The Fool’s Guide to Wine-Tasting

wine_bottle_glassThe first skill of any successful wine connoisseur necessitates the ability to speak the lingo or at least French. I reason that people are more likely to tell you what you’re suppose to taste if can correctly pronounce the label. This in turn allows the fake connoisseur to easily impress his or her friends while still having little to no idea about which you are talking. Take for instance Saturday’s wine tasting party at one of the local colleges, a lavish affair full of wine merchants and connoisseurs alike, the perfect setting to test my use of the vernacular:

“Yes, this particular white possesses a good finish with an oaky flavor, cultured for years by the French who as you well know, know wine,” the attendant laughed, after I had correctly pronounced Viognier. Vee-oh-nay.

“Oh yes, that is oaky,” I tell Mom and Tiff with a sip.  “I can taste the oak.”

“Can you?” Mom asks.  “Is that the sharp bitter taste?  Is that the oak?”

“Uh . . . sure,” I shrug.

“I don’t know about trees,” Tiff scowls, “but this definitely tastes like unwashed Frenchmen. Next table!”

Tiffany’s aim for the evening – apart from making goo-goo eyes at the chocolate fountain – which I had seen first and thus claim dibs – was to locate a brand of white wine as sweet and drinkable as Linganorre’s Mountain White.  In her efforts to locate said brand the countless sampling had induced a fit of intense giggling, which Mom echoed, much like a mother loon cooing over her child’s first manic dive into the water.

Station 5 featured two white wines and a Merlot, which Mom sampled.  Tiff chose the cabernet, while I sought the subtlety of the Pinot Grigio.

“And you sir?”

“Yes, can I have a bit of the Grigio, please?”  I said this nonchalantly, well-practiced in my wine-merchant slang, certain that the attending seller would immediately sense that cultured air – or at least the reek of wino.  Possibly he would proffer a full glass instead of the usual sampling to reward me.

“Excuse me?”

“The Grigio.  The Pinot Grigio,” My use of the vernacular was perfect.  I ordered my wine with suave charm, a Yankee-born Sean Connery introducing himself as the world’s foremost secret agent.  In true Bond style, I tried to straighten my tie but, upon finding none, feigned a neck rash.

“Uh . . . we don’t have any Pinot Grigio here.  Only a Pinot Noir . . . Um, sir, do you need some ointment?”

“Oh no, no, I’m.fine.  Just a bug bite.  You say pinot noir?”

“Yes, would you like a sample?”

“Um, sure,” I fumble.  My eyes glazed a little, refocusing on a spot just to the right of the man’s ear. “Musta’ve read the label . . . wrong.  That’s red, right?”

“Yes, sir,” the server smiled.  “Dry but an excellent wine.  This particular winery has been growing grapes for nearly fifty years in Napa Valley.”  He poured me a hearty glass – perhaps out of pity – and turned his attention to another taster.

Humbled, my feet shuffle me over to the girls, who naively – and effectively – decided their next selection solely on the color.

“What is that you’re have, Murph?” Mom asked while Tiff finished off her sample, coughing.

wine_basket“Oh some pinot noir,” I shrugged sipping slowly, rinsing away the unpleasant taste of humble pie.  “It’s not bad.  Dry though, not a lot of taste.”  That guy in the movie Sideways waxed poetry about pinot noir; therefore, until inspired or drunk, I would uncover its secrets.

“Ugh . . .” Tiff moaned.  “Like sandpaper in the throat.  I think I need a chocolate fountain to wash this down.  If only we had one near . . . oh, there she blows!*”  [NOTE: This last phrase was in truth not uttered at all but is merely the product of interpreting the speaker’s squeals (Kyaaa!) and the author’s latest literary excursion through the works of Herman Melville.]

My sister-in-law scampered off to cavort among the strawberries and pound cake, piled near the fountain.  Pat had joined us again when she returned, her cheeks full with chocolate-dunked fruit, her chin adorned with a chocolate-goatee.

“They turned the fountain off.  It’s just a chocolate pool now.  I had trouble dipping the pound cake without causing any to crumble,” Tiff said, stabbing a piece of chocolate-coated cake with her skewer.  “But if you pierce it lengthwise, directly in the center, all is good . . .”

