Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Everyone Has A Book Like This

Although I was late to learn to read (public schools in the Bronx didn't teach reading until 1st grade when I was a kid), I took to it faster than most kids around me. Yet, I only ever read the odd in-class shorts or the random children's books we had lying around the house. It took until the 3rd grade for me to work up the courage to read a book longer than 10 pages, but the very first "big kid's" book I read opened up a lifetime of reading for me, not to mention cemented my love for all stories fantastical and strange. And this was the book that did it!

The Shades by Betty Brock was a tale I was not expecting when my teacher assigned it to me for a book report. At first, I thought it was just a straight-forward (read: sappy) plot about a boy being sent to stay with his eccentric "Aunt," who was in fact a friend of the family, while his parents vacationed in Europe over one summer. The boy, Hollis, feels rejected and lonely. I sympathized with the latter, if not the former, at the time, but I really didn't want to read about this. I mean, it was just too boring for a wildly imaginative 8 year old! :-)

But, somewhere around the 3rd or 4th chapter, things changed drastically. Hollis's "aunt" lived in a big house on a tidy, old estate replete with a large garden and fountain. Naturally the boy goes exploring and, on one particularly hot day, decides to climb into the curious dolphin-shaped fountain for a refreshing dip. He emerges to find a strange boy standing by the fountain. Turns out the boy is Hollis's shadow, which he can only see "in the flesh" thanks to the magical properties of the fountain water. The two instantly become best friends (naturally), but turns out the strange boy is not the only shadow in the garden. A veritable community of "Shades" exist within the walls of the estate, leftovers from every person who has ever set foot onto the grounds. They can never leave the estate, and can only be seen by real people after water from the dolphin fountain is rubbed into one's eyes.

The Shades are likable folk, and Hollis eventually spends more and more time in the garden, much to the puzzlement of his aunt. It's after this point that details of the plot become hazy in my recollection, although I do remember some sort of danger presenting itself to the Shades from the outside world. There are also logistic shortcomings, such as the fountain getting turned off at one point, and a rainy day or two where Hollis cannot play with his friends.

I think what grabbed my attention the most was not so much the fantastical element of the Shades itself, but the fact that I had not been expecting it. Up until that point, I had only read situational dilemmas for kids, such as Freckle Juice and Hello, My Name is Scrambled Eggs. Cute, but not too much removed from the real world.

I had never read anything "magical" or fantastical before, except maybe our little children's Sunday school Bible. :-) I remember my heart racing each time we would be allowed "reading time" in our class for our book report project. See, we were not allowed to take the books home because, well, our school could not afford to lose them. This only made the escape from reading a good book all the more palpable for me. From that point on, I would actually crave books more than any other thing in my childhood world. Reading became my everything.

What was your first great book? The one that unlocked a whole new world for you?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Thems Folk In Nippon Sho Iz Trippin!!!

In more wacky entertainment news from the Land of the Rising Sun -- oh wait, is there any other kind? -- seems some folks at the WB have gotten creative with the soon-to-be-released Blu-ray edition of the Ultimate Matrix collection. The set will consist of 7 discs, 4 of which will be the high-definition Blu-ray versions of the 3 movies, plus the Animatrix shorts. With the remaining 3 discs consisting of standard definition "making of" documentaries. Since I already have the Ultimate Collection on standard DVD, I would normally pass on this.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg! Because included with this set is a 2-foot scale model of Morpheus's ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, which collectors may use to store the discs in lieu of the standard storage box that's also included.

Of course, I would *never* collect something as gaudy as this, but you have to admit it's pretty damn sweet if you're into this sort of swag. And those worrying about the movies playing here in the U.S., don't. Although this set is only being offered in Japan, WB's Blu-ray movies share the same region coding in both Nippon and North America. So if, like me, you own a PS3 and you find yourself with an overwhelming desire to get your Neo on while rocking out aboard the Neb (in your acid-trip dreams, at least), then this set will bring you that much closer to your goal.

You can find the original scoop over at Gizmodo.com.

My Celeb Crushes (100% Approved By the Federal Board of Lisa)

Lisa and I got into a discussion about who I thought was the hottest celeb out there. After much debate, we both agreed that, of course, Rihanna was the very definition of HOT!!! And I have to say, this is my number 1 crush right now. I mean, damn . . . that Chris Brown is one LUCKY fella! :-)

However, the number 2 spot proved to be the more difficult dilemma. Lisa had her own opinions, but for me it's a tough choice between these two gorgeous actresses:


She's the hottie from that terrible Transformers movie that came out last summer. Hated the film, but took a major shine to this gal. Knowing my tastes, it's not hard to figure out why. The long, dark hair is pretty much a done deal in my book. The eyes, too. In fact, I think this is the one thing all three of my celeb crushes have in common: bewitching eyes. In this one category, Megan perhaps has them all beat. And yet I still can't make up my mind . . .


She's been in a few more things than Ms. Fox, but Olivia first came to my attention last season on the hit FOX show, House. I love this show, and Olivia's addition to the cast only made it that much easier to tune in every week (not that I wouldn't, anyway). As with Megan, it's easy to see what I like about this one. Olivia's not a natural brunette, but it's the look she identifies herself with the most. And I have to agree. She's pretty as her natural blond, but way hotter as a darker hue. Oh, and I *love* angular faces, so she has that going for her and then some!

*sigh* Why must life be plagued with such difficult decisions?

Anyway, as much as I suspect Olivia Wilde is probably the least bitchy of the two (and definitely the better actress), my vote for number 2 on my list has to go to Megan. She's more the sultry brunette, which drives me crazy. Funny thing is, Lisa agrees with me. Although she really likes Olivia on House.

But we still remain adamant that Rihanna, if she swung that way, would be very welcomed in our, er, well . . . never mind. We'll keep that part private. :-)

And yes, Lisa and I have crazy conversations like this once in a while -- all in good fun! Don't get it twisted, as the kids say.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Stupidity Aggravates Me

I got a letter in the mail Friday from building management telling me that our air-conditioner was not installed properly, and that we had 7 days to comply or else legal action would be taken against us. WTF? This was news to me since our window AC unit was installed exactly according to the instructions, using every part that came in the box.

So I called the woman who sent the letter, which I assumed was sent to everyone who has an AC in my building, and got down to the bottom of this. Good thing I was home that day, or else this would've ended up being dealt with Monday. I would have been pissed all weekend if I had received that letter after coming home from work and when the office had already closed for the day.

Anyway, the woman explained to me that our apartment building was in the process of renewing its liability insurance, and that the inspectors had deemed that our AC was not installed properly. I told her it WAS installed properly, thank you very much. The letter specified illegal items, such as bricks and cans, being used to prop up the AC units in our building. But I told her that I, of course, knew better than to do that. So then she looked it up and told me that I was missing the support brackets. I told her this model of AC did not come with typical angle brackets, but with support-pin brackets. So she said, well the inspectors didn't see any supports from the street.

Excuse me? You mean to tell me these so-called "inspectors" are eye-balling an AC unit 10 stories up from the street? WTF kind of inspection is that? And they have the nerve to say I have no supports, when clearly I do? This woman didn't seem to believe me, telling me that if I didn't have the brackets to just remove the AC since the weather is getting cooler anyway, and to just reinstall it next Spring. By that time the building would have renewed its license and we can do whatever we want after that. Her words exactly.

I'm not even going to touch the stupidity of that last statement.

Anyway, I told her I just went through hell installing this new AC this summer. I wasn't about to remove it now. It's going to stay up there throughout the winter. We finally agreed to have the Superintendent come up and check that my AC was in fact installed properly. He came up, just briefly glanced out the window, and said: "oh yeah, the supports are right there." Then he took a picture with his camera and that was that. Apparently, if you're standing on the street 10 floors below you can't see the supporting brackets. No, duh! Imagine that.

