Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Year in Travel

For all I talk about travel, let's look back at the year that was. Also, everything below is for calendar year 2010, but doesn't include flights to/from Portland this coming week and jetting off to Ireland on Dec. 30.

Total flights: 73 of which 52 were on Star Alliance carriers
Total miles: About 82,600
Places I went for the first time (a sampling): Paris, Warsaw, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Nashville, Eureka, Redmond, Ore., Salt Lake City, Kayenta, Ariz.

Favorite airport: Seattle-Tacoma (SEA)
I love any airport with a central terminal where all concourses are easy to get to. My new home airport qualifies, but it also has some local eating options and is mass-transit accessible. Takeoffs and landings are great because you either buzz the Seattle skyline or Mt. Rainier. And, of course, there's nothing like landing at home.

Least Favorite Airport: Paris-Charles DeGaulle (CDG)
What a god-awful mess. The interior architecture is pretty in parts of terminal 2F, which is where the good parts of this airport end. Hugely, sprawling, heaven help you if you need to make a connection on a short turn. The fact that they bus you from your gate to your plane for most intra-EU flights means you need to be at your gate much farther ahead than normal. In fairness, the in-airport helpers are extremely friendly and have a great grasp of English. But, flying through here twice was enough.

Pet Peeve of the Year: Southwest Fanboys
They are the Apple enthusiasts of the air. They speak with a superior air about them, but few truly understand the economics of the airline industry. They love telling everyone how they only fly Southwest. This despite the fact that, often, Southwest isn't the cheapest option. If they were, they'd list their fares on Orbitz, Expedia and the like. They love to talk about how Southwest "has no extra fees," but fail to mention Southwest's "early-bird check in" fee, which is nearly mandatory if you are carrying on bags. They also fail to mention Southwest's terrible record compared to other airlines when it comes to losing baggage. Southwest's marketing program has been brilliant in that they've convinced a nation of occasional flyers that it's better on Southwest. They do an OK job, but they are not that much better than "legacy" carriers. But the "fanboys" won't hear it...

In-Air Trend of the Year: E-Readers
It started after Christmas last year and I can only imagine how it's going to be after this holiday season. Everyone has a e-reader. I would say mainly the Kindle from my unscientific observations. After that, the iPad, though I do find it amusing to watch someone with a bulky iPad try to do anything on the tablet and take a sip of their drink in the cramped quarters of the fuselage. Regardless, they're the item of choice. Smaller than a traditional book, means it's much easier to carry in already-packed carry-on bags. I can say for sure having one changed the way I enjoy my flights.

Surprised-That-Works-So-Well of the Year: Smartphone Boarding Passes
It doesn't seem like it should work, having a boarding pass on a cell phone. But yet, it does. I always try to check in prior to getting to the airport, but sometimes, it's not possible. Now... I can check in from the rental car shuttle bus if I'm on certain airlines. And despite the troubles people have with security lines, somehow, mobile boarding passes have seemed to work pretty well.

Overhype of the Year: Body Scanners
See all those flights up there? You know how many times I was body-scanned? Once. Whoop. Dee. Doo. The one time I was (at the Oakland, CA airport) it was really not a big deal. The person who gets to the see the scan isn't even visible to the person being scanned. And, despite the whole "they're going to see me naked" talk, unless the person looking at the screen gets off on grainy, black and white, low res, not-at-all-sexy-and-detailed images, it's pretty innocuous. Beats a pat-down, for sure. I still think this is overkill... airport security has done nothing to provide a marked difference in the security of our airlines since 9/11... banning knives and things may have. Cockpit doors locking from inside certainly have. I think we should go back to the old system, but, in the meantime, you people want to feel safe. And now the terrorists make underwear bombs. You get what you want, then... body scanners. But really? No big deal.

Best Food on the Road: The Malt Shop, Pagosa Springs, Colo.
This is it:Just sitting there on the north side of US 160 in a town the better part of an hour east of Durango. Was told to stop here by a friend in Santa Fe. And it was absolutely worth it. The hamburger was tremendous. The cross-cut fries, a la Chik-Fil-A, were great. And the milkshake... oh, the milkshake. This was not the healthiest lunch I had during my travels. But it was my favorite.

Favorite Things I Saw

The Petroglyphs in Mesa Verde National Park - A mile down from the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling, native peoples has etched a story into a sandstone wall. Crazy to see a handprint, knowing hundreds of years ago, someone who lived in one of those cliff dwellings had placed that hand there. It honestly felt like it must to stand on the moon and see one of the astronauts' footprints: a perfectly preserved part of the past in it's natural place.

Paris - If you've been there, you know what I mean. There is no city that looks like it. There are sounds that are unique to the city. Just a cool place.

The High Desert - Driving on the Mt. Hood Highway in Oregon, you pass Mt. Hood and begin descending a bit... and suddenly you go from dense pine forest... to high desert canyon country. It's almost an instantaneous switch. Lush to barren. But still beautiful. For an eastern boy like me, I wasn't aware you could go from one sort of climate and flora in the blink of an eye. But you can.

Here's to what 2011 brings!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My 2010 Pop Culture Moments

Now that I've done mt top 10 albums, some other year-end retrospectives on the way. The last one will be an indulgent bit of self-reflection. This, however, isn't the last one.

This is the year in pop culture! So... let's get to it!

Favorite movie
There are still plenty of Oscar-worthy films to see but, my movie-going 2010 is just about over. And my pick is for Inception. It may not win the big awards, though it should win some, but here was a movie that I didn't need to wear silly 3-D glasses to enjoy. A great concept, well-executed, buy a fantastic cast. Had no idea where it was going to end up. It felt fresh and didn't make me think as hard as Mission Impossible did all those years ago despite a much more complicated concept.

Disturbing trend of the year
Glee glorification. Seriously, this needs to stop. Rarely did anyone ever think a cover of an original song was superior to the original. Now, every week, someone in my Twitter feed has to tell me that some song from Glee is so much better than the original. I actually heard someone say they couldn't wait for a song to hit Glee so they could buy it. Think about that. That's like saying "Man, I cannot WAIT for someone to photocopy that Monet so I can frame it in my home." Also, someone seems to think the writing on the show is amazing. A lot of someones. Many of them writers. This is even worse because I would expect anyone who saw a single episode of Mad Men could gather that good TV writing isn't ridiculous dialogue to fill time between songs. If you love Glee, that's great, but be aware you are watching a show that is basically a scripted American Idol that gives guaranteed revenue. That is why this show exists.

Best ad of the year
To me, it takes a lot to unseat "The Most Interesting Man Alive" by Dos Equis. But... it has been done. Thank you, Geico:

Greatest sports moment of the year
You might think my high point would be getting to see the Yankees four times, including once in the new Stadium, would be the easy choice. Or perhaps watching Sidney Crosby win it for Canada in the Olympic on home ice. Maybe the schadenfreude of watching NC Tar Heels fans realize that - gasp - they might not win every game every year (the horror!). You would be wrong.

