Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ramblings from a Washingtonian

A funny thing happened when we were trying to find lunch last month (December) in Las Vegas.

It was a beautiful, sunny, mid-70s day on The Strip and we decided to finally eat at an outdoor cafe at The Paris Hotel we had spied on a prior trip. It looked rather crowded, except for a collection of tables tucked around a corner in the shade.

We approached the hostess and requested a table outside. Just as she was starting to tell us it might be a bit of a wait for one in the sun, we corrected her and said, "No, we would love one we saw in the shade." She looked very confused so I clarified.

"We're from Washington state. All of this sun is overwhelming."

With a polite laugh that screamed "You people are all kinds of crazy!" she sat us at a table I'm sure she assumed would remain undesirable and unoccupied until the sun shifted.

Two minutes later, our waiter was laughing that same polite laugh as we asked if he might be able to turn off the portable heater that was making me sweat in my coveted, unpopulated shade.

Did I really spend nearly 30 years living in the sunshiny warm glow of the Golden State?? Good grief! Next thing you know, I'll be referring to my old stomping grounds as Frisco. I guess I really am much more Washingtonian, much less native Californian now. Go figure!

My unexpected shade seeking made me realize that a lot has changed in the ten years since we moved here. Well, more accurately, I have changed.

I started this blog mostly because I had some amusing fish-out-of-water stories about Rob and me trying to adapt to rural living amongst trees and septic systems.

My Bay Area friends shared my confusion and suspicion when I told stories of strangers in grocery stores here striking up conversations with me with apparently no agenda other than to be friendly like. And of course, my foray into canning and discovering...far too late...the existence and benefits of wide-mouthed canning jars resulted in my Death Peaches story and the suggestion I might find a forum for such missives.

And so I started blogging. Blogging about all the little ways life was so different here, how people and values and activities and weather and food and shopping and clothing were so NOT San Francisco. How odd it was not to have fences and to know my neighbors and to discover I needed to wear a bright orange vest on my walks
during this thing called "hunting season" just to be safe.

But somewhere along the line, I stopped noticing the differences. I stopped comparing everything to My Life Before. I stopped being from California.

Somewhere along the line, I started enjoying the rain. I started making chit chat with strangers. I started looking forwards instead of backwards. I started being from here.

Compared to ten years ago...

Instead of being energized by the excitement and motion of big cities, nowadays I get overwhelmed by all the noise and activity and sensory input. After just a few days...or even a few hours...I long to return to the quiet solitude of Woodhaven. Quiet used to bore me.

I am no longer up-to-date on the latest technology. Because I lived where a lot of stuff was invented and beta tested, I used to be very in-the-know if not actively consuming all the latest hi tech gadgetry and services. These days, I still have a flip phone, a landline, satellite TV, no tablet, no apps. And the 80-year-old woman in me sees no reason to change any of that because it is all working just fine and does everything I need to do, thankyouverymuch. Now get off my lawn.

I no longer get anxious when I hear gun shots or see smoke in the distance. Those used to mean gang activity and devastating wildfires. Now they mean hunters and burn piles.

We used to have a lawn mower powered by one long extension cord. We now have a tractor with a bagging attachment and a cup holder.

Our garden tools used to be limited to some clippers and a weed puller. Now we have machetes and orchard ladders and power washers and torches and weed whackers and safety goggles and wheelbarrows.

We used to be annoyed by the raccoons that visited our little suburban fish pond to wash their paws. Now we are delighted to see deer and coyotes and rabbits in our yard every day...delighted as long as they aren't eating our roses, grapes, or garden produce.

We used to have to go to national parks or zoos to see bears or cougars or bobcats. Now we see these visitors...or at least their droppings...on our property enough that it makes sense to be prepared just in case.

Guns used to scare me. Now many of my friends carry and I have acquainted myself with pistols and rifles. And, much to my surprise, I have discovered I am a pretty good shot. Not that I ever really want to put those skillz to use, but it's oddly comforting to know I have them if ever needed.

It used to be something of a big deal to go to The City (San Francisco) for a fun outing. Sadly, the traffic, the bridge tolls, the parking, and the psychological gymnastics of experiencing the homeless population were all barriers to more frequently embracing such a beautiful city. Now we go to Portland on a whim for dessert or food carts or any time we don't want to pay sales tax. No bridge tolls, plenty of cheap parking, predictable traffic, and a homeless population that isn't always distinguishable from the housed population.

I used to drive about 8,000 miles per year since most of my travel was done on a commuter train. Now I drive about 16,000 miles per year since I live down yonder from the nearest place to buy anything.

I used to have my choice of pizza joints that would deliver to my doorstep. Now we own a pizza delivery bag (purchased at a restaurant supply store) so our retrieved pizza will still be warm when we finally get it home. Similarly, I always keep a cooler in my trunk so I can keep frozen things cold if I am doing a "big shop" at my favorite grocery store a half-hour away.

I used to have tons of stores to buy clothes from. Now I can see a local woman wearing a shirt and have a good shot at telling you which of four stores she got it from...often because I am wearing the same thing.

I used to be stunned if I ever saw someone I knew while I was out running errands. Indeed, the familiar people I most often saw were people I recognized but didn't know from the train platform in the mornings. Here, I am stunned if I don't see someone I know when I am out running errands. In fact, I often have to build in extra time to allow for chit chat amongst the first-class mailing supplies or bananas.

Change is good. It means we are alive and living. So I am happy that what this blog started out to be has shifted over the eight years I have been writing it. I still ramble about my life in the rural hinterlands outside Portland, but it is more about observations and experiences and less about comparisons and adaptations. This is a good thing.

Now I am off to take a refreshing walk in the rain. Because I have rain gear, waterproof walking shoes, and if I wait for the rain to go away first, I'll be waiting until July.

Oh, and GO SEAHAWKS!!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Very Nuna Christmas

Rob's grandma was a fun, feisty, determined woman who kept an impeccable house and said things like "Well, I declare!" with a delicious Southern accent. She loooooved the Atlanta Braves and good barbeque and, eventually and reluctantly, her daughter's cat.

Nuna was also very crafty. She was a fiend with crochet hooks. It is one of my big regrets that I never thought to ask her to teach me some yarn skills during one of our visits.

Not long after Rob and I got married, Nuna gave us a homemade afghan. It seriously classed up our Early Married decor of hand-me-down chairs and lamps from the 1970s and bookshelves made from plyboard and cinderblocks.

Years later, Nuna offered to make us a larger afghan. We sent her the yarn in colors that matched our 15-Years-Married-With-Better-Jobs living room scheme. We figured the new blanket would arrive a couple of seasons later. Instead, it landed on our doorstep just about a month later, with characteristic apologies for taking so long. Nuna explained that she had started crocheting at a very impressive pace. However, the bigger the afghan got, the faster her naps snuck up on her and significantly delayed her crafting progress. It wasn't long until I understood exactly what she meant; the warm, cozy handmade blanket is better than Unisom.

Christmas gifts from Nuna were often homemade, too. We have a number of crocheted snowflakes and doilies and pot holders and slippers, all similar to what one might find at a church bazaar but all much more treasured since I know the artist.

