Tuesday, December 11, 2012


6 Survival Tips You’ve Likely Never Heard

Okay, so ever since the wise man bearing the gold sent those two daft men with the frankincense and myrrh scrambling for excuses there’s never been any such thing as a stress-free holiday. There are gifts to be bought, cards to be sent and strings of lights to attach to the eaves with duct tape. And then there’s the specter of putting on a few extra holiday pounds, looming as real as a lawsuit from the ACLU if you refer to them in public as ‘extra Christmas pounds’. These are harrowing days indeed. But by following these half dozen bits of unconventional holiday wisdom, garnered from years of experience involving five sisters, thirty-odd cousins, nine nieces and nephews and now three little elves of my own, you too can lower your blood pressure even as your credit card balances float skyward. So kick back, take heed and then kick back some more – with a bowl of foil-wrapped chocolate balls.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

These Times

One day last week – which day I don’t remember because I’d rather forget about it – I spent a sickly part of my morning on the phone with one of the fine folks at the local GEICO factory. Understanding car insurance is hard; getting car insurance shouldn’t be. Yet there I was, on the phone for over an hour as the self-appraised super-representative on the other end subjected me to all manner of informational inquisition. What’s the VIN on the car? What’s your old New Jersey driver’s license number? Date of birth? Social security number? How long has your wife been driving? You drink much? You need renter’s insurance? How many fingers am I holding up?

What am I, on the list of suspected car insurance terrorists?

‘Okay, you’re all set,’ my super-duper pooper-scooper said. Finally. ‘I’ll send you your policy number in a confirmation email.’ An hour later I get a message thanking me for choosing GEICO and confirming the charges to my credit card have been approved for the brand spanking new insurance policy issued to someone named Scott C. Smith.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

People Are Strange...When You're a Stranger...

If you’ve been keeping up with my recent move to Long Island (and who hasn’t?) you’ll know that I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the people I’ve been encountering here in my new hometown. I mean, when the people working at the library are so boisterous the patrons have to look up from their books and laptops to tell them to be quiet you know you’ve happened upon a very special place. But as evidenced by the slovenly gray-haired schmuck I watched waddle over to the park area outside the library – he leaned on the fence surrounding the playground and started smoking and flicking his ashes around, then put his cigarette out by grinding the butt into the top of the fence and smearing the ashes around before finally flicking his scrap of dirty garbage into the sand where kids run around with their shoes off – there are a few people around who could use a steel-toed boot in the pants.

Take the trio of eight-year-old girls I saw selling lemonade by the side of their quiet residential road. They were out in the hot sun, making the attempt, and since I had to turn around anyway because I was lost I figured I might as well stop. Call it my beneficent act for the day. Besides, it was hot for me too, beer is criminally expensive here and I was already spending too much on toll bridges and gas. What could be better than a glass of homemade lemonade, procured the good old-fashioned way?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Good, The Bad & The Bus

As mentioned in my previous couple of posts, my latest move has been marked by run-ins with some excellent people: I wouldn’t have found this house I’m now in without the kind, firm tenacity of Andrea at Signature Realty (and access to the office Keurig); thanks to Lynne across the street my nephew and I didn’t end up waiting at Northport Station for a train that would get us to Penn Station just in time to be stranded there all night after spending the day moving (or not, thanks to a faulty fuel pump); Greg who lives in the converted cottage out back, besides coming through for us with a large pizza, helped me drag my newly-bought, used, half-ton couch from my van into my living room. (Greg’s a big guy and it was still a feat maneuvering the beast through the front door without losing my security deposit on day one. And he's such a cool neighbor he still said 'Hey if you need anything else...')