It's the Sounders. And I have never seen anything like it anywhere. The crowd is simply... astonishing. And Qwest Field is loud. Louder than they make it sound on TV. I went to three games. At each one, the lower level of the stadium didn't sit. They chant. They sing. And - this is the best part - Vancouver and Portland enter MLS next year. Each city already has fans for its teams that are equally rowdy. MLS actually has to change rules about ticket allocations for visiting fans because the "Cascadia" teams have fan bases that will travel to each of the other cities in the Pacific Northwest to cheer. I hear you... you're going on an on about how it's nothing like an SEC football game or whatever. These clips do not do it justice, but this is what it's like... but for every moment of every game:

Favorite gadget
If you know me, you can just guess: My Kindle. Simply put, it is one of my favorite things ever. It is light. It travels easy. Books are cheap. I can read it for hours. I can hold it in one hand and a drink in another. I hear a lot of folks complaining it's not in color. The funny thing is most books I read are black text on white pages, so it hasn't been an issue. I guess these people read different things than I do. But I guess the best way to put it is this... I use it as much, if not more, than when I first got it. Rare is the fun electronic gadget that you use more as time goes on.

Ridiculousness of the year
This whole controversy over the TSA, pat-down searches and the like. There are so many angles of ridiculous to take on this, but let's talk about the one that really shows how out of hand this is: the core issue for airport security. No one is talking about this. They talk about violations of privacy, long lines and annoyance. No one has raised a hand to ask just what 10 years of TSA security has done to protect us. I'd like to know. Specifically, I'd like to know why it's safer the way we have it now than it was prior to 9/11. Before 9/11, you still had to go through security at an airport. Granted, anyone could walk in... but, shouldn't going through security, you know, make things secure? From what I can gather, all the new measures we're taking is inspiring innovation among terrorists. Underwear bombs? Look, in 1999, if you had a bomb, you tossed it in your suitcase. And we knew that. So we knew to search suitcases! Now? Who knows where to look?! I'm all for securing our airways, but the simple fact is this: In more than 30 years, no US-based airline has had a domestic flight hijacked... except on one day when there were four. If I told you I could give you a security system that would work every day over the course of 30 years, except for maybe one day, would you think that sounded good? I bet you would. Well.. the old system did that. Bu no one dares ask.

Favorite concert
Moving to Seattle greatly improved my music options (sorry Charlotte. Facts is facts.). I managed to see The Dandy Warhols twice this year. I saw the Avett Brothers. I saw Arcade Fire. The concert that sticks out? Bumbershoot. I blogged all about it in September. Everything I wrote there still applies.

Looking forward to a great 2011!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The 10 Best Albums of 2010

This blog has been updated less this year than last. Chalk it up to being busy. Truth be told, even when I have more time, I don't always have a topic ready to go. The one topic that I know will come every year, though? The 10 best albums of the year.

The usual disclaimers apply. This is me ranking the music I managed to hear. We're not made of money and time here. The way I see it, if it was worth hearing, I'd have heard about it from someone at some point. So, sure, there may be an amazing album not on here. But an amazing album unheard probably doesn't make it rank among the best.

I do listen to a lot of music. And to prove I'm not nuts, every pick here has a "second opinion" by someone who actually gets paid to listen to and discuss music. Let's begin, no?

2010 was a far better year for tunes than 2009. Many of last year's picks wouldn't have ranked with this year's crop, though looking back, I do still listen to most of last year's top 10. There were several "near misses" of this list, where last year I felt like I was pulling at straws. So, which missed?

Morning Benders - Big Echo

This was a nice album with some real gems (especially "All Day Day Light"), but... a 10-song album shouldn't feel so long, right? Still, a good disc.

Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

I had no idea South Florida had a real indie rock scene to speak of. Shows what I know. And thank the lord that someone out there decided they could just go out and make a guitar rock record. A refreshing disc that came out just as the new year hit.

Guster - Easy Wonderful

I guess we're talking about a band that hasn't put out anything less than amazing since I was heading into college. Songs like "On the Ocean" are just this band at it's absolute best. This one is a completely easy listen, but it seems to lack some of the emotional richness of the past several Guster albums. It is certainly missing even backing vocals by the rich-toned Adam Gardner. I, for one, missed those.

Local Natives - Gorilla Manor

I know so many people in love with this album. And it is very good. Yet, every time I listen to it - and this is not a fair comparison - I just want to hear new Fleet Foxes material (and, while their new disc is coming soon... anyone else amazed at how good that stuff still sounds?). Still, will be watching these guys.

Now, for the ones that did make the list:

10) Sleigh Bells - Treats

Second Opinion: Pitchfork

This one I almost left off. For me, this album was like one of those girlfriends from my early 20s: came out when I wasn't looking, was really intense and we spent every moment together... and then it fizzled out. And then months later when I ran back into her, it was nice to say hello, but everyone knows where the others' flaws are. That's this album. The high points are very high indeed... the opening stomp "Tell 'Em" and the makes-me-want-to-fight "Kids." But man, getting from there to the amazing "Rill Rill" gets old fast. The album closes strong, but there needed to be more variety in the tweaks and zaps. But, as music that is a step-ahead goes, it's in there for the listening.

9) Ra Ra Riot - The Orchard

Second Opinion: Pop Matters

The primary complaint I see on this disc is that it's not as good as the group's debut. That may be true, but 2008's The Rhumb Line was insanely good. Not hitting that bar of flat-out-incredible and still making a fantastic album doesn't mean you've failed (looking at you Pitchfork...). "Boy" and "Shadowcasting" are the clear standouts, but all tracks click well. "Too Dramatic" isn't, "You and I Know" makes me wish I was in the conversation and fine if the last two tracks don't deliver the same knockout punch of the first album. Whatever. What sealed this opinion up was Ra Ra Riot's tremendous Bumbershoot set where they managed to upstage the Space Needle looming just behind them. A broken drum early in the going would've ended many bands' sets. Instead, the band took to the drum-less title track of this album - which they admitted they hadn't rehearsed - and nailed it.

8) Vampire Weekend - Contra

Second opinion: The Guardian

This band, which, incidentally, sounds nothing like Ra Ra Riot, seemed to take a few cues from the combination of both bands - last year's Discovery. VW may not sound exactly like their self-described upper-west-side-Soweto anymore, but the energy remains. One of the easiest-to-listen to discs of the year, every song feels pretty effortless and occasionally remarkable. I'm not entirely sure what Exra Koenig is getting at in "Cousins" but whatever time he's planning on having, it's probably best if my teenage cousins don't attend. Despite the pearls-n-polo crap this band must put up with, here's hoping we see a third disc on this list in 2012.