My favorite Christmas gift from Nuna was a set of refrigerator magnets. Ditching the yarn and hooks this time, she instead carefully cut out letters from red felt, complemented them with holly leaves, and glued magnets on the back. Granted, it wasn't a highly technical set of letters but they were nonetheless adorable.

When she packed them up in the gift box, she stacked them in the order of the word they were intended to spell. So the N went in first, followed by the O then the E then the L. Cute!

However, when we opened the box, we were confused. We took out the L then the E then the O then the N.

"LEON?? Who is Leon and why do we have felt letters for his name??"

I can still hear Nuna's high-pitched giggle and lots of declaring on the phone as we explained our confusion and told her we proudly had LEON displayed on our fridge. We even sent her a picture.

So on this 24th day of December, I would like to wish you all a Very Merry Leon, as Nuna smirks and giggles from above.

Behind the Blog: So it had been a couple of years since we displayed LEON and it took a bit of time this morning to find him. I knew exactly what I was looking for -- a little hexagonal holiday gift box -- but it wasn't in any of the 5 totes Rob had already rescued from our attic. Hoping there might be a few boxes still up there, I stopped right here before thinking better of looking for myself.

I knew it wasn't a great idea for me to go climbing around on steep ladders with Therapeutic Crocs and back spasms. And so, displaying what Rob called "the impatience of a saint," I mostly stared at him while he futzed around on his computer over there in his chair. Finally venturing into the garage, he started going through all the totes I had already explored.

"You know when I was out here earlier for a long time? That was when I was repacking and retaping all of those ornament boxes," I explained with some saintly exasperation while all but tapping my Crocs. For some reason, this was met with hysterical laughter and a demand for a hug.

Finally. FINALLY. Rob creaked up the ladder and within just a few minutes discovered the treasure box tucked in the center of a wreath we decided not to display this year. Leon and his storage box will henceforth be stored with our advent calendar so he can be one of the first Christmas decorations up each year.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

It's the Fair!!! In December!!

I have the most amazing set of business cards sitting on my keyboard at the moment. Cards from a magician, a hypnotist, a walking tree, a human fortune telling machine, a stilt walker, an extreme pogo sticker, a comedic Cajun cook, and some fish exhibitors from Colorado. I also have a rubber chicken thumb drive, a squishy toilet, a pen advertising Feets Of Fire, and a hockey puck. Any guesses what I did last week??

Thanks to some insider info from that cool guy John "Mr. Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory" that we met at The Fair last August, Rob and I spent a super fun day wandering the ballroom in the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas as official attendees of the IAFE Annual Convention and Trade Show!!!! Can you believe it?!?

Wait, you don't seem nearly as excited as you should be.

Maybe this will help: IAFE = International Association of Fairs and Expositions. It is a group of people with THE BEST JOBS in the world! They all work for county and state fairs! And they meet every December to talk about how lucky they are! Or, at least that's what I assume they talk about since I wasn't allowed into any of their breakout sessions. Pesky membership rules, credentials, blah blah blah.

But I WAS allowed into was the trade show! A trade show of all things FAIR! I had no idea what to expect but I knew I had to go. And I managed to persuade Rob into going with me to take pictures and carry my know, just like the Fair. Weeee!!!!

Ok, so are we on the same coming-out-of-our-skin-with-excitement page now?

I knew the experience was going to be memorable when it started before we even got there. We were waiting at Gate 14 for our flight to Vegas and Rob noticed a guy sporting a Seahawks sweatshirt and a jaunty hat. It was the hat that made me curious because, well, everyone should be a Seahawks fan. (Hi, Mom!)

"Is that the magician from the Fair??"

"Wow, maybe, but I'm not really sure. I'd know for sure if he was trying to cut off your hand."

Being the pair of introverts that we are, Rob and I kept staring and discussing. Rob told me to go ask the guy. I told Rob to go ask the guy. We did this through the pre-boarding announcements. Finally, I decided to be a grown up and approached the hatted man.

"Excuse me. Is your name Adam? Adam the Great? From the Clark County Fair?"

IT WAS! My first celebrity sighting at PDX!

We chatted for a bit and confirmed that Adam was going to the same convention we were. This was my first hint of what might greet me a few days later in the vendor booths in the Paris ballroom. (Insert foreshadowing music here.)

The morning of the trade show, I was up, ready, fed, and lurking around the ballroom entrance only 20 minutes early. I was proudly wearing my red convention badge and was giddy that I had listed my organization as "It's the FAIR!" -- a nod to the name of my blog for the local newspaper. It was the only legitimate Fair connection I could think of. Somehow "Insane Fair Fanatic and Milkshake Barn Groupie" didn't seem professional enough. Plus it was too long to fit on the badge.

The time finally arrived. We walked into the ballroom and were immediately greeted by a Coke fountain drink booth offering free samples. Free samples! Of Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Sprite, and Minute Maid Lemonade! Just like the free samples of water that Clark Public Utilities offers at their booth at our Fair...but sweeter and bubblier and more artificial! It was going to be a great day!!!

Sipping our aspartame, we headed to the far corner of the ballroom to systematically work our way through the 450 booths that awaited us. Three hours later, we were catching our breath on a really uncomfortable bench outside, watching the Fair People go by. Just like at our Fair!!

There are so many highlights, so much to say, so many brochures we brought home, so many photos. In no particular order, here's what the Fair Trade Show Experience was like (and yes, it was totally sustainable):

  • It was by far the most sales-pitchy show I had ever been to. Pretty much everyone working their booths was eager to sell themselves and not the least bit shy about it. They were also all masters at reading the badges. Within seconds of passing near them, they greeted me by name and told me how much they liked Seattle (because if you live in Washington, what other cities are there?).
  • The vendors were heavy on the entertainment that is booked at fairs. Think of all the shows that are at fairs (singers, magicians, hypnotists), along with the people who roam around and interact with guests, and that's who had rented little curtained booths in the ballroom. It was sort of like a menu of how to be entertained. The live owl on the woman's arm is scaring you? Ok, how about the next booth with a girl slathered in copper paint who stands as a statue? Not your thing? You like balloon animals? Cuz Steven is whipping them up in the next booth. How about celebrity impersonators? Danny DeVito and Robert De Niro are down the next aisle on the left. It was awesomely bizarre!