Also deserving of kudos are various people in the Northport-East Northport School District. Initially I thought I was going to live in this crappy duplex on this hilly, crumbling dead-end street. With this in mind I contacted the people at nearby Norwood Elementary to let them know I would be registering my oldest son for kindergarten there – while simultaneously apologizing for doing so at such a late date. ‘Oh, no problem at all,’ sang Ms. Esposito, the school nurse. Of course she wasn’t the one to have to now prepare extra name plates for the coat hanger, cubby hole, chair, shelf, gold star chart, homework bag, art shelf and whatever else my son would need to be an official member of the class. After forty minutes of pleasant conversation and loads of information regarding the immunization policies of the school district, the good nurse sent me a prepared registration packet in the mail along with a note saying she was setting aside a supply kit for my son to make sure he had what he needed from Day One. Two days later I found a mildly less crappy duplex in the zone of another of the town’s schools.

‘Hi, excuse me, I’m really sorry but I just moved to town (actually I hadn’t yet but there wasn’t time for such boring technicalities) and my son is going to be entering kindergarten…’

Monday, October 1, 2012

Dumb Luck, Bum Truck

I leaned against the wall of the gray and Formica rental office, waiting as the guy behind the counter gave his spiel – for the zillion and eleventh time from the sound of his voice. ‘Here are your estimated charges based on how many miles you say you expect to drive the truck…’ The man across from him stared at the paper contract, his mind seemingly on other things. Nearby a young woman described her apartment with muted excitement, presumably to her dad, rosy-cheeked and prematurely white-haired. Mr. Sunshine droned on. ‘…if no one's here park the truck along the fence and drop the keys in the drop box…’

I’d initially tried to reserve a truck for September 1st, but there were none available, anywhere in the area, unless I wanted the twenty-six-foot Behemoth. I pictured myself driving over the George Washington Bridge and along the narrowed lanes of the construction I knew was going on. I gave myself pretty solid odds that I’d end up sideswiping someone right into a concrete barrier so I passed, opting to wait an extra day for my fourteen-foot Elf.

‘…Here’s your contract number, here’s the toll-free number to call in case your truck breaks down…’ A second man appeared behind the counter and began talking with a customer in Spanish, and I wondered: out of all the people renting all those trucks this weekend, what were the chances of anyone in that tiny U-Haul rental office having their truck break down that day – and what a crapshoot it was, getting a good or bad truck depending on whether you showed up at the rental office at 9:03 or 9:05; on which set of keys your guy behind the counter happened to grab on his way out to the lot; or on whether the young woman decided she wanted the truck with the picture of the sea turtle instead of the UFO. If someone that day was going to end up using that toll-free roadside assistance number, who would it be?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Renting a Place for Life

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I flew back to New Jersey ahead of my family, giving my wife (she still doesn’t know I flew business class) a chance to get used to having to handle the kids by herself full-time. Yuppers, after an extended post-earthquake transition period involving the labyrinthine process of obtaining a green card legally, battling to no avail the immeasurable incompetence of the stewards of our health care system, bringing our new baby daughter into the world while managing not to take our eternally fighting and screaming sons out of it, and countless changes in plans for the future – move to Oregon (we flew out to make sure we’d actually like it), move to North Carolina (we drove down to make sure we’d like it), move to the Washington, DC area (until we drove down and I remembered how ridiculous the traffic is), go back to school to bring my forensics education up to date and finally get that crime scene investigation job (this idea will be forever on the table, somewhere between the napkins and the Tabasco), move to Summit, New Jersey or somewhere close to one of the trains that go there (for a business venture that would eventually fall through), stay in East Hanover since by this time our son was registered for kindergarten as well as fall soccer and my wife had made a bunch of friends in town (while my own social life existed almost entirely on my laptop), and finally, in a development that occurred while I was still doing pushups on the in-laws’ tatami floors, move out to Long Island to manage someone’s growing butcher shop collection (the guy decided to hire me on nothing more than a relative’s recommendation and my intense good looks)  – I am, I think, about to return to the world of socio-economic utility.