7) Cee Lo Green - The Lady Killer

Second opinion: Entertainment Weekly

There is no one like Cee Lo in music. The Goodie Mob singer. The dark side of Gnarls Barkley. And now this. Everyone knows "Fuck You" - and thank heavens for that. Hope every person who ever balked at buying every last dinner for a girl he was dating feels somewhat vindicated for penny-pinching. Still, for an album with a marquee song, you could leave off Cee Lo's kiss-off to the golddiggers and still have a strong album. "Bright Lights Bigger City" just pounds its way into your skull, "Wildflower" is the man at his falsetto-y best and incase the mood gets too light, "Bodies" is there to remind us the "Cee" in the name might as well be for "cerebral." Great disc from a singer that is hopefully reaping rewards for nearly a decade of not-missing.

6) Broken Bells - Broken Bells

Second opinion: Rolling Stone

While Cee Lo was on his own, his Gnarls Barkley sidekick Danger Mouse paired up with Shins singer James Mercer and did what seemingly any Danger Mouse vehicle does: kick ass. Although, this kicks ass in a bit more calm manner than much of Gnarls' work. For instance, where in the world did "Your Head is on Fire" come from? And can I take it on as a second wife? Orchestration like this gets so many acts in trouble one way or another... and here we are, months after release, and it gives me chills. By the time I've recovered, "Trap Doors" is on and I'm a mess again. Honestly, the fact that this is #6 shows what a great year this was. Last year, it would've been top 3.

5) The National - High Violet

Second opinion: Pitchfork

I don't know what happened to Matt Berninger, the lead singer of this Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati outfit. But when he sings "I never thought about love when I thought about home" on "Bloodbuzz Ohio," I'm guessing his trips back to the Queen City aren't always filled with laughs. This disc shimmers through the pain, though. "Sorrow" might be one of the best songs of the year on any album, anywhere. This band does simple extremely well and hardly is it showcased better than on that sparse track. As the tension builds and Berninger sings "I don't want to get over you" - who hasn't been there? - a simple, but oh-so-amazing choral chord comes in. How such a seemingly-minor addition can make the song so relatable, I don't know. But The National knows how to do it.

4) Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love

Second Opinion: BBC

"I Didn't See it Coming" is the name of the first track. And I didn't. But it's brilliant and wonderful and so many superlatives that we could do an entire blog about it. And the album takes off. It's an album where you can point out greta moments throughout: the tremendous melodic bridge on "Calculating Bimbo," the raucous "I'm Not Living in the Real World" and the Norah Jones duet of "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John." All amazing. And we get to find out that Caery Mulligan is just as adorable in audio as she is on screen in the listen-over-and-over title track. B&S have plenty of struggles with faith and love on here... I hope they resolve them one day. But not at the expense of their music.

3) Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

Second opinion: Slant

There's a moment, maybe just shy of a minute into "Rhinestone Eyes" - the first track on the disc sung by mad-genius Damon Albarn - where you realize it: Gorillaz is for real. Yeah, the first album and catchy singles was creative, but in that cute kind of way. The second disc, more earnest in presentation, still had that side-project feel to things. It was good stuff, but nothing Handsome Boy Modeling School hadn't pushed a bit further (albeit on the hip-hop side). No more. Gorillaz is legit and killing it. A complete album end-to-end, Plastic Beach rounds up the right talent (and when you say that and mean Snoop Dogg is the lower end of the depth chart, it's saying something) and the right sounds to make a deft album that pokes a little at our current world (more on that in a sec). "Melancholy Hill" seems to sum it up best, but few should even think about skipping any of the nine tracks leading up to it.

2) Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Second Opinion: Spin

My. Dear. Lord. How wonderful is it to have high expectations for a band and not only have them met, but exceeded? The best rock record of the year is also the best Arcade Fire album. I just looked at the track list to pick some standouts... and failed miserably. How does one track stand out when they ALL stand out? So let's dig in: this is your world. How do you handle it? If you listen to Win Butler's take, you lament it. It's a cold world, where everyone gets teir news their own ways and needs it rightflippingnoworelse. Those that aim to step out into the open may be celebrated, but people immediately take swipes. On the incredible "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" Regine Chassagne opens with the telling line, "They heard me singing and told me to stop... quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock." That pretty much sums it up, adding the the view from on high is one where "shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains and there's no end in sight." A bland, corporate existence that has swept away the unique flavors... when differences weren't always accepted but still celebrated by the natives. The musicianship throughout is exceptional, up to the task of tackling the tough themes throughout. On "We Used to Wait," Butler looks at a society where the only time is now. Regine takes the reins again on "Empty Room" shouting out "When I'm by myself I can be myself!" In a time where everything looks the same, yet people break each other down into solely right and wrong, right and left and any number of dichotomies, The Suburbs could turn into a time capsule. And if it doesn't, it will always be amazing music.

1) Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Second opinion: Pitchfork

Kanye West's response to that sort of world? Live it the hell up, and cling to what you can count on. "No more drugs for me, pussy and religion is all I need," he chants on "Hell of a Life" to the tune of "Iron Man." And that song is likely the most simple on here. Say what you want about Kanye. Love him. Hate him. You cannot judge his music as anything but far beyond what anyone in any genre is doing. He takes insane risks. And pulls every one of them off. The end of "Blame Game" tells us in the most profane possible manner that "Yeezy taught me." So what has Yeezy taught us on his fifth album? That Nicki Minaj might actually be the "Monster" the song gets its title from. That he can take a Trent Reznor-style set of samples and tweaks and make the darkest piece of beautiful hip-hop that may have ever graced an iPod on "So Appalled." That he lacks no dance floor power on "All Of the Lights." That he knows what you think of him on "Runaway." And that he just doesn't give a damn that you do most of the time. The sampling, the lyrics, the orchestration... it's not only more creative than any other hip-hop artists, it's better than anyone else. Insecurity often manifests itself into tremendously creative art. Kanye said himself all those albums ago "we all insecure, I'm just the first to admit it." I'm not going to say Kanye is insane, but the man could probably use therapy. But I will say he treads a fine line... and damn if he doesn't make it work for him. This album is something that should make us stand back and stop. A gifted artist with plenty of personality quirks, but who is turning out music that no one else can pull off. Or even come close to. These songs challenge us. To get into his head and understand. To get past the televised foibles. To go beyond labeling Kanye as a rapper. And like Rolling Stone asked a few years ago in reviewing a different Kanye album, are you being arrogant if you're simply stating how good you really are?