Now, me being me, I'm always thorough. So I took my own pics with my digital cam and emailed this woman at the management office (which is located downtown, btw). I worded a slightly miffed e-mail and attached the following three pics, which I think is quite sufficient to show that my AC is in no danger of falling out of the sky and braining some poor slob walking by our building below.

Argh! I can't stand dealing with stupidity!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

This Commercial Always Gives Me Goosebumps

I was just thinking about Michael Jordan this morning, the GREATEST athlete of all time. Not just basketball, but all sports PERIOD. And I immediately had to find and watch what I consider to be the best Nike commercial of all time. These street ballers give Mike the biggest respect, recreating his most memorable moments on the court. It's truly uncanny how well they recreated these moments, right down to the body language and facial expressions -- it's sick! Click on the space below to watch for yourself.

The title of this commercial is "Let Your Game Speak," and yes, it speaks for itself. :) Tell me this doesn't give you goosebumps. At the :30 second mark, this was perhaps the greatest dunk ever seen at the Slam Dunk Contest, and was in fact voted as such by the fans. At :40, of course, is Jordan's picture-perfect last shot of his career as a Chicago Bull. The Bulls were trailing in this crucial game, but Jordan's shot brought them over and won his team their sixth championship in eight years. How's that for a capper to an already superlative-laden career?

Here's a comparison of the commercial up against the original Jordan footage:

Simply amazing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I Guess I'm Not Your Typical Husband

My childhood friend, B, and I were discussing this last night. He and his wife were recently blessed with twins, and he was discussing the different roles they play in their marriage. He was boasting about his role as the breadwinner, and realizing that his wife takes care of everything else. His only job, it seems, is to go to work and make money. In all other aspects he is like a child himself. And this struck me as odd, because this is definitely not the situation in our marriage.

First off, let me just briefly mention what it is that we do. I'm an editor for a legal publisher, where I sift through boring State & Local taxation laws and also maintain the website for our clients. Lisa works as a Nurse Practitioner, which is above a Physician's Assistant but just below a Doctor. Between the two of us we make a pretty decent living, but Lisa makes more than I do. My friend, B, is envious of this, but I know that he would have a hard time dealing with this in actuality since he identifies so strongly with being the sole bringer home of the bacon (okay, that sounded wittier in my head than it does in writing).

Anyway, I told him that the key to our marriage is compromise (like, duh!). We don't just stick to traditional male and female roles in the family for the sake of convenience. Coming from a household of strong women and no men growing up, I guess I never fell into the mindset that a man should bring home the income and a woman should only concern herself with domestic chores. In our marriage, we share responsibilities. This also means that I end up doing things that most men are not comfortable doing, or are inept at performing. For instance, I do all the cooking. The time Lisa makes a meal for us within a year can be counted on one hand. This is due to two factors: 1) I was taught how to cook from my grandmother since I was a wee lad; and 2) I'm better at it than she is! :)

I also do my own laundry. Lisa and I have this rule where we are responsible for our own laundry. I know it sounds weird, but for some reason this is the pattern we've fallen into. I do only my clothes, she does her clothes. We almost never do our respective laundries on the same day. However, when it comes to shared items like blankets, towels, other linens, Lisa handles these in addition to her clothes. It's the one thing I insist on, because I'm the one who does the household cleaning and garbage disposal. With one caveat: Lisa must do the bathrooms. I absolutely despise cleaning the bathrooms, especially our walk-in shower.

I do all the grocery shopping, as well as all the fixer-upper duties around the house -- such as change light bulbs, fix furniture, install wiring and networks, set-up electronics, etc.

I also handle the finances and bank account. I'm very anal when it comes to numbers and money, so it makes more sense that I should be the one to balance the books and keep track of everything. However, when it comes time to file our taxes, Lisa handles all of that. Again, weird, but it works for us.

Even though both of us know how to drive, I do all the driving. We don't have a car (because it's almost like a penalty to have one in NYC), but the few times we rent a car I do all the driving. Not because I have to, but because Lisa is petrified of the road. I guess in that sense the husband-wife dynamic is slightly more comparable to tradition. :-)

I shop, pick out, and buy my own clothes. Not because I'm picky, or because I care about what I wear. But because the only person with a worse male fashion sense than myself is Lisa. She has almost no idea what to get for me when it comes to clothing. Then again, I'm just as bad when it comes to her clothes. We're hopeless causes when it comes to fashion! Although I'm slightly better at color coordination for some reason. So, reluctantly, I shop for myself and she shops for herself.

Now, if you haven't noticed by now, most if not all of the above is made possible by the fact that we don't have children (yet). Once we do, though, not much will change. Lisa will probably switch to doing all of the laundry, and I'll probably solidify my control over the kitchen by adding dish washing duties to my list as compensation. I'll still do all of the cooking for our family, and buying the groceries and doing the odd handyman jobs around the house as usual.

What's important to me is that things are as close to equal as reasonably possible. Nothing gets my temper boiling more than lazy men who think their sole contribution to the family is the paycheck and grilling burgers on Memorial Day. I'm not comfortable with the Cro-Magnon conceit that a woman's business is the household and kids. When we have kids, I will have as much a hand in their raising as Lisa does.

Except for the breast-feeding thing, of course. I'm perfectly comfortable having that stay the woman's purview, for obvious (and lecherous) reasons. (heh, heh)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lost: The Honeymoon

In July 2005 we got married in Las Vegas, then skipped out of town and flew directly to Hawaii for a two-week stay on the islands of Oahu and Kauai. I even bought a tacky Hawaiian shirt in honor of the occasion. :-)

In Oahu, we stayed at the Hyatt Regency at Waikiki Beach. Very touristy, but this was our first time to Hawaii, so we didn't really know anywhere else to stay. I'm the one who researches, arranges, and books our trips, though, so I at least made sure we stayed someplace nice! This was just one of the views from our balcony, facing north towards Diamond Head volcano (not pictured).

We spent six nights here, just going to the beach and visiting various cool places around the island, which houses around 70% of Hawaii's total population. We visited the Dole Plantation (mmm . . . Pineapple!) and got to see the tropical settings where many movies and tv shows were/are filmed, such as Karate Kid II (one of my favorite movies) and the tv show, Lost. Along the way I ate a TON of fresh fruit and fish. As I'm not a big fan of seafood, the latter goes to show how good the food was here.

I also got introduced to something yummy and utterly Hawaiian called Spam musubi. If anyone is familiar with Japanese musubi, well this is it--but with Spam added! It's basically a brick of sticky rice with a slab of spam on top, wrapped up in nori (seaweed). Spam musubi and a cup of fresh-cut pineapple was pretty much my daytime diet the entire two weeks in Hawaii. Very, very good!

We went to the Polynesian Cultural Center near the North Shore where we got to experience the many diverse cultures that make up the south Pacific. Most of the shows were put on by students from the local affiliate of Brigham Young University, culled from the many islands of the Pacific. I've never seen so much colorful dancing in all my life. Here, at one such show brimming with both Japanese and Korean tourists in the audience, this little ragamuffin came walking out of the seats to stand beside me for whatever reason. She kept making googly faces at me and smiling. I think she was trying to get a better look at the stage. Don't know where her parents were, but me and Lisa seriously contemplated a bit of kiddie stealing here! (ha, ha) I took this photo literally 2 seconds before she lifted up her shirt and flashed everyone. Phew! A lag of my finger, and I would have spent the rest of our honeymoon in a Fed prison for child porn--yikes!