If that last sentence has you feeling like you’ve just been woken up mid-meeting by a co-workers hand-slap to the back of your head then you’ve got a handle on how I’ve felt for the last twelve months. (yada yada, poor me…)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Crying in the Rain

The postponement of the GOP National Convention is not the most ridiculous reaction to the coming drizzle named Isaac. It’s just the most publicized. We Americans love to dramatize our own plight, a tactic which, intentional or sub-conscious, allows us to maintain our self-appraisal as the most important people on Earth.
I had mistakenly thought Isaac had already blown up the east coast; this from one facebook post from someone lamenting the six inches of rain that had fallen overnight in Delaware and another announcing a power outage in Florida. Good Lord above, this isn’t a hurricane, this is Armageddon! I’m sorry God….for everything!!... (Okay I'm exaggerating.)

A check into the situation on weather.com, however, explains, in a series of news clips, the situation – in particular, the American inclination to dramatize our plight. (Please do tune in, these clips are well worth it, if for no other reason than to understand just how keenly incisive my thoughts are.)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Staying in the Right Now

United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek must not have read my post from July 8th because soon after that sharp-witted dagger attack I received notice of my new Premium Silver Club status in the mail.  How he knew to mail my club member card to Japan and not New Jersey is a little freaky; maybe he did read my post and is trying to shut me up by playing nice. Not going to work Jeff, but I’ll take the extra legroom.

I’m sitting in a near-empty lounge in Narita’s Terminal 1. It’s 6:30am, I’m fresh off another overnight bus ride from Fukushima (typically, I got nearly zero sleep), and I’ve got four hours before first boarding call. Perfect. Time to relax and take in my surroundings.

I’m alone by the way; the wife and kids will remain in Japan for a few more weeks. There have been many moments recently when I felt I couldn’t get away from the boys fast enough; the younger one clings to me like shrink wrap and hasn’t learned yet the concept of sharing toys, while the older one, as good as he tries to be in the face of the two-year-old fury that is his brother, can only keep his frustrations at bay for so long. Alone now, I can close my eyes and enjoy the peace of solitude. And I find that I already miss being able to look at my sons.

Friday, August 17, 2012

"It's funny because it's true." -- Seinfeld

The slogan of The Japan Times newspaper is “All the news without fear or favor”. They say nothing of, as sometimes-funny former late-night talk show host Arsenio Hall used to say, ‘things that make you go hmmmm.’ And until Arsenio is back on the talk show stump next September, it is up to me to bring these crucial news items to you.

On the front page of the August 15, 2012 edition a headline reads: Lost school party found safe in Nara mountains. My first thought: what was a safe doing in the mountains? Turns out a group of students and two teachers from Uenomiya Junior High in Osaka ‘got lost because some roads were demolished by last year’s typhoon.’ The group, by the way, were members of the school’s mountaineering and outdoor activity club. I vote F’s all around for those kids. And reassign those teachers to the tea ceremony club. (And give them a canteen and a cell phone along with directions to the tea ceremony hall in Building 2.)
Beginning on page 2 is the ‘national’ – apparently a synonym for ‘delusional’ – news. The lead article is on upcoming talks between Japan and North Korea, who haven’t officially spoken since August 2008. The talks are supposed to center on Japan being able to retrieve the remains of Japanese who died in the North near the 1945 end of Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula. Overly-optimistic Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujiwara also says the talks ‘will “definitely” include North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals.’ After these scheduled ‘preliminary consultations,’ Fujiwara says it will not take many days for the two countries to enter into real talks. Right. The Japanese and North Korean Red Cross Societies (The Red Cross!) hadn’t even spoken for 10 years until they ‘agreed last Friday to ask their governments to join negotiations’ over the remains-retrieval issue. I predict talks will break down by noon of the first day as the two countries will not be able to agree on where to order lunch from.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Change Is Normal

After a week in Fukushima I had finally gotten back out on my bike. Her tubes still held air, despite sitting in a shed since last September. Her front derailleur was still stuck; I’d meant to work on loosening her up last summer but, as often happens with things, I never got around to it. The worn back tire was a different matter; if I was going to get any riding in during my time here I couldn’t ignore it much longer. I always let my tires wear down further than I should before I replace them. So far I’ve avoided major catastrophe.

