspaper during my final two years, preparing for a career in journalism. I wouldn’t tell myself to abandon journalism and the newspaper, but I’d strongly encourage myself to get a second degree in business or something broad like that, and I’m spell out compelling reasons to pursue a career in something other than journalism. I don’t hate what I do, it’s just not rewarding enough at this point in my life to want to do it all over again.

I’d suggest to my younger self that there’s nothing wrong with spending a sixth, or even seventh year in college pursuing another degree. I really enjoyed the last two years of college, and while there’s something to be said for moving on and joining the workforce, if I needed to hang around school for another year, it’d be worth it.

I would also spell out a detailed plan on how I could finance a year or two of college without living like a poor college student. I’d detail a plan of how I could take a marginal amount of money and parlay it into a modest nest egg for a year or two. I’d spell out how I could go to Las Vegas for a week and bet a modest amount of money on a series of sporting events, turning it into more cash than any college student should have.

I’d limit that information, however, giving myself just enough information to build a two-year college nest egg. I’d detail the plan very carefully, provide plenty of cautionary advice and make it clear that there’s a finite amount of information available, and that if I screw it up, I’m stuck living like a poor college student and doing things the old-fashioned way. If I gave myself the keys to success for a lifetime of gambling I am sure the riches of excess would get the best of me at that age, and I’d end up paying a high price.

All of this assumes that my visiting Vegas at the ripe young age of 21 and betting hundreds of dollars on any one sporting event wouldn’t somehow affect the outcome. That’s a risk I’d be willing to take.

I’d also limit how much I could win in my first trip to Vegas because I wouldn’t want to deprive myself of the experiences of working for a living. Jobs suck, bills suck and life is hard, but I know I wouldn’t handle an embarrassment of riches at that age. Today I’d be just fine. At age 21, I’d have one gigantic party, but I wouldn’t trust myself to do the right things.

I wouldn’t limit myself to one trip to Vegas as my lone source of easy income. I’d also provide myself with some investment advice to help make sure as I worked for a living I was setting myself up for a very early retirement.

And I’d probably include one more letter within that second letter. This letter would read “do not open until Dec. 25, 2006.” That letter would contain a few more stock tips and several sporting event results, along with a lot more advice. I figure by 2007 it’d be OK to have a little more info for easy money. Presumably I will have worked hard in life up until that point.

So why not give myself the bonus information in the letter I open on my 21st birthday? If I had that info then I’d always know I could fall back on easy money if all else failed, and perhaps I’d drift through my 20s and 30s haphazardly.

There’s one other reason I’d encourage myself to wait until I’m 21 to open the second letter. Assuming I lived my life the same way while holding the contents of an unknown letter, I’d still end up going to the same college, meeting the same friends and doing the same things I did for the first 21 years of my life. If I never went to college, I’d never meet several people I still count as friends today. I’d risk those friendships by pursuing a different career in my 20s, but I wouldn’t want to sacrifice them outright by changing the course of my life in my teenage years.

But there’s one drawback to that logic. Everyone I count as a friend since graduating college would likely never make my acquaintance. I have several friends through my years in journalism, and although none of them are people I spend a lot of time with socially, I’d never have any of them as friends, I am sure, and that’s a sad thought.

Would it be enough to stop me from sending a care package to a 13-year-old Fonz if actually presented the opportunity? That’s a tough question. If I said no, would that make me a heartless person?

It would have been a lot easier had I simply been tagged and told to play along with the meme, but the easy way isn’t always for the best.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Relatively painful

My mind is working overtime these days, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. I must have one of those trendy attention deficit disorders, because sometimes there’s so much on my mind it makes my head spin.

Perhaps reminiscing about my family dinner from Saturday night will take my mind off bigger and better things. Somehow I doubt it, but writing this is the equivalent of a cheat sheet. When the next family get together rolls around I can look back on this and remember a few of the factoids I gathered at the 2007 Christmas gathering, as well as the excruciating pain of attending one of these events. I exaggerate, slightly. (Mom called me very cynical.)