I took this picture from the deck of our dinner cruise around Honolulu. The pair of identical towers in the center is the Hyatt Regency. Our room was in the left-hand tower, near the very top. I didn't even realize we had sailed as far north as our hotel. I just took this picture because of the yacht and only paid attention to the background scenery later. I'm proud of this photo. I call it the "postcard" shot. Doesn't it look like one?

The following week we hopped an inter-island prop plane to fly "next door" to Kauai island. This is the most tropical and wettest of the Hawaiian islands, and it sure did rain a lot. But only at specific times of the day. Most of the days were sun-filled and perfect. Here we are at dinner in a very nice restaurant near our hotel at Poipu Beach (south shore).

Driving around Kauai was much easier than Oahu, although both places get extremely crowded during rush hours. We found Kauai to be less diverse than Oahu, though. Most of the residents there are Caucasian, and there are a lot of expensive condos and time-shares here. Hmm, I wonder if there is a correlation? ;-) I felt way more at home among the mostly Asian population of Honolulu, where I seemed to have been mistaken for a local Hawaiian many times. Even the valet attendant at the airport told me to enjoy my vacation when we were leaving to go back to NYC, thinking I was a native resident. Heh, heh.

This was the view from our hotel balcony in Kauai. Again we stayed at the Hyatt. I swear, I must get a membership with them or something. We somehow always end up staying at the Hyatt during our trips, although I don't intentionally choose them when I'm booking our stay. Weird.

Kauai was laid back and a bit dull. But after the whirlwind that was our Vegas wedding, and our one week stay in the bustling tourist trap of Honolulu, it was a welcomed change of pace. Still, Lisa and I loved Honolulu a lot. We're seriously thinking of moving there, since they have a high demand for nurses and pay well. I have no idea what I would do for a living there, though, so that's a problem. And although I prefer more wintry climates to warm ones (Vermont is perfect!), Hawaii is one of the few exceptions I'll consider. I mean, who wouldn't? Yeah, the cost of living is extreme. But so is NYC. So we're used to it.

Hmm, who knows?

Monday, September 22, 2008

I've Been Tagged!

I got tagged by Cindy over the weekend, which is officially my first time doing this . . . so I guess you popped my cherry, Cyn -- thanks! :-)

Anywho, let's answer these in order shall we?

1. What are your nicknames?

I don't have any. I despise nicknames and get annoyed when anyone calls me anything other than "David." I especially dislike "Dave," "Davey," or the Spanish pronunciation of "David," which sounds like: "Dah-veed." Ugh! I much prefer my Chinese name, which is Bei Zhilong (transl: Bei Wise Dragon. With Bei being my surname, which means "shell"). But only my Chinese friends know to call me that, or "xiao Bei" as is common.

2. What was the first movie you bought in VHS or DVD?

The first movie I bought on VHS tape was Highlander, back in 1993. This was back in high school, and my best friend, T, was with me at the time. We had been scouring the Bronx for a copy of this movie, and just happened to luck out when we ducked into this small bs boutique that was our last hope. I mean, this place sucked. It only had around 10 movies for sale. But fate smiled down on me that day, and it so happened they had exactly one copy of this film on display. It was one of the best purchases of my life. My first DVD purchase was Blade, starring Wesley Snipes. The second was The Matrix. :)

3. What is your favorite scent?

Uh, the scent of a woman? Ha-ha, sorry I had to go there. But seriously, this is not exactly a question to ask a man. I can't say when was the last time I paid attention to scent, really, except for my Lisa. Everything about her just smells *right*, you know? As far as name brand perfumes and such, yeah . . . . sorry. I'm clueless about that stuff, and Lisa's not a perfume-wearing type of gal.

4. What one place have you visited that you can't forget and want to go back to?

I guess Hawaii. We spent our honeymoon on two islands there -- Oahu, where the capital, Honolulu, and Waikiki beach are located. And Kauai, a more laid-back and tropical island. Oddly enough, we found Kauai a little too laid back, and just a tad boring. We definitely had more fun on Oahu, despite the massive crowding in the city spots. Which is easily rectified by travelling anywhere outside the city. We want to go back badly, but next time we'll probably go to Maui and/or the "Big Island" of Hawaii.

5. Do you trust easily?

I used to. When I was a kid up until high school I was a little too trusting of people. Got burned a lot because of it. Nowadays I have a very cynical outlook on life, and almost never trust anyone on first blush. Sad, huh?

6. Do you generally think before you act, or act before you think?

I'm a Virgo, we *always* think before we act. LOL! In fact, I probably overthink before I act, if anything. I generally don't make decisions until after I've done exhaustive research and/or soul searching. Yeah, it sounds a bit anal, no? But that's how I am. I have to say that, for the most part, it's a strategy that has worked out more times than not for me. In other words, I generally make very good decisions in life that have put me where I am today.

7. Is there anything that has made you unhappy these days?

Family issues. Which I won't go into here.

8. Do you have a good body image?

Sure do. I'm not one of those people who looks in the mirror and hates himself. I'm also not one of those people that looks in the mirror and loves himself (heh, heh). I work out actively during the week, and don't feel as if there's anything more I should be doing to keep myself healthy. I'm pretty happy with myself, yeah.

9. What is your favorite fruit?

Anyone who knows me knows the answer to this. Pineapple! I generally eat about 2 to 3 cups worth of this every single day! It's like an obsession. But only the fresh cut kind. If I can get it off the tree and cut it myself, even better. I will NEVER eat it from the can, though. I also eat a lot apples, grapes, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon. I loves fruit! Can't live without it.

10. What websites do you visit daily?

Pretty much the links on my sidebar here. That's why I put them there, to show people the places I love to visit (like, duh!). I go to the blogs of my friends and favorite authors first, then I eventually end up at IGN.com. This is a huge gaming and entertainment site, which I need daily like a bad drug habit. That's the site I visit most, I would say.

11. What have you been seriously addicted to lately?

Chocolate milk. I don't know why, but I *need* this after every workout. I pretty much drive myself until I almost pass out when I exercise, so when I'm done I guess there's some serious depletion going on which, for some reason, chocolate milk seems to replenish. Don't ask me why. All I know is that my body gets happy like a fat kid receiving a sugar donut. It peps me right up. Since I don't believe in coffee, teas, or caffeine in general (and I loathe sports drinks and Red Bull), I have few avenues to get my energy boost, I'm afraid.

12. What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is?

A very funny, very cynical, cool chick who I was secretly stalking for some years on her personal website before "outing" myself in e-mail one day. See, she'd gone and password protected her site, and I needed in! (ha, ha). Of course, my wife, Lisa, was stalking her with me, so that makes it okay and not sick. Right? Right? In all honesty, we just can't get enough of her wacky stories and, more recently, her adorable kids. The fact that she's a soon-to-be-published writer puts her even more on my radar, of course, and now I live vicariously through her exploits.

13. What's the last song that got stuck in your head?

I'm not much of a music person. I guess the last "song" that was stuck in my head was Bach's Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, particularly the prelude to Suite No. 1 (BWV 1007) in G-major. Simply divine!

14. What's your favorite item of clothing?

Sorry, don't have one. Generally speaking, I don't pay too much attention to clothes. When I shop, I make sure I get something that looks good. And then I wear it. Simple as that. The most thought I put into getting dressed in the morning is to make sure I didn't just wear the same article a day or two ago. And also, that I adhere to a vague, fuzzy notion of matching color scheme. Whatever that means.

15. Do you think Rice Krispies are yummy?

Not really, no. I don't quite get the obsession over it. I pretty much only eat Cheerios, when I do eat cereal.