Ishida-san was manning his bike shop alone, of course. His look when I walked in was one of delayed confusion. Wasn’t I supposed to be gone by now? Had I left and come back? Misunderstandings are the common by-product of my middling Japanese. I picked out a new tire (‘That’s a good one, lasts a long time,’ Ishida-san said, just like every other time I’ve ever bought a tire from him) and I rode across town to find a present for my niece and her fiancee. I wouldn’t be able to make their wedding in Florida; this would be a sort of first for me, since I usually take any opportunity to travel.

Further toward the north side of town I found, after ten minutes and twenty-two side streets, the hair salon where I was to meet my wife. I was late. My wife would be later. I rolled to the convenience store at the end of the block to pick up drinks for my sons. On the magazine rack I saw the faces of the same celebrities so popular a year ago – in typical fashion, Japan loves new things brought to them by the same old people.

The woman at the hair salon – a personal friend of my wife’s, who I had met once before – asked about the new baby and living in the States and how long we’d be in Fukushima. I asked her mainly about her salon, as I couldn’t remember anything else about her, if I had ever known. Business was good, she said. Better now than it was in her first year, before the earthquake. ‘So people are…around? Like before?’ And still getting haircuts?

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Life is back to normal.’

And, I guess, on the surface it is.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Talk is Cheap. Our Fees are Not. Hey, Valuable Customer, Listen To This!...

'...And may the odds be always in my favor...'
Every time I want to fly west from Japan I go online thinking ‘This time, dammit, I am not flying a Chinese airline.’ And every time the cheapest fare is on another eponymous Chinese airline and I say to myself ‘Okay, dammit, but this is definitely the last time…’ And I promise in advance I’ll be making up for any and all unrequited expectations by going college with the free in-flight beer. (Apparently they know this and return the sentiment by going gorilla with my Samsonite.)

Flying between Japan and New Jersey is a more subtle tragedy.

In his State of Our Awesome Airline address in the beginning of this month’s issue of Hemispheres, United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek goes on a rant against the dark powers at work causing his industry to lose $55 billion dollars a year. Poor guy. As I’m reading (a guise to make my kids become uninterested in me and not from any sense of commiseration with a man who just wouldn’t feel right paying himself a penny more than $1.2 million a month), that same smarmy Smisek appears on my personal in-flight video entertainment system screen. ‘We’ve got the most lay-flat seats in the industry,’ he tells me as I fight to wedge my feet around my knapsack, shoved under the seat six inches in front of me. He goes on with his State of Our Awesome Airline addendum by touting how many new planes they have, and how many new Economy Plus seats people somewhere are putting onto those planes. Conveniently he makes no mention of the sticking my twenty-pound two-year-old with the same fuel surcharge Bob the Elephant across the aisle pays, or the shitty disposable ear buds passengers are given for free…for now… or the fact he’s about to stuff my kids full of saran wrap greaseburgers for the next thirteen hours.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Case For Cheap Souvenirs

I’ve never been much for the kinds of souvenirs so many people buy. Hard Rock cafĂ© t-shirts. Eiffel Tower snow globes. Mexican or Moroccan or Vietnamese hats that people think are funny when they wear them onto the plane for the flight home, but then realize before first beverage service that not only are they not funny, but that their five bucks would have been much better spent on an in-flight beer, which tastes infinitely better and will not end up under a heap of other crap in the back of their closet.

I’ve always preferred to take home more personally creative items. To wit: I’ve got a Bacardi bottle filled with Puerto Rican sand and a Cruzan Rum bottle with sand from St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. Totally cool mementos, and way cheap as the local booze on any Caribbean island can be had for a fraction of what you’d pay at home. Plus of course I got to personally empty the bottles on the beach before copping sand that probably shouldn’t have made it through customs.

I had these souvenirs displayed on a shelf for a while. At the moment they are in a closet somewhere.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Maps Are No Fun

I’m not big on planning ahead. Or planning at all for that matter. Some might call me disorganized. I say I’m advennnnturous. It helps that I have the concentration span of a five-year-old at Disneyland after a breakfast of strawberry compote and whipped cream, but even if I know which country I’m in, traveling on the fly is a way to see things I’d otherwise likely never see – a forested temple, for example. A way-out-of-the-way village. An interrogation room.