Pat and I discovered the entrance to the kitchen and positioned ourselves appropriately in front, like roadside bandits lying in ambush.  Quickly we relieved our servers of their dainties: barbequed pineapple-chicken, steamed shrimp and peppers, spinach pasties, and warm asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.  Using complimentary glass clips, we attached our wine glasses to our plates as we walked around, giving Dad the opportunity to talk to some clients.  Mom sampled some cheeses that supposedly enhanced the taste of her merlot.

clip“Hey hon,” Pat said turning to Tiff.  “Do you want some che . . . uh, what are you doing?”  My sister-in-law was sucking on her glass clip.

“Awhaaa,” she laughed, re-attaching her clip.  “Some chocolate fell on it.  I was just cleaning it off.  Hey, Ms. Patty, we should try the other room again.”

Mom walked home with nearly twelve-hundred dollars worth of wine, procured with the wine god’s blessing in raffle.  The prize proved a double-edged sword though as upon discovering the one-hundred dollar per bottle price tag, she vowed to never open any of it.

Humbled I walked out, my head full of wine and empty of all pretension . . . or my precious jargon.

On the way to the car, lumbering under the weight of six bottles of wine and one faux copper-green fiberglass bowls each, Pat and I pleaded with our claustrophobic mother to take the elevator in lieu of walking down the required four flights of stairs.  Under the influence and fearing the safety of her swag she relented, confident that if the machine should fail ample rations – of the liquid variety – would be available until help arrive.

wine_grabAs the doors swung shut, sealing her inside, Mom’s eyes bulged with terror.  Wildly scanning our cell, she screamed: “Oh no!  Does anyone have a corkscrew?!”

We of course did not, but Tiff eased Mom’s panic with a little MacGuyver-ism.  “Don’t worry Ms. Patty, if we need to, we can just break off the neck and drink it that way.  You know, like pirates.”

Somehow this seemed to work, though honestly how she intended to break off the neck without breaking the bottle or worse spilling the wine is beyond me.  Still Mom calmly stood (or wobbled) while the elevator continued its ride down, choosing to breathe again only when the doors opened.  Laughing the girls met the cool night air, and discussed their favorite brands as we walked to the car.  Half-way home I managed to glance back at Mom, as she fallen fast asleep her arms gently embracing the two large tubs of wine, cuddled beside her.

Shots After Midnight: The King’s Diet

shots_after_midnight-copyAs night falls here at the pub, Jameson and Bailley’s fill our glasses and loose our tongues.  Tales emerge to accompany us on our long walk home through the darkness . . .

Brigid and Kevin were fighting again. No one knew the argument began: a touch on the shoulder, a misplaced word, a subtle insult intentioned or not (doubtful). “Loser,” “idiot,” “moron,” “freak.” The words avalanche as the afternoon fades into the night.

I find the two sitting around the sofa fighting over the remote control. Bree demands her favorite crime drama citing the age old maxim, “I was here first.” Kevin counters with a “But this is important,” compounding his argument by reminding Bree “You always get it!” The television flickered mournfully between the two stations, trying vaguely to decide which child it loved best.

“Dang it, Bree! Give it to me! I have to watch this game!”

“So go find another TV! I was here first!”

“I was in here at 3:30. It’s still mine.”

“Then it’s my turn.”

“Losers don’t get a turn.”

“Do too. Wait a sec . . .”

“Do not.”

“Alright, you two,” I say turning off the mildly schizophrenic screen. “Let’s cool it with the TV for a while.”

This gambit pleases neither. Bree slams the remote to the ground, a portion touchdown spike, a portion lightning strike.

“Geez, Kevin, look what you did. For once in your life, why can’t you be less of an idiot?”

“Hold on,” I say to the bickering siblings. “Lets cool down a bit. Bree did I ever tell you the story of the King’s Diet?”

“Uh, no,” Bree sighed.

“Sit down with me,” I say sinking into an armchair. “After the story’s over, I’ll let you watch TV again.”

“Is it stupid,” Kev asks. “I don’t have to like . . . know anything to understand it, right?”

“Not at all,” I smile.

———————————————————————————————————-

A lion woke one morning to look at his realm, a wide savanna teeming with life. The lush jungles to the west where trees grew high nearly reached the sky. The dense marshlands to the south, a paradise to insects, frogs, and amphibians. The dense mountains to the north, snowcapped and shrouded in mystery. Then the veldt to the east, where his pride hunted, occasionally shading themselves beneath dense tree groves, which cast long cool shadows long after the sun dips behind the jungle gardens.