Friday, November 26, 2010

2010's Sounds of the Season

Every year, as detailed last year, I put together a mix of holiday songs by rock bands. Let's face it, most holiday music lacks. If I'm going to have some holiday music in my home, I want it to be music I would invite in and offer a drink. But any scan of the usual holiday selections doesn't fit the bill.

As a household that heartily celebrates Chrismukkah, I always try to mix it up. Christmas songs are easy to find. I try to supplement that with some general winter songs (not hard) and some Hanukkah songs. That is becoming a challenge.

First of all, the idea here is to find bands people have heard of for the mix. There are plenty of Hanukkah rock songs, but many are by bands who no one knows. Also, and I'm allowed to say this because I'm Jewish... one would think with all the Levines and Schwartzs running around record label offices, we might have a decent new Hanukkah song every now and then. One would be wrong.

But I digress...

Anyhow, after trolling iTunes and other venues, here are this year's selections:

1) Weezer - We Wish You a Merry Christmas
2) Jet - Back Door Santa
3) The Killers - Happy Birthday Guadalupe
4) Huffamoose - Hanukkah and Christmas Hand in Hand
5) U2 - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
6) Sarah McLachlan - Happy Xmas (War is Over)
7) Pete Yorn - Do They Know It's Christmas
8) Collective Soul - Blue Christmas
9) Julian Casablancas - I Wish It Was Christmas Today
10) Band of Horses - The First Song
11) Jack Johnson - Someday at Christmas
12) R.E.M. - Merry Xmas Everybody
13) Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Christmas All Over Again
14) Belle and Sebastian - O Come, O Come Emmanuel
15) Tori Amos - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
16) Billy Mack (aka Bill Nighy) - Christmas is All Around

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The country leans right. No, I mean geographically.

Ever have something you don't believe in until you see it? I mean something you absolutely deny exists until it's handed to you on a platter?

I always thought the "East Coast Bias" was a myth.

It's not.

By the time I had dinner last night, the news stories I was seeing linked to on Twitter (I didn't watch any TV coverage of the election as I don't want to support the blowhard pundits on either side) were speaking in broad strokes about the election results and what great changes were upon us and blah blah blah and...

...polls were still open here. And in Oregon. And in California. And in Colorado. And in Nevada...

It warrants pointing out that democrats won Senate seats (or appear to have) in all of those states. Some of them heavily contested. But the news was all over the results on the East Coast first and painting trends in broad brushstrokes. I imagine someone on TV, at some point, had some throwaway line about "Well, we'll see what's going to happen out west," before launching into another 22-minute yelling-fest that didn't even take the west into account.

I wonder what the narrative would've been if the night had opened with western polls closing first and the string of democrat wins? I'd like to say things would have been more reserved, but I doubt it. Years of watching TV has me convinced it would have been written off as "those left coast liberals," likely uttered by someone who maybe once traveled to LA or something.

Sports, too. In July, I attended a San Francisco Giants game this year. The Giants were 1) in second place, trying to find their way and 2) playing on a COLD night where vendors walked around with hot chocolate and people were wrapped in blankets. IN JULY. On a Wednesday night.

I tell you I have never been to a rowdier regular season baseball game. It was packed. The fans were into the game all night from the opening pitch to the last.

And yet, as the baseball playoffs dawned, I had to hear reports about how San Fran "isn't all that great of a baseball town."

Perhaps if a few of these sports experts in places like Florida wanted to stay up past their bedtimes, they might know better.

These are just two examples, but I could go on. There are examples in news and sports almost daily.

I'm not saying this is all bad. After all, while TV lines up sports to air to meet that big east coast audience, I get to watch the end of the "late" game and go have dinner. And, to the election, while everyone was all atwitter (fine, pun intended...) about the election, I was able to sit and look at a larger view and be much more calm about things.

It's just funny that after years of denying there was such a thing as a bias toward the east coast, it has taken less than a year out here to see how much it really exists.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Time of the Season

Fall has long been my favorite time of year. I love all seasons, but there's something about fall... maybe the invigorating crisp air. Maybe the sound of the band playing in the background during college football games. Maybe it's just the leaves turning.

I'm extra excited this year because, for the first time since departing New York City in 2005, I have a real fall to enjoy. After five years of wondering if I need to put shorts on for Thanksgiving dinner in North Carolina, the weather in Seattle is gloriously stereotypical fall. The leaves are turning, I can see my breath the moment the sun goes away. Fall isn't a group of decorations here. I've already worn several sweaters this fall. Amazing.

I think one reason I love the season, though, is the smells. This happens outside with the cool air, the wet fallen leaves and the like. But inside, especially in our home, is where things go to another level.

My wife is a fantastic cook and this time of year means soups and stews that just don't seem to be in place in the summer. But I'll let her blog about that if she chooses.

Me? I bake. For all the football watching and carrying on, I spend a good chunk of every weekend with a Kitchen-Aid mixer and my hands covered in some manner of flour. This started when I was about two years old and mom would bake cookies. Tell me there's something more exciting for a child of that age than cookies.

After years of watching her bake, I started doing my own. You'd be surprised how baking something in a college dorm can get you a crowd. Or the reaction making a girlfriend in New York her own birthday cake can get you. Mothers, teach your sons to bake... but I digress...

Anyhow, fall is probably my favorite time of year to bake. Because you really have the full battery of ingredients at your service. Plus, the smells of spices in things just, you know, work well for this season.

The fun started here a few weeks ago when Sarah whipped up the first batch of pumpkin bread. I followed suit with "Harvest Pumpkin Bars" from King Arthur Flour's compendium. Google them now if you aren't familiar. King Arthur cookbooks are great not only for recipes, but also for the chemistry of baking. Read up and you find their recipes very easy to tweak to your own tastes. One of those tweaks, swapping a fraction of regular white flour with whole wheat flour, is something I do all year, but fall recipes are extremely well-suited to the swap. The usual effect of using some whole wheat is a darker color. Fall baking products are already dark.

This month has featured spice sugar cookies and, just now, I whipped up a batch of molasses cookies. Gingerbread, possibly my seasonal favorite, will be coming along soon enough.

I may one day, years from now, choose to open a bakery somewhere. Wherever it is, it will be in a place with a real fall season. I could say this is because people want these recipes in the fall, but I have to admit, it's totally selfish. I love this time of year and the foods that come with it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Making Things Whole

Several months ago, I wrote about the kinds of food we eat. Here we are in the waning days of October and I am proud to say six months later that Sarah and I made some changes... and observed some things along the way.

Essentially, we decided that when cooking at home, we'd try to use whole foods as much as possible. The lower case whole foods, meaning foods that haven't been refined/processed as much as possible. We said we'd start one meal at a time. So breakfast is where things start.