  • It was a blast walking around the ballroom as all the entertainers were doing their thing. People were walking around on stilts, there was a huge zebra and robot and a guy dressed as a tree. There were acrobats and card tricks. People were eating popcorn and Dippin' Dots and drinking beer. And, if you listened closely enough to the casino outside the ballroom, there were even faint cheers and bells like on a midway. All that was missing was a demo derby and an elephant ear!
  • After breaking a few hearts early in our rounds, Rob and I quickly learned to say, "Sorry, we don't book talent" early in any conversation. Personally, I was thrilled and complimented that I looked like someone who might have that power. But sadly, as soon as we made it clear that I was merely a blogger at best, I suddenly wasn't nearly as enthralling.
  • Indeed, we would have wandered around the trade show a lot more if it weren't for the salivating nature of the booth folk. We both felt a lot like this:
    This is from a GEICO ad in 2012.  Free elephant ear to anyone who can find me an image of the Roadrunner instead of the lizard.
  • It was hard to really take it all in because we were constantly being noticed and approached and sold. In an analogy you'll only find here on Woodhaven Ramblings, walking around all the booths at the IAFE Convention was a lot like visiting the pyramids in Egypt with all of those incessant vendors insisting I buy a camel ride. As with the ancient wonders, I wasn't really able to fully take in the experience in the moment, what with being eyed as a walking stack of money.
  • It turns out the guy with the snake show hates snakes...but he loves what people are willing to pay to have snakes at their fair.
  • Rob owned up to my being a blogger long before I did. I really thought I would just wander around inconspicuously. But, with the feeding frenzy, it became clear that wasn't going to happen. By the end of the day, I was A Blogger and was touched by the few vendor folks who thought it was cool. I was also impressed by the small handful who realized that a writer could still be useful even if she couldn't book talent. (Shout out to you faerie people and pirates!)
  • The faerie people were very cool. They were one of those acts that walks around a fair to entertain and engage people. I noticed them right away because a mermaid turtle was giving a little girl a ride around the ballroom. (Awesome convention, right?) In chatting with the fine faerie folk, they also have a puppet stage that attaches to the turtle so they can do a roaming puppet show. How cool is that? You can check them out here.
  • The pirates were very piratey. They were professional pirates...from Hollywood. I lost track of all of the credentials, but various crew members had been in all sorts of movies and such. What I liked most about them was they said they stay in costume and character for the duration of any fair they are hired for. So if they need to go to the grocery store or gas station, they do it as pirates so they can draw attention and tell people about the fair. I suggested to them that they not count on that working in Portland. So many pirates (and zombies) already randomly out for their errands because, well, Portland. (Check out the pirates here.)
  • Aside from the entertainers, there were unexpected booths for the periphery of Putting on a Fair. Things like wheelchairs and strollers, barricades and fences, insurance, ribbons, tickets, payments systems.
  • Rob noted that he had never seen so many ATMs at a convention before. We have no idea if any of them worked, but in Vegas perhaps having one every 100 feet isn't a bad business model.
  • Trips and falls are the two biggest insurance claims for a fair. Golf carts are also a big hazard, as vendors don't always have the required experience to successfully zip around crowds of people to get more supplies. The carts are also often not well supervised; insurance claims for joy riding gone wrong are more common that you would think. And insuring the carnival rides? That's a whole other policy altogether. See how much we learned?!?
  • Did I mention there was FREE BEER?? Brilliant! I had never heard of the brand (Leinenkugel from Wisconsin) but their Vanilla Porter was quite good. Word from some magicians was that at the end of each day, vendors are encouraged to come grab whatever beer is left over for the day. I could see that figuring into requested booth location for next year's trade show.
  • There was also some live music. There was this quartet of guys from Georgia that sang acapella. They were fantastic. Their manager saw me trying to stealthily take a photo of them (I tell you, there was NO STEALTHINESS to be had at this convention!). So she came over and invited me to an afterparty meet-and-greet with them later that night in a suite at Bally's. I would be lying if I didn't say that made me feel like the coolest hip chick in the ballroom. And, naturally, I didn't go because, well, I don't book talent. Sigh.
  • I got to shoot a rubber chicken through a cannon.
  • It costs about $400,000 to buy one of those big food booths. That doesn't count the side areas for open-air BBQing of chicken and turkey legs and corn and such. No quote was provided...despite pleas for such...for setting up a booth in a backyard for a day.
  • Once it was clear that I don't book talent, some folks relaxed and allowed themselves to chat more freely. For example, I learned that scheduling is one of the biggest challenges and priorities for any act. Trying to find events for the right dates in the right general geography is a huge headache. I also learned that some jugglers do science shows for schools during the off-fair season. And I learned that walking bent over on stilts as a zebra is a great core and ab work-out.
  • I spotted a woman wearing the most adorable balloon bracelet so I asked her where she got it. I eventually found Steven and he made me a ladybug bracelet as Rob and I chatted with his mom...who is a hypnotist. We learned that Steven is in his early 30s and is finally coming to terms with the fact that his life's work should involve balloons. We were both very impressed with Steven...and the Ferris Wheel he made for a Ferris Wheel booth (missed that one!). Apparently it was the first wheel he had ever made.

    Meanwhile, I managed to get the ladybug all the way home so I could take this picture:
  • True to any exhibition hall at a fair, in addition to the card games, stilt walkers, balloon animals, pirates, and robots there were...Tempurpedic mattresses.

    No amazing brooms or bathroom scum cleaner, though. And I never did find anyone who would clean my rings for me. Although, Steven's mom did use one of my rings to demonstrate how she uses mentalism in her hypnosis show. She put my ring under a cup, had me move it and a bunch of empty cups around, and she then used the energy she sensed from my ring to figure out which cup it was under. Cool! I never had that happen at the Advertising Research Foundation convention I used to go to way back when...

So wow, five pages later perhaps it is clear that the IAFE convention was unlike any convention I have ever attended. It was like a mini-fair, a little dose of Fair Fun to tide us fair lovers over to the summer. I am so thrilled I got to go! I'm not sure we will ever go again, though; going as fair groupie without an expense account is probably a one-time gig. But wow, what a hoot! And totally the most fun I have ever had in Las Vegas. And that's saying something!

Only 238 days 'til Fair!!


Thursday, November 20, 2014

A happy day is in the bag

We're one week away from Thanksgiving (yikes!) and I am hearing news that a local city council just voted to eliminate their annual donation to a very busy food bank. I'm not going to get into the politics of it all because that's not my thing. Instead, the news and its juxtaposition to the biggest eating day of the year made me think today might be a good time to share a story and extend an invitation to bring some cheer to people in your community.

The Story

In November of 2008, as the economy was tanking big time, our church did a "40 Days of Community" thing. We collected ourselves into groups based on where we live and were charged with coming up with a way we could serve our community for 40 days. Why only 40 days? I have no idea. Ask Rick Warren.

Rob and I happen to live not far from two super fun families that attend our church, so we quickly banded together and went about coming up with super fun community service ideas. I don't remember any of them now, although I suspect I floated the idea of picking up trash along public roads. I like things neat and tidy so when I take walks, the trash annoys me like any good indoctrinee into Woodsy Owl's Give a Hoot mission. So, yes, picking up trash is super fun to me but I know not to everyone. It's ok, I own my weirdness.

The service project we eventually landed on was an idea brought to us by Pam. She had heard there was a high school girl who had done this project for her Girl Scout badge thingy.  But when the girl left to go to college, the project went with her. So, yeah, we totally stole the idea. Which is why I can say without any fear of boasting that I think the idea is pure brilliance. So brilliant and well-received, in fact, we have continued our charge well past Rick Warren's 40 days. Six years past, to be exact.

The Project

Food banks serve an obvious purpose to help families put food on their table. But often, there's not a lot of fun extra stuff available among the staples. Especially for kids. And especially around birthday time.

So the brilliant idea...that was not ours...was to put together what we call "Birthday Bags" for kids whose families are clients of our local food bank.

Each Birthday Bag includes all the items needed for a birthday party: cake mix, frosting, candles, balloons, streamers, plates and napkins, etc. We also include some small age-specific toys for three different age groups.