16. What would you do if you saw $100 lying on the ground?

I'd pocket it. I have good morals, but money on the street is free money as far as I'm concerned. I don't see the point in turning it in, because my cynical nature (see question 5 above) is such as to believe someone else will just pocket it anyway. And that person might as well be me.

17. What items could you not go without during the day?

My treadmill. Sounds sad, I know. But I get really antsy if I miss a workout. It's funny, but I can miss my free weights and rowing machine for a day or two, but never a run.

18. What should you be doing right now?

Sleeping. It's Lisa's birthday tomorrow (which is today by the time you read this) and I got a lot of errands to run.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Something Shiny . . .

Got a shiny new toy yesterday! A Toshiba D-VR610 DVD recorder and VCR combo. I've been meaning to get one of these for a very long time, but was put off by all the horror stories of inconsistencies I've heard from others who have DVD recorders.

And what, pray tell, is the purpose of this gizmo, you ask? Well, as some of you know, I have this tendency to record everything. I record tv shows, movies, video games, etc. My favorite thing is the latter, in which I play through a really good video game and record the juiciest bits for posterity. This can be a combination of both nuts & bolts gameplay, as well as the cinematic cutscenes that more and more games have been favoring since the late 90s. Perfect for recording, IMO. Over the years I have amassed quite a collection of game-related VHS tapes, chronicling my crazy adventures in gaming land. I also have a tendency to record awesome tv shows to tape, such as Battlestar Galactica and 24, which I then loan to friends. Thing is, VHS is getting so passe now, and it's getting to the point where none of my friends even have working VCRs anymore.

So, finally, I have upgraded to the digital world! With this combo, I get to transfer all my old tapes to DVD, and also use the built-in VCR to replace my existing and ailing Panasonic model.

Not bad.

I was a bit nervous after purchasing this recorder, tho. I felt guilty afterwards for splurging on something so frivolous (or so it seemed). Also, from talking to my good friend, B, I was sure I was going to have issues getting the recorded DVDs to play on other people's DVD players. Apparently this is a big problem with these recorders.

So when the package arrived last night, I was anxious. I was sure I would be returning the unit today. But after quickly setting it up (my god, that was easy) and skimming through the operator's manual for how best to record to a DVD-R blank disc, I tested it out on Metal Gear Solid 4. Because I had to forgo my nice, digital connections for ugly RCA cables that don't deliver a pretty picture on an HD-TV, the game looked like donkey ass. And the sound was even worse! Ugh! But, I had to keep reminding myself that this was only for recording purposes. Once I move the recorder to its permanent location attached to my standard tube-tv in the living room, there should be no depreciation in image quality. And the DVD itself will look fine on any tv once its actually recorded, even an HD-TV. So, again, no big deal.

The recording session went without a hitch. Much better than I expected. I'm going to have to wait until I get home from work later today to tweak it some more, because I had the options set to widescreen, and the playback on my standard tv was loopy as a result. But this is something that can be easily fixed on the recorder's menu. It's just a matter of some trial and error.

More importantly, I think I figured out why people can't get their recorded DVDs to work on other players. Apparently folks don't like to read their manuals, because it specifically states that you have to do an additional "finishing" process after recording anything to a blank DVD. In other words, you can't just press stop on the recording, eject the disc, and then expect it to play on another standalone DVD player. Sure, in its "raw" form it will still work on the original DVD unit you recorded it on, but that's it. In order for it to play in other DVD players, you have to go to the built-in menu and select "finalize". Or you can access the function from the remote. Once selected, the recorder takes anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour (depending on how full the disc is) burning everything permanently to disc, and squaring away all the empty space so that it doesn't cause other players to go haywire when reading the info.

And just like that, you're done! It played perfectly--and with full Dolby Digital surround sound to boot!--on my old DVD player in the other room. I suspect it will play on any DVD player, although I'll have to wait for my friends to test it out on their units to make sure. But I think this is the issue people were having, and it's sad that it's something so easily fixed, but often overlooked if you don't read the instructions carefully. I never would have guessed to press "finalize" after recording, although in hindsight it seems obvious now.

Anyway, I look forward to playing with this toy some more over the weekend! I'm going to go out and buy some blank DVD+RW discs, which will allow me to record over existing content as much as I like. The DVD-R discs I have now are only good for one-time recording. Which sucks if you're making first-time mistakes like I am. If all goes well, I will play through MGS4 again from start to finish, recording all of the best parts along the way. Then I'll move the unit to the living room tv where the cable box is, and start recording Fall tv shows. Good times ahead! :-)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Becoming Catholic: The Unbecoming

I mentioned it in passing here before, but once upon a time I was a Catholic. That's something that surprises people who know me, because I rarely bring this fact to light in general conversation. And for those who really know me, well my views on organized religion are well known, to put it mildly.

This all came about because my mother, for whatever reason, wanted to fit in with the largely Hispanic population living in our part of the south Bronx during the 70s and 80s. She was as Caucasian as the Queen of England, but in high school she hung with a mostly Latina crowd and I guess it rubbed off on her. She spoke Spanish fluently, but never took classes. I guess you could say it was "street" Spanish. In any case, she dressed and spoke like her friends, and had the same taste in men as them (which probably explains my f.o.b. Dominican father). I never did get the chance to ask her, but I think their religion rubbed off on her as well. Much to the chagrin of my little brother and I. For, sometime around the age of 4, we found ourselves being forced to attend mass on Sunday mornings. A year or so later, she also enrolled us in children's Bible study classes, which I did not exactly enjoy. I was never that kid who loved school, academic or otherwise. But in the beginning I remember being a devout Christian, pretty much believing everything the teachers and priests told me to believe.

Fast forward to age 7 when my baby sister was born. My mother suddenly decided that all three of her children should be baptized. We had to attend special preparatory classes for three months before the church would allow us the honor of washing away the sins of our souls. In the pic above, you see my brother Jose (right), my godbrother Angel (center), and me all dressed up on the day of the ceremony. My mother picked her best friends and their children to be our "god" family. These people really were a second family to us at the time, so I thought it was a swell idea, although by this time I had started to have doubts about the whole Catholic faith (more on that later). I would eventually learn that my mother's mother, my grandmother, was not so happy with the prospect, and that this caused a great deal of friction between the two. My grandmother is Protestant, you see. And I'm guessing she thought my mother was taking her little "Latina fantasy" a little too far by damning her grandkids' souls via idolatry.

Here you can see us before the water in that cauldron is poured on our heads. My godbrother (hidden behind the lid), me, and my brother are listening to the priest as he reads the important words that will save us from hellfire. My mother in the red dress seems downcast, as do everyone else for that matter. Maybe it was the solemnity of the ceremony. Or maybe there was some tension that us kids weren't aware of. My godparents are directly behind us, and my grandmother is behind them. I can tell just from looking at her face that she's upset, because I know her moods so well.

I have to laugh at my expression here. This is usually the face I make when either: (a) I'm annoyed; (b) I don't want my picture to be taken; or (c) all of the above. I hadn't yet completely turned against the Catholic faith at this point, but the beginnings of some tough questions were already forming at this age. My discontent with the religion, and eventually ALL religions, would come to a full boil after--wonder of wonders--my mother died so tragically.

I once asked one of the Sisters at the church if all people go to heaven.

No, she replied, only those who believe in Jesus do.

But what about if I'm good my entire life, never doing crime or being spiteful to others?

No, she repeated, only those who believe in Jesus will enter heaven. A man, no matter how good his deeds, cannot be with God at the final judgment unless he is baptized and saved first.

