Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Childhood Dreams

The lovely Scarlet wanted to know who or what we wanted to be when we grew up. And that made me smile, because I remember who and what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I wanted to be a ninja. No joke. I was five years old at the time, and I honestly thought that being a ninja was a legitimate and genuine career. We watched a lot of ninja and martial arts flicks and cartoons back then. And I still enjoy watching them.

I love watching a good action packed, thrilling martial arts flick that was made in Asia, complete with subtitles and slightly out of sync English dubbing. Somehow the movie seems more authentic with the slightly off English dubbing.

I also wanted to be a space cowboy and adventurer, fighting monsters, thwarting evil villains, and finding treasure. We also watched a lot of SciFi and Fantasy flicks and cartoons. I still love SciFi and Fantasy entertainment to this day. I'm a nerd and geek, and I'm proud of it.

As I got older, I wanted to be a dancer--the break dancing, beat boy, pop-and-lock kind of dancer. I was eight years old. And all those dance flicks and music videos made me think that I could make a living dancing and battling other dance crews on the street corners, in industrial buildings, and inside warehouses. And I held on to that dream all the way through high school. I was actually part of a dance crew. And we were pretty good!

Dreams are easier when you're a kid. Imagination and inspiration are limitless. Life is exciting and fun and so mysterious. And if we're lucky, blessed with good friends and loved ones, life is still full of wonders. And I still dream about being a ninja, a space cowboy and adventurer, and I still like to dance.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Time flies and it could've been worse

Time flies, and I'm having a hell of a time trying to swat it down, but it keeps on escaping me. I may need a bigger swatter.

My friends, thank you so much for your concern regarding my safety during the recent hurricane. I am safe and I survived. I apologize for the very late response and update.

Life has unexpectedly become more complex and busy for me. I'm trying really hard to balance work, family, friends, and demands. But it's been a challenge, and I've had to give up blogging and other recreational activities to work out solutions to the new complications life has brought. Try as I might, life has a way of interrupting my plans.

But that's life--unpredictable and chaotic at times. And as hard as it is trying to balance familial duties, social obligations, and deal with work challenges, I'm grateful to be alive, to have the opportunity to live and try to make a difference for the better--for my family, my friends, me, and the world.

The hurricane was furious but fast. Luckily, it only stayed for a day in my area before moving on. The damages weren't as devastating in my part of town. I still have a roof over my head and walls to protect and shield me from the elements. I'm on higher ground, so I didn't have to worry about flooding.

The hurricane did shut the city down for a few days, but I've been in hurricanes before, and I had enough emergency supplies to see me through it. Canned and dry goods are a necessity. Reusing cleaned gallon plastic jugs gave me safe containers to have enough clean water saved before the hurricane hit, lasting me several weeks. And I've a camping stove and a grill with bags of charcoal in case I wanted to heat up the food. Plus, I've emergency flashlights and a radio that are solar and mechanically (wind up) powered. They gave me light in the dark and kept me updated on want was going on.

The aftermath of the hurricane did leave me with a few free days off. I was hoping to blog, but we had no electricity for two weeks, and I was saving my battery for emergencies, reduced to charging my phone at work using the company generator that powered the building til the grid was back on.

As hard and stressful as it was (and still is at times), I'm very grateful to be alive, to be here. I may not be back to blogging as much as I want to--my time is being divided by family/friends, work, and other duties--but I'm still so very thankful that I'm alive, safe, and still here.

And I'm especially very thankful and grateful for your concern and care. Your support and friendship has brought a smile to my life, and your kindness has made me feel joy. So thank you very much for giving me hope and for being wonderful, caring people.

I'm hoping things wind down in the next two months so I can get back to blogging. And if you don't hear from me until then, please know that I'm still grateful for your friendship and care. I may be too busy to reply, but please know that I cherish your friendship, your kindness, and your well wishes. I thank you for being a friend. You've all brought some unexpected, much needed, and surprising joy to my life. You've made me feel happy, and thank you from the bottom of my heart. Take care and be safe until next time. Best wishes to y'all!

P.S. Today, I was standing in the checkout line behind a man and we started talking about the hurricane.

"It could've been worse," he said.

And I agreed, "I hear ya. I'm thankful I still have a roof over my head."

Then he said, "The hurricane destroyed my trailer home. I'm living in a shelter now."

I felt terrible, "I'm sorry to hear that you lost your home."

He said, "Don't worry about it. I was going to lose that trailer at the end of the month anyway. My ex-wife got it in our divorce settlement. And losing it to the hurricane was a much smaller disaster compared to our marriage."

Thursday, April 6, 2017


Continuing on my goal to finish the alphabet list of my five favorite things that begin with each letter, we arrive at the letter E. And E is Essential. The letter E is the beginning of so many of my favorite words: Enchanting, Enamored, Ephemeral, Ethereal, Empyreal, and Effervescent. Also Embrace and Embers and Enjoyment. Along with Exotic, Exquisite, Excellence, and Ecstasy.

I like the sound of Emporium, Emblem, Empirical, Extrapolate, and Epoch. Morbidly enough, I also like the soft yet sinister sound and threat of the words Eviscerate and Exsanguinate. They lure and strike terror, so visceral and fatal. I also like the rhythm and meaning of Elucidate, Enumerate, and Explicate.

I like to Exercise--my rights, my freedoms, my body, and my mind. Just so you know, I'm not a gym rat. But a thirty minute workout five times a week gives me the strength and energy to tackle the work week and keeps me fit and strong and healthy. Exercise clears my mind and helps me achieve focus.

I like mixing things up--some days, I swim or hike, so it's not all calisthenics and running. But I admit, there are times when a short run turns into a six mile chase that extends that runner's high for a little while longer. And I like to challenge myself to run faster, farther, and longer from time to time.

Variety makes working out fun. It's why I enjoy hiking and swimming--no two experiences are ever the same. Yet, every experience is challenging and can be quite enjoyable. And workouts are fun with the right music to motivate and energize you. And some days, all I do is turn on the music and dance til I'm out breath, or it's time to get ready to shower, dress, then leave home and venture out into the world.

Emeralds are my favorite gemstone that begin with the letter E. It's also the only gemstone that I can think of that begins with E.

I love the color and cuts of emeralds. Gorgeous!

Of all the places I've been fortunate enough to visit, I like Europe, Egypt, and the places near and on the Equator. I'll take the tropical heat any day over the frozen Arctic. It's a heck of a lot easier to cool off from the heat--by finding shade, taking a swim, or hopping in a cold shower. It's much tougher to keep warm with all that ice, battling fierce winds. Much respect to all you snow dwellers and Eskimos!

I love many foods that begin with the letter E. Among them are some of my favorites: Enchiladas, Empanadas, and Emmentaler cheese.

An enchilada is a corn tortilla wrapped around a cooked filling and baked in a gravy sauce. Think burrito/spring roll meets lasagna. And I love any meat and cheese filling enchilada smothered in chili and cheese sauce. Chicken, pork, beef, even seafood--like shrimp, fish, lobster, and octopus--so long as it's baked tasty and covered with cheese and sauce, I'll eat it!

An empanada is just a fried pie. Yes, some people bake empanadas, but to me, the best tasting ones (that require more work and clean up) are the fried empanadas. And I like all sweet and savory varieties, so long as they're delicious, crunchy, and have no trace of that disgusting, soapy cilantro/coriander that always ruins the flavor for me.

Swiss Emmentaler cheese tastes great, and I love the holes in the cheese!

It looks fantastic and festive, and it's the first cheese that comes to mind whenever I think of delicious cheese slices. And it's also the most recognizable cheese from cartoons. It melts great, too, and it's delicious in sandwiches.

Like previous alphabet lists of five favorite things that begin with a certain letter, I had problems narrowing down a top five. But I decided to keep it simple and go with the first five that come to mind. So here it is, my five favorite things that begin with the letter E.

1.  Egalitarian

I love this philosophy. Egalitarian is the belief and principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. I am a firm believer and advocate of this idea. And I try to live up to this belief everyday. And to be honest, it's not always easy to put into practice.

I do try to treat people the way I would like to be treated: With respect and courtesy. But it's hard to be egalitarian when faced with a lot of rude and gawd awful cretins almost everyday. I'm both disappointed and sad to realize that people acting like jerks seems to be the normal now. And that's not okay.

But that doesn't mean I've given up hope. I still have faith in humanity. I still believe that there is enough goodness left in us to make the world a better place...or at least keep it livable enough to pass on to the next generation. Hopefully, they'll do a whole lot better than we did.

I still say "Please" and "Thank you", and I still act courteous, because it matters. And I can see the positive effects these simple words and actions have on making people more friendly, polite, or at least act more thoughtfully and kindly. It helps me be more mindful of my words and actions, reminding me that I have an effect on the world, and I want that effect to be positive.

That being said, I also accept that sometimes, I do have to set aside my better nature and go with my gut instincts. And that means sometimes, when dealing with gawd awful jerks, I'm going to be less egalitarian, and that's fine. There are times when you have to fight fire with fire.

I admit: I have had to get dirty and be not so nice from time to time when the situation called for it, when diplomacy failed, or when exigent circumstances required an immediate response. It's not one of my best moments, but it is necessary sometimes, depending on the crisis. But I still believe that people are people. And we must respect each other and treat each other fairly. It's important to stand up for what you believe in.

And while I don't always succeed in my efforts to be a better person, I still try every day to be the best that I can be. I still try to treat others with the same respect and courtesy and fairness that I would like to receive. Our actions have consequences. So let's act positively, and give the world hope. Life is more wonderful and the world is a much better place when we are kinder and nicer to each other.

2.  Entertainment

I love to be entertained. And I find entertainment from so many things. But I'm going to try to keep this short.

I love all sorts of entertainment: Plays, musicals, books, sports, movies, tv, music, dances, concerts, and so many other forms of art. I find entertainment in playing games, cooking, and even exploring and watching nature. Zoos, carnivals, and circuses are delightful. Sharing meals and social gatherings are entertaining.

Sometimes, just watching the clouds pass overhead, or the waves rolling in, and people going about their business is captivating. I find joy and entertainment from all sorts of activities and things. And that includes spotting out of state license plates on my travels, or trying to guess where folks are from based on their accents and actions.

But I don't like everything. I hate sad movies and sad endings. So if a book or film or story ends in tragedy, I don't care for it. It's why I'm not a fan of Romeo and Juliet--aside from the fact that she was 13 and having sex with an older teen, and how stupid and overly dramatic their reactions were, and just how stupid everyone acted in that story...But I digress.

My point is, I don't like sad endings. So if a movie or story has a tragic ending, I don't want to see it. When I see a movie or read a book or check out some production, it's because I want an escape. I want to see something that'll make me laugh, think, or stimulate my imagination or stir up excitement. Entertainment should bring me joy.

The world is all ready depressing enough. And entertainment is my way to escape from reality to find some joy. It is a way to remind myself of the good things and beauty still left in this world. So keep your sad films and tragic stories away from me. I'm not interested in them.

About the only other thing that I despise in entertainment is cliffhangers. I hate cliffhangers. It reeks of desperation. Either finish the damn story or don't bother telling it in the first place. Plenty of tv shows and movies use cliffhangers as a way to market and attract viewers. Unfortunately, most suck and are cancelled, or the sequel is never made, so the audience is left with an incomplete, unsatisfying story that has no resolution. Resolutions matter in storytelling! If there's no ending, then there's no story! And you've wasted my time and pissed me off!

3. Eros

I am a big fan of mythology. The first stories that I heard as a child were myths and legends about the world all around us, trying to explain natural and amazing phenomena in our environment. It was exciting, scary, and so intriguing to hear the ancient tales and to learn the lessons they taught.

I am enthralled with creation myths. And I enjoy learning about different peoples' beliefs and ideas about life, death, nature, and the universe. The similarities between various mythologies are just as compelling as the differences. Mythology is the portrayal of a people's culture and history, revealing what is sacred, significant, or has changed or remained the same over the passage of time.

Of all the creation myths that I've enjoyed discovering, the one that I like the most is the creation of the world by Eros. I'm talking about the first, ancient Eros, the one worshipped by the pre-Greek civilizations of the Minoans, then Mycenaeans thousands of years ago. Most people are familiar with the mischievous baby Eros, Roman Cupid, carrying a bow and shooting arrows of love. He was the last and youngest god created by the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. This later Greek Eros was a youth, then made into a child, then a baby, and later made youth again in Roman times.