This turned out to be easy. It mainly involved ditching the store-bought cereals with all manner of additives, preservatives and other stuff that I cannot pronounce and, once a week, making our own oat-based granola cereal using unrefined ingredients. I was already baking my own bread, so shifting to whole wheat bread was a snap. For two people who enjoy baking and cooking, none of this seemed like a chore. And mt breakfast didn't really change. I always have cereal and toast. On weekends, we were also easily able to make the transition. Oatmeal? Already a whole food. Pancakes? Easy to whip up with unprocessed ingredients.

We've since extended this into dinner, which, truth be told, we were already pretty close to going unprocessed anyway. The full switch required tweaking a few ingredients. Lunch became easy, too. Leftovers from dinner passed the bill and when I come home, sandwiches made with our homemade bread, fresh cheese, farmers market-purchased produce... this was a snap!

I should note that I'm not being a total Nazi about this... unbleached white flour still gets used here and there. Many of my baking recipes won't work with an equal substitution of whole wheat flour, for instance. Yet, I've found a way to incorporate some of the "good" flour without hurting the quality of the crumb and the taste of my wares. But, I am using butter and not margarine. I'm making sure my ingredients are the real stuff.

As for eating out... seriously, how sad would life be if I completely wrote off every processed item? Too many good meals to have. If I'm eating well at home, I'm several steps ahead of the game. It's like switching your outside lights to CFLs... it's a nice percentage of use you're affecting with your choice.

So, a funny thing happened in doing this: I'm full. I used to struggle to get to lunch every day in the office. I would feel hungry and restless. I kept snacks in a drawer. Now, I'm easily making it to lunch. After dinner, we're having something we've baked or homemade ice cream. We might have popcorn some nights, but eating is way down. Yet I am satisfied.

Also, it's finally forced me to eat more fruits and veggies. I can barely cope without my grapes at lunch now. And getting my fructose there instead of from... pretty much every supermarket processed food seems to work.

Sure, this makes our cupboards more boring. The Trader Joe's dunkers I couldn't stop eating? Gone in favor of homemade cookies that I can identify what went into them. Crackers? You'd be surprised the crap that's in "organic" mass marketed boxes of crackers. I found a brand that takes the chance that I might actually eat the crackers quickly so they don't add tons of weird preservatives. They have five ingredients: flour, salt, oil, water, spices. And I'm starting to experiment with making my own.

When we first talked about doing this, we thought it might be tough. I've been amazed at just how easy it has been. And, before you ask... I'm spending no more at the store than I used to.

The theory behind all this is that maybe it will lead to a healthier me down the line. And who knows... maybe I could be chowing down on Cheetos right now, gulping corn-syrup-loaded sodas and live to be 90. It could all go boom tomorrow and my diet won't matter.

But, I can take some solace in that I'm not turning a blind eye to what's in my food. I know what I eat. I generally know what my food has been through before coming to my plate. I can be accountable for it all.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Pains of Enduring an NFL Broadcast

Confession: I love the NFL. It's a perfect sport... a short season where every game is meaningful, where macho players sooner or later are felled by injury or failure, where nearly every game can turn on one great play.

The funny thing, though, is that football has become much better to watch at home than in the stadium. Seeing a game in person is always fun, but you're often surrounded by strange drunken louts. At home, you can be around drunken louts you know, which is always a better option. Plus, at home the food/beer is much cheaper and there's no traffic to fight.

Also: TV has football covered fantastically. Every camera angle in HD makes you feel like you've got a seat in every part of the stadium. And, with DVR, you can decide when you want a reply.

The problem, friends, is a great deal of the announcers just plain stink. I'm not talking about the loudmouth studio shows. It goes without saying those are a waste of your time. I mean what we have to endure during the games. Because, too often, it sounds like this:

That was a game from last year. In the first week. Now, granted, it was a cool play to end the game. But Gus Johnson makes it sound like he just conjured gold from thin air. His level of excitement in no way matches the context of the game. Nothing was at stake. In fact, the loser of this game (the Bengals) made the playoffs last year, despite the "amazing" play. The Broncos did not.

Now, let's see how it should be done. Bear in mind, what you have here is a radio call so more words are required by default:

That play happened in the SUPER BOWL. Where the Giants had a broken play (their QB was nearly sacked) on a long third down where, if they failed, with little time remaining, they would've likely lost the Super Bowl to the undefeated New England Patriots. Instead, David Tyree made a ridiculous catch that he barely held on to. Anyone watching the game who knew all the context was aware they may had just seen a play that could turn the entire game (it did. The Giants scored to win shortly after that catch) and possibly a play people would remember for years because it ended New England's "perfect season" (and that has come to be).

Marv Albert gets excited in that call, but only within the bounds of the moment's context. And he doesn't sound like a yelling idiot like Gus Johnson.

Anymore, announcers try to make themselves part of the game. It slays me. And good announcers (like Fox's Sam Rosen) get buried on lower tier games. It makes no sense.

In my mind, Pat Summerall, for all his alcoholic foibles, was the ideal football announcer. Low voice, reasonably monotone. His calls went like this: "Montana. Rice. Touchdown." That was the whole play. He let the game take center stage, the sound of the crowd booming into your living room. If Fox's Joe Buck were calling games in the 1980s the way he doe snow, the same play would be filled with whatever drama Buck wants to add on his own. He'd preface it with some hyperbole "And it looks like this is going to be it right here... one play." Then he'd get overly excited "Montana LOOKING DEEP... AND HE HAS RICE!!!!"

Yes, thanks, Joe. I can SEE that.

My dream? I want HBO to bid for Monday Night Football... take it away from ESPN. This won't happen, because HBO is too smart to spend a billion dollars to broadcast one football game each week. But in my mind's fantasy land, they do. The move game time to 8 p.m. Eastern. They go commercial-free to eliminate TV time outs. And they hire Marv Albert and pair him with Dan Dierdorf and they just call a nice and easy game.

But, alas. I'm stuck with loudmouths. There are beacons of hope... Mr. Rosen, Greg Gumbel and Dick Enberg still call a good game. Dick Stockton and Marv's son Kenny are pretty good.

Otherwise, it's a sea of loudmouths. Please make it stop.

Friday, September 10, 2010

About 9/11

On Sept. 11, 2001, my train from Trenton, NJ to New York City was running early. I could barely believe it. I was in Penn Station around 8 a.m. and I walked into my office at 5th Ave. and 26th St. at about 8:20 a.m. When I crossed 6th Ave. on my walk, I did my usual look down the street, my only view of the Twin Towers from Manhattan every day. It was a beautiful day.

Sometime around 4 p.m., when my very-delayed train got back to Trenton, the board with the train schedule was flashing with an advisory that PATH service was suspended “due to fire at World Trade Center.” Oh, if it had only been a fire…

I can remember a lot of things about that day. I remember standing on 6th Ave. at about 9 a.m. with hundreds of others just staring in disbelief. I remember making a decision with my coworkers to leave the apartment we were in watching events unfold and walk to the Hudson River as there was nothing to blow up at the River. I remember someone announcing to a boat-full of passengers in Hoboken that anyone who was on board from below Canal St. had to go and be “decontaminated,” a term that meant get hit with hoses and handed a large towel to wrap around you for your train ride home.