This did not sit well with me. I thought it didn't seem fair as a kid, like as if something was not right with the universe as I saw it. My grandmother echoed the Sister's explanation when I asked her the same question, which eventually led me to rejecting all religions. This was a major moment in my life, the asking of this one fundamental question. I believed in good and evil, and I believed that any moral being should do as much good in life as he can. I didn't see what saying rosaries, praying to statues, and getting doused by holy water had to do with having a happy afterlife.

So, ironically, although my baptismal was supposed to be the turning point towards a deeper understanding of my faith, it in fact served as the first step to my eventual removal from religion altogether.

Bet no one at our church had anticipated that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

This New HBO Series, True Blood . . .

I just watched the second episode of True Blood. Okay, I don't get what everyone's problem is with this show. I think it's great! Not the best thing (yet) to come out of HBO's original programming, but it's still early. I've been reading some sites, and apparently a lot of the negativity comes from a pre-released screener of the pilot that was made available earlier this summer. Apparently that pilot was edited or changed (along with some re-casting) to the version that eventually aired on September 7. And apparently the same people who bitched and moaned about the rough pilot did not bother checking out the new "pilot"/season premiere.

Anyway, I don't have the same issues everyone else who did watch the premiere has. According to many, the phony southern accents are what turns them off. Since I'm not southern, I can't attest to that. As long as I can understand what's being said, I'm fine. Are these people caricatures of southerners? Perhaps. But I think they're more caricatures of human beings, period. Which, I would guess, is the tone the producers are going for. Not having read the books this series is based on, it could be that this was the tone of the source material as well. So, again, I don't have a problem with this.

Maybe the show is not enough Buffy the Vampire Slayer for some folks? I mean, there's no Scooby Gang or Watchers, or cheerleaders staking vamps through the heart. But I don't see how this is a bad thing.

So far I'm liking the slow build the show is doing. The characters are quirky and the humor is off-beat. Anna Paquin steals the show for me, but I also like some of the supporting actors a lot as well. Rutina Wesley, who plays Sookie's best friend, Tara, shines in particular. She's a virtual unknown talent previously seen as the lead in the forgettable dance movie, How She Move -- but don't hold that against her. Wesley has this charming vulnerable side to her behind the tough, bombastic barrier Tara puts up to shield her from the stupidity of strangers. When she lets her guard down around the Stackhouse family, it's a joy to watch. You see a lot of this vulnerable side of her in the second episode.

Ryan Kwanten, who plays Sookie's dim-witted Lothario of a brother, Jason, is also very good. You want to hate him for the man-slut that he is, but somehow the actor's able to convey a softness and likability to the dumb rogue. Not bad.

I was taken aback by the abrupt turn the end of the episode takes. In a good way. It seems Sookie just got herself caught up in a dicey situation. I mean, the episode went from lovey-dovey to real HOLY SHIT, HOW IS SHE GOING TO ESCAPE THIS MESS? in like 2 seconds flat. Kinda like the end of the premier episode, except you saw that one coming a mile away. This time it was a complete surprise. Even more so because my girl Aunjanue Ellis showed up in the scene as a sexy, evil vampiress that was just completely out of the blue! She's not even credited for the show on her IMDB page! I can't wait to see how this all turns out next episode.

I get the feeling Sookie's crush, Bill the Vampire, cannot stand up to his brethren without Sookie's help. Should be interesting.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Some People Should Be Sterilized At Birth

The news can be so depressing sometimes. I can't tell you how many incidents were reported of children being accidentally caught in cross-fires between rival gangs, or just one dude having a beef with another. But what gets to me the most, aside from the amount of random gun violence in this city, is that 9 times out of 10 these incidents occur in the wee hours of the morning, usually between midnight and 4am. Yet, this is a fact that is *always* glossed over by the media.

I'm just stunned. I see the parents (usually a young, single mother) crying hysterically the next day on the news demanding that the police do something about all the senseless violence. And I sit there asking myself: WHY WAS YOUR 6 YEAR OLD SON PLAYING IN THE STREETS AT 2 GODDAMN A.M. IN THE MORNING?

And you might think this is an isolated incident, but I'm telling you it happens ALL the time. Its worse in summer time when kids don't have to go to school the next day. And as much as I'm angry at these dumb fools that think solving their issues with guns is the shitz, I'm afraid most of my anger is directed at the even dumber parents. Young women, how about you take care of your kids instead of talking to your friends on the stoop or hunting down your no-good baby daddy in the middle of the damn night, huh? How about you be a parent and send those kids to bed on time so that they don't have to pay for your stupidity with their lives?

I'm definitely not one to advocate taking a child's mother away, but sometimes--just sometimes-- I wish stray bullets would "accidentally" hit *real* targets.

Cuz, You Know, I Like 'Em Bloody and Violent!

In early 2005, I was about ready to give up my life-long affair with video games. The gaming scene just seemed so stale, and plus I had other serious real-life issues to deal with at the time. The thought of playing games just seemed so silly.

Then my friend, B, stopped by one day wanting to show me this new game for the PS2 called "God of War." I had seen the commercials for it, but just thought it was another generic actioner. Nothing warranting a closer look. But my friend seemed eager, so with a sigh I thought I'd entertain him. I watched him play through the first level and, without realizing it, I was hooked! My eyes just could not believe the sheer, audacious amount of ass-kicking it was viewing transpire upon the tube.

To be fair, this game is not for everyone. It's very violent, even by gaming standards. Which should tell you a lot. It definitely earns its "M" (for Mature) rating!

I shouldn't need to tell you, but I love the bloody, violent games. And as you can see from the above pics, this game's got that in spades. The main character, Kratos, is a Spartan warrior who used to work as the earthly lieutenant to the Greek god of war himself, Ares. Then one day Ares tricks Kratos into slaughtering his wife and daughter in order to secure his lieutenant's complete loyalty and devotion. Of course, the gods really must be crazy, because Kratos does the opposite of this (you think?) and decides to devote himself completely to taking down and destroying the megalomaniacal son of Zeus.

Of course, what would these games be without appealing to the base hormones of gangly teenage boys (and equally adolescent, though less gangly, adult men)? Interspersed between all the beheadings, be-limbings, and feeding of enemy stomachs with sharp, pointed things, is some judicious use of the eye candy. While not really my thing when I'm in full-on murder mode, these very brief soft-porn interludes do carry home the point that this is not your kiddy Nintendo platform anymore.

But back to Kratos and his propensity for dealing out King Kong-sized cans of whoop-ass -- this dude is no joke! Part Conan, part Terminator, he doesn't care for your piteous begging or the lamentations of the women. He's deaf to your pleas for mercy, or decency, or even honor. All he cares about is getting the job done. And in this case, his job is revenge.

At one point he comes across a barrier that cannot be surpassed unless he offers a sacrifice to the altar of the gods. Does our hero turn back? Does he find another way around the gate? Fuck that! He grabs the nearest prisoner--a soldier he probably commanded once--and frees him from his shackles. But the poor man's words of thanks are cut to screams as Kratos lifts him off his feet and hurls the prisoner into the sacrificial fires.

I mean, seriously, what do you have to do to prove you're more badass than that? After this, killing a kitten would just be superfluous!

God of War, and its sequels, turned out to be just the thing I needed to snap me out of my gaming funk. After completing the game not once, not twice, but three times, my faith in the industry had been restored. The only question left is: why haven't you played this game yet?

I'll leave you with this last pic that has been making the rounds on the message boards. Sums it up even better than I ever could. :-)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Out Of The Minds of Babes

When I was 5, I asked my mother: "Where does Jesus live?" And she pointed to a tree and said: "There." For years, I would walk by that tree (which happened to be outside the neighborhood pizzeria) and stare at it in wonder, trying to figure out how Jesus could fit inside such a skinny trunk. I look back now and guess my mother was trying to be funny (if not metaphysical), but it got me to thinking -- how many children are walking around at this very moment thoroughly confused by a misunderstood word or phrase, or perhaps (like me) victims of their parents' sense of humor?