The Greeks loved their myths with twists and tragic endings. Their stories were full of suffering and sorrow. Thankfully, the Romans crafted a wonderful story that became the last great myth from antiquity--the only myth of the Greco-Roman civilizations with a happy ending. This is the story of Eros and Psyche--the tale of love and the bond between the heart and soul. And this later Eros, paired with Psyche, was the reimagination and reinvention of the older, first, ancient Eros.

I'm fascinated with the original Eros, the primordial god, worshipped by the ancient Minoans and the succeeding Mycenaeans, thousands of years ago (2500-1100 BCE). This Eros comes from a time so ancient that stories of this mysterious, elder god are rare. But the few tales that survive reveal the utmost importance of Eros, and how essential Eros was in the creation of the world:

In the beginning, there was nothing but the Void. And in this Void came into being Chaos, Gaia (Earth), Tartarus (Underworld), and Eros (Love).

In the darkness and emptiness of the Void, golden winged Eros, fairest of all, created the World Egg and hatched it in his embrace. And with the World Egg, he created light, the heavens, the stars, the planets, the seas, and life. And from the World Egg, he brought forth humanity. Before there were gods, he created humans. Humans are imbued with the divine power of love. Eros created order out of chaos, brought together the forces that made the universe exist. And from Eros, all creation was made possible, all life began.

I love this idea: The universe was born of love. Love created the universe. Love created life. Humanity was born of love, and humanity needs love to survive and to thrive. Life needs love. Love is the universal force that binds us all to each other, to the stars, to time and beyond. The universe was made out of love. Humanity was created and nurtured by love. Love is life. And life is love.

4. Eggs

I love cooked eggs. My two favorite sandwiches of all time are the fried egg sandwich and the egg salad sandwich. My mother used to make them both for us when we were growing up. I was a picky eater as a small child. I didn't like a lot of food. But I loved the fried egg and egg salad sandwiches. They were tasty treats.

Every time I eat a fried egg or egg salad sandwich, I feel happy and comforted. I'm immediately transported back home on the farm; I'm a small child again, sitting next to my two closest brothers, smiling, laughing, surrounded by my family and loved ones; and it's a wonderful, fantastic day on the farm. To this day, my two closest brothers and I still love the fried egg and egg salad sandwiches. And we've passed on this love to the younger generations, who enjoy eating these delectable sandwiches and hearing stories about Mom.

I also love the egg in a potato salad. And to me, a potato salad is just an egg salad sandwich, where the baked potato has replaced the bread. There are many recipes for potato salad. But my fave is the simplest--baked potatoes diced, seasoned with salt and pepper and a dollop of butter, mixed with egg salad--boiled egg diced, seasoned with salt and pepper and a dollop of mayo. It's best to mix all the ingredients while the diced potatoes are still hot or warm--that's what melds all the flavors together beautifully, creating an ambrosial taste.

I love cooked eggs--as custard, when scrambled, fried hard, or baked. Eggs add that lovely golden color and rich flavor in cakes, breads, and pies. I savor a sliced hard boiled egg with my ramen noodles. Flans, soufflés, and ice cream are some of the most decadent treats made with eggs. Cooked eggs are great.

But I don't like raw, uncooked, over easy, runny eggs. It's a safety and texture issue for me. Eating raw eggs is just asking for salmonella--might as well pucker up and kiss a chicken's butt! And the runny consistency makes me think of the egg emerging from the chicken's cloaca. Gross. I don't want to be reminded that I'm eating a chicken's period. Blah!

However, I admit that there are two very rare exceptions when I do eat raw eggs: That's in a Caesar salad and in mayo. Yes, there are some great, manufactured, bottled sauces out there, and I buy them a lot to use on my food. But every now and then, I'll go to a fancy restaurant, where they actually make real Caesar dressing or real mayo, using raw eggs. It's a risk, but it's one that I choose to take, especially for outstanding, delectable food prepared by an excellent, quality restaurant. Eggs are great, especially when they are prepared right.

5. Earth

I love the Earth. It is our only home, and it's an amazing and marvelous world, full of wonders.

It's also the only place that supports life as we know it. So we need to take better care of it and respect it. This is our planet. It is the one and only place where we can live in the entire universe. We don't have any other choices or alternatives.

The problem is that people don't value our planet nor appreciate the precarious position we are in. It doesn't matter whether you believe in climate change or not. Our actions have changed the world. And the changing world doesn't care about us. Life will go on, but it won't necessarily include human life. Just look at the many species who've gone extinct from changing climates and natural disasters.

The only species who cares about us is us! And if we don't care about the world, we doom ourselves to extinction. There is no other place where we can escape to. There is only one Earth in the entire universe. And it's a special, unique, and precious world. If we ruin this planet, we destroy ourselves. So take care of the Earth, because it's the only planet we have. It's our only home, and we need to take better care of it if we want to continue to live in it. Every day is Earth Day, because every day, the Earth is our home.

And that's my list of five favorite things that begin with the letter E. I hope you found it Engaging. I admit that coming up with this list was both Exhausting and Enjoyable. And now, I'm just Exhilarated that it's reached the End.

Related Links
What you C is what you get, the beginning.
What you C is what you get, the middle.
What you C is what you get

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


I love Egypt--the exotic country, the ancient history, and the people.

In another time, I arrived in Egypt on a mission. I was part of a company that, like so many others throughout the ages, had come to trade and do business with this ancient land, at the cradle and crossroad of civilization. I spent months working the interior, immersed in the savage sands and searing sun of the scorching Sahara. It started as a hellish struggle, difficult and punishing those first few weeks. The unrelenting heat, the fierce landscape, and ferocious sandstorms razed our camp and ravaged our numbers.

We barely survived those first troubles and trials. And after the initial shock wore off, we questioned our commitment and plans. We pondered a retreat, wondering if perhaps a withdraw from this vicious hellscape was in our best interest. We had lost so much in such a short time. The extensive losses had left us in a critical condition.

But we had come so far, and while broken, we were not yet beaten. We had learned the hard way the truth that we had been blind to upon our arrival in this ancient land. For any endeavor to succeed in these godforsaken sands, we must adapt our methods and listen to the wisdom of those who dwelt and thrived in this rugged, unforgiving desert world. Only then were we able to recover. And eventually, we found success in our venture in this fearsome, remote landscape.

We were totally humbled after that first month. But soon enough, we adapted and embraced the culture and the locals. Once we learned to put aside our prejudices and misconceptions, the people were willing to share with us their knowledge. The foreboding desert that once assaulted us soon became hauntingly beautiful and marvelous in its wonders. Against all odds and to our surprise, this once pagan, strange, foreign land soon felt like home.

Later, when I was relocated to the mouth of the Nile delta, I was mesmerized by the stunning shores of the Mediterranean. I was in the city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, home of the Ptolemy pharaohs, the place where Cleopatra met with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony from antiquity. This was the home of the Great Library of Alexandria.

At one time, this was the greatest, wealthiest, and most beautiful and scholastic city in all the ancient world. It was the leading city of civilization. This was the site of the Pharos of Alexandria, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the last of the seven ancient wonders of the world, an engineering marvel. For several centuries, it was the tallest building in the entire world.

Just a few years earlier before our arrival, scientists had discovered remnants of the great lighthouse that had fallen into the sea after three massive earthquakes devastated the structure and region. The glorious treasures and relics of the city were still being excavated and salvaged from the depths of the sea. Here was an ancient, legendary city, and I was walking its pathways and streets.

And that was the astonishing thing about Egypt. There was so much history everywhere. This was the cradle of civilization, the place where humanity began to make a mark on the world, the crossroads of trade and knowledge and culture. And here, the last remaining ancient wonder of the world still stood, the Great Pyramid of Giza.

I was astonished at the magnificence and marvels of the Pyramids. The original Sphinx was much smaller than the one at Luxor in Las Vegas. The one in Cairo--really, just a stone's throw from the city streets--was about two stories high. But it was still fascinating and intriguing in its composition and unique design.
Great Sphinx, pyramids and Sphinx Temple in the forefront / Francesco Gasparetti

The stones that made up the Giza pyramids were huge! Some were about the size of a small car! I marveled at how ingenious those ancient Egyptians were at constructing these mountains. Because really, these pyramids were as tall and wide as mountains.

What kind of tools and techniques did the ancients use to build such grandiose structures? How many Hebrews and workers and people did it take to hoist and craft together these momentous buildings? It boggles the mind. And it's no wonder some believe that space aliens were involved. But that's just an insult to the ingenuity and creativity of these amazing ancient people.

I remember the day we visited the Pyramids. We almost cancelled our trip due to a terrorist attack at the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt. Upper Egypt was actually farther south of Egypt, up towards where the Nile flowed from. Ironically, the delta where the Nile emptied north into the Mediterranean is called Lower Egypt. Confusing right? You'd think Lower Egypt would be south. But nope. Lower Egypt is where the Nile met the Mediterranean in the north. Cairo and Giza is where the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx are located. Ancient Thebes, modern Luxor, in the south is where the Valley of the Kings is located.

I'm so glad and thankful that we decided to go see the Pyramids at Giza in Cairo. We piled on the bus early at sunrise, eating some sandwiches for breakfast. We needed to enter the city early enough to make it through traffic. And in Cairo, there was always traffic.

The drivers here were reckless. They didn't obey traffic signs nor signals. They didn't pay attention to the lanes either! Some cars crowded into a single lane side by side! A few actually went against traffic! But at least there were less donkey carts fighting for the same road space like up in Alexandria. It was exciting for us to watch our local bus driver deftly maneuver his way through the chaos. And we cheered him when we finally and safely reached our dusty, crowded destination.

We saw them as we crossed into the city, those fantastic Pyramids from a far off distance. And we were agog. What an incredible, dreamlike vista--gigantic, brilliantly engineered structures rising out of the desolate desert! And when we turned and parked off a street by a block of buildings in a lively neighborhood with shops and restaurants and apartments, we were stunned that the Pyramids were just on the other side--really just a stone's throw away! This was the backyard of the block. And what a glorious view!

It was hot and dirty and incredibly crowded and noisy. So many people came to see the Pyramids, kicking up dust and debris. They've been coming here since the Pyramids were first constructed thousands of years ago. And people were still coming here; and today, we were among them. And I'm certain that long after I'm gone, people will still come to see the Pyramids, to bear witness to one of humankind's most ingenious and enduring masterpieces.

The guide had warned us not bring any valuables, to keep a tight grip on purses and bags, and keep money deep in the front pockets of our pants. There were plenty of petty thieves operating in these parts. And the majority were gangs of juveniles targeting clueless tourists!

No sooner had we taken three steps off the pavement, we were suddenly swarmed by small children holding up trinkets, yelling at us to buy their goods. And a minute later, they scattered as a cop riding a horse and wielding a switch came to chase away the little children.

At first, I was appalled. Hey, leave those poor kids alone! They're just trying to earn a living! I used to sell stuff when I was a small child, so I felt a connection and empathy for these small children, hustling under the hot sun and in the dusty desert to make some money.

Thirty seconds later, my outrage against the cop and empathy for the children quickly turned to disbelief and astonishment when the other tourists next to us started exclaiming, "My watch!", "My camera!", and "My wallet!".

It was suddenly clear that we had just been robbed by the mob of children! They weren't trying to sell us trinkets and souvenirs. That was the distraction to grab our attention. And they kept pushing up against us so we wouldn't feel them picking our pockets and purses and bags. Those sneaky little devils! I was both shocked and impressed at their skills and trickery. I suspect that thieves have probably been doing this for thousands of years, ever since those very first tourists came to see the grand Pyramids.

We laughed at the absurdity of it all. Then we proceeded to make our way to the Sphinx and Pyramids. Along the way, we encountered more vendors trying to sell us their wares. We bargained with some--having learned the art of shopping in Middle Eastern markets from our time in the interior and from living in Alexandria.

It was uncomfortable at first, bargaining with a seller over the price of an item. We grew up in a Western culture, where prices were set. But in this ancient part of the world, people bargained. And for us to adapt, we had to learn to haggle with the sellers. They expected it. It was part of their culture. And soon enough, we began to get comfortable with the practice. And that made the experience of Egypt so much more interesting and inviting.