This contemplation soothed the mighty lion. As he sat atop a large rock, the King’s Seat he called it – once the germ of a small volcano, which long ago had risen from the earth and then as if Nature herself had grown unsatisfied with the location ceased its ascent, the Seat marked the center of the large valley – considering the days meal (zebra or antelope, he could not decide), his tranquil thoughts were interrupted by the loud trumpeting bellows of the elephants, splashing themselves with mud in the nearby pits. The king turned his nose up at such disgraceful behavior.

“You would not see me or my kind act in such a manner,” he scoffed. “Fortunately the other members of my kingdom are far more dignified than to be caught playing in the mud.”

As you well know, the elephants cover themselves in mud to protect themselves from the intense heat of the sun, like sunblock your Mom rubs on your back. The lion did not know this however, and continued to mock the elephants without restraint. As he considered several spectacular insults concerning pachyderm hygiene and the size of their rears, a foul stench drifted through the air. A migrating herd of wildebeests had ventured into the king’s territory from the south, their coats now stained with unctuous marsh gas and globs of slime. Of course, wildebeests like most creatures that travel together in groups have accrued a hearty stench after journeying together without food or water for several hundred miles. After a long road trip, I would challenge you to sniff yourself and see how clean and fresh you smell.

Nonetheless the ignorant lion, disgusted that other members of his kingdom could reflect so ignobly on himself, began to decry the worthlessness of these creatures as well. Escaping the fecund smells and disgusting smack of mud on skin, the lion strode closer to the shade of the jungle. There he rested beneath a tall fruit tree, breathing in the fresh air and engaged in a mid-morning nap. Just as his dreams began to take shape, forming fields of antelope and fat zebras (lions as a rule think of nothing else), the tree began titter and rustle with the chatter of the monkey clan, who being social creatures talked effortlessly among themselves. The irritated lion immediately awoke.

“Will you foolish creatures, please silence yourselves?” the lion shouted. “Your king is seeking rest.”

The monkeys stopped their discussions to stare at the enraged lion. Silence filled the jungle, even the largest and proudest monkey – named Chi – stopped his argument concerning jungle politics and disappeared into the foliage. The others followed.

“Thank you, many apologies for losing my temper. Foolish though you may remain, of all the creatures I have met today you have . . . Ack!” A large rotting mango had struck the lion in the snout. Then suddenly other fruit – both fresh and not-so-fresh – flew from the tree, along with sticks, rocks, and other material much more disgusting.

———————————————————————————————————

“Did they throw poop?” Kevin asks with a smile, earning him a quick slap from Bree.

“Ewww . . . Kevin, don’t be disgusting!” she shouts. “I bet the lion was quite angry about that.”

“As mad as anyone,” I said, twisting myself more comfortably in the seat. The leather screeched as if agitated. “Anyone who is barraged with sticks, rocks, and . . . well worse things. After all more so than money, power, or fancy parties nobility love respect and admiration. When you take that away well . . .”

———————————————————————————————————-

“Ah what horrible habits,” the lion roared. “Rude though I was, such a reaction is uncalled for. My subjects squander their talents for such mean gestures. How can the kingdom survive in the future without more noble spirits like me to guide them?”

The revolted lion ran from the jungle and returned to his cave at the center of the valley. There he ruminated on why the creatures under his domain were so foolish, so disgusting, so weak, and incapable of nobility.

Even the delicious zebras are mere food for us larger stronger animals, he thought. They exist only to be eaten. The other prides to the north, south, east and west must think me an idiot for babysitting such repulsive subjects. Why can’t they be more like me: proud, strong, agile? And wise too. Surely such a king as I can solve this trifling problem for my subjects.

The lion thought about this for three days and two nights. Then while nibbling on the broken leg of a well-fattened antelope – the poor creature had twisted its ankle not three days prior at the exact moment the lion had unripe fruit tossed onto his snout, a day later – he had an idea. A brilliant idea, fit for a cat of such high lineage.

“Maybe, it is the food they eat. Indeed if all my subjects ate meat like myself, then they would be stronger, braver, more courageous and thus more refined. Too often have they relied on the bounty of the trees and leaves of this kingdom. My subjects have grown lazy. Yet virtue is the key. I shall weed out their weaknesses simply by changing their diets.”

The next day the lion gathered all his subjects from the four points of his territory. The elephants, the wildebeests, and the monkeys arrived along with many other animals both large and small to hear what the king decreed.