I can think of many such examples from my own early childhood. Such as:
  • I used to refuse to eat ham, because it sounded like "hand" to me and I would imagine someone getting their hands smashed by a giant mallet, the product of which would become sandwich meat (blame such violent shows like Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes for this).

  • I used to think baby shampoo was made from real babies being squeezed tightly into small bottles.

  • I thought to "threaten" someone was to take a thread and needle and stab them with it.

  • When women gave birth on television, the camera would stay on the mother's face, mouth wide open, and the sound of the newborn baby crying would take place off-screen. For this reason, I used to think babies were born out of women's mouths.

  • I used to think the world was flat and that the Earth, from pictures I'd seen in books, was a celestial body that hung in the sky above us like the moon. I was shocked to discover, years later, that we actually lived *on* the Earth.

  • I thought dogs were male, and cats were female. Their disdain for each other, therefore, seemed like nothing more than normal marital strife.

  • I used to refuse to eat eggs because I thought they were the flesh of unborn chickadees.

  • I thought dolphins were just really happy and playful sharks.

  • I thought meeting someone "face-to-face" meant that one person would wash the face of the other, then vice-versa.

  • I thought I could stick a straw in an orange and get Tropicana orange juice.

  • I thought a staple gun was a weapon used by secretaries and teachers.

  • I thought pandas were the mixed offspring of polar and grizzly bears.

  • My grandmother once gave me a subway token and told me it was "for the train." I then found my toy choo-choo, slipped the token into the slot at the bottom, and wondered why the toy refused to move on its own.

  • I thought the bread of the Eucharist at Mass were potato chips, and wondered why my mother wouldn't let me go up during Holy Communion to get one.

As you can see, kids can and often do misconstrue things that adults take for granted. I guess this is why education is important. In olden times I'm sure I would have grown up and gotten married before I finally learned that my wife would not, in fact, be delivering our child orally. :-)

Completed Metal Gear Solid 4 Over The Weekend

Well, just finished playing Metal Gear Solid 4 for the PlayStation 3 over the weekend. It took me 2 weeks to complete -- well in advance of my normal 2-3 months for a game these days. The quick turnaround was due to two factors:

1) This is a very short game (though that's not a bad thing in my book); and

2) I took a week off from work and pretty much spent every waking moment engrossed in this game.

The last point should tell you how I feel about the experience. Because of my work AND writing schedule, I rarely get to devote more than 5 hours a week to gaming. And that's if I'm lucky. Some weeks I don't get to game at all. So a game that takes most teenagers a week or two to beat, takes me 12 weeks off and on to do the same. But I've been gaming since I was 8, so video games will never disappear from my life completely.

With MGS4, however, I got sucked into it early and it never let up until I was done. It helped that I was between writing projects at the time, of course. And the great storyline, graphics, and gameplay made it a cinch for me to stay interested for hours on end. Which, if you know me, is a feat in itself as I can no longer stay seated for more than 2 hours to play any game these days. I always need a break. Not so this time. On my week off, it was not uncommon for me to spend 4-5 hours in one sitting playing Kojima's latest masterpiece, only to spend another 2-3 hours later the same night. Sometimes I would replay older chapters just because they were so much fun!

All this started back in June when I bought the PS3 pictured below, which came bundled with MGS4. At the time I was in the middle of playing Grand Theft Auto 4 for my Xbox 360, so beyond doing the initial install of the PS3 and watching a few blu-ray movies, I left the console alone until the end of July when I completed GTA4. But aside from performing a few software upgrades, I spent all of the month of August doing rewrites and writing a new story, among other non-gaming things.

Finally, on September 1, I returned to the world of Metal Gear and began my epic journey. And what a journey it was! While MGS4 hearkens back to the intricate, muddled and loquacious plotlines which annoyed fans in the second installment, this time around the story was a lot more manageable, if perhaps a little bit of a letdown in the end (more on that later). MGS3 had done a lot to put the series back in order, but the 60s time setting did not allow for much in the way of technological progress in terms of the look and feel of the game. That game had players traipsing mostly through Asian jungles, relying on traditional painted camouflage and good ol' fashioned hand-to-hand combat to make it through to the end.

But in MGS4, we return back to the "present," with more advanced tech goodies at Snake's disposal than a trio of James Bond films put together. Chief among these being the Octo camo suit, which allows Snake to morph and blend almost-instantly into any background just by standing next to it for more than 5 seconds. So, unlike in MGS3, you no longer have to manually change into different camo gear to match your environment, and apply the appropriate face paint before commencing taking down enemy sentries -- the computer makes the adjustments for you. And in a cool graphical changeover not unlike the Predator alien from the movies. Nice!

The levels and chapters here flow smoothly and swiftly, with Snake never tarrying in one location for too long. This is a change from the previous games which usually had the player backtracking endlessly and staying put in the same general geographical location for the entire game. Not so here. In MGS4, players start off in a Middle Eastern setting, then quickly fly off to the South American plateau, then off to central Europe, back to the Arctic for a poignant return to the current series's roots, and finally aboard a mechanized, floating fortress which I won't name for fear of giving away some key plot elements. That's a lot of scenery changes, and something I appreciated a lot. I played the game very conservatively, so in my playthrough I did virtually no backtracking. It's amazing! MGS2 killed me with all the endless backtracking I had to do, and MGS3 wasn't too much of an improvement. Backtracking, of course, is a trick programmers use to get you to play the same areas multiple times rather than burn up valuable resources trying to generate new real estate. With the advanced capabilities of the PS3, and the ample room provided by the new Blu-ray discs, I guess this is no longer an issue. Or perhaps those boys at Kojima Productions are really just *that* good. Either way, it all amounts to a pretty good romp across the globe. Just the way I like it!

One thing I have to get off my chest, tho. I was a tad disappointed with the ending. Not only did I think all the loose threads were wrapped up a little *too* neatly (i.e., not plausible), I felt the main character, Solid Snake, was given the shaft (no innuendo intended). It just seemed an ignoble end for such a great hero and soldier. And no, I am *not* implying that he dies. I'm speaking of "end" as an end to his presence in the series, as all indications from Kojima is that this will be Snake's last outing, if not the last Metal Gear game period. I don't know, but it didn't gel with me the way Snake just gets screwed over and over in this final outing. And to make matters worse, the other characters get cookie-cutter, saccharine endings. I mean it doesn't get more cheesy than having your grim, militaristic game series end with both a teary father-daughter reunion AND a wedding! I think Kojima was watching too many soap operas or something. Or maybe this in an ingredient indigent to the Japanese psyche? Whatever the case may be, the ending left a little something more to be desired.

That said, I still love this game to death. It contained the least frustrations and most fun I had with this series, although MGS1 is still my all-time favorite. That will never change. Some people might say that MGS4 was too easy. And, yes, there is some basis to this charge. While not exactly easy per se, it was the the easiest of the series. The boss battles in particular were confusingly simple. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it's the only way to describe these fights. I kept expecting something more to come out at me whenever I dropped one of the female heavies, only to be confused by their whimpering cries and fetal resting positions. WTF?

But despite this, the gameplay mechanics, superb graphics (best of this generation so far), and mind-blowingly deep story and cutscenes make this game impossible to rate below a 9 out of 10. What the actual decimal amount becomes is just picking hairs. Regardless of differing opinions on minor nitpicks, no one can play this game and say it is not a masterpiece. A fitting cap to an excellent series that began 10 years ago (for the current "solid" cycle).