The markets here were just so fascinating. The atmosphere was vivacious and chaotic and intriguing. They were full of exotic spices, perfumes, silk, textiles, and so many new and different varieties of food that were foreign to us. Here, they still sold gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It was so easy to imagine the three wise men shopping for the baby Jesus' gifts at a market, bargaining for the best prices. I was amazed at the amount of gold and silver and other precious metals, gemstones, and goods that were traded and sold in the markets.

Strange musical instruments and household implements and tools were on display. Rugs of all patterns and colors and weaves invited attention, people rummaging through the many rows at the many stalls. Pottery, paintings, jewelry, and dishes were being sold alongside stacks of papyrus scrolls, mummified cats (or some other small critters), jars of scented oils, and t-shirts. Entertainers sang otherworldly songs and performed exotic dances to capture our attention.

But I was drawn to the metalwork, specifically vases. I don't usually buy vases. I don't like how fragile they are, no matter how appealing they appeared. It's the same reason why I don't buy ceramic teapots and avoid owning pottery. Clumsy or tipsy me was more likely to break them. And I didn't like the thought of cleaning up all those sharp, shattered pieces.

But these vases were made of metal--strong and stunning and so unique. They were some of the most beautifully handcrafted, hammered, and forged vases that I had ever seen. Such astounding masterpieces! And I couldn't resist being captivated by their intricate designs and flourishing, vibrant colors. Muslim cultures don't usually portray people or animals or trees in their artwork. So they focused on spectacular geometric shapes and intricate symmetrical designs. And they came in a rich variety of hues and forms and arrangements.

To the math and science nerd in me, I was astonished at the patterns that looked like fractals and geometry and trigonometry in practice. The artist in me was stunned by their magnificent and wondrous simple beauty and breathtaking intricacies. The farmboy in me just knew that these were absolutely gorgeous, and my mother would love them. And I was right. Mom was thrilled. She absolutely loved them. So did the rest of the folks back home. My family told me so, and so did some of my friends who still lived back home in the remote coast.

When Mom used some of the vases in her designs when it was our family's turn to decorate the church, it created a sensation. People crowded the alter before services began, just to get a closer look at these fabulous vases. The pastor even acknowledged just how incredible the church decorations were that day, noting the shimmering, glimmering vases that enhanced the radiance and vibrancy of the flowers.

More people actually came for the second afternoon service, which was unheard of. Usually, less people came for the second service, having had their spiritual fill from the morning prayers. But that afternoon, more people had heard the news from their neighbors and relatives, and they made a pilgrimage to see Mom's marvelous designs and these unique vases from the exotic, faraway lands so integral in the Bible and history and founding of the faith. The prophets and Savior walked these lands. And here were splendid creations from those sacred spaces and holy places.

After that Sunday, people started coming over to the farmhouse to admire the vases. And Mom enjoyed showing the scintillating vases to visitors and guests. I had sent home as many as I could find. And they were unbelievably inexpensive, so I bought a whole lot to ship home. To the locals and tourists, the metallic vases seemed mundane, ordinary when compared to the precious metals and spices and perfumed oils being traded at the market. But to me, they were incredible finds, fantastic works of art.

While other people were shopping for jewelry or textiles at the markets, I was amassing a big collection of metallic vases. So many were just so spectacular--they presented in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Our farmhouse suddenly became an attraction, serving as an unofficial museum for our small village that lacked a space for art.

And after my mother died, her large collection of vases was divided among my older sisters and sisters-in-law. They were counted as some of Mom's most precious treasures. I didn't mind my sisters divvying up the vases. They had my full support and blessing. It was nice to know that the vases would be cherished by the others as precious mementos of Mom. She loved her alluring vases.

But honestly, for me, those glamorous vases were a painful, heartbreaking reminder that Mom was gone. Their haunting beauty would only make me sad to realize that I was an orphan now, that my beloved mother had passed on. Better that those exquisite vases be in the company of people who admired their elegance and found inspiration in their grace. They were a great source of joy to Mom, and they would bring that happiness to my sisters and their families.

The markets of Egypt and the Middle East were full of so many incredible finds and discoveries. They sold all sorts of livestock, too. Horses, goats, sheep, chickens, and cows, along with donkeys and crocodiles! They even sold camels here--for meat! Delicious, incredibly rich camel milk and meat were sold in the various shops that made up the markets.

And speaking of camels, there were a lot near the Pyramids. The owners were offering rides on and opportunities to pose for pictures with the camels for a price. It was a tourist trap. But the cost was pretty cheap. Though, the guide warned us that some unscrupulous owners could take us for a ride farther out in the desert, and they'd only bring us back for more money. Now I understood why so many cops on horses patrolled the area. There were a lot of con artists operating here, and perhaps they've always been here since the first days when the Pyramids were just built.

Only the Great Pyramid of Khufu was opened to the public at that time. The government was doing ongoing work to preserve the site. And we appreciated that. Erosion had taken its toll on the Sphinx and Pyramids. So any effort to preserve and restore the site, keep it intact and protected is a great and valuable undertaking.

We scrambled up the huge stones and found the secret entrance that the ancient builders hid and buried thousands of years ago. And later, archeologists (and thieves) uncovered and reopened the secret entrance, now under the care of the government.

There was a line to get into the pyramid. And it was crowded. Inside, we were surprised to find a wooden plank path that led up to the top floors of the pyramid. We expected stone steps, not a wooden, recently made path. But then again, the old path had been removed by the builders to protect the treasures of the pharaoh.

And speaking of treasures, there were none left in the pyramid. All the contents had been taken by the museum. And that includes the hieroglyphic walls! The pyramid was empty. And the climb up was long, steep, and incredibly difficult. You had to lean forward as you climbed higher and higher. And when you finally reached the sarcophagus, it was just an empty room with the stone remains of the tomb that actually held the coffins.

We were so disappointed to find just empty stones. And it was incredibly humid and hot and oppressive in the sarcophagus room. Then it dawned on us, Well, Duh! Of course it's hot, humid, and oppressive. It's a freakin tomb! And then it felt exciting and morbid to realize that were in someone's grave--an ancient pharaoh's grave!

And honestly, I was glad the treasures were in a museum, safe from thieves. But let's be clear. I don't like the idea of digging up mummies and putting them on display. These are dead people. Let them rest in peace. They were buried with respect by their people, yet we disrespectfully dig up the corpses and put them on display, charging money for people to see them, like it's some sort of freak show.

I wonder how these archeologists and museum directors would feel if it were their parents, their spouses, and their children whose graves were dug up and bodies were put on display for strangers to pay money to see. People are people. Their remains need to be respected, regardless of how long ago they were laid to rest.

After exploring the sarcophagus room, we looked at the other places and rooms in the pyramid that were opened to the public. These were empty of treasures, too. But it was still neat and a bit creepy to realize that we were exploring a tomb, someone's grave. And when we were done, it was a whole lot easier coming down the wooden plank path. This time, you had to lean back and sort of run down. It was actually a whole lot faster and fun coming down and exiting the pyramid.

Outside, we were able to climb up the sides of the pyramid. And then we sat down on the huge stones and chilled for a bit in the cool shadow of the pyramid. Then we walked up the other end of the plateau and were stunned at the amazing sight of the Sphinx lined up with the Pyramids. It was such an incredible view, and it made the mysterious Pyramids seem more enigmatic and awesome. Truly, these were a great wonder of the world. And we were so glad to be here to see and climb and explore these fantastic structures.

For lunch, we ventured into the city block to check out the street food and local cafes. We figured the best places to eat were the ones that looked and smelled delicious and were full of locals. When in doubt, look for the crowds. Find the places where the locals like to eat, and you will eat well. And boy, did we eat well that day, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city, full of locals going about their lives and tourists checking out the sights. It made the whole lunch experience lively and thrilling.

I love the food of Egypt. The food was exotic, enticing, and absolutely exciting and delicious! My first experience of the local fare was when I was lucky enough to have been invited to breakfast by village elders. I had gone exploring the small village that morning, our first time out in the country. I was fascinated by the villagers waking up and starting their day. They were friendly and courteous, and I made a sincere effort to return their respect and stay out of their way.

I was taken aback by their different structures and customs and clothing; their language was foreign and strange to my ears. But I recognized their actions and routines as they set out to work their fields and care for their livestock and homes. I grew up in a remote, coastal farming community. And the farmer in me recognized the agricultural actions of these people.

And when those elders saw me as I made my way through the narrow paths between the old buildings, they invited me to join them. I accepted their hospitality and was blown away by their kindness to strangers. It was their custom, and I was honored and grateful for their invitation. I did my best to recall the advice the guides had given us about interacting with the locals and tried my hardest not to offend my hosts.

The local goat cheese and flat bread the elders offered me were absolutely delectable. It was the best goat cheese that I've ever had, one of the best cheeses ever! And I was treated to a delightful spicy dish of eggs poached in a tomatoes and onions chili sauce. I later learned that it was called shakshuka by the natives. And it's a favorite dish and staple of North African, Berber, and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Along with shakshuka, I discovered hummus (cooked mashed chickpeas mixed with tahini, spices, herbs, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt); falafel (ground seasoned chickpeas shaped into rounds and deep fried, served with tahini sauce and with pickled veggies, salads, and hot sauce); and shawarma (seasoned meat and veggies grilled vertically, then shaved into bits to make a sandwich, like a Middle Eastern gyro). And tahini--a flavorful regional condiment made of ground toasted sesame seeds.

I loved these spicy, savory, divine dishes. I had never tasted so many new and fantastic spices and food before. The fragrant scents, varied colors, and different textures and preparations made for a scintillating feast for the senses. It was a revelation, an outstanding culinary adventure and a scrumptious discovery of Berber, North African, Middle Eastern, and Levant cuisine. Multiple cultures and a long history of trade and civilizations had created extraordinary food and a unique culture.

So much culture and history happened here. This land witnessed the rise and fall of so many civilizations and nations, the comings and goings and intermingling of so many peoples and ideas and beliefs. Myth lived and walked on these shores. The story of humanity happened here long before the Bible was written. Stories of the Bible happened here. And history still happens here.

Apart from the history and culture, the very landscape of Egypt was exceptionally sublime. The desert, so forbidden and dangerous, was a dazzling and ravishing place full of secret wonders. And the beaches of the Mediterranean coast were superb with white soft sand and cool blue waters.

My favorite activity during my time in Alexandria was to go for a swim after a morning workout, just as the sun was rising. I didn't have to go to work til nine, so I had an hour to enjoy the waters. And when I got off at five in the afternoon, I had enough time to spend a few hours more in the sea until the sun set late in the summer evening.

I spent so much time at the beach that I returned home many months later several shades darker and with a different, laid back, Middle Eastern frame of mind. No need to rush. Things will get done eventually. No need to panic and be harried to and fro. Schedules were suggestions, not commandments. And there was always time for tea, good food, and to rest during the hottest hours of the day.

The people back home were flabbergasted at first upon my return. I looked different, and I was acting different. My behavior had changed. And my coworkers who did not join us in the company's overseas ventures were baffled and confused; then they got irritated and weren't too pleased with my chill, no worries approach. Some actually went out of their way to remind me that I wasn't in the Middle East anymore.

This is America! And we like to be on time, have to do lists, and stick to schedules! Stress ran through our veins. Getting frazzled and hassled and mad during traffic was the way we did things. I ignored them at first. But weeks later, I resumed my American frame of mind. But I did manage to make time to enjoy some tea, savor a good snack, and appreciate the quiet and peaceful moments of life. And these little changes have made my life so much more pleasant. And I owe it all to my time wandering the desert and swimming in the Mediterranean.

The lifeguards on duty at our special section of the Alexandrian shores were members of our company. And they admitted that it was annoying to find me so cheerful at the beach so damn early in the morning while they were still struggling to be awake. I was the first person they saw at the beginning of the day. And I was the last one they saw at sunset. I made those lifeguards earn their pay.

A few times, they panicked when they looked out some mornings and saw just my chin as I floated on my back far out in the sea. I looked like the fin of a shark in the early morning light. And after scaring them a few times, the lifeguards got some binoculars so they could spot and differentiate people (mostly me) from any sharks.

There were never any sharks on the coast then. But a few years later, a shark attack did occur in the area, a rare and surprising occurrence. I remember reading about it on the news, and it felt so weird and terrifying to realize that a shark attack occurred not too far from where I swam everyday I was in Alexandria. I count myself lucky and blessed to have been protected by the gods and spirits of the region.