“All creatures seek to improve themselves, to become stronger. We in this valley have grown too soft over the years, weakened by this continued peace. The land has taught us to remain ignorant beasts, unaware of our hidden potentials. This no longer must continue. We must change our ways or fall prey to greater threats.”

The animals listened to the words of the mighty lion. Many felt troubled, unsure of what threat the king spoke, worried that their happy lives might end. They pleaded with the lion for protection and wisdom in these dark days to come. Others like the antelope and the monkeys who frequently joined the lion on his dinner plate grew skeptical of the lion’s plans.

“Worry not citizens. For though I cannot protect all of you all the time, I can train you to be like me, strong and brave, unafraid of any threat. We must make sacrifices, abandoning our old habits and traditions so that we might grow stronger and wiser in our ways. We must adopt the code of the hunters, feasting on weakness and building a nation of virtuous warriors. All of us must learn to eat meat. Only then can we cease to be mere prey, but transform ourselves in noble lions regardless of age, sex, or species.”

A loud cacophony of applause, shouts, brays, and trumpets met the lion’s speech, as the animals cheered this new way of life. For all creatures desire to be strong and great and noble. If a change in diet was all that was necessary to protect themselves, to rise in stature, what is a minor sacrifice or two? The animals listened in rapture as the brave king and teacher concluded his speech:

“Meat is the one food that keeps us lions strong. Our daily hunt requires that we continue to grow and improve our mind and bodies, for the hunter is his own master, not a slave or someone else’s meal. Through hunting we lions become noble and great, like kings of old that have ruled this land by the grace of the Mother Spirit herself. Thus, go forth and hunt. Be strong!”

More applause followed, and the lion grew pleased and confident in his decision. Yet there was silence among other members of the crowd. Other animals did not applaud the lion’s words. To the zebras and antelopes, a nation of hunters was nothing to applaud. They looked to the far jungles, marshes, mountains, and valleys, wondering if any would survive the next week. Yet none spoke up; all remained silent except for one brave monkey, named Chi.

“Mighty lion,” said Chi. “You speak of becoming strong like you, but are we not better as we are? The great Mother Spirit gave us monkey’s hands to grasp fruit and tails to swing from tree to tree. Might we already be strong enough for our own kind?”

The lion looked upon the monkey, the leader of those that assaulted him not three days before. Quick as lightning, the lion pounced on the helpless monkey and swallowed him whole.

“Hands and tails might be used better to protect yourselves,” gulped the lion, “than eat fruit. If you wish this to be your fate, please remain the same, change not. Skills are meant to be used not wasted on fruit and trees. Yet if you wish to be strong and be the victim of no creature, then follow my advice. Hunt!”

———————————————————————————————————-

“He ate the monkey!” squealed Bree, whose nicknames was also ‘Monkey.’ “Poor monkey.”

“Good,” grinned Kevin, who was also aware of Bree’s nickname. “Stupid monkey, he deserved what he got.”

“Ah,” I said. “Well then, I wonder what the lion deserved . . .”

———————————————————————————————————-

The following weeks saw great change in the valley as the animals all followed the lion’s advice, learning in their own ways how to hunt. Bloodlust has a way of changing creatures, you see, affecting even the most docile into . . . well, into something else altogether.

The elephants sharpened their dull tusks into razors, honing their hunting skills as they gored the weaker members of the herd for their dinner plates. Other small creatures were trampled by their thick legs, served as appetizers or kneaded into mouse-pudding.

The wildebeests possessed no such size but departed deep into the fume-filled swamps, surrounding their bodies with thick horribly-smelling ooze and slime. They ate from garlic plants, skunk weed, and rotting onion bulbs; using their tails like paint brushes they lathered their coats with poison ivy, rag weed, and methane gas. Such they experimented with these stenches until the revolting stench from their breath and bodies could incapacitate the most powerful skunks in the land. By night they would emerge from the north like a foul wind, descending into the woodlands and jungles, allowing their ooze and stench to drift into the trees. As the sleeping animals fell to the floor unconscious or dead, the herd scooped the inert bodies into waiting jaws.

True to the lion’s words, the monkey clan as well strengthened their own hands and tails. Grasping tree and fruit no more, they sharpened their teeth instead. With stick and stone, they hunted their feathered brethren in the treetops and fell zebra from hundreds of yards away, hurling their spears like a deadly rain. The laughter of the monkeys once full of mirth now chilled the hearts of all who entered the lofty tree tops.