We want to be thorough (yes, there are spreadsheets involved in this project), so we also create little packets of the needed vegetable oil for the cake mix (yay, food saver gadget!).

We make the oil bags by sealing 3 sides and then filling it with the correct amount of oil.
We bought the pump topper and discovered 3 pumps equals 1/3 cup.  That was a happy day.

Once the oil is in the bag, we seal it up and write in the quantity.
We aim to be full service.  

We have also worked out an arrangement with a local grocery store for the eggs (yay big chains with big hearts!). We pre-buy the eggs and then include a receipt and a homemade "coupon." The party giver simply takes both to the store to redeem them for a "free" 6-pack of non-organic eggs (we have recently had to specify the non-organic part; signs of the times).

Ok, the cat's out of the bag.  It's Safeway.  They are awesome!

Our group of 6 bag assemblers -- sometimes more with houseguests and such -- gets together one evening per month. We rotate who hosts. The host is responsible for contacting the food bank to find out how many bags they need, doing the shopping, and providing a group dinner. We typically put the bags together first and then enjoy a fun, laugh-filled, gratitude-infused dinner together -- always especially mindful that night how fortunate we are to be gathered around a table of food.

Over the years, we have settled into our own tasks. Rob and Jerry make the oil packets. Cathy and Pam assemble the gallon Ziploc baggies of candles, plates, napkins, balloons, streamers, and banners. Another Rob and I write the ages on the bag tags, staple the egg coupons to the bags, and fill the bags with the goodies. Then one of us with an available SUV delivers the bags to the food bank the next day. We've gotten pretty efficient at it and these days the whole process usually takes less than an hour.

Assembling plates, napkins, and streamers for the Ziploc Bag o' Fun

Lots of counting!  

The Ingredients

Each gift bag (purchased at Dollar Tree for, you guessed it, just $1!) is filled with the following:

  • 1 box of cake mix (we like Pillsbury cake -- often but not always yellow)
  • 1 can of frosting (Funfetti is our favorite because it's...FUN! and FETTI!)
  • 10 plates in a fun color (blue, red, purple, yellow, green)
  • 10 napkins in a fun color
  • 1 streamer roll in a fun color
  • 10 balloons (we've learned Dollar Tree balloons contain a lot of icky brown and black ones so we buy elsewhere)
  • 1 Happy Birthday banner
  • 5, 12, or 18 candles depending on the bag
  • 1 bottle of bubbles (because you are never too old for bubbles)
  • 1 packet of carefully measured vegetable oil (thank you, Jerry and Rob!)
  • 1 receipt and homemade coupon for 6 eggs (thank you, Safeway!)
  • 1 homemade card wishing the birthday kid a very happy birthday (thank you, Hallmark software!)
  • 2 age appropriate toys (coloring book and crayons for the young kids; a bouncy ball and a can of Play-Doh for the grade schoolers; and a pack of gum and a deck of cards for the teenagers)

Ziploc Bag o' Fun!

The Numbers

Through some early trial and error with the fine folks at the food bank, we have found that a full batch of bags is 30 bags: 10 bags for kids ages 1-5; 12 bags for kids ages 6-12; and 8 bags for kids ages 13-18. We do most of our shopping at the Dollar Tree, Winco, and Wal-Mart, always to curious looks and sometimes the occasional brave question...often along the lines of "That's gonna be one heck of a party! Can I come?"

We average about $9 per bag, although it can vary with sales and such (cake mix is currently on sale at Winco for just 88 cents, for instance!). Accountants have told us that, with receipts, the expenditures can legitimately be considered a tax-deductible donation. Or it can just be an anonymous, undocumented donation. Totally up to the donor.

The Invitation

Genius, right? I mean, the bag is a gift to both the parent and the child. When money and food are tight, the thought of not being able to throw your child a birthday party is probably one filled with great regret and sadness. Although the cake and frosting are not particularly healthy, I am certain they go a long way to nourishing the heart and spirit of the birthday family. Likewise the bubbles.

So my friends and Rob and I have one food bank covered. That's it, just one town in one county in the green, damp state of Washington. I can only assume there are a least a couple of other (thousand) food banks out there that would love to make room for lots of birthday-parties-in-a-bag.

In this season of giving thanks and giving gifts and giving help, I invite you to seriously consider contacting a local food bank to see if they would be interested in offering some birthday bags on their shelves along with the rice and soup and peanut butter. Then find some fun, like-hearted friends, organize yourselves, and get ye to filling up those carts to the bewilderment of all your fellow shoppers.

And be sure to give thanks.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pop goes the fragile

Over the years, I have noticed I have several "early warning systems" to tell me I am overdoing it and need to stoprightnow.

The first is achy pains that go down the backs of my legs. Not sciatica, just tender, crampy muscles. It sort of feels like working out at the gym too aggressively but is different enough that it's clearly not a "good hurt." This pain is what I felt as my first spinal fusion was starting to fail, so it definitely gets my attention even 14 years later.

Charging ahead at full speed for too long can also result in ridiculously frequent back spasms. Knots of jabby pain with bonus shocks of tingly nerves dancing all over my lower back. It is actually hot to the touch and I've often wondered if it is visible, sort of like a baby kicking inside the womb but totally not like that at all.

The dancing spasms is the pain that has literally brought me to my knees, made me burst into tears, and caused me to gasp and grab whatever is nearby for fear of losing my balance from the surprise of it all. Thankfully, it is typically pretty rare and doesn't terrify the crap out of me like it used to.

And then there is the emotional fragility. When I have been ignoring and stuffing my pain for too long, it starts to build up to an explosion of frustration and exhaustion. I've recently come to describe this condition as living with a "Jack-in-the-Box Brain." And by this I mean the toy, not the fast food joint with an advertising target I am quickly aging out of.

Somewhere along this pain path, I realized I have a very impressive ability to compartmentalize things...especially and most frequently back pain things. I can put my pain in a box in my brain with plans to deal with it later. Much like Dory in "Finding Nemo" my motto is often "just keep stuffing, just keep stuffing" while I go about the many fun and spirit-feeding things my life has to offer.

I realized the stark reality of this not long ago when a friend who also has many-years-of-back-pain commented that pain makes it so hard to enjoy even the simple things in life. While that seems like it should be Truth, the comment actually made me stop in my tracks because it makes no sense to me.

When I am fully engaged in a conversation, a dinner, a walk, weeding, exploring, adventuring, pain goes right into my Jack-in-the-Box Brain. I thoroughly enjoy whatever I am doing and any little stabs or jabs or aches or cramps get flicked like gnats into the box to be dealt with later. I see them, I feel them, I know they are there...but I refuse to let them be anything more than a momentary annoyance so I can get back to the business of living life.

But the thing with a jack-in-the-box is that it is designed to build up pressure and then explode in happy, scary, clowny fun. And except for the whimsical hair, make-up, and wardrobe, that's where I find myself at the moment.

I am emotionally raw. I am exhausted. The pressure is almost at its max. I have been frantically stuffing for three months and it is about to explode all over my couch and bed and heating pad and Kleenex box. I know it is coming; perhaps I should just invite it out. Because I have people to see and places to go and much stuffing ahead that must be done. Maybe just one more crank of the handle so my Jack-in-the-Box Brain can release its contents to make room for more.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Reunion table for two, please

By all reports, Rob and I had rather different high school experiences.  Although, as you'll see in the photos, we had remarkably similar hair.  Some might even call it amazing.  (Inside joke shout out to Grandma, RIP.)