This is your final warning: entertainment value of this blog may be rather low.

For 17 years my mother’s extended family has held an annual holiday dinner at a restaurant. There’s a committee of about five people who organize it. Not that it takes five people, but when you have five people to organize the date and location, mail out the invites and collect the payments, nobody has to do any real work.

The family comprises my grandfather, his siblings and all their descendants. That’s a lot of people.

My grandfather was one of 13 brothers and sisters, if I remember correctly. (Each year I try to learn something about my heritage, and although I typically do, I’m not learning much, so even after all these years, I know very little.) My grandfather is the only one still alive, that I know. He just turned 80 this fall. He was younger than most of his siblings. I know he had one younger sister, and I think there was another sibling younger than him.

Regardless, he’s the only one left. Amongst the siblings there have been 38 offspring. That’s an average of just less than three children per sibling. When you factor out the brother who was killed during World War II and the sister who was mildly retarded, that ups the average to nearly 3.5 children per sibling.

Grandpa was awfully busy in his lifetime, from the age of 19 to about 37. He and my grandmother, who died five years ago, had 10 children, all of whom are still alive and live in Minnesota. Of the 38 offspring, my grandfather is responsible for more than 25 percent. He was the man!

Four of the 38 offspring have died, I learned, so there are 34 potential cousins in the pool. For my mom, nine of those 34 are her siblings, so that means she has 24 living cousins on grandpa’s side. Oy! I thought having 12 cousins on mom’s side (11 living) was a lot.

My mom actually gets together with some of her cousins periodically, so these folks aren’t foreign to her. But they’re all Greek to me, except for the fact I see them once or twice a year. I’m starting to learn who a few of them are, not that it gets me anywhere.

My grandfather, being younger than most of his siblings, has nieces and nephews who are close to his age. My mom is the oldest of grandpa’s 10 children, so many of her cousins are younger than her, but some are older. And naturally many of these 34 cousins have children and grandchildren, but the offspring don’t seem to attend. A few do each year, but the annual group is primarily a portion of the 34 living cousins and their spouses. I’m not sure, but I think I was the third youngest person in attendance. So why the hell am I there if nobody else is representing the grandchildren? (One of the two who I think was younger than me may have been a great grandchild of the original 13…she had to be.)

I end up sitting around, talking a bit with my aunts and uncles while pretending to remember people I have allegedly met during previous gatherings. I recognize a few people, actually, but don’t ask me to name them. Yet they all know, somehow, that I’m the newspaper reporter.

I deliberately arrived after the social hour so I didn’t have to engage in chit chat. I sat with my mom, one aunt, three cousins and one spouse of one cousin. (I’m not sure which member of the couple was the cousin, but what does it matter?)

Conversation included discussing my Uncle Bill at the next table. Uncle Bill brought a woman he has been dating for a few months. He met her through the internet, and tales of people meeting people through the internet ensued. My mom, curiously, failed to note that it was the very same internet that led her other son back to Minnesota, and eventually the altar.

Somehow I was roped into this conversation, to which I did my best homage to Homer Simpson? “Do they have this internet on computers now?” I did, however, express mild interest in the concept. “If this internet ever catches on, I’m going to have to look into it.” This was the point where mom dubbed me very cynical.

I think the two female cousins that weren’t with a spouse are single, although I’m not sure. At least one of them is, as the female member of the couple at our table asked one of these other two women if she was a cougar, and then asked if she had heard about cougars and proceeded to explain what the term means. There went my appetite for the $34 dinner I had yet to be served.

I did meet Uncle Bill’s new lady friend. She’s nice, and she use to live in my newspaper coverage area, so she knows the local political players and some of the happenings in my stomping ground. I bet we talked for about 15 minutes, the least painful 15 minutes of my night. And it all happened thanks to this fancy intronet people keep talking about.

I think I’ll be busy setting my hair on fire when this holiday dinner rolls around next December.