Though the speed of life on the coastal city of Alexandria was much more chaotic and faster than the remote village of the interior, the people here were just as friendly and accommodating to us. I made many new friends with the desert villagers and hired interpreters and guides. And when I was reassigned to Alexandria, I made friends with a lot of the locals and contractors and vendors.

A lot of my new friends were in the Egyptian military. Our company had dealings with the government. And that meant a joint venture with the military. These soldiers were my age, just young kids fresh out of high school, still in our late teens, just barely reaching twenty. So it was easy to make a connection.

Even though there was a language barrier, we were curious enough about each other and respected each other enough to try to get along. We started to teach each other phrases and signals and bits of culture. I learned some Arabic phrases and taught them some English.

We sat down for lunch together. They introduced us to Egyptian food and drinks, and we shared our canned American goods and candy with them. A few times, we almost caused an international incident, the first was when we fed them hot dogs. They couldn't eat pork, but we were able to show them that the hot dogs were all beef. Or at least it said so on the packaging. The interpreter translated for us and explained to our new comrades.

Then there was the time we took them out to the beach we were staying at. It was a sectioned off resort area that catered to Western tourists. No locals came here. So you can imagine the shock of our fellow Egyptian friends upon seeing tourists in skimpy bikinis. They were stunned to see so much flesh on display. And they were conflicted. We felt bad, but eventually, we convinced them to stay for the beach BBQ we had planned. And I got them all some shades from the nearby market, so they could wear them, look cool, and be free to scan the beach bodies in comfort.

We had a lot of fun working with our Egyptian buddies. It was a great experience, a pleasing cultural exchange, and we had a great time working together on the joint project. We even started hanging out after hours, going to the places only the locals frequented. It was fun going to those places and trying new things. Those guys were awesome, and they made us feel at home. And when we left the country, we exchanged contact information with our new friends. The addresses they gave us were written in Arabic by their own hands.

I tried to stay in contact. But the letters I wrote were sent back as undeliverable. The same thing happened to my friends at the company. Our letters were returned in the mail. I wondered if it was because I did not write the Arabic addresses correctly, or maybe my friends had been reassigned or relocated. Whatever happened, I hoped my friends were fine.

In time, I did not think of my friends as often as I used to. Life happens. Next thing you know, years had passed by quickly. Then the Arab Spring happened, and I immediately thought of my friends. I was worried about them. I wondered if they were caught up in the chaos and turmoil. I prayed and hoped for their safety. After all these years, I hoped that they were all right. I hope that they survived the revolution and are safe and well. These are good people. And they have a right to have a safe home and to live peacefully and happily.

I don't know what happened to my friends. And it's likely that I never will. Perhaps we'll all meet again in the next life. The ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife. And I sincerely hope that I get to see my friends again, if not in this world, then the next. I would like to know that they are safe and happy. I would like to share their company once more, to laugh, to feast, to celebrate our friendship and shared experiences.

We don't always know what life has in store for us. We don't even know how much time we have left to live. So live each day as if it were your last. Do the things that make you happy. Embrace the people you love and care for. Take every day as an opportunity to find joy, have adventures, and make new friends and have new experiences.

Time and life don't stop for anything or anyone. So live life to the fullest, do the things that you want to do, and go after your dreams. Life is for the living, so live life as best as you can, and be the best you that you can be. Be kind to others and be good to yourself, because kindness makes the world better and absolutely more wonderful.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

The Usual

For several years now, I've made a conscious effort to pack my own lunch for work. Before this, I used to eat out or go to the cafeteria everyday. The problem was, I wasn't making the healthiest eating choices. And it showed when those poor junk food choices made me sleepy instead of energetic in the afternoon. Then I'd've to down three cups of strong coffee with lots of sugar and cream just to get me through the rest of the day. I'd feel jittery and wired, but at least I was awake. Of course, a side effect of all that extra caffeine was that I had to tinkle a lot.

Still, I could've bought healthier options. But those options were limited and weren't very tasty. Most were down right  bland. And to be honest, it kind of bothered me to realize that for what I was paying for one lunch meal at the cafeteria, I could've made enough great meals to last me several lunches. The truth was, I was paying for convenience, and eventually, I realized that I could do better.

So I decided to start making my own lunches. Mostly, it was leftovers that I used to create new delicious meals. And I did most of the prep on my days off. All I had to do was remember to pick up my lunch from my fridge and head off to work. And it's been a great system.

I can honestly say that I feel more energetic, healthier, and I like saving money. Now I'm down to one cup of strong coffee in the afternoon, and that's truly because I like the taste of strong, sweet, creamer coffee. But most of all, I quite like the food I was making and the creative, adventurous choices I was eating for lunch. I love cooking. I love experimenting with good food. And I was enjoying making and eating great food.

But I still went to the cafeteria at least once a week. Usually, it was on Friday, and mostly, it was an opportunity to check out what the cafeteria was offering on special. Every now and then, they'd come up with something intriguing. But mostly, I gravitated to the short order cook side, where the food was made quickly.

I wasn't too impressed with the other offerings at the main line. It was mostly food that I could make at home, except I'd add more flavor. And I figured that if I'm going to eat out, I'd rather spend money on something special, something interesting or unique or new.

But that didn't mean I was a food snob. I like the cafeteria desserts. And they had so many scrumptious treats. The pudding and jello were fantastic. And the soft served ice cream was delicious. And I was familiar with a few of the cafeteria workers. The ones that had been there the longest were the ones I called by their names. We were on friendly terms. The new ones I recognized as new faces. I was nice to them, too. Things just go smoother and more pleasant when you are courteous and friendly to other people.

At least once a week, I'd join my friends and coworkers in line at the cafeteria. Most other days, I'd bring my own lunch and stake out a table for our group. But Fridays, we'd be in line together, checking out the menu. But even if I didn't join the cafeteria line most days, I could figure out what the others were getting. They had their favorites, and I had gotten pretty good at guessing what they were buying for lunch.

It had become quite routine. They'd have their usual choices for lunch. Sure, they'd debate sometimes over the specials, but rarely, they'd go for it. Nine times out of ten, they'd get the same thing they got last week or even the day before. Some people like things to stay the same; there was a familiarity in that, a feeling of safety. And that's all right. Feeling safe is a good thing.

But me? I like variety. My packed lunches were always a surprise, always something different. I make it a point to never have the same lunch two days in a row. And I usually brought enough extra to share around at the table. The others would inevitably be curious to find out what I decided to bring to lunch that day. Most times, my lunch was interesting and always delicious.

And it was kind of fun seeing how inventive I was with the same leftovers, like Sunday fried chicken. How far could I stretch that? What would I do with it? It'd be chicken chow mein one day; followed by chicken and cheese quesadillas the next; then maybe orange chicken with macaroni and cheese after that; and finally chicken fried rice or sesame chicken at the end of the week. I prided myself on being bold and daring with my food choices. I liked that I always got something different.

And as I stood in the short order cook line, I smiled as I watched the others ponder over the daily special, then as I suspected, go with their usual choices. Typical and routine. No surprises there.

What was surprising though was when moments later, it was my turn to place my order. I got as far as smiling at the new cook, who only started six weeks ago, when she smiled back and said, "Would you like the usual?"

I was sure she was talking to someone else. The usual? I didn't have a usual. But she continued, "Two cheeseburgers and some fries?"

Nope. She was talking to me all right. And even more astonishing, I was going to order two cheeseburgers and some fries! I quickly thought back to the previous five Fridays and suddenly realized that Good Gawd! I have been ordering the same thing for the past five Fridays for lunch!

Some people ordered a double cheeseburger. Others wanted bacon or extra cheese with theirs. But for me, two separate cheeseburgers were just right, made perfect by a side of fries. So I returned the new cook's smile and said, "Yes, please."

Without even knowing it, I had been ordering the same thing for five straight Fridays. And today was going to be the same. I guess I did have a usual. I've been subconsciously having the same lunch for six Fridays in a row! That's as long as this new cook had been working here.

And to be honest, I wasn't sure how I felt about that. And the looks and smirks the other people in line were giving me upon hearing my "usual" order was making me self conscious! Hey, don't judge me, Mr. Double Cheeseburger! And don't give me that smug look either, Ms. Bacon and Extra Cheese! And you ain't fooling anyone with your small sprinkling of salad on those extra fries, Mr. Onion Burger!

I guess I wasn't so different when it came to ordering lunch. So much for variety and being adventurous. But when I was handed my cooked order soon after, the delectable smell of the cheeseburgers and fries made me realize that I was fine with this. I like the cafeteria's cheeseburgers and fries. They tasted great. And I didn't care what anyone else thought. I'm going to eat what I want.

So maybe I wasn't as diverse as I thought I was when it came to my food choices. I guess I did have a usual. Or at least it's been my usual lunch for six straight Fridays. And I'm okay with that. As matter of fact, I like having a usual. It means people recognize me and know what I like. And as cheesy as it sounds, it feels nice to be somewhere where they know me and my usual order.

Sometimes, people like having the same thing. They like having a usual. Because it feels good, and it feels comforting. And that's perfectly fine. Because comfort is a good thing. And life is so much better when we feel great.

So go ahead and chow down on those pickled eggs. Smother that mac and cheese with chili. Pour that maple syrup over those bacon and pancakes. Squeeze that ketchup and mayo and mustard over those hot dogs. Eat what you like. Don't worry about the food snobs. Meals are meant to nourish both the body and the soul. So enjoy what you eat. Life is for the living, so live it as fully and as happily as you can.

So here's to adventure, to diversity, and to variety. They make life fun and surprising. They are essential to survival. And here's to the familiar and usual. They make life more enjoyable and pleasant. So here's to you on your food choices. Be it innovative or usual, I hope it makes you feel happy. I hope it makes life feel good. I hope it's exactly what you want and need. I hope it makes you smile. And I hope it makes your life just a little bit more wonderful and absolutely delightful.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Buying Veggies

I wasn't sure if I ought to leave the house. It was chilly and cloudy and raining. And I didn't feel like driving in these wet, gray, misty conditions. I would've been much more comfortable curled up on the sofa, under a warm blanket, watching tv, reading a good book, or even taking a nap.

But in the end, a lull in the rain convinced me to go. And I was glad that I decided to walk to the small market to buy some produce. Though the building was small--a farmer's stand really--the selection was always fresh and delicious. And today, I decided to get some lush, green lettuce.

After perusing the delightful assortment of fantastic fruits, vibrant veggies, and fragrant herbs and spices, I was drawn to the lettuce. I bought 6 heads of crisp lettuce--three in each bag. Half would be prepped and shredded along with carrots to make a simple salad. I planned on marinating the shredded lettuce and carrot salad in a dressing of vinegar, oil, honey, salt, pepper, and a bit of mustard. The other three heads, I planned to shred and pickle with slices of onion.

As I made my way home, it started to drizzle again. I made sure my music player was secure in the plastic sandwich bag I was using to keep it dry. Other than my keys and some coins in my pocket, I had nothing else to worry about getting wet. And if the rain got into the shopping bag, that's okay. I needed to wash the lettuce anyway when I got home.

Now I confess that I did ponder bringing an umbrella on my walk to the farm stand. That would've been the smart and prudent thing to do. But I didn't feel like carrying an umbrella. And I was only taking cash to the farm stand, so I decided to keep the cash in the same plastic sandwich bag I kept my music player in. Even though the music player was supposed to be water resistant, I still thought it safer and best to keep it wrapped in a small plastic sandwich bag, just in case.

So my music player was dry, but I was not. Two miles. I was going to walk two miles in the rain to get home. A slight, light drizzle had gently started to soak into my jean jacket. And let's face it. A jean jacket isn't water resistant. And I had picked that jacket not for its water resistant qualities (or lack thereof), but because it felt comfortable; and it was the right kind of jacket one wears to the farm stand to buy produce.

I had chosen form over function. Practicality had given way to aesthetics. And that fashion decision was the reason I was now feeling the cool rain soak through my cap and the shoulders of my jean jacket. Still, I did not regret my decision to leave at home my umbrella, along with my poncho and rain coat. And now I had no shield nor a barrier to keep me dry. To the cars passing by in the end of the day rush, I must have looked a strange, forlorn sight--a lone walker carrying bags, soaked from the steady drizzle, trudging through the rain in the twilight, the gray skies only getting darker and wetter by the minute.

But I didn't care. I was fine. I had some great music going; my arms felt as I were carrying precious treasure; and I liked the feel of rain falling softly down on me. I was in a world of my own, singing along to the songs, even picking up my steps and bopping along to the music that made me want to dance.