In retrospect, what I remember more than anything was just being sad. And I mean everyone. I was sad. My friends and coworkers were sad. The Muslim woman standing in front of me on the train was sad. Because nothing like that had ever happened. Even watching the burning towers at 9 a.m., no one thought it would be the last time they saw the Twin Towers.

The funny thing… I don’t remember being angry. I certainly didn’t think we deserved to be attacked. But, apparently, lots of people were angry. Many of them from places far from New York. The same people who complain that New York thinks it’s the center of the world. As we hit the 9th anniversary of the attacks, the only thing I’m angry about is that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation decided to pick the most drab plan to rebuilt as possible (I’m still partial to the THINK Design proposal…).

But apparently, “Ground Zero” has become hallowed land to people who probably would hate just about anything in New York a block away from the site. And, boy… people are angry. It’s to the point that people who have never had any interest in the City are trying to dictate a local zoning issue from afar.

In protesting the proposed Islamic community center, we have people getting involved in a local issue that they rail against when the federal government tries to do lesser things in their local communities. Hell, one guy wanted to burn Qur’ans unless he got a private phone call from the imam who is pushing the project.

I know that some New Yorkers are anti-mosque. But I cannot help but wonder where these people were on 9/11. Were they shut inside their Upper West Side condos, far from the bustle of the city on even a normal day? They certainly weren’t on my train where seemingly one of just about everyone was there. Where were these New Yorkers in the days after the attacks when the city’s transit hubs were papered with somber “missing” posters with pictures of people from every ethnic group possible who never made the trip home from their World Trade Center jobs that Tuesday.

Where were these people when the Sikhs, one of the most peaceful sects in the world, had to hand out glossy printed brochures at the entrance to Penn Station informing people they were NOT terrorists simply because they had brown skin and wore turbans (attacks or harassment against Sikhs had been popping up).

Imagine having to print a brochure to tell other Americans you’re really a nice guy and don’t want to kill them.

I guess these angry folks didn’t see any of that. But this 9/11, as I reflect, I also find myself sad yet again. Because 9/11 has been hijacked by people who, despite not being anywhere near a collapsed building or people covered in eerie white dust waiting in line for a boat, believe it is a tool to fuel American extremism. They believe this to the point that they want to exclude a group of Americans from doing something a few blocks away.

To me, if that aim is met, there will have been another act of extremist terrorism upon New York. Because Muslims died in those attacks. As did Jews. And Christians. So if we’re going to exclude any of those groups, then shouldn’t they all have to go?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A day outside... Bumbershoot 2010

I had been pretty psyched all week for Bumbershoot. And, for once, it was something that lived up to the hype.

Now, I've been to my share of outdoor concert festivals. But this one was different. First, most don't take place around a well-known landmark. Bumbershoot is set up in the Seattle Center, which, to all of you from outside the Puget Sound area, means the Space Needle. From many of the event's stages, you have a full view of the Space Needle. Which is cool.

A few other things that make this unique:

  • Re-entry privileges. I watched two bands this afternoon (more on that in a bit), got my ticket and hand stamped, and went home. Where I ate my food and drank my beer. Granted, if I didn't live a stone's throw from the Seattle Center, I couldn't have done this, but it made a gigantic difference. Instead of spending a day on my feet eating overpriced greasy food, I was able to go home and sit on a real couch in between bands I wanted to see.
  • You can bring stuff in. Mainly water. Which, again, standing in a crowded field all day watching a band gets you thirsty. And I could bring in my water.
  • The "economy" ticket. For $50, you get a one-day ticket (it's a three-day festival) that grants you access to the Mainstage. Tonight, the mainstage was Rise Against, Hole and Weezer. I didn't want to see any of those bands. I wanted to see smaller bands on smaller stages. Bumbershoot allows this via an "economy" ticket. Brilliant.
So what did my economy ticket get me today? Here's the rundown:

  • Horse Feathers - Portland, OR-based four-piece. Violin, Cello, Guitar and Banjo. And they were outstanding. They have the "Fleet Foxes harmonies" going on. Elegant songs, though, I felt more suited to a cool evening than standing in the warm sun.
  • Hey Marseilles - Seattle-based I-don't-know-how-many-piece. They were a flipping army on stage. Strings, guitars, all kinds of drums. Horns. They were incredible. All kinds of layers to their songs. I'm definitely going to check out their album To Travels & Trunks.
  • Ra Ra Riot - I have had this Syracuse outfit on my "must-see" list since their first album and their latest, The Orchard, did nothing but enhance my desire to see them. Just amazing. So well rehearsed and so energetic. It was hard to pick a high point of their set, but there were several. A song from their first disc "Ghost Under Rocks" was intense as you might expect a song at least partially about the drowning death of a former band member to be. Songs like "Shadowcaster" from the new album were also excellent. Go see this band.
  • The Dandy Warhols - My fourth time seeing the Portland, OR masters. They never disappoint. They have such a deep catalog and they can put together a set for whatever crowd they need. With the larger festival crowd, they stuck to material that most people would know instead of some of their deeper tracks that you might get at a show they headline on their own. They were in great form, as always... just wish the rules of the show had let them play another hour!
A grand day... all for $22. Already looking forward to Bumbershoot 2011!

Friday, September 3, 2010


No surprise here but in the six months I've had my Kindle, I hear the occasional argument of "Oh, well, I read real books," as though there is an intellectual preference to do so. You and I might both read Anna Karenina, in other words, but since you read a "real" book and I read it on my Kindle, somehow, your experience is superior to mine.

This sort of thing has to stop. Unless Tolstoy intended for you to be taken by the sheer weight of the volume (dear lord, it is a bit long, no?), who cares how you read it? And fine, you read a "real" book. Let me go find someone who read a "real" copy of the book. In Cyrillic. Then, where are you, huh?

The point is nowadays we all have different ways of consuming media. Is one so far superior to another?

This is hardly a new issue. I spent many a day in high school in ridiculous conversations that went like this:

Some guy: What are you listening to?

Me: Smashing Pumpkins.

Some guy: What album?

Me: Siamese Dream.

Some guy: Oh. I won't even listen to anything they did after Gish. That was when they were for real.

Dude, whatever. At least that's what I should have said at the time. Or "Gee, thanks for wowing me with your clearly superior taste in music and well-reasoned fandom of The Smashing Pumpkins."

I remember conversations where people were basically told they were some sort of lesser fan because they hadn't been there from some ambiguous point back-in-the-day.