Slowly the land grew silent.

More weeks pass. After a long slumber, the lion emerged from his cave to look upon his paradise, his newly improved kingdom. The air smells sweet, the lion thinks, like . . . like Sunday breakfast. A new wind carries the promise of a changed land. With a roar he calls forth his subjects from the four corners of the land. Slowly his subjects approach, three great hunters knell before their king and teacher, all that remains of the kingdom’s citizens. The lion stares at his subjects, the monsters before him. The air, he realizes then, is soaked through and through with blood.

“Greetings, great king,” bellowed the first of these creatures. The lion looked down and stared at the speaker, a monster of great size that once might have been a elephant. About its body draped bones of its own kind, sharpened to fine points like thorns upon a dried rose. Hides of various animals replaced the mud of old, making the creature look almost prehistoric, a living corpse returned to life.

“You spoke true,” said monster. “We do indeed feel strong. Like demons in fact, no trouble or danger do we now face ever again.”

“Yesss,” laughed the second monster, whose body remained hidden behind whirled smoke and gas, a living smog wrapped around rotting flesh. Ooze dripped down to floor, a slime trail marked the creature’s descent from the northern marshes. “For you are fat and no other animals dwell now in this valley. The grass is soaked in blood and littered with bones. We need to feed if we are to become stronger. . .”

“Wait!” shouted the lion, staring into the creatures’ eyes. “This is not what I intended. This is not what I proposed.”

“Too late,” spoke the third monster, an ape . . . no, ape-like, stretched and contorted into fantastic and horrid shapes, like melted clay doll. One long sinewy hand absently choked the air about it, while the other gripped a long barbed – unclean – spear. “We can do great things now. Great and terrible things. What are skills if we do not use them? Potential cannot be wasted . . .”

And with that the three monsters descended on the poor lion, dethroning him piece by piece.

———————————————————————————————————-

The kids seemed visibly scarred from the stories I told. Both did not sleep for a week afterwards and it would be a month before either ate their ham sandwiches again. Mom and Dad kept me on a strict Dr. Seuss diet for an even longer interim.

Brigid and Kevin don’t fight as much anymore; Bree doesn’t call Kev a loser and he in turn seems more willing to watch the crime scene shows. Yesterday I found them crying together on the sofa. The control had accidentally changed channels. The screen flashed to an golden savannah where an animated lion prince practiced his roar.

Salad Segregation

. . . like optical illusions and car commercials.

. . . like optical illusions and car commercials.

It was all a very odd day to begin with. The strange thing is that oddity flows more from the details not the larger issues. Wars shock but they don’t surprise us. Yet if you discover the lady standing next to you had worn her blouse on backward or worn two left shoes, then your eyes might blink and stare like an optical  illusion which you can’t quite figure or a car commercial.

The morning had began quite blustery. The kind of weather that brings storms and fells trees, that sends trash cans rolling into traffic like sage in old Westerns, the kind of wind that uproots homes and small children, catapulting them to far lands atop old wizened women. I removed my coat and soaked in the Zephyrs like sunshine.

Up the road I passed a man donning the green-copper robes of Lady Liberty, trying hard to stay upright. The bearded monument had traded in his tablet for a large cardboard arrow, inscribed with ‘Tax Service,’ which he would twirl every now and then for the benefit of his mobile highway audience. Yet with every twirl the arrow caught the wind, pulling the robed mascot like a large kite, his long beard tangled among his thorny crown.

Further on, plastic ads for SAT classes and law firms once staked deep into the earth before the winter thaw, wobbled and teetered in the breeze, hanging onto its terrestrial station by metal threads. Nearby road signs bowed and bent by the winds, warn any falling aircraft to yield and stop before colliding with the ground.

"I hate segregation of any kind"

"I hate segregation of any kind"

For some reason the day started out well until it came time to checkout. The lady behind me in line quickly positioned the plastic divider between her lettuce and frozen orange juice and my milk jugs and a small vial of cumin without even glancing up from her cart. I never appreciated segregation on any level even among fellow produce; thus her actions irked me some. Had my wares been more abundant (today was a rare occasion) I would have understood. Typically we aim for art, piling our boxes and bags in strange orientations in order to recreate something by Rodin or the Empire State Building. We cast a spell to keep it all stable . . . until our backs are turned: apples rolling off boxes of Fruity Pebbles into another shopper’s mountain of cheese and hemorrhoid crème. Yet my small troop of spices and low fat milk posed no threat of invasion, no cause for rowdy mixers with another man’s fruit and salsa dip. “Good fences make good strangers,” she might lecture if I considered protesting.