If I wasn't carrying any shopping bags, I'd've spun and jumped, popped and locked, and maybe even done some robot moves on my way home. It felt great walking in the rain; I hadn't done it in a long time. And I was feeling liberated and uplifted at the same time. I was in my own little world, only keeping an eye out for traffic. I wanted to be sure it was clear before I crossed the small streets that cut across the sidewalk on my journey home. For the most part, I was in a reverie during my rainy stroll home. And it felt good.

But I was taken out of my thoughts when a car slowed down beside me, stopped, and the windows rolled down. I took out my left earphone to hear the driver and his passenger offer me a ride to get out of the rain. I was taken aback. A stranger offering me a ride? I thanked them politely and said that I was fine. I appreciated their offer, but I wanted to continue my walk home. They nodded, smiled, and rolled up the window and drove on.

I have to say. That was a very nice surprise. I didn't think that people would offer rides to strangers in the rain anymore. I didn't think that there were any more kind, thoughtful people left, at least not in this area. It's been years since I encountered a random act of kindness in these parts. And it made me feel good. I felt warm all over. I felt content and cheerful the rest of the way home.

I smiled as the cool rain fell on my face. There were still a few kind people left in this world, and that made the walk home feel even more wonderful. I was glad that I decided to go to the farm stand and buy some veggies. Not only did I get some delicious produce, but I learned that there are still are a few good, thoughtful people still living in this world. Life still had some nice surprises. And unexpected kindness makes the world just a little bit brighter, a little more beautiful, and a whole lot better.

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Market Days

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Love Bites: Chapter 3 Wasted

Love Bites: Chapter 1 Toast
Love Bites: Chapter 2 Bushwhacked

I remember Star's ex. He was actually a lot of fun. But I knew him for only a very short time. And in that brief period of meeting him, I thought he seemed nice. And despite what Star was telling everyone, I had no part in Star's breakup with the guy. In fact, I am pretty sure I treated him well.

It was the beginning of summer, and the weekend plans we made were extra special. A few of our friends who lived out of state were visiting us. It was sort of a mini reunion, so we wanted to make the best of it. So we decided to party all week--eating at our fave restaurants, clubbing, house parties, picnics, backyard BBQs. Basically, it was a week of eating, drinking, dancing, and having lots of fun.

Friday after work, we were at Sunny's place for a cookout. It was mostly hot dogs, burgers, shrimp, and oysters. And some veggies. Basically, it was food we could grill and eat quickly. We had a big BBQ planned that next day, and the stuff we planned to BBQ were safely marinating or sitting in the fridge with dry rubs overnight.

I brought crab potato salad. Usually, I prefer and make simple potato salad with just potatoes, eggs, salt and pepper, and mayo. But some of my visiting, out of town friends love my crab potato salad. So I added seasoned, butter stir fry crab meat to the potato salad while the potato salad was still hot and warm. That's how you get the potatoes to absorb the delicious seasonings and crab flavor. And by using the microwave to cook the potatoes, it takes me about half an hour to get the crab potato salad ready. And I like to eat potato salad while it's still warm right after it's made.

At the cookout, we were introduced to Star's new boyfriend. He worked at a large corporation doing network security. Firewall was polite, though he seemed a bit out of place with his suit and tie. The rest of us were all ready in casual cookout clothes. I guessed he came straight from work, picked up Star, and came right to the party.

When Sunny took Firewall to the coolers to get him and Star some drinks, Star addressed me specifically to say, "Be nice to Firewall, and show him a good time."

Not a problem. I'm usually very nice and courteous when meeting new people. So I complied with Star's request easily. I introduced Firewall to the rest of the crew. I encouraged him to talk and take part in the games and activities we held.

I should point out that most of the activities involved drinking games. I am quite familiar with drinking games. But Firewall wasn't. In fact, he confessed that he wasn't much of a drinker. He was impressed by my ability to down multiple shots and a variety of alcoholic spirits so freely and still be coherent and standing.

So I briefed Firewall about my long, sordid history of drinking--the highlights, lowlights, and my resulting high tolerance for alcohol. Some of the guys revealed a few of the more embarrassing/impressive details of some of my infamous escapades. I was very lucky to survive those shenanigans, more or less, intact. No arrests; no serious injuries. And I learned very important lessons from my experiences. The first being: There's a difference between getting a buzz and being wasted. A buzz is an enjoyable sensation, a sort of high, happy feeling. Wasted means passing out or worse, throwing up and doing something you're going to regret the next day.

I told Firewall that the secret to drinking is to drink just enough alcohol to get a buzz, then keep that buzz going by adjusting how much alcohol you imbue--less if you start to feel slow, more if you start to lose that buzz. And soon enough, I made sure Firewall had a good buzz. He might've seemed stiff and quiet at the beginning. But a few hours (and a few drinks) later, he was much more relaxed and joked around with the rest of us. I had a good feeling that he would fit well into the group. And he seemed to enjoy our company.

That evening, we put the brisket and pork shoulders in the big grill. By ten the next morning, the meat would be ready. Then it just needed to rest in the big coolers for thirty minutes. It was the perfect amount of time to get to the boat we were renting to get out to the bay. We planned to have a beach picnic on a sandbar.

The sandbar was only visible during low tide. We'd have at least three hours to play on the sandbar before the tide came in; the sandbar would be covered by the sea at high tide. We planned to be on the sand island by eleven the next morning when it would be visible. We'd have three hours to play on the sandbar before the island started sinking at two in the afternoon. Then we'd head back to the marina to return the boat; and we'd spend the rest of the day at a neighboring beach; it had great surf.

That morning we met up again at Sunny's for brunch. Another friend of ours had spent the night to help Sunny keep the grill fire going all night. This friend was a tinker of sorts. He liked to take things apart and build new contraptions. He loved experimenting and testing things out.

Most of Tinker's experiments were pretty awesome. But some of his failures were spectacular and, a few times, explosive! Thank goodness he was a fireman, because otherwise, we wouldn't trust him with matches. He was a pyromaniac. He was a performer, having worked through college as a fire blower and fire dancer. Seriously! And he still put on a fantastic show, blowing out flames and twirling fire staffs in the backyard during the cookout the night before.

We had leftovers for breakfast. And we also started drinking. We all ready had our designated drivers picked out--I had my turn earlier in the week. So I was starting the day with a buzz. And since I was asked to play nice, I made sure Firewall had a buzz, too, before we all headed out to the marina.

On the way there, Firewall confessed to being nervous, as he didn't know how to swim or surf. We told him not to worry. At low tide, the water only came up to your waist near the sandbar. And we'd show him how to surf using the paddle board. Big boards make surfing easy and fun.

As we loaded the boat with our gear, I noticed Firewall was a little unsteady as the boat bobbed gently. I was worried he might be seasick, as he'd never been on a boat before. But he said he was fine. And he sat down by the helm at the back. It was only a ten minute boat ride to the sandbar, and the bay was absolutely calm with clear, sunny skies. I figured, he'd be okay with the short boat ride.

As we neared the sandbar, Sunny cut off the engine. We slowed to a stop, and most of the crew were starting to jump off the boat and make their way to the sandbar. At this distance from the sandbar, the water was about nine feet deep. I got ready to jump in the water and tie our boat to the buoy. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, Firewall stands up, leaned back, and dove into the water.

My first thought, 'I guess he was ready to dive in and have some fun.'

My second immediate thought after that, 'Wait! He can't swim!'

Sunny had the same thought and panicked look in his eyes. So I dove right in to try to find Firewall who had yet to surface! I found him just a few feet under the surface, grabbed him, and brought him up. He began sputtering and coughing, and he panicked a little. But I got him to calm down as Sunny handed us a life preserver. I got Firewall to hold on the life preserver tied to the boat.

I told Firewall to hang on while I would swim ahead and tow the boat closer to the buoy. Near the the buoy, the depth was only five feet; that would make it easier for Firewall to walk towards the sandbar, instead of trying to hoist him back up into the boat. Soon enough, we were moored safely, and Firewall was able to walk to the front of the boat.

It turns out that he didn't dive in on purpose. He stood up too fast, and he was unsteady from the buzz, so he actually fell back into the water. He wasn't seasick as I had feared; he was drunk! Luckily, he was all right, and he laughed! So did Sunny and I.

Soon, we started unloading the gear and coolers from the boat. I advised Firewall to drink just water or a sports drink for now. And I had him go with Tinker on the sandbar while Sunny and I unloaded the supplies off the boat with the others' help. I thought Firewall could help Tinker get the two small charcoal grills going. Surely, he'd be much safer off on solid--well, sandy--ground.

But I was wrong. I should've known better than to have Firewall go with Tinker. Because ten minutes later, I see a huge fiery explosion that knocked Tinker and Firewall back as the flames shot upward. It was massive! Like a phoenix being born with flames radiating out bright and burning on all sides.

Before we could say anything or yell out in concern, the flames shrunk and burned bright on the grills. A victory yell from Tinker meant his experiment was a success. That damned pyromaniac! But seeing Firewall getting up next to Tinker alleviated any concern I had for the both of them, especially as they high fived each other over successfully lighting up the grills fast and hot.

I have to admit, as dangerous and reckless Tinker was, he did get the grills going fast. And within minutes of unloading the supplies, we started to cook all the food we had brought. The teriyaki marinated, deboned chicken legs I brought would only need eight minutes a side to grill. The fajitas would cook even faster. And soon enough, we started our picnic with brisket, pork, and various meats and veggies. And when we were done eating, we had enough time to enjoy the sandbar, playing games on the sand and water.

There was enough time for me to help Firewall learn how to paddleboard. I figured, if he can get his balance on a paddleboard, it'd be much easier to teach him to surf at the surf beach later.

An hour after we set up and played, a few other boaters joined us on the sandbar. And our picnic turned into a beach party with music blasting and drinks flowing. People laughed and danced and ate and drank and played til the tide came in a few hours later.

The sandbar started to sink, so we packed up the boat and made our way back to the marina. Our new boating friends were joining us at the nearby beach surf park to continue our festive celebration. And when we got to the surf park, there weren't a lot of people there, so we had most of the place to ourselves.

We gave Firewall some pointers and helped him catch some waves. And after a few tries, he caught on. It's always a lot easier learning to surf on a big board. He was having fun. And to celebrate his success, we started giving him drinks again when he came back to shore.

The rest of the afternoon, we played in and out of the surf, ate and drank, and listened to music. Everyone was relaxed, laughing, and having a good time. And when we split up before evening, a few of us were heading back to Sunny's to continue our party. But Star asked for our help to get Firewall back to his place. He had enough drinking--dude was starting to pass out. So we put Firewall in Star's car and followed her back to Firewall's apt. After Sunny and I helped him into his place, we took off while Star stayed.

And that was the last time that I saw Firewall. A month later, I heard he was promoted and relocated out of state to a bigger city. Good for him. I assumed the long distance was reason why he broke up with Star. But I was wrong, as Star blamed me for her break up.

"How is your break up my fault?", I demanded.

Star said, "The following weekend, Firewall and I sat down for a talk. He told me about his new promotion and being relocated out of state. Then he told me that as much as he liked me, he couldn't be with me, because we were too different. As fun as it was to be with me, one Saturday with me put him in more danger and more pain than he had ever experienced in his entire life."

Huh? I didn't get it. So Star explained, "He almost drowned."

"That was an accident!", I protested.

"He was too drunk!," Star argued, "You gave him too much to drink!"

"He could've said 'No'," I defended.

"As if anyone could say 'No' when you turn on the charm!", she accused, "And his judgement was impaired. He caught fire and burned off his eyebrows!"

"That is Tinker's doing!", I corrected.

"He only got them singed!", argued Tinker, "I'm sure they'll grow back," he reasoned, "Mine always do."

We chuckled at that, but Star continued, "He felt awful and sick."

"He was fine when we took him home," I said.

"He woke up feeling terrible and sick!", said Star.

"A hangover?", I asked.

"He said he felt awful and he looked awful", said Star.

"He looked fine when we dropped him off", I repeated.

"Well his missing eyebrows and black eyes said otherwise," said Star.

"Black eyes?", I was confused. He didn't have black eyes. He had blue eyes.

Star explained, "He was beat up and bruised from the day's activities. He got hurt and he was hit by a boat."