Sports is the same way. The first question I get about half the time when I tell people I'm a Yankees fan is "since when?" They assume I'm just on the bandwagon. When I respond with "Long enough to have seen Mike Pagliarulo play in person," they seem to get the picture. But again, why the attempt to lessen my fandom?

Why do some people have a desire to be superior for some nebulous reason? I chalk it up to good old-fashioned American insecurity. Maybe it's some sort of carryover from the long trend of the "New World" trying to prove itself as culturally equal to Old World standbys. One would think years of literature, cultural influence and a few major wars would've taken care of that.

Yet here we are. Each of us trying to one-up someone else for some imaginary crown.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Insomnia everywhere

Almost without fail, when I check Twitter at night, I see one of my friends noting that they cannot sleep. I've noticed it even more since moving to the west coast since when I'm lounging on the couch, my east coast friends are already in bed.

Or should be.

And it's not me seeing them make updates and then interpreting it as insomnia. These folks actually discuss how they have insomnia.

And I can't help but wonder... why?

You have to understand that my average night involves me fading quickly into sleep once the 11 o'clock hour hits. I sleep like crazy. I sleep through just about anything. My wife stays up far later than me, but I would stay up later, too, if I had her schedule. I'm up at 6:15 every morning. She gets at least two more hours of sleep. Bottom line, though... neither of us are struggling to get our 40 winks.

Many of our friends are, though.

I am neither a doctor, nor a psychologist. But I don't think you need to be one to know that the inability to fall asleep cannot be healthy. From a standpoint of pure disease prevention, I know that when I've had a series of early mornings for a week, I can start to feel my throat get sore. And then I sleep. And away it goes. I almost never get sick. And while I think a healthy lifestyle has something to do with this, it can't hurt that I sleep well.

And in my non-professional capacity, I cannot say for sure why my friends are unable to sleep. But, of course, I have two theories.

The first is simple... anxiety. The time in my life I couldn't sleep was years ago and related to a specific stressful situation. I tossed and turned. I would wake up with a sore jaw from grinding my teeth. And the remarkable thing was that as soon as the situation was resolved, I went back to sleeping normally.

Certainly there is a significant amount of societal anxiety right now. The economy is odd and it seems to be dawning on people that there may not be a simple solution to that issue. Many are under pressure at jobs. Many are likely seeing plans on hold due to their financial situations. I can understand that. But for these folks, I would hope they could find a way to find a contentedness with their lots for the time being. As one of my favorite fictional characters once said... "Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything."

The second theory I have is much more complicated and speaks more to our Gen Y culture's outlook than anything else. These people do too much. I could make a list of friends that spend their days at work, then the gym, then a class, then meeting friends, then doing 10 other things - performing, writing, teaching, speaking, you name it...

And I think when these folks start trying to do 10,000 different things, their minds never really relax. I have a ton on my mind about work every day. And a ton on my mind about life at home every day. And those are both two things I enjoy greatly. But I cannot imagine having something else on top of it.

Actually, I can... and when there is something else, I'm almost a mess. When we were preparing to move across the country I was extremely stressed out. And, certainly, I didn't sleep well. Why would I choose to get involved any any other pursuits that could do the same to me - something I would only be able to care too much about - voluntarily?

Yet, I see a ton of my friends doing this. There are folks I know who love their jobs, love their spouses... but spend hours of anxiety about something they took on themselves.

I'm not saying go to work, then go home. Each of us needs hobbies. But shouldn't the point of those be to de-stress? I love hiking. I bake. Now and then I sing. And I work hard at all of them, but not a one of those activities causes me an iota of anxiety about life.

I have friends who have taken on hobbies and pursuits that they claim to enjoy... but it's clear that they are giving themselves a whole new source of stress.

And I fear it could start to catch up with them.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Taking the stress out of air travel

I spend a lot of time on the road. And this leads to any number moments where I complain about clueless travelers, crowded airports and other hilarity.

I realized I haven't relayed a lot of the things that can make your day of travel better... and maybe even help make those around you get where they're going more smoothly. I am hardly the be-all-end-all of travel advice, but I've found a few practical things to be very helpful.

  • Packing - I have no major packing tips. I stuff socks in my shoes. I fold, but I know that anywhere I go will have an iron. And when my trip involves multiple cities, I totally recycle a shirt. I'm not some slob that gets every shirt dirty every day. Big ground rule... if I think I might need something, I usually don't pack it. For example, I might need my swim trunks. I can think of exactly one business trip in my life where they've been used. Leave 'em. Hanging at the pool with coworkers can be done in any attire.
  • Check in the night before. This should go without saying. If you cannot, please don't look confounded by the check-in kiosks. You're gonna need to swipe a credit card. It won't charge you... I promise. You might need to know your confirmation number. Generally, if you have a smart phone of any description it's not so hard to simply put this next to the calendar entry for your flight.
  • Phone numbers - primarily your airline's number. Landed late and you know you missed your connection? Don't scramble around the airport like the world is ending. Call your airline as soon as you land. Which brings us to...
  • Be nice. I imagine every customer service rep has a bad day every day. But airline customer service reps have to deal with tears, rage, stupidity and more... every 10 minutes or so. Even the ones not getting yelled at are dealing with some guy who walks up to the gate counter every five minutes to ask if his upgrade came through. Smile. Tell the person helping you that you know it's not their personal fault your plans are screwed. I've had people bend over backwards to help me, just by being nice.
  • If you really want to get good customer service, know a little bit about the airline industry. You stuck in an airport loses the airline money whether they compensate with cash or not. They have to give you a seat they could otherwise sell. Provide them with solutions. A friend was sitting at JFK trying to fly south to Charlotte. Her flight kept getting delayed (mechanical reasons) and cancellation was looming. The airline, faced with having to rebook nearly 200 angry passengers was more than happy to switch her to a flight out of LaGuardia the same night when they were asked.
  • Store your smaller bag under the seat in front of you. Yeah, I know. Wouldn't it be great to have more legroom? If so, drive. You're on a plane. Do not put your purse up in the overhead when people have actual bags that can go there. When people put laptop bags and the like up top, other people stand around looking confounded... and that holds up the plane leaving on time. Also, once you're airborne, you can slide the bag out and place it under your knees... and discover all the legroom you wanted.
  • If at all possible, don't roll your suitcase down the aisle. Carry it the 40 feet to the jetway. Trust me.
  • Security - The TSA has a lot of rules. One of them is not wait until you're at the metal detector to take out your toiletries/take off your shoes. Have your things in accessible places and have them ready.
  • Book smart. What I mean is, if you have a choice of connection cities, it's almost always a smoother connection the farther west your connection is (note: does not apply to O'Hare). Up north, congested airports can mean any number of issues with making your connection... congestion of air traffic and weather are conspiring against you making the switch at Logan, Philly and any NYC airport. Airports like Charlotte, Denver, Houston, Phoenix, Salt Lake, Cleveland, Memphis, Minneapolis... these are massive, multi-runway airports that can handle incoming and outgoing planes in ways that antiquated airports in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cannot.
Beyond these, I would advise any traveler to simply be patient. Millions of people fly every day. Moving millions of people around up in the sky is no easy task... especially if we want everyone to survive the trip.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I drive a Camry. Probably will for a lot longer, too. You don't buy a Toyota because you want a four-year car. You buy a Toyota Camry because you want a reliable car. And you know, not only that, but my Camry is quiet. It has 6-cylinder giddyup in a 4-cylinder engine. It gets 600 miles to the damn tank at highway speed. The worst problem it ever had was needing a new battery.