I went to a large public co-ed high school in northern California. I didn't play sports and I did just enough extracurricular stuff to satisfy that part of the honor society requirements. I had a small but mighty group of friends, most of whom I am still in touch with nearly 30 years later. We tackled homework together, played Trivial Pursuit together, solved murder-mysteries-in-a-box together, went to dances together. From the standpoint of finding a group I fit in with, I liked high school much better than college.

Class of 1986
Rob went to a small private all-boys high school in southern California. He played soccer and was in the honor society. He had a couple of friends that he sort of did stuff with but he mostly went to school and played sports. He's not in touch with any old classmates these days. He went to one dance -- a Sadie Hawkins one at one of the sister schools -- and can't remember the name of the girl who asked him. From the standpoint of finding a group he fit in with, Rob liked college much much much better than high school.

Class of 1984

Therefore I was a bit surprised several months ago when Rob didn't immediately toss the announcement for his 30th high school reunion. I seized on his moment of curiosity and repression and proclaimed, "We should go!"

Because, well, I dragged him to my 20th reunion and he had more fun than I did. Apparently it is quite entertaining to watch a group of 38 year olds morph back into teenagers with all the cliques and drama and insecurity that entails. I desperately wanted Rob to return the favor.

Using my 20th reunion as a guide, I envisioned what last Saturday night would be.

It would be a large, dimly lit ballroom filled with a bunch of 48-year-old men wearing Those Nametags screaming Hair of 1984 (see above). The guys would all stand around punching each other's shoulders while the wives-in-tow would chit chat lightly about the weather and kids and purses. I would wear heels, red lipstick, and a fabulous cocktail dress in an attempt to be the best Arm Candy I could muster. We would eat dinner around a table with people squinting at Those Nametags.  We would listen to the DJ play hits by Prince and Phil Collins and Van Halen and Bruce Springsteen. I would know better than to ask Rob to dance so instead I would just enjoy the flood of memories from the year I got my driver's license. I would take lots of pictures of Rob and his newly rediscovered friends.  On the way back to the hotel, if it wasn't too late, we might stop for dessert or a glass of wine to dish on the evening. The end.

Yeah, ummm, not quite.

When we arrived at the tennis club fashionably late (about 15 minutes was all we could handle; we aren't very fashionable), there were about a dozen nametags left on the table undistributed. We were directed inside to the venue -- a very warm, stuffy, dimly lit, small room surrounding the bar overlooking some tennis courts.

Rob said hello to one of the Fathers (he went to a Catholic high school) who is a friend on Facebook. Apparently Facebook answers all questions because Father Michael said no more than five words to us before heading off to greet another alum. He never spoke to us again.

Two more steps into the room, Rob glanced around and whispered, "I'm taking off my coat."

"Do you want me to take it back to the car for you?" I asked, thinking that would give him time to find some folks without worrying what to do with me.

"No, I don't want to stand here by myself. I'll take it out."

"I don't want to stand here by myself either. Let's go together."

Introverts unite!

As we momentarily escaped the awkwardness, I thanked Rob for talking me out of wearing the fancy cocktail dress. Yes, it was too dressy after all. Instead I was wearing a fun but far more casual dress that was sooooo much longer than what I glimpsed on the females inside. And my heels were far too low, too, as far as all their outfits suggested.  Myself, I was happy with my ensemble until the blister developed on my left baby toe.  Oh, that's right...I rarely wear heels.

I also apologized for thinking Rob needed to wear a tie. He wisely didn't even pack one. It turned out that the mere fact that his shirt was tucked in made him raise the dress code bar. It was like Vegas all over again.

Back inside, I surveyed the group. Rob's graduating class was about 200. There were two sister all-girl schools that combined in with their reunions. Between all three schools and accompanying spouses, there were maybe 90 people at the reunion.  With so few people and so little space, I couldn't even take stealthy pictures.  My camera never left Rob's pocket.  Dang it!

As we stood there munching on toothpicked meatballs, I smiled at the realization that all the guys were talking together on one side of the room and all the women were together on the other side. Just like a junior high dance, there was very little mingling. One of the organizers slurred hello. The party had started for him well before we got there.  A few women came over to see who I was but upon discovering I was merely a wife, they somewhat politely moved on in search of Those Nametags.

I was flabbergasted and disappointed to discover there were very few spouses. There were lots and lots at my reunion. Although the RSVP list indicated about 15 "guests" I didn't see any other obvious spouse. I started looking for wedding rings. Not a lot of those, either. Huh. Is atttending a 30th high school reunion actually a mid-life dating tactic??

At one point, we were standing near an older man. Turns out he was the long-retired principal. He was chatting with a woman who whispered to me as she excused herself from the conversation, "He left the priesthood and is really interesting now!"  She obviously hadn't noticed I wasn't wearing a nametag.

Interesting indeed!

"Father" Charles was a funny, charming, authentic man with a great story about falling in love with a woman who was confessing her sins to him. A cuddly softy married for 22 years, he covertly shared how he first accidentally earned and then craftily maintained a scary reputation among a school of teenage boys.

"They called me 'The Boxer,'" he revealed with a proud twinkle in his eye.

I asked if he attended a lot of the reunions.

"All of them.  I like to haunt them."  More twinkling.

About this time, one of the other organizers -- the lone woman of the threesome -- came teetering over with the requisite yearbook in hand.

"He hasn't changed a bit!" she flirted as she held Charles's yearbook photo up next to his face.

Since I was in the presence of what was once a Man of the Cloth...and since he didn't know my humor...and since I didn't want to add yet more awkwardness to the evening...I commendably caught myself before exclaiming, "WOW! You were a hottie!!"

I'm thinking it was a good thing he wasn't the principal at one of the girls' schools.
His office would have been very crowded.

Still searching for someone familiar, Rob and I positioned ourselves just on the fringe of the conversations happening at the bar. While observeing the shoulder punching (I was right about that part), Rob explained that as small as his class was, there were many students he really didn't know.

About 60 of his classmates were with him in the "Accelerated" group.  They took advanced classes together throughout the four years and didn't have much classroom interaction with the rest of the students. Rob couldn't remember the name of that group until we overheard one of the guys say to an alum who looked decidedly lawyerish, "Ooooh! Here's one from the ACCELERATED group!"  And yes, there was something of a taunting, mocking tone to it.  Ugh.

Far as we could tell, it was only that lawyer guy and Rob representing the fast movers. Was that why nobody other than the principal and the organizers were talking to us?

Desperately staring at the clock, we agreed that 90 minutes was good enough and decided a nice dinner just the two of us sounded like a much better way to spend the evening.

I told Rob we should at least take the long route to the exit, just in case someone new and familiar had arrived. Showing football skillz I had never before seen in action, Rob cut his way around the dance floor, the tables, and the waiters and was almost in the end zone when we were tackled by the third and final organizer, Joe.

Joe artfully blocked the exit and explained how he enjoyed organizing reunions because it forced him to talk to people and not just be a homebody and hey, where do you live and what was your name again and hey, great reunion, huh?