I challenged, "He wasn't hit by a boat!" At least I didn't think he was. Did it happen when I left him floating at the back of the boat while I went to tie the boat to the buoy? Why didn't he say anything? Now I was feeling guilty. I should've just towed him to the front of the boat, but I was trying to help him feel calm. And I didn't want him to feel embarrassed by towing him with his life preserver to the sandbar.

Star went on, "After you two dropped him off in bed and took off, I went out to unload the car. And while I was getting our stuff, he woke up feeling terrible and confused. He came looking for me. Unfortunately, he was stumbling about, and when I opened the door, I accidently hit him in the face..."

"Ouch!", we gasped!

"...and he fell back on the floor," Star continued.

"Oh!", we sympathized. Poor Firewall!

Star went on, "I checked if he was okay. He said he felt sick. And when I went to fetch a bucket, I stepped on something wet and slipped and landed on my back!"

"Oh!," we gasped again! Poor Star. We felt sympathy pains for her.

Her face looked disgusted as she described what happened next, "I wasn't sure what had happened. One second I was heading into the kitchen, the next, I was looking at the ceiling. Then I felt something wet under me."

She paused as if to gather strength, then continued, "It was mostly liquid. To my horror, it dawned on me what it was."

We were in suspense, waiting for her to continue, "When Firewall woke up feeling sick, he actually threw up. I had stepped in his vomit, slipped, and landed on it!"

"Gross!," and "Ugh!", we groaned. She slipped and landed on vomit! Now we were laughing, imaging Star flailing in vomit!

"It was awful," she said, "I crawled up, stripped off my clothes, and hopped in the shower!"

We laughed at the image of Star furiously scrubbing off the vomit in the shower. But I had to ask, "So you just left poor Firewall on the floor while you hopped in the shower?"

Star had a guilty look on her face when she replied, "When I got out of the shower, he was gone."

Seeing the confused looked on our faces, she continued, "While I was showering, Firewall got up, and still confused, left the apt to go looking for me."

"What!?!", we exclaimed.

"And that's when he got hit by a boat," said Star.

Oh, man! My mind was reeling. Did Firewall go back to the marina or end up in the water somehow, looking for Star? Now I felt bad that he was so drunk. And it was mostly my fault for giving him so much to drink! I was a horrible person!

Star said, "I ran out of the apt and saw it all happen."

Now I imagined Firewall in the canal getting hit by a boat!

Star said, "He was stumbling towards the parking lot when suddenly, two people carrying a kayak came around the corner, and Firewall walked smacked right into the kayak, hit his face, and fell back on the sidewalk."

"Oh!", we all groaned, picturing Firewall walking smack right into a kayak and falling down on the sidewalk. Ouch!

"Thankfully, those two kayakers helped me get Firewall back in the apt," said Star.

At this point we all started laughing. Poor Firewall. Star said, "The next day, he woke up in pain. His face was swollen, and he just felt sick. Luckily, he wasn't throwing up anymore, and the face swelling went down by the end of the day. The next day, the bruises around his eyes got darker, but at least they were slightly puffy instead of swollen."

Poor Firewall. Star continued,"His coworkers and boss were concerned, but he told him that he went surfing, and he was involved in a small boating accident."

"Technically true," I laughed. He did go surfing, and he was hit by a small boat later in the parking lot.

Star said, "Anyway, he said, spending one day partying with me got him in more trouble and pain than he had ever experienced in his whole life. In one Saturday, he got drunk; fell off a boat and nearly drowned; burned off his eyebrows in a fiery explosion; needed two people to help him on his feet and carry him back to his apt; vomited in his kitchen; got hit by a door and fell down hard; got hit by a kayak in the parking lot and fell down hard, again!"

"And then he needed two strangers to help him back to his apt! The next day, he woke up the feeling sick and nauseous, with pain all over and a headache, face beat up, with eyes nearly swollen shut. Then he had to go to work looking like a raccoon all week, with the bruises on his eyes and face, and everyone was staring and wincing at him every time he took off his shades."

"Dude has a legendary party story!", I exclaimed.

"Well, he didn't think so," said Star, "In fact, he took the whole experience as a warning that we weren't compatible, like I was hazardous to his health and well being!"

"So he dumped you like a bad habit," said Tinker.

"Or like filthy garbage," I added helpfully.

But my help wasn't much appreciated, given the glare Star gave me, "It's your damned fault he got so drunk!"

"You told me to show him a good time!", I defended.

"I didn't mean for you to get him wasted!", she said.

"Well, you should've been more specific," I argued. "If you tell me to show someone a good time at a party, I'm going to take it as a request to either get them drunk or sleep with them. And frankly, he wasn't my type!"

The moral of the story: If you want me to act and behave a specific way, then tell me. I'm not psychic.

And if you want your honeymoon phase to last a little bit longer, then don't bring your new lover around me. Because I will break the magic by unintentionally pointing out the flaws in your relationship. I can be terribly honest, especially when I'm drunk and have lost all inhibitions. So either tell me to shut up or keep me sober.

And if you've got a plan or goal in mind, and you want me to play on your team, then tell me your game plan and what plays you need me to make. I'm a team player; just tell me what game we're playing, and I'll be sure to score the right goals.

Just don't blame me for your poor relationship choices, and don't hold it against me when I'm being honest. As your friend, I'm going to tell you the truth, eventually. And it may suck and piss you off, but I expect the same honesty from you. Friends look out for each other. And I don't do it to hurt you. I tell the truth because I care, and because I just want the best for you. Love is blind. Love bites. And sometimes, I bite back. But only because I care.

Related Links
It's the Most Stressful Time of the Year
Love Bites: Chapter 1 Toast
Love Bites: Chapter 2 Bushwhacked

Monday, February 13, 2017

Love Bites: Chapter 2 Bushwhacked

I had no trouble remembering Pearl's ex. He was memorable--and not necessarily in a positive way. What I did have trouble with was Pearl's testimony that I bore some responsibility for ruining her relationship with this man. This was a charge that I vehemently denied.

But to be honest, I didn't have a favorable impression of the guy the first time that I met him. Pearl brought him over to Star's place where we were having a party. He was introduced to us as an investment banker. Banker seemed gregarious and a little assertive.

Within fifteen minutes, it was clear that he was a bit competitive and a tad aggressive. I wasn't sure if that was his real personality or just traits he picked up from work. He kept trying to one up us all, telling stories of his amazing feats and ostensibly using power poses--standing straight, arms folded, and legs wide apart or akimbo with hands on hips, chin held up high. It was an effort to make himself seem bigger or at least appear dominant in the group conversations.

Twenty minutes after meeting the guy, he challenged me to an arm wrestling contest. I beat him hands down. He wanted a rematch. I beat him again without any problems. I'm a lot stronger than I look. And I had years of arm wrestling experience from high school, when we actually held an arm wrestling league. That's right! An arm wrestling league. And I won a lot of matches. I was a multiple champion across different divisions and classes.

I grew up on a farm and did a lot of heavy field and livestock work that help build up my strength. Who needs a gym and weights when you've got large fence posts, firewood, logs, and bales of hay and produce to haul? And often I had to pick up a piglet or lamb or kid that had gotten lost or tired in the fields, and carry them home. Sometimes, it was an actual kid, a niece or nephew staying with us on the farm, who was too tired to walk home on their own steam. Sometimes, it'd be an injured or elderly adult animal that needed assistance back to the safety of the pens and barn.

Growing up on the farm made tough and strong. The farm also taught me valuable lessons about life, survival, and courtesy. And since leaving the farm for the outside world, I've learned that not everyone shares my values and beliefs, so I try to be open minded. Still, some behavior continues to bother me, even though there was no intent to offend.

And while I kept my face calm and appeared relaxed, inside, I was cringing when I saw Banker reach into the fridge to take the bottle of wine he had brought to the party; and then he left the party, taking his bottle of wine with him! It was uncouth to take back something that you brought to share at the party; and it was worse to take it back home without sharing it with anyone. It was a faux pas where I come from. It's kind of rude! It was understood that the host would keep any leftover items meant to be shared at the party.

But then, I thought, maybe they do things differently where he was from. Maybe they didn't do host gifts or potlucks where he grew up. So I was willing to overlook him taking back his bottle of wine. And I was was also willing to forgive him for pestering me for arm wrestling rematches three and four. Again, I had no trouble beating him. Though, I refused a fifth rematch request, because now, it was getting ridiculous; and I didn't want to waste the evening arm wrestling when there were other fun things to do.

But what I could not overlook, however, was Banker's littering. I don't like litterbugs. He left his used cups and plates and plasticware all over the place, even though the trashcan was clearly present and obvious in the kitchen. It bothered me to see him just leaving his trash around carelessly, when he was just steps away from the trashcan. I wasn't sure if he was just lazy or filthy, but either one did not sit well with me. And it's hard to shake off a first impression, particularly an unfavorable one.

Nonetheless, I made an effort to excuse his behavior, hoping for things to improve. Maybe it was just a small misunderstanding. Everyone deserves a second chance. But our second meeting only confirmed my suspicions, and it did not end well.

I love the outdoors. That's no secret. So when a rare three day holiday weekend presented itself, I eagerly made plans to go camping and do some hiking, river tubing, and swimming. While other people were making plans to have BBQs and watch fireworks, I was headed out to the woods to experience and enjoy the wonders and adventures in nature.

Most times, I camp and hike alone; it's a very fun and rewarding endeavor. A few times, I'll go with friends. My best camping buddies live out of state. And every chance we get, we'd take trips to meet and explore some of the great national parks spread out across the nation. Whether solo or in a group, I love the outdoors adventure experience.

As much as I love going to the beach, spending the hot sunny days swimming and enjoying the cool water; or pass the clear nights under the stars and having fun around a bonfire; sometimes, I just feel the need to head into the deep woods and up the mighty mountains to explore the natural marvels and challenge myself to climb higher and go farther, to conquer new heights and cover longer distances.

There's something very primal and exhilarating about pushing yourself to the limits, breaking through the walls of exhaustion, and reveling in the thrill and overwhelming joy of making it to the top and surviving a grueling ordeal to reach a little bit of paradise. It's a cathartic, spiritual experience to know that you can go farther, you are a lot stronger, and you are so much hardier than you realize. You are a warrior! And it's an amazing event when it all happens in the majesty and splendor of nature.

So I was quite happy to plan my three day weekend camping adventure. Planning and preparation are the key to any successful venture. And this particular venture was special, and I wanted it to be a resounding success. I was just starting to get to know someone new, and I was pleasantly surprised when she accepted my invitation to spend the three day holiday weekend hiking and camping.

A beautiful woman is a gemstone. And a beautiful woman who enjoys nature and the outdoors is a rare and most precious jewel. So I wanted things to go great. I wanted her to have a good time. This was our first romantic getaway, and I wanted it to be fantastic.

I made camp reservations four weeks in advance. I knew a great spot with awesome views, and I wanted to claim it before the holiday weekend rush. I had the maps and gear checked and ready a week before the holiday. And I had supplies and water stocked and inventoried four days before departure. I packed a standard medical kit and other essentials necessary for a safe, enjoyable experience.

I pack mostly canned and some dry goods so I don't have to worry about refrigeration or animals getting into the food. Also, if a wild animal tried to attack me, I figured throwing a heavy can at it would hurt it just as much as throwing a heavy rock.

When I was ten years old, I was walking home with a bag of groceries when suddenly, a large, wild, stray, feral dog came out from behind a large dumpster, growled and started running towards me. I was scared as hell as that dog came barreling down at me with large teeth baring and mouth foaming. The only thing that I could think of was to reach into the bag, grab a can of ravioli, and throw it really hard at the attacking dog.

The can hit the dog right on the head, knocked it to the ground, where it lay for a few seconds. Then it got back up, unsteadily, shook its head, steadied itself, then it turned and ran away. My heart was pounding, my hands were still shaking as I bent down to retrieve that can of ravioli. I quickly made my way home, all while warily keeping an eye out in case that crazy dog came attacking again.

Luckily, I made it home safely. I told my Mom what happened, and she called the police. The cops and animal welfare were all ready in the area, as the dog was suspected of biting someone else earlier in the day. They caught the dog and it was sadly discovered that the dog was very sick and had to be put down. The person who had been bitten was treated at the hospital and eventually recovered.

I was very lucky that can of ravioli was sturdy and strong enough to serve as a projectile weapon that protected me from getting bitten. That can only had a few scratches and some dust on the paper label, the result of falling on the ground after hitting that wild, crazed dog. I gladly washed off the dust and grime and heartily enjoyed eating that can of ravioli for dinner that night.