Walking outside bags in hand, clouds drift silently across the sky like German zeppelins, ready to bomb the planet with ice and snow. The setting sun blew sparks on their hydrogen-filled sacs; I nearly walked into a yellow Beetle waiting for the explosion. Near the horizon, swarms of fleeing birds hop from tree to tree as if feeding off skeletal fingers, reaching for the sky in prayer or supplication.

I got in my car. Surprisingly the lady had parked her Yukon beside me. While I edged backwards, she slipped in and opened her door, blocking my mirror while she buckled and checked fumbled with her keys. I waited. Once the door closed, I sped off. Enough distance makes good fences too and when cars fail to properly segregate can lead to major health risks and damaged groceries.

Fashion Revolution

“So what changes do you intend on making to my wardrobe?” I asked Fisch, who had invited me out to the mall for some lunch and a meterosexual shopping-spree. Apparently my current style of dress was insufficient for attracting members of the opposite sex, and renovating my wardrobe would prove the sole cure. Fisch — typically an extremely straight man with a slightly queer edge — revels in shopping for stuff like this.

“Dude, we’re not making a change,” my fashionable friend corrected me, as we weaved through a dense crowd of mall walkers. “We’re beginning a revolution.”

“At Macy’s?”

“Hey, you can have style without cost. Or at least that’s the way I roll.”

Fisch rolls in very odd places – cheap though they may be. My compatriot, a lawyer and an economist, strives for the paradoxical job of an honest politician and eventually the elected office of President of the United States.

“I am the best of the best,” Fisch told me once at the gym, while I lay collapsed choking on my lungs. “I choose to do it because no one else can, at least without sacrificing honor, integrity, and their soul.”

Honestly, anyone that seeks out that much responsibility must be a little crazy, which is why we get along rather well. Irishmen – according to Thomas Cahill, my mother, and my own familial observations – possess as much empathy for the insane and drunkards as they relish good humor and jibing authority. Therefore, Fisch and I, the politician and the writer, made for good company.

My Irish ancestors, poor farmers and scholars that they were, believed in retaining more of their money for food and books and less for Ralph Lauren. Thus, as we walked into Macy’s the knot in my stomach eased some. Living in a large family one never worries about having clothes; a simple phone call yields mountains of hand-me-down pants, sweaters, and shirts from various uncles and cousins. Why concern yourself with the latest styles when that same money could be invested in stories, games, or gadgets? Only the truly deranged would ever scribe socks or ties on their Christmas lists.

“We’re here to prove that with enough strategy, even geeks can dress well and still grab the girl in the end. Besides all that dorky stuff you like is cool now. Comic books, video games, anime . . . you wear that shit on your T-shirts, right?”

“I have a few shirts like that, yeah.” A dozen or two.

“Combine your dorky shirts with a wrinkled jacket and some faded jeans, and we’ll get you laid yet, Murphey.”

"Look, do you watch G4?"

"Look, do you watch G4?"

Somehow all this seemed quite dubious, and Fisch like any skilled salesman and politician, sensed this.

“Look, do you watch G4?” he asked passing through the malodorous air of the perfume department en route to the escalators.

“I’ve seen bits checking around,” I said lifting my dangling shoelaces above the teeth of escalators. “It’s like an MTV for gamers, right?”

“Yeah, well we want you lookin’ like the host of Attack of the Show. Dorky guy with hot girls. We want to stretch your current comfort zone just a bit, extend your boundaries.”

“Okay, sure,” I replied. “. . .extend my boundaries.” Sure, like China into Nepal.

“We’ll prove that you don’t have play lacrosse to get the hot girl, dude. This is going to be awesome.”

Did I mention that I hate shopping for clothes? One of the perks of working in a biochemistry lab – apart from liquid nitrogen and playing God – the informal dress always felt comfortable. Our bosses encouraged tact (i.e. no holes in the jeans or metal dog collars), long pants, and toed shoes, but otherwise Casual Friday lasted year-round. Clothing after all protected us, as much as gloves, goggles, and chemical showers, and experiments routinely got . . . messy. Safety classes advised that much of our clothing may become soiled, stained, or severely burned as a result of day