I’d made it fine so far on my 2007 trip around Indochina, biking through Thailand and across Cambodia without a map. (I might have gone a few miles out of the way on occasion, missing a turn here or taking a wrong turn there, but if everything goes smoothly your stories in the end aren’t very good, are they?) Tomas, on the other hand, had a map – several of them actually, that he rotated through the handy-dandy clear plastic pocket on top of his handlebar bag. (This was back before the prevalence of iPhone GPS apps made it easy for your typical backpacker to not come back with any good stories.) Tomas and I had been traveling together since Trat, near where the Thai coast runs into Cambodia; we’d gotten split up twice in the Khmer Kingdom, once on our way out of Sihanoukville’s Wat Leu (I ended up going thirty miles out of the way that day) and again on our way out of the rarely-recommended coastal town of Kep, where we managed to lose each other somewhere along the fifty-meter gravel driveway of our guesthouse (he went one way around the barn in the middle of the path, I went around the other side and poof!).  Stephan had been on the road well over a year and had ridden thousands of miles with dozens of other fellow cycling travelers. He said he’d never lost anyone until he met me.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

House Sitting for the Irresponsible Budget Traveler

When you are on the road few things are better than having a place to crash for a night or three. Whether they be relatives (as was my good fortune last weekend), friends (like this past week) or former co-workers from eight years and fourteen time zones away (like tonight), having people who will welcome you into their homes is pure bliss for the traveler – particularly if your gracious hosts have young kids and/or toys to keep your own road-weary munchkins emotionally stable for another day.

If the gods of the itinerary are really smiling on you, your gracious hosts will, after providing you with free range of things, leave town.

But before that kid-in-the-candy-store giddiness gets out of hand, you’d be wise, fellow freeloader, to keep a few things in mind. After all, you might pass back through on your way home and want to crash again.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

'I'm not watching TV, I'm working.'

Being a writer is great. Here’s why.

‘Honey, can you help? I’m trying to make dinner and the kids are screaming at each other again.’ ‘Well I just got this incredible subplot idea I need to develop; I need to think, I’m going out for a bike ride.’

Maxim? What kind of magazine is that?’ ‘Oh, it’s a kind of resource for creating a new character for my book.’

‘You don’t usually drink Kahlua. You know, that much at one time.’ ‘Yeah, well it helps my imagination.’

‘Are you coming to bed soon?’ ‘In a while, I’m going to watch some TV first, get some fodder for a new blog post.’ ‘You mean for the blog that makes you no money?’ ‘These things take time, honey.’ ‘Fine. Good night. You’re on breakfast duty tomorrow, I have to go to the mall.’ ‘Why, what do you need?’ ‘Nothing, but all the walking around is good exercise.’

I can’t complain. She spends about as much as I make as a writer.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

In Case You Stuck with the NFL on NBC...

Two minutes ago I was staring at the all-important Lions-Saints matchup down on the Bayou, an evening of passive adrenalin infusion ahead of me when I remembered the other game being televised tonight. Thanks to someone in my neighborhood providing unsecured Wi-Fi I am now at the dining room table, ready to hunker down with the six most highly-funded of our eminently-talented GOP nomination pool.

It is 8:58pm and I am so fired up for this debate; I’ve got an oversized cup o’ joe in my belly and my blood is suddenly supercharged thanks to the sparks flying at me from the socket where I was hastily plugging in the old Hewlett-Packard. Add to this my uncanny political judgment, unclouded by any trace of actual knowledge, and I am ready for two uninterrupted hours of Yahoo-powered policy and bickering.
All right so I just missed the opening question because I had to go let out my coffee. Mitt Romney is talking about…ah yes, it’s nice that our economy has been creating lots of new jobs but of course Obama is not to be credited. He hasn’t yada yada, his policies yada yada… Great start Mitt, you’re debating someone who is not even in the room.