To this day, whenever I go camping or stock up on emergency supplies, I make sure that I have some cans of ravioli on hand. Not only is canned ravioli delicious, but the sturdy cans themselves serve as wonderful weapons in case of emergencies.

I also bought some steaks and started marinating them the night before the camping trip. I planned to keep and transport the marinated steaks in a small cooler of dry and regular ice. The dry ice would keep the smaller cooler cold enough to safely keep the bag of marinated steaks cold on ice for at least two days. I figured grilled steaks would transform the usual camping chowtime routine and elevate it into a classy, al fresco dining experience.

I planned for a memorable, romantic getaway. I made sure to reserve a spot far away from the other campers, secluded but within close walking distance of the restrooms. I picked a spot with a great view of the sunset and valley and hills, just a short walk to the river, whose babbling would help mask any noise and provide some privacy.

In the small dry ice cooler went two quarts of pistachio ice cream--my camping partner's fave ice cream. I planned for a wonderful and fun camping adventure, full of pleasant surprises. I also bought some chocolate chip cookies, chocolate bars, and marshmallows to make s'mores around the campfire.

To set the mood, I bought a box of chocolate candies and two bottles of wine to celebrate. The wine would go in the big cooler with the 12 pack of beer cans, sports drinks, and two large gallon jugs of drinking water. I also packed my mood music mix to set the right ambience and put us into the right, relaxing, desired frame of mind.

And if things went well, I had some subtle, intoxicating, sweet, relaxing scented lotion that was great for sunburns and moisturizing. It was perfect for massages to work out the kinks, put the mind and body at ease, and take things up to the next level. I planned to make our first weekend away together a truly fantastic and spectacular event.

Yes, indeed, I had worked things out and made an excellent plan for a great, romantic holiday weekend escape. I had thought of everything to help bring two people closer together and share an intimate, enchanting experience. I had a great plan and prepared for a good time.

Unfortunately, life has an uncanny way of messing up plans, no matter how well prepared or well planned out they may be. As we were leaving town Thursday after work, I got a call from Pearl. She was back in town after a long work trip, and she'd heard from the others of my camping plans. She wanted to hang out with me and relax in the great outdoors. I knew the rest of the crew had scattered out of town for the holiday weekend, so I suspected that Pearl was alone.

I wondered if the others had told her that I wasn't camping alone. Surely those gossiping hens would've spilled the beans by now. It was no secret that I was dating someone new; I just hadn't introduced the crew to my new friend. There was no reason to and no rush. And frankly, I'm not the type to kiss and tell.

We were still in that new, discovery and exploration period. We had not yet reached that level where we would introduce ourselves to the other's intimate circle and wider social network. For now, we were just focused on getting to know each other better and enjoying each other's company.

This may seem selfish--okay, it was totally selfish--but I didn't want to hang out with Pearl. She was not part of my plans, and I worked way too hard to set up this holiday escape. So I told Pearl that I was all ready out of town--I wasn't. I was still within city limits for another five minutes, getting gas at the service station, about fifteen minutes from Pearl's place.

Pearl said she had her own car and just needed directions to the campgrounds. 'Dammit. She really wanted to go', I thought. So I tried another excuse. I told Pearl that I only packed one tent. Technically, it was true. Although I had two tarps and enough rope to construct a second tent, but I wasn't going to tell Pearl that.

She replied that she could go to my place and pick up my spare tent. 'Aw, frak!', I forgot that she knew about my second tent. And I cursed myself for giving her the key to my apartment a while back.

As a last ditch effort, I told Pearl that I didn't pack enough food for an extra person. That was a lie. I always over pack food, in case of emergencies or if I wanted to extend my stay as I often do when I really like a place.

But Pearl said it wasn't a problem. We could do a supply run. Inside, I screamed, 'Gawd dammit, woman, take a hint! I have other plans! And they don't include you!'

But then I felt guilty, because I was acting like a selfish, self-centered jerk. She was probably looking for comfort and a chance to recharge and relax, to hang out with a good friend after a stressful week of working in strange town, dealing with strangers, far from the comforts and safety of home. And here I was, giving into my gonads instead of listening to my heart. I was not being a good friend.

So I relented and gave Pearl the campground location and campsite number. Even though my gut was telling me 'Aw, hell, no!', I decided to go against my instincts and be a better, more thoughtful person. Well, I guess I'll just have to make it a good experience for the three of us this weekend.

Except it wasn't the three of us. Before she hung up, Pearl mentioned casually that she and Banker would join us at the campsite in a few hours. I was like, 'What? Banker's coming?'

Pearl just said yes, she and Banker would be joining us this weekend. The four of us could have a lot of fun doing things together. Inside my head, I was like, 'This ain't no couples retreat! This was supposed to be a romantic getaway for two! Not four!'

I knew that I should've listened to my gut! Every time I ignore my instincts and let someone else talk me into doing something that I didn't want to do, I usually end up regretting it. I should've stuck to my guns and did my own thing like I wanted. But it was too late now. And I had to make the best of it, even though a small part of me felt pissed off at the turn of events.

I finished fueling up the car, got in, and informed my friend about the changes in our plan. I apologized for the changes and unexpected additions, but my new friend was cool with it. And I felt a little better, knowing the two of us were in this together.

Two and a half hours later, we reached the campsite. We set up our tent and still had plenty of time to do a hike by the river, soak our feet for bit in the cool waters, and started roasting potatoes and getting the grill ready for steaks.

The diced, seasoned, and buttered potatoes would cook in the foil envelope over the grill for at least forty five minutes. And when they were done, six of the marinated steaks would only take around four to six minutes per side to cook. Then after letting the steaks rest for ten minutes, dinner would be ready. By the time the steaks were done and resting, the sun was beginning to sink gloriously in the distance.

I had chosen our location well. My friend was quite astounded at the stunning sunset, changing colors from yellow to orange, red, then pink and purple as it sank further down the far horizon. Our eyes locked on to each other, and her smile was as gorgeous as the vanishing sun, and I felt my heart beat a little faster, happy, content, at peace. It was a beautiful, intimate, enchanted moment, everything that I had hoped for.

And it was ruined the instant Pearl and Banker arrived, with Banker driving Pearl's car, and announcing their arrival by honking the car horn loudly! It totally broke the magic moment, and my serenity instantly transformed to irritation, climbing up to agitation and vexation. But I told myself to cool it, took a deep breath, and made introductions.

And while my friend, Pearl, and I started setting up the second tent and stowed gear, Banker excused himself to go use the restroom. Fifteen minutes later, the second tent was up and gear was stowed away properly. It was only then that I realized that while the three of us were busy working, that bastard Banker had been chowing down on the steaks and beer! He had eaten four of the six steaks, most of the four diced potatoes, and he had all ready drank two beers!

I was flabbergasted! This jackass had snuck off while we did all the hard work, then helped himself to the food without even waiting for us! I was pissed! And though I tried to hide it, I made eye contact with my friend, and she was raising an eyebrow, clearly stunned at Banker's behavior. But Pearl? She was oblivious! Not only was love blind, but in Pearl's case, it was deaf and dumb, too! She was either too blind to see what was happening or she didn't care!

But I cared! And I had to bite my tongue to keep from cursing out Banker! Dude, seriously? You don't bring any supplies, you don't help set up your sleeping tent, and then you just help yourself to all the food without waiting for the rest of us doing all the work!?! What the f*ck is wrong with you!?!

It took all my energy and will power to keep my mouth shut and keep my anger in check. Calm down, I told myself. Don't let this idiot ruin your weekend. But I was all ready dreading the thought of spending the rest of the weekend with this idiot.

But I pulled it all together. I was still a host, and I had two other guests to tend to. So I gave the girls the last two steaks and all the remaining potatoes. And while I was dishing out the remaining food, Banker was at the Pearl's car, talking on his cellphone, trying to get a strong cell signal.

As the girls ate, I told them to save room for dessert and went to fetch the pistachio ice cream. I scooped servings into two cups and gave one to each of the girls. My friend asked me to share her steak, but I said, No. She asked me what I was going to eat, and I told her that I was going to get a can of ravioli.

Good old canned ravioli. This was the good kind with the delicious, overstuffed meat filling and scrumptious thick sauce. It was the can with the pop up top--no can opener required! Awesome! And it was heavy, strong, and sturdy enough to use a projectile weapon.

And using it as a projectile weapon was exactly what my instincts were telling me to do. When I came back to the table after fetching the canned ravioli from the supplies, I found Banker eating out of the pistachio ice cream container! The jackass didn't even think to scoop out a serving into a cup. He just ate right out of the container, leaving me nothing! Oh, this thoughtless a$$hole was about to get clocked!

But instead of knocking some sense into that jackass, I focused on remaining calm. I didn't want to do anything to upset the girls, though I really wanted to cuss that a-hole out! I had a firm, tight grip on my can of ravioli, and I was just moments from launching it at Banker's f*cked up head. But one look at my friend's raised eyebrow and I pulled myself together.

I calmed myself down and managed to eat my cold can of tasty ravioli. It was no steak and potatoes. But it was still good enough to eat. By the time the rest of us were done eating, Banker had downed three beers. And I made it a point to tell him that the recycling bin was by the restroom, so he could dispose of his empty beer cans there. He just nodded nonchalantly and muttered an insincere, Sure. And I had to rein in my immediate instinct to punch him hard in the face!

But I resisted that justified urge and finished my can of cold ravioli. The girls were eating their ice cream; and since the campfire was still burning, I went to fetch the s'more supplies. I figured some s'mores might make things better. This was a camping trip after all.

But when I got back to the fire with the s'more supplies, things didn't get any better. In fact, they were worse! I returned to the sight of that bastard Banker, chugging on one of the wine bottles! Straight from the mouth, not bothering to use a cup or even offering us a drink. He just stopped chugging my wine long enough to say, "Wow! This is some good wine."

Inside my head, I screamed, 'You're damn right, it's some good wine! That's why I bought it! And I didn't buy it for you, you piece of crap!' Oh, this was it! I was ticked! I was about to let loose and cuss that a-hole out when I suddenly felt my friend's hands grab mine and gave them a gentle squeeze. She looked me in the eye, and I was able to calm down before she took the s'more supplies and divvied them out. She insisted on roasting my marshmallow for me, saying that I all ready had done enough for them, and I needed to just sit down and relax.

That was a very sweet thing to say and do. But honestly, I think she was worried I might stab Banker with the pointy end of my roasting stick. And she was right. Because not only would I've stabbed him, I'd've beat him senseless with that stick!

But I felt so much better when she fixed me some s'mores, and I washed it down with a beer. We decided to make plans for the next day. I told them that I wanted to wake up early for a fast breakfast, and then hike the nearby eastern hills at dawn. If we made it to the hilltop early enough, we'd witness a spectacular sunrise.

Then we'd make our way north along a challenging path through the rugged terrain until we came to a tributary. We'd follow that river down to the main river and hike back to camp. We would see some fantastic sights on the way. I figured that if we hustled, we could be back before noon before the sun got too hot. We could eat lunch and cool off in the river by midday.

That was the plan we agreed on. And that was as far as I willing to plan ahead. I didn't even want to think about spending any more time than necessary in Banker's company. I figured we could do this one activity together, then we could split off and do our own thing. I was going to salvage what remained of my romantic plans and figure out a way to enjoy the rest of the three day weekend.

I was jolted out of my thoughts by the sudden loud snoring of Banker, who had passed out drunk. He managed to drink most of the wine and was now incapacitated at the picnic table! This idiot! He managed to irk me once more, even while he was unconscious!

I tried to hoist him up, but his legs were jelly and he was unable to comply. Then he started drooling! I was tempted to leave him at the table. F*ck him! Leave his stupid ass where he passed out. But then I thought better of it and ended up carrying him fireman style to his sleeping tent, where Pearl had rolled out the sleeping bags and was waiting.

When I returned to the picnic table, I found my friend cleaning up, and it pissed me off because she cleaning up Banker's mess! The plates, cups, utensils he used and his empty beer cans and the wine bottle were strewn all over the table. I was furious! I was about to go wake that lazy, filthy drunk up with a kick, or at least pour a bucket of cold river water over his head.

But then my friend grabbed my hand, squeezed it, and I let that homicidal urge to eliminate Banker pass. We cleaned up the place, discarded the trash and recycling properly. Then we extinguished the fire. My friend said that she was impressed with how patient I was.