I'm going to start the game again and play it on a higher difficulty level now.

Rating: 9.4/10

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Remembering Our Cruise

So last night Lisa and I were talking about the Caribbean cruise we took last year. It was a lot of fun, definitely better than I thought it would be. For those of you who've been to my Myspace or Facebook pages, all this is old news. But I thought I'd recap the experience here once and for all. Besides, it gives me an excuse to look through some old pics!

I took the above pic of our ship, the Royal Caribbean's "Freedom of the Seas," from the private beach at Haiti. The cruise left Miami on a Sunday for a week long excursion around the western Caribbean. Besides Haiti, our other ports of call were: Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Cozumel (Mexico). At the time, Freedom was RC's largest ship, and we certainly believed it. The thing was like a floating city.

Here we are in our cabin, standing out on the balcony. I was so glad I insisted we pay extra for a nice balcony room. Two of the seven days was going to be spent completely out at sea, so I wanted to have something to look at during the times we were in the room (which turned out to be not often).

Lisa's best friend, Sherlene, took the photo. This was supposed to be our second anniversary celebration, but earlier in the year Lisa had asked if it was okay if a bunch of her friends came along. Since I knew them all pretty well, I didn't see the problem with it. After all, Lisa and I would always have our own private time in our cabin whenever we needed it, so it wasn't like they were taking her away from me. But, as always happens, all but one of her friends ended up having to cancel. Except for Sherlene. She felt like she was going to be the odd (wo)man out and get in the way of our anniversary. But we felt bad since she already paid for her trip and I told Lisa I had no problem with her coming along. Worked out for the best, tho, as they got to go and do girly things like go to the spa and go shopping while I lounged around on the upper deck.

This was the view from our balcony when we woke up the next morning. I believe Cuba's somewhere way over that horizon. We were able to keep track of the ship's progress by viewing a live, real-time satellite map on one of the tv channels in our cabin. So cool!

This is the main level of the ship, or the promenade. It's ginormous! In addition to a pizza shop, duty-free shop, general store, an English pub, barber shop, wine bar, and sports apparel store, there was a Ben & Jerry's ice-cream shop! Yum!!! The pizza and snacks (from the pub) were included in the room comp, so I had to exercise enormous restraint by not going piggy on the place. I still had a major oink, oink experience regardless.

Topside on the upper deck, everybody was already out and about soaking up the sun. There was a lot to do up here. In addition to three separate pools, there was a wave pool for surfing, a climbing wall, miniature golf course, full basketball court, and two jacuzzis which had glass bottoms and stuck out from the ship so that you could see down into the ocean below. These were a favorite spot at night time when the jacuzzis were lit up.

We got all gussied up for dinner. You had many choices for where to take your meals, including several swanky restaurants which were extra cost and not included on the main bill. We opted to just stick to the main mess hall where almost everyone ate. Funny thing is, the main hall was just as fancy as most restaurants!

Out table was assigned on the third level, which was fine by me. The table was for 8, but for some reason our guests never showed up the entire time we were there, so the three of us had it all to ourselves. How cool is that? Our waiters were great, and hilarious. They were always so attentive to our every need. We tipped them very generously at the end of the cruise. Oh, and the food was to die for. I swear, I've been to fancy restaurants back home in New York that were not up to this level of food quality. Unfortunately, I don't have any food shots (sorry Cindy!), because it was just so good that we scarfed it all down before I could remember to take a pic. :-)

We docked in Ocho Rios, Jamaica on our third morning. Lisa's originally from Kingston, which is way on the opposite end of the island. It would have taken 9 hours or longer to drive there, so we didn't bother. The only thing that sucked was that we had already been to Ocho Rios 8 years prior on our first overseas trip together. So most of the available activities were for things we had done before. We eventually settled on a tour of the Shaw Park Gardens, which had beautiful botanicals and waterfalls on display. Here we are standing by one such waterfall. The Jamaican guides kept giving me weird looks, then staring at Lisa. Guess they were wondering how I'd managed to steal away one of their own. (ha, ha)

When we got to Georgetown on Grand Cayman island, we took a small skiff to the middle of the harbor and waited for our submarine. Yes, we joined a submarine tour since I've always wanted to travel to the bottom of the sea. Not being able to swim, Lisa was petrified. So I pointed out that even if she could swim it wouldn't matter if something went wrong down there -- we'd all die anyway! Hmm, my logic doesn't always have the intended calming effect I wish it did. Something Lisa is often quick to point out. Eventually the ocean started to froth and bubble before us, and up popped the submarine you see above. The boat for the previous tour group onboard has pulled up aside it to load back its passengers.

Now it's our turn to board the submarine. It was quite cozy in here, definitely not for the claustrophobic. Lisa's smiling here, but don't let her fool you. She was a-scared!

We dropped to 20 ft, then 40, then 80, and finally 105 -- all the while checking out all the coral reefs and marine life. Everything came out blue-washed in these photos, so its hard to detect all the colors that were on display to us. But take my word for it, it was stunning!

When we got down to the dock in Cozumel, one of those annoying photographers managed to corral us behind a booth to take this cheezy picture. We were off to see (and swim with) the dolphins in the ocean, so I didn't feel much like tarrying in the duty-free section nearby. We hopped straight into a taxi and high-tailed it towards the private beaches.

Sherlene was even more afraid of the water than Lisa, so she opted out of this experience. Lisa, for her part, put on a brave front. With the help of a life vest, she got down into the water and got a kiss on the cheek from a dolphin as her reward. She freaked out when it was time to swim out into the middle of the lagoon, but with help from me and one of the guides, she did it!

Everyone had to wear a life vest, unfortunately. I would have been fine without one, but apprently liability lawsuits aren't just popular in the U.S. Of course, out of all the people there that day, the guides chose me to be the guinea pig and swim way out into the middle of the deep end first. I had to wait and tread water there until a dolphin, at a signal, came torpedoing through the water straight at me. It then swam under my feet, swerved around me, and then all but leaped into my arms here. That's a miffed expression I have there, but not because I was surprised (which I was), but because they had taught us not to block the dolphin's air passages, and I was worried I was doing it wrong. The dolphin looks happy, tho, no? Cute little bugger. After the photo op, I held on for dear life as it dragged me back to the dock. I felt like I was hanging on to a jet ski!

That night, the cruise threw a midnight buffet party, complete with ice sculptures. I was more interested in all the yummy fruit. Lisa was of the same mind, and so we dove at the display table you see above. I'm sure we devoured half of the table, between the three of us. :-)

After dinner on the last day, we strolled around the deck and got to enjoy our last sunset of the cruise. We were sad, but this view more than made up for it. Isn't that simply gorgeous?

All in all it was one of the best times we've had. I certainly wasn't expecting to be pampered and catered to so much by the wonderful RC crew members. When we disembarked at Miami the next morning, it didn't feel like we were heading back home to NYC . . . but, rather, leaving home behind. We're thinking of taking our next cruise around the western Mediterranean -- Spain, France, Italy. It might even be through RC, although their Mediterranean ships are a tad smaller than the Freedom of the Seas. But either way, we'll be back!

Friday, September 12, 2008

OMG, Do We Have A *GASP* Fibber In Our GOP Candidate?

For all the flak Hilary Clinton got for "sprucing up" a few of the details regarding taking sniper fire while over seas, I'm surprised more hoopla isn't being made about the number of times McCain has fibbed on air. Wow, you mean no one has called him out on this?