You could say I am not one to go overboard about a car. And then I got to LAX last night.

I take whatever car Avis gives me on business trips unless it is an atrocity (looking at you PT Cruiser...). If asked, I prefer a car with satellite radio, sun roof and, if in the Northeast, EZPass.

Last night, at LAX, I had a convertible Sebring waiting for me. Tonight, I decided to see what that was really like.

After a looooong day of work throughout Southern California (picture filming, in the desert, in searing heat, in dress clothes and then still having to drive to LA), I met a friend for dinner downtown. A significant side effect of this dinner: rush hour traffic went away.

So, as I got my car from the parking deck, I knew the following and carefully took each into account:

  • I had a convertible
  • It was still light out
  • I had, in all likelihood, no traffic in front of me
  • I had 55 miles to drive
Folks. FOLKS. I hit the 60 freeway with the roof down and a damned smile. Let's face it. California wasn't built to be taken in by train or bus. It was built to be taken in at high speed, the silhouette of the San Gabriel Mountains framing the horizon as you zoom down the freeway.

It's funny. I love my quiet car. Driving a convertible at highway speed is not quiet. In fact, on a 10-lane freeway, it's loud. Cars passing are even louder.

But with XM satellite radio booming, who cares? They were even playing the songs I wanted to hear. It was the single planetary alignment of perfect driving conditions in the one place in the USA where, when driving conditions are perfect (read: the mess of Southern California freeways), it's flipping brilliant.

I basically had my own personal roller coaster for the better part of an hour.

And what's interesting: blind spots in a convertible suck. Until the top is down. Then you can see everything.

Last March, I made almost the identical drive from LA to Riverside at the height of rush hour. It was misery. I was in an unruly SUV in stacked up LA traffic the whole way to the Inland Empire (which is neither inland, nor an empire... discuss). Tonight, was the polar opposite.

Don't believe in karma? You clearly weren't in the passenger seat tonight.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Hiking Ira Springs Trail to Bandera Mountain

Since moving to the Northwest, Sarah and I have been doing all we to explore out new neck of the woods. We're trying to explore all Seattle has to offer (and maybe at least learn whether Spring St. or Seneca St. comes first when traveling through downtown).

And, as you might expect, I've been trying to take advantage of hiking in this area since you can barely drive 10 miles without passing a trailhead. Sarah has been going with me on a few of them as we're both gearing up for an August trip up Mt. Katahdin back east.

Knowing that Katahdin is a 4,000-foot ascent, I decided it would be wise of me to start going uphill on some hikes. Since moving to Seattle I've has some steep climbs up to the Rattlesnake Ledges and at Wallace Falls State Park.

But I hadn't done anything that was a true mountain hike, going out above the timber line into exposed areas and all the trimmings.

That changed today, when I walked up Bandera Mountain, a 5,100-foot mountain near Snoqualmie Pass. The trail is a 3-mile route to a "false summit" (the actual summit is much harder to reach and not much higher), ascending 3,000 feet in the process. Let's remember that fact.

Why this trail? According to my trail guide... "views south the Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams." And, the weather people said that the clouds would burn off this morning and we'd have a beautiful day the rest of the way.

So, I was pretty undaunted by the clouds on my drive out to Snoqualmie in the late morning. In fact, as I was driving, the sun was starting to peek through from time to time. I drove down the USFS road (past an active logging operation, by the way) thinking my timing would be right on... that I would arrive at the summit and be welcomed by sunshine and views. I dug into the Ira Springs Trail.

An old friend used to describe some mountain hikes as "uphill hikes." Granted, when you are climbing a mountain, they're all uphill, right? Honestly, the 2,000-foot walk up Grandfather Mountain in NC felt flat compared to say, Overlook Mountain in the Catskills. And Bandera, it needs to be known, is an uphill hike.

But it starts off pretty easily. Past some lovely views of the Snoqualmie Valley... and where I could see the clouds still stubbornly scraping the tops of surrounding mountains. Let's go sunshine. Get it done.

Now, the trail guide says "ascend steeply." That pretty much captured the way of things from 0.5 miles to a trail junction at 2 miles. There, the trail guide says, "begin climbing a trail that could use steps and ladders."

Bear in mind, I'm well out of trees and into a field of brush and large talus (read: boulders). And, this is going to sound insane, but looking up the trail is basically just looking up. The stairway in your home is less steeply pitched than some of the spots on this trail. No really:
That's looking to the side, so I was hiking up that pitch. Oh! And see that fog? Yeah, at this level, I was actually within the clouds that didn't burn off. When the wind blew, I am willing to guarantee the pitch of the hill was made up of more degrees than the temperature.

I honestly have no idea how people were climbing this without telescoping trekking poles. It was no picnic with them and I am sure I couldn't have done it without them.

So I reach the ridgeline after the toughest climb of my hiking career. No view to speak of, but... there was snow. Oh yes, friends, on July 5, 2010, I touched snow in the northern hemisphere.

I do wish I could have had the nice view. I mean do a Google image search of Bandera Mountain and it gets pretty cool pretty quickly.

But the toughest thing about this hike... and the one I would tell anyone reading who might hike this trail (and judging by the comments from the last time I blogged a tough hike now and then some of those people read this blog): be prepared for descending the trail from the summit. The talus field is not overly difficult, but it's not a forgiving place... miss a step and, from what I could tell in the gloomy fog anyhow, it could be a few hundred feet of rolling before you stop. Again, without my poles, no idea how I would've coped.

Also, the tough climb is one of the most exposed places I've been. If I hadn't had extra layers, hypothermia wasn't out of the question. If the sun had been out, it would've been an easy sunburn. Be prepared for that.

Still, I have to say that as I was climbing, I kept asking myself if it was really worth it. Now, back in Seattle on my couch (where there, it must be noted, isn't a cloud in the sky and the sun is literally in my eyes), I would love to go back and do this hike again. And I likely will.

Just hope I can take the sun with me this time.