I confessed that I wasn't patient at all. And the only reason why I hadn't exploded and kicked Banker's inconsiderate ass was because I was trying really hard to be courteous and not cause a scene.

My friend laughed and said that she could tell. And she was impressed that I was putting up with all this crap, just so I could be a good host to her and be a good friend to Pearl. I sighed, and she suddenly took hold of my face, leaned in and kissed me.

It was a magical kiss that took my breath away. And all the anger and tension left my body. She pulled back, smiled at me, and suggested we go for a walk by the river. We found a secluded spot and sat down to enjoy the clear night skies, marveling at the innumerable, sparkling stars and mesmerized by the ethereal moonlight dancing on the river's ephemeral, shimmering surface. So the night wasn't a total loss. And though our plans to spend a weekend alone had changed dramatically, we were still able to get back on track and create a memorable, blissful night.

The next day, my alarm woke us up before dawn. The morning was a bit chilly as I made my way over to wake up Pearl and Banker. Honestly, I was kind of hoping they'd be too tired to join us on our sunrise hike. But they surprised me by getting up. And armed with a breakfast of chocolate pudding cups, cheese and peanut butter and crackers, we made our way up the hills with some headlamps.

Just over a half hour later, we had reached the top. The skies were lightening up. But we still had time to sit down on the rocks and oohed and ahhed as the sun began to rise and climb the skies. The rush and mix of colors were magnificent as silver stars faded away with the purple night.

Lavender, pink, orange, and red light streaked across the skies and painted the hills resplendent colors for a few moments. Then the sun ascended higher, and the skies became blue with white clouds sailing upon the invisible winds of high. The hills and mountains revealed their earthy, rich colors, as the forests, deep with shades of green, awoke to the bright rays dancing upon the many varieties of leaves. Songbirds filled the air with their cheerful, lively singing, heralding the beginning of another new day. It was a serene and tranquil feeling, this new day. And I was hopeful that maybe things would get better from here on out.

It started out pleasantly enough, but as we started hiking, things began to sour. It began when Banker challenged me to climb a tall boulder. I made the mistake of telling him that I had done it before on a previous trip. But he doubted me and insisted that I prove him wrong. Ordinarily, I would've just ignored him. But I was fed up with his crap. So I climbed the boulder to shut him up. When I got back down, he tried to ascend the boulder, but he couldn't, and he kept ignoring my advice. Finally, the girls went ahead of us, and we followed them soon after.

When we got to a particularly steep hillside, Banker refused to take the long, winding switchback trails. He insisted that climbing straight was much faster. And he had a point. The shortest distance between two points was a straight line.

Unfortunately, the straight path he wanted to take was extremely steep and it cut across unstable terrain. I warned him to stay on the switchbacks. I told him the park rangers were adamant we stay on the trails. But he didn't listen. And while we trekked up the long winding switchbacks, he tried to climb vertical. He made it six feet before the rocks became loose under his feet, causing him to slip and slide downward on a small landslide!

He landed on his butt, buried under inches of dirt, gravel, leaves, and rocks. For a second, I was worried he might've injured himself. And a small evil part of me expressed glee. But I managed to holler out quickly, asking if he was okay.

He stood up, dusted himself off, and said he was fine. Then we waited several minutes for him to catch up with us on the trail. I wasn't going to make an effort to go down to get his stupid ass. And the girls seemed perfectly content to wait for him to catch up. At this point, the steep trails and rugged landscape was proving quite a challenge. We were sweating and breathing hard, fighting gravity and the rough terrain as we worked our way up the trail. So waiting for Banker to catch up was the perfect opportunity to catch our breath and take a break.

After a short break in the shadows of the trees on the hillside, we trekked on and eventually found the canyon where the tributary flowed. This was the halfway point. We'd follow the tributary down to the main river, then we'd follow the river down towards camp.

The path down was just as steep as the other parts of the trail. But the downward trail was made more treacherous in some parts, especially areas where the spray from the tributary had made the rocks slippery with algae and mud. And when we finally reached the bottom of the canyon, our path down river was blocked by a huge boulder.

The last time that I took this path, I waded into the river to get around the boulder. So I suggested we do the same. But Banker challenged me, saying we should just climb over the boulder instead of getting ourselves wet in the water. I told him that the wading in the river wasn't hard. But he argued that climbing the boulder was faster.

That may be true, I conceded, but I told him that if you try to climb the boulder, you're going to end up rubbing up against the poison ivy that draped over the top of the boulder. Hearing that the tree spread out on the top of the boulder was poison ivy convinced the girls that wading in the hip deep waters was a better option.

But Banker, he refused to listen. He wanted to know how I knew that the tree was poison ivy. I told him it has leaves of three, so leave them be. And more importantly, the last time I was here, the rangers had warned us about the poison ivy along the trails, including this one.

Banker looked at me, mulling things over. Then he surprised us by reaching up, grabbing a handful of leaves and then rubbed them in his hands!

We gasped! Dude, what're doing? He looked at his hands for a few seconds, then he declared that it wasn't poison ivy. It was just a normal plant. Then he ignored our advice and climbed up the boulder. Up there, he brushed up against the leaves. And still, he stood taller and declared, "See? It's just a regular plant. Not poison ivy at all. I had poison ivy a long time ago as a kid, and it was a fast reaction. This plant looks nothing like the one that I ran into when I was a kid."

As if to prove a point, he grabbed a handful of leaves and rubbed them on his face! We gasped again. But he laughed then climbed down the other side of the boulder as we waded in the cold river to get around the huge boulder.

When we got out of the river and back on the trail, Banker seemed to be in high spirits, laughing at how we were soaked and should've just climbed the boulder. He was emboldened by conquering that tall boulder, and he led our way back towards camp.

An hour later, we reached camp. It was about ten in the morning. The sun was getting hotter. And the three of us laid out our wet socks and shoes to dry in the sun. We were wearing slippers (flip flops or thongs or sandals in other countries). Banker was by the car, talking on his phone as we started to make lunch. We had ravioli cans and soup cans and stew cans. The only thing we were debating was whether we ought to light up a camp stove to warm up the food or just pop open the cans and eat them cold.

But our lunch debate was put on hold when my friend gasped and pointed out to Banker. His face was red and swelling! And his hands showed a red rash! He was having a poison ivy reaction!

I told him to stand where he was and take off his shirt, where he had rubbed up against the poison ivy. I told the girls not to touch him or his clothes. I grabbed a tube of hydrocortisone from my med kit along with some gloves. I told him to stand still while I applied the cream to his face and arms.

I told Pearl to grab a blanket and throw it in the back of the car. We were taking Banker to the hospital, because I had never seen anyone's face swell up from poison ivy before. Banker protested but I ignored him. I was worried his reaction might get worse. Banker got into the back of the car, and I warned Pearl not to touch him, because he still could've poison ivy irritant on him.

My friend hopped into the front seat. I got in the driver's seat, and within ten minutes, we were in the emergency room. Banker was taken in immediately for treatment. His face had swelled up even more!

It was a very stressful time for us, especially for Pearl as we anxiously awaited news of Banker's progress. The doctor and staff told us that he was in good hands and getting treatment.

Two hours later we were relieved to see Banker's condition had improved. Though his eyes were still a bit puffy and there was some residual redness on his arms, the doctor assured us that he was safe to be released to recover at home.

And so we decided to make sure that Banker would get home where he'd recover and find relief using his prescribed medication. I told Pearl to stay with Banker while my friend and I would head back to pack up.

Half an hour later, we were back at the hospital. The aide helped Banker to the car using a wheelchair. He didn't need it, but it was hospital policy to discharge patients and transport them to their vehicles using a wheelchair.

After settling Banker in the front passenger seat and buckling him in, I gave Pearl her car keys back. Pearl got in the driver's seat. I gave her a small bag with a tube of hydrocortisone, just in case of a poison ivy reaction, and a can of ravioli with some cheese and crackers snacks, in case she got hungry and didn't feel like stopping somewhere to eat. I also gave her a map and told her to follow us. We would take her as far as the interstate, then she could drive home from there without any problems.

Pearl started the car, then she paused and asked, "Wait. Why can't I just follow you all the way home?"

So I said, "Oh, we're not going home. We're headed back to camp. But we want to make sure you reach the interstate. And from there, it's a straight shot to home."

Pearl's mouth dropped open. I assured her, "Don't worry. You'll be fine once we reach the interstate. You've driven it many times before, so you won't have any problems getting home."

Flash forward to the BBQ and Pearl was telling the others, "And that's exactly what he did. He just led me as far as the interstate, then he exited and left me to drive all by myself. That was a long three hour drive!"

"It's only a two and a half hour drive," I interjected.

She glared at me and declared, "You ditched me in my hour of need!"

I said, "If I recall, it was your boyfriend who needed medical attention. You were perfectly fine to drive. What exactly did you need?"

Pearl glared at me and said, "I needed comforting and support!"

"You weren't the one who got hurt," I said.

"I was stressed out!", she argued.

"We all were," I replied.

"I was looking for some kindness and some help from my friend!", she said.

"And you got that help," I said.

She looked at me like I was crazy and demanded, "What help did you give me? You left me with nothing!"

I gasped with disbelief and said, "I left you a map to get you home. I gave you a tube of hydrocortisone, in case you needed it. And a can of ravioli--the good kind!--with some cheese and crackers, in case you got hungry!"

At this point, the others were laughing as Pearl glared at me. "You ditched me to go off f*cking!"

I was taken aback by her outburst, "You make it sound like I did something wicked and sinful and filthy! Like I'm some sort of shameless, debauched miscreant!", I paused for a moment, then proudly said, "Thank you."

And I held my head up high and marched over to the cooler to get myself another beer. The others were laughing but Pearl was ticked, "You were a selfish a$$hole!"

So I replied, "Your boyfriend was the selfish a$$hole. And anyway, I still don't see how your break up was my fault."

Pearl argued, "You put me in a position that ruined my relationship!"

I didn't get it, "Come again?"

Pearl continued, "I wasn't ready to be put on the spot and be forced to take care of him that weekend. Both of us weren't ready for that level of commitment! And that whole situation reflected badly and made me see the worst of him! He wasn't in the best shape that weekend. And by the second day, all I could think off was what a whinny baby he turned out to be! And I felt guilty for thinking those thoughts. And after seeing him at his worst, there was no way we were going to stay together."

"Well it sounds like I did you a favor," I said, "I saved you from dating a man-baby!"

"You put me in a bad situation that I wasn't ready for", she claimed. "And when I was going crazy and tried calling you, you didn't answer any of my calls or texts! Probably because you're too busy f*cking around to take my calls!"

No argument here, so I just shrugged nonchalantly. "I still don't see how it's any of my fault. That dude was a tool and a jackass. He brought that crap on himself. Anyway, I don't get why you blame me for your poor dating choices."

"I'm blaming you for putting me in a bad situation! I wasn't ready for that level of commitment," Pearl argued,"but you abandoned me to go off and f*ck around when I needed help to think things through, and I needed help to sort through all the sh*t that was going down!"

"I still don't see why it's my responsibility to fix your relationship problems," I defended, "You picked the guy. You were dating him, so you were responsible for him."

"It's not about fixing my relationship problems!," exclaimed Pearl. "It's about you, seeing me in a tough situation, but then abandoning me on my own while you go off to f*ck around while I'm stuck and stressed out! As my friend, you should've known that I needed you to drop everything and help me with my injured boyfriend, not ditch me to f*ck around!"

"Oh, I'm sorry," I said. "We seem to have had a miscommunication. I'm not a psychic, you know. If you want something from me, just tell me what you want, because I don't read minds nor pick up hints. Seriously, if you need my help, then just ask for it!"

"And just so we're clear, " I continued, "If it's a choice between me helping you sort out your relationship problems or me getting laid. I want you to know this," I paused to make sure that I had everyone attention, "I will always choose to get laid over helping you sort through your crazy relationship problems! Always!"

The guys thought that was hilarious! The girls, not so much. And they expressed their displeasure by throwing things at me. Luckily, they had terrible aim and I was able to duck most of the objects thrown at me.

"You see," said Star, "That's your problem right there. You say things that you shouldn't, and take action that ends up affecting everyone, and you do so without thinking or caring about the impact you have. The things you say and freely do affect us. And your words and actions set us up in situations that lead to breakups and heartaches!"

And so Star told her tale of how I carelessly and thoughtlessly ruined her last relationship.

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