Watch the above video. Pretty scary.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

This Matt Damon Fellow Makes A Good Point

Even though I'm getting sick of all the news Sarah Palin is generating (seriously, people, you're just feeding into the GOP's hype machine!), I have to admit Matt Damon makes some good points here.

Do you really want this woman holding the fate of the free world in her hands? I mean, really?

As usual, click on the screen above to activate the video playback of Matt's interview.

On This Day . . .

7 years ago, on this day . . .

I was walking to work from the West 4th Street subway when I saw a plane flying low over the Hudson River. My company was located on the extreme west side of lower Manhattan at the time, nearly one and a half miles north of the World Trade Center. Something in the back of my mind found the sight of the plane odd, as airliners don't usually fly over this part of Manhattan, and certainly not that low. But, as I was running late, I put the thought out of my head and rushed to get to the office.

7 years ago, on this day . . .

I was in the middle of reading through stacks of tax legislation when I got a phone call from Lisa telling me to watch the news. She said a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. My immediate thought was: "Oh, what fool took a joy ride in his prop plane and got himself killed?" See, I thought it was something like the small private plane that had crashed into the Empire State Building not so long ago. Sad and tragic, but didn't do much damage. I wasn't worried. But then she said, no, it was a 747. Now that was something entirely different, I admitted. That technically shouldn't be possible, I said, unless it was deliberate. Still, I didn't want to believe it could be terrorist related. Maybe a suicidal pilot? But the news only got worse as the minutes ticked on by. Pretty soon a noticeable buzz started to build up around the office. My co-worker had her radio tuned to the live news broadcast, listening with her headphones on. She told everyone that another plane hit the other tower now. That's when folks started to really worry.

7 years ago, on this day . . .

I took a quick break and stepped outside to assess the state of the world. I was expecting people to be going about their business as normal, a reassuring reminder that the rest of the city still chugged to the usual beat despite what might be happening just a mile or so south of us. But to my surprise, the streets were a hotbed of chaotic activity. Fire engine after fire engine came roaring down Varick street, followed by motorcades of police patrol cars with their sirens blaring as well. Fire marshals and unmarked detective vehicles joined the fray, and in the air a distinct smell of something burning hung over us. People were leaving their offices and walking in the opposite direction. Surely they were overreacting? Still, I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach, so I cut my break short and rushed back upstairs. By now, the office was in an uproar, too. People wanted to go home, but the higher ups told us all--by mass e-mail, no less--to remain calm and continue working until further notice. They were keeping abreast of the situation.

7 Years ago, on this day . . .

My co-worker took off her headphones and turned to us, face streaming with tears. One of the towers had fallen, she told us. They think the other one will, too. My brain tried to process this impossible news. I had an absurd mental picture of a gigantic looming office tower toppling forward onto all the smaller office buildings around it. I went numb. The phones were ringing off the hook now; one of them was mine. Lisa was worried. She told me that people were being evacuated from the area -- were they letting us leave? No, I said. But I had heard enough. I wasn't staying around any longer, waiting for the company brass to decide my fate for me. Others were of the same mind. Finally the official order came from up high. We were to leave the premises for home, and to contact our managers over the course of the next few days to find out when it would be safe to come back in to work. That was all. So we powered down our workstations and filed out of the building at once. We didn't know it, but it would be a week before we were allowed to come back.

7 years ago, on this day . . .

I was hoofing it up 6th avenue, heading north. Around five hundred other people crammed around me, trying to do the same thing. I travelled up to West 4th street, then took a shortcut cutting through Washington Square Park and the campuses of NYU. Students and faculty were standing around the steps of the buildings, chatting calmly but obviously confused. No one yet fully understood the magnitude of what had happened. Neither did I, but at that moment I didn't care. I was in pure survival mode, just thinking how in hell I was going to walk up the full length of the island of Manhattan, cross the Harlem River, and then walk 30 more blocks to my highrise in the Bronx. The subways and buses were frozen, mass transit had come to a standstill. The entire lower half of the city was walking east and north with me. At 23rd street I had to decide: did I go east past 1st avenue and work my way up the FDR? Or head west and walk along the West Side Highway? I imagined the east side route taking me past the U.N. Having a vague knowledge that this had been a terrorist attack, I did not want to chance that the U.N. would not be a target, too. So I made a compromise, I stuck to 5th avenue and continued on north until I hit Central Park. From there I headed east to 1st avenue, and then north again to Harlem. I crossed the barricaded Willis Avenue bridge near 135 street into the Bronx. Buses and trains were not working here, either, so I continued walking home. I walked 10 miles that day in 3.5 hours. A city of dazed and eerily silent zombies had shadowed my movements almost every step of the way. Everyone else was in survival mode, too, it seemed.

7 years ago, on this day . . .

Once home at last, I sat on the couch all day long, numbly watching all the news reports on the television. Nothing seemed real. From my 10th story apartment, I could see down into the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Not far enough to see the WTC on a normal day . . . but this was not a normal day. A thick, black plume of smoke rose up from the horizon, testament to how far I had walked that morning. My feet were not as sore as the day my boy scout troop got lost and we ended up walking 15 miles along broken trails with full packs on our backs, but they were hurt nonetheless. The news reporters kept repeating themselves: A tragedy they called it. Still no word on the Pentagon. Still no word on that 4th plane. A tragedy. That word repeated over and over.

7 years later, on this day . . .

My company has since moved locations, but this time settling us directly across the street from the World Trade Center and the pit that is Ground Zero. Today is my first 9/11 memorial ceremony so close to the site. The bell just tolled here at around 8:47, filling the entire office with an eerie silence in its wake. One of the most surreal moments of my life, besides the actual event of course. A lot of folks did not come in today so as to avoid the crowds and all the security that has shut down the side streets to vehicular traffic. Later this afternoon McCain and Obama will make an appearance. I brought my lunch with me, so I doubt I'll set foot outside in that zoo until I leave to go home for the day.

They tell us never to forget. But for me, on this day, it's impossible not to remember.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

1st Birthdays

I recently attended the first birthday of my nephew, Chandler -- Lisa's sister's son. It was held in her Grandmother's backyard in the northern Bronx. Of course we got there on time and were almost the only ones there. Because of, you know, BPT (Black People's Time), LOL!

So this only meant we had more time to play with Chandler by ourselves. His parents were busy trying to get things organized.

As you can see, here he is looking very tired. He was sitting listlessly until we got there, probably thinking: is anyone going to show up for my party? Aww!

So Lisa gave him some watermelon, and that pepped him right up. This boy loves to EAT!!! The minute he senses food in the vicinity, he gets happy.

Now the first guests are starting to trickle in. He's going to greet them.

A gentleman always shakes hands with his guests. He sure got around on those chubby legs -- meeting and greeting people and charming them with his smile. He was around 3 seconds from dancing to the music here.

Here he found the snacks and grabbed hold of a cheese puff, which he proceeded to play with in his mouth for like 5 minutes until it was soft enough to swallow. He was a hit with the bigger kids who came by. They all had a blast.

Eventually Chandler's mother came and got him so that the cake cutting could commence. He was stunned by all the faces staring and singing at him here. (ha, ha)

See the devilish smile on his face as the cake is cut? He doesn't know what's going on, but he can bet it tastes yummy!!!

Lisa's younger brother came by with his newborn, our second niece. Her name's Ariana. Don't you just want to pinch those cheeks? Everyone was in love with her, and I got the honor of holding her for half the night. She drooled all over me!

All in all it was a fun, though, exhausting day. I don't know how parents do it!

Panama Trip - Day 1: Here There Be Balboas!

In late May, 2017 I embarked on a trip of a lifetime. A trip to Panama's steamy tropical province, Bocas del Toro. Now, before 2017 ...