Once safely in our rental car, Rob and I decided to escape to a fancy wine bar for some tapas and fresh air.  It was a lovely evening after all.

As I reflected later on Rob's reunion, I was finally able to name the emotion I was feeling while we were standing there largely ignored while clumps of laughter surrounded us.

Protective. That's what I felt.

I was incredulous and then annoyed that these people didn't recognize the opportunity they had right in front of them. The opportunity to re-meet and re-discover the kindhearted, intelligent, witty, reflective man standing next to me. The opportunity to hear a pretty darn interesting and inspiring story of a 30-year path of life. The opportunity to drop adolescent assumptions and experience life and people as an adult.

Sigh.  High school reunions.  I think we might be done.

My hottie and my red lipstick

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Gnome more, really, I'm sure of it

When Rob and I bought our first house, I was characteristically giddy with thoughts of nesting and decorating and making the house Ours.

As we discussed various ideas of how to make our expansive yard (compared to our apartment's deck; I mean, it had grass and everything!) feel cozy and inviting, Rob jokingly suggested garden gnomes.

Horrified, I replied, "NO GNOMES!"

I reminded him of this proclamation every time we wandered through Orchard Supply Hardware in search of things like hoses and lawnmowers and trash cans.

When Moving Day finally arrived (we rented back to our sellers for a few months), I bought a little housewarming gift for Rob and outfitted it with a sign. It greeted Rob when he opened the door on our first day of Home Ownership. Given my decree, I knew he wouldn't expect it. I thought it perfect for one-time humor purposes only.

Vintage 1994 with a fuzzy sign that reads "We're Gnomeowners!"
The sign is in a scrapbook and the gnome is currently on a bookshelf
between a photo album and a book about New Zealand.
It's a place of honor, really.

I promised and vowed it would be our only garden gnome.

About 12ish years later happily ensconced in Woodhaven, we were loyal fans of TV's "Amazing Race." It remains the one show we agree on and during which no book, internet, magazine, or newspaper reading takes place by either one of us. That's a big deal in our TV watching world.

One of the show's primary sponsors is the travel website Its mascot is a garden gnome with a British accent. The gnome is prominently and entertainingly featured in all commercials. A replica of the gnome is often incorporated into at least one leg of The Race each season. Contestants usually carrying him with care through a foreign country, perhaps taking him kayaking or rappelling down a waterfall. It is one of the most brilliant examples of product placement ever.

Rob is tricky to buy gifts for. Although he keeps a Wish List of books and CDs populated, I always like to go off-roading a bit and surprise him. So one year I decided he needed an "Amazing Race" Travelocity Roaming Gnome, conveniently for sale on the show's website. We quickly named him Phil, in honor of the TV game show's host.

At first Phil lived outside in our flower beds -- a true garden gnome -- and randomly changed locations to peer into different windows. Rob and I amused each other quite a bit with that little hobby. Then the "Amazing Race" season finale aired and we (ok, I) thought Phil would want to come inside and watch it with us. He has been in our living room ever since.

Phil making sure the speaker doesn't blow over

So that's how we got to own two gnomes despite my assurances. Both for humor purposes only, mind you. But that was it. No more. I promised.

Then a few years ago, one of our neighbors posted a picture on Facebook of her new garden's adorable guardian. I loved loved loved it and immediately asked where she got it. I zipped down to the local store only to find she had purchased the very last one. I looked online and in other stores without success. Two more gardening seasons passed and I still couldn't find it. I'm sure you can imagine my despair.

I mentioned my fruitless search to Rob at the beginning of this summer, and in that mystical way that he has exhibited over the years, he found one. I Google my heart out for months or years without success and with merely a mention, voila -- Rob finds the elusive bounty. Be it a Snoopy Rain Slicker or a Martha Davis CD or...a garden gnome riding a tractor. It is witchcraft, I tell ya.

A winter project will be determining if I can John Deere-ize his tractor a bit more

In my defense...sort of...Rob was the one who brought Tractor Gnome into the family. Apparently my glee at such things is irresistible. He is now guarding the dryer vent. The gnome I mean, not Rob.

So three gnomes. But gnome more, honest.

But then...

Just a few months later, in a frightening development, a friend directed me to a news story about a gnome being stolen from a garden in Seattle and taken on quite an adventure. It was returned a year later with an accompanying photo album documenting his travels. My friend no doubt thought of our Travels with Piglet when alerting me to the story.

However, the focal point of the story for me was not so much the traveling gnome as that there exists such a thing as a Seattle Seahawks Gnome! SCORE!

Having jumped on the Seahawks bandwagon just in the nick of time before last season's playoff game against my once-beloved 49ers, I naturally got right to Googling.

After quite an ordeal involving two vendors, refunds, apologetic gift cards, and phone calls at 8:00am on a Sunday morning, today this guy finally joined the It's Not A Collection gnome ensemble:

Currently in possession of the football and the satellite radio antenna

Please let it be known that I am NOT collecting garden gnomes! Did you read that Mom and Dad? Really, I'm not. It's just, well, each one of these called out to me in that very quiet but mischievous way that gnomes do. But I am certain there will be no more gnomes at Woodhaven.

NO (more) GNOMES!!

You have my word.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I could have purchased a lot of minutes for the same price, but where's the fun in that?!

"A one day cruise? I've never heard of such a thing. Who takes a one day cruise??"

Well, that would be us. Us and about 2,598 other madcappers who thought it made sense to travel the 120 miles from Seattle, WA to Vancouver, British Columbia via a mighty cruise ship instead of, oh say, a car or train or bus.

It's true. Just this past weekend, we boarded the Golden Princess at about 2:45pm on Saturday and said farewell at about 8:30am the next day. Minus the approximate 8 hours of sleep, we lived the cruising lifestyle for an entire 10 hours. It was barely enough time to figure out where the Lido Deck was in relation to our windowless interior room. But it was plenty of time for the Princess Photography Department to take two different photos of us (one boarding and one at dinner) that could have been ours for only $19.99...each.

Why bother to pack up a suitcase, dig out passports, arrange for port transfers, and load up on hand sanitizer just for one night on a cruise ship? Well, this:

In person, it looks silver.  They claim it is Platinum.  I think it is plastic.

I know it just looks like a silly little silver lapel pin. And that is exactly what it is. However, what it means is that as of our arrival in Vancouver, BC, I have completed the proper number of cruises with Julie and Doc and Isaac to advance to Platinum in Princess Cruise's loyalty program.

Big whoop and la de da, right?

Well, with this new fancypants status, I get some nice freebies. Most notably, free Wi-Fi.

Did you hear me? I now get free* Wi-Fi on all Princess cruises! WHOO HOO!!

(*Technically, I only get a certain number of minutes of free Wi-Fi depending on the length of the cruise. But with my proven average usage of 12 minutes per day, the Platinum allotment is plenty and therefore, in my head, totally free. YAY FREE!)

Ok, yes, the next level up (Elite) offers free laundry service. And while the idea of never again having to spend an At Sea Day camped out in an overcrowded, overheated, underequipped onboard laundry room is rather appealing, as a blogger type person, this free Wi-Fi thing is pure gold. Or, platinum, as the case may be.

So that was pretty much the entire motivation for taking a one day cruise. Well, that and it was an excuse to spend some time exploring the second Vancouver (the first one is in Washington not far from Woodhaven). And I was incredibly curious what a happens on a one day cruise. It sounded so...bloggable.

Some ways our One Day Adventure was just like any other cruise:

  • We had the lifejacket drill
  • There were dance shows and magicians and comedians and night clubs and piano bars and outdoor movies going all through the night
  • Food was available any time we wanted it. And Carolyn, I had the Princess Love Boat Dream for dessert with you in mind.
  • Our room steward introduced himself to us and called us by name any time he saw us
  • Boutiques selling souvenirs, jewelry, clothing, and perfume were open and ready for bu$ine$$
  • We got chocolates on our pillows
  • The pools and hot tubs were crowded from the get-go

Some ways it was entirely different:

  • When we checked in, we were also handed our instructions for checking out (Welcome and Good-bye!)
  • There was no TV channel with a map showing us our location, route, and miles traveled.  We felt lost the entire time.  So many islands between Seattle and Vancouver.
  • There was no onboard morning show telling us about our next port and available activities for the day because, well, there were none.
  • Everyone was responsible for walking their luggage off the ship; no crowded hallways the night before (ok, the only night) filled with bags waiting to be picked up and organized
  • The average age of the passengers was much younger than typical -- like old enough to drink but young enough to still get carded
  • Even though it was "Smart Casual" dress for dinner, a lot of the young women went all out on their club-ready outfits.  I remained in my travel ensemble and forgot to dress it up with a necklace.

It took awhile to understand why most of the other passengers were joining us on this one-day voyage. Being all in my own head, I assumed most people were there for the same reason I was -- to get a cruise point and move up to the next level.

We did meet an older lady at dinner who is squeezing every bit of life she can out of her new kidney. She went to Alaska three times this past summer and was cruising down to Los Angeles in a few days. She sincerely recommended that Rob and I could accumulate cruise points even faster if we booked separate rooms. While having someone do my laundry is tempting, umm...

Aside from her, the higher status-cruise points-free WiFi motive was clearly unpopular. Instead, as it became increasingly obvious, a one-day cruise is an exceptionally fun and safe way to party with a Capital P. Ah hah!

Due to a luggage snafu with our airline, we boarded the Golden Princess with 15 minutes to spare. We were informed with a smile that The Party had started about 4 hours earlier. It wasn't clear if that was a warning or a reprimand.

We arrived in our room to two voicemails from some giggly women looking for Joan and hoping she hadn't started without them and they were heading to the pool and oops, wow, we hope this is the right room number.

A bit later, so many people ignored/didn't hear/didn't care about the mandatory lifejacket drill that a second one had to be held.

At the pools, the music was rocking and the booze was flowing. There were lines at the bars and people were walking around with buckets of beer. The Drink of the Day was a margarita. While this wasn't what I ordered, it is what I was given. I think I was supposed to share. I also think I was supposed to finish it. I failed miserably on both counts.

It's amazing how many people you meet when you walk around with a drink of this magnitude

The cruise had an undeniable Carnival vibe. Despite my turbo-sized beverage, Rob and I felt like old fogeys inadvertently crashing a wedding reception with an open bar. It was like a floating bachelorette party in Vegas. Not that this was a bad thing; indeed it was quite amusing to watch. It just wasn't what we were expecting.

Fittingly, there were so few people actually awake (read, sober) and ready to get off the ship the next morning at various designated times, the crew threw their schedules overboard and encouraged people to leave whenever they wanted to. Rob and I were happily exploring Vancouver a full 90 minutes earlier than we planned.

Uniquely sober and ready to see Canada's Vancouver

Before we left, Rob chatted with a collection of crew members assigned to help people with wheelchairs disembark. It is typically a very hectic morning for the wheel guys. Instead, the morning after the Party Cruise, they all stood around chatting with nobody elderly or disabled to assist. Perhaps their services were put into action later when bleary-eyed 20-somethings still wearing last night's club clothes needed help getting off the ship?

Once off the ship, we had a great time playing in Vancouver. It was a gloriously sunny and warm day so we got to see quite a few of the locals out and about. We explored the shops and food stands of Granville Island and walked along the Seawall into Stanley Park. We found a grittier part of town on our way to dinner at a joint that did creative things with potatoes and offered a local wine that inspired our new commitment to someday explore the Okanagan Valley. And it could not have been easier to get from our downtown hotel to the airport. Vancouver's mass transit rocks.

I'm not sure I would take a one-day cruise again. It was certainly amusing and novel, but I missed some of the more relaxing aspects of unpacking my suitcase. Since I better know what to expect, I suppose I could see going again for a special occasion, like a birthday or, as my friend Kelsey brilliantly suggested, a bachelorette party. It certainly is cheaper than a night in Vegas. And safer, too. And now complete Wi-Fi!!

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Tale of Two Concerts

I used to go to a lot of concerts when I was a teenager. But as the years have passed and my musical taste has stayed sort of stuck in 1986, my concert attendance has been a bit sparse. So it was rather unprecedented last week to find myself in reserved seats awaiting famous musicians three days.

On Tuesday, we trekked northward to see Chicago. While normally that would be an eastward journey, the band-not-the-city was conveniently playing at a state fair not too terribly far from Woodhaven. It was also a great excuse to get some Waffle Fried Bacon with Maple Syrup (disappointingly better in concept than in execution).

Three days after revisiting some favorite memories of the '70s, '80s, and 1990, we headed to Portland and joined a headache* of screaming tween girls welcoming Katy Perry to the Rose City.

*With four hours of direct, personal experience, I have now deemed a group of two or more girls aged 10-12-years "a headache."

So yes, Chicago and Katy Perry in a matter of days. My head is still spinning and my ears are still ringing. Good grief, 11-year-old girls have high-pitched voices.


When Rob and I started dating in March of 1990, we compared our CD and vinyl collections. I give us both credit for being mature (or infatuated) enough to look past the incompatibility of Supertramp (Rob) and The Mighty Lemon Drops (me). There was only one overlap in our collections: Chicago IX: Chicago's Greatest Hits released in 1975.

While Rob introduced me to Eric Clapton (I still remember the dumbstruck look on Rob's face when I said I had never heard "Layla"), and I shared the intoxicating dance beats of New Order, that undisputed Chicago CD quickly became the anthem of our courtship. Every song on that album still makes me smile with the giddiness of new love.

I didn't know until we were leaving the stadium on Tuesday night, but Rob saw Chicago in concert in their heyday in the late '70s. He left that show disappointed because it was the first concert he had seen where the music didn't sound exactly like his records. Oh, bands who insist on jamming, improv-ing, performing without a recording, and going "off script."

So Rob was a bit hesitant about seeing a much older, likely rustier, possibly past-their-prime version of our first mutually favorite band. With four of the original Chicago members still asking on Tuesday night if anybody really knew what time it was, there was indeed a bit of age and experience on stage. But I gotta tell you, these old guys still have it.

The show wasn't terribly fancy. Just a stage, instruments, and standard stage lights that danced and changed color. The stage's backdrop changed once -- from a more modern band logo to the iconic one of the groovy '70s. Otherwise, the focus was entirely on the music. It was pure and simple, simple and free.

Sure, the vintage voices weren't quite as strong as they used to be. Accordingly, the band has some newer, younger members who did some of the heavier vocals lifting. But since Chicago is so well-known for its instrumentals, the vocals weren't nearly as important. The 65-year-olds could still blow their horns like whipper snappers even if the accompanying dance moves looked a little stiff and imminently in search of heating pads.

The concert's opening band was REO Speedwagon. This was news to us; we had somehow missed that until we reviewed our e-tickets for our seat assignments. I ended up recognizing only three of their songs and those songs made it clear REO's lead singer has lost some of his voice quality, too. I still enjoyed those three songs, though.

The absolute highlight of the concert was the final set. The two bands joined together on stage and all 14 of them played a Top 10 hit for each. REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You" sounded richer, deeper, and more complex with Chicago's horns and Robert Lamm's vocals added in.

I didn't notice anything particularly different with the ensemble rendition of Chicago's "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" but what I did notice was the pure joy bounding all over that stage. The musicians were having an absolute blast. Their mutual respect and affection were palatable.

As they worked their instruments and communicated across the stage with head nods and appreciative smiles, the evening evolved from being a just another concert to being An Experience. I sensed that every musician on that stage would remember this night, this collaboration, this moment decades into career stories that are still being written but are nonetheless coming to an end. I felt part of something very special.


Katy Perry

As we were driving to a Portland arena on Friday night, Rob asked to be reminded why exactly we were going to a Katy Perry concert. Quite honestly, I couldn't remember the line of thought back in January when we bought the tickets. We might have been a little punchy on one too many snow days. My best answer to Rob was, "Because you said you would??"

I know probably a half-album's worth of Katy Perry songs. There's one involving cherry Chapstick and one about a melting Popsicle and one she sang with the Elmo on Sesame Street. Oh, and she also likes to ROAR!

In preparation for the concert, I bought Katy's current album. One cycle through and it was clear I was going to owe Rob an apology. While I knew I would have fun bopping along to the kiddy pop, Rob does not easily suffer simplistic, highly commercialized music (hi, Rick Astley!). We were in for quite a night.

While Rob and I blended in rather nicely at the Chicago concert, we stood out like middle aged creepers at Katy Perry's party since we didn't have any kids with us. Yes, there were adults at the concert...and many of them around our age...but they were all toting headaches of young girls.

Thousands of young girls. All shrieking with the pubescent fervor that defines Katy Kats (the official term for Katy's fan base). Girls wearing tutus and pink wigs and blue wigs and green wigs and glitter and tights with cats on them. Girls dressed up like Cleopatra. One came dressed as a birthday cake; another as a banana. It was like a Cirque du Soleil cosplay rave thrown for fans of My Little Pony. Not that I have ever heard of such an offering, but I am pretty sure I can see it from here.

There were so many girls, the arena's management wisely converted most of the men's bathrooms to women's rooms. Naturally, there were still lines. Rob had to walk to the other side of the arena to find a room of his own. He almost made it back to our seats before I did.

I checked it out.  It smelled better than expected but there were only four stalls.
And the line wasn't moving very quickly. 

There were two opening bands for Katy. Again, news to us. The first was a mohawked guy from California who was proudly wearing what he described as "an alien onesie." He was eventually followed by two women who looked like twins and energized the crowd with their biggest hit: "Everything Is AWESOME!!!" Yes, the three exclamation points are part of the title, and yes, it is the theme song from The Lego® Movie. Are we sensing a theme?

Nearly two hours after the stated start time of the concert, Ms. Perry finally emerged from below the stage in a mechanized fold-out prism. Her dress was decorated with neon lights, her shoes were rockin' sparkly heels, and her band was non-existent.

She sang along, danced like a professional gymnast, and made full use of a stage with ego ramps that went clear out to the middle of the arena's floor.

There were strobe lights and laser beams and smoke and videos. There were horses and cars and flying tacos and balloon swings. There was a birthday party for Colette and a free pizza given to Owen since he was a lone little boy with a gaggle of females.

We don't know which birthday Colette was celebrating, but she got the full treatment

There was neon and confetti and a Dance Cam and ads for Cover Girl and Claire's Fashion Jewelry and Accessories for Girls (Katy is spokesmodel for both). There were dancers dressed as cats playing on an enormous cat tree. Others were dressed as sunflowers and fish bowls.

I have no idea what is going on here.  The song had something to do with tacos and champagne.

I lost track of how many costume changes and hair colors and styles Katy went through over the two hours.  This is just a smattering.

Eventually a band and two back-up singers appeared. We have no idea where they were the first half of the show. It wasn't until two guitarists were flying through the air shooting off fireworks that I even noticed there were musicians on stage.  Well, at least in the vicinity of the stage.

We're guessing the guitars weren't really playing music, what with all the pyrotechnics

In short, it was QUITE a party. And you know what? It was the most entertaining $46 I have spent in a looong time. Although I felt like I had gorged on every single color of every single candy in an IT'S SUGAR candy store, I truly had a great time. And crashed like a toddler once the sugar rush finally came to an abrupt finale with a literal explosion of fireworks.  Well, after we stopped at Voodoo Donut for a Katycap on the way home since it seemed fitting.

Not the finale...just a neon-infused song about California Gurls

Compare and Contrast...just like in 7th grade

Reflecting on the two concerts, I can't say I liked one better than the other. I loved the feast for the senses that Katy Perry offered. Like a carnival fun house, I never knew what was coming next and laughed with surprise and disbelief any number of times. The colors, the flashing videos, the costumes, the use of the stage and the air, the fireworks. It was like no concert I have ever seen.

But wait, did I mention the music? No I didn't. Because music is not Katy's point. It is merely a vehicle to offer the rest of the experience. The songs, the lyrics, the composition, the intricate interplay of instruments...totally unimportant and in some cases non-existent.

Instead, Katy is a brilliant marketer who knows her audience. She knows how to make young girls look up to her and crave a California lifestyle. She knows how to relate to them with short stories of being insecure and not feeling pretty enough. She knows where they shop and what color t-shirts they will buy. Quite frankly, Katy Perry is one very impressive machine of commercialized pop that probably makes Madonna both proud and envious.  It was worth the price of admission just to see it in action.

And then there is Chicago.  Simplistic lighting, no costume changes, no pyrotechnics, and no guide wires to whisk musicians over the heads of the audience. Instead, all Chicago could offer was sophisticated musical arrangements and instruments played with mastery.  That and decades of sweet memories of listening to their music.

While Katy carefully engineered a party that made us feel like popular kids who got invited, Chicago trusted themselves and their audience to be spontaneous and jam just a little longer. Chicago created the space and opportunity for a unique experience that made us feel like we were witnessing something special and were not just the next stop on an 80 city world tour.

Chicago was a chef-inspired dinner with a long-cellared wine. Katy Perry was an oooey gooey dessert covered in sprinkles and whipped cream and every sauce you can imagine. Together, they made a meal I won't soon forget.

Chicago and REO Speedwagon Finale

Katy Perry Birthday Song.  This wasn't even the finale.
(Operator error prevented that from being filmed, sadly.)
Oh, and that's Katy hanging there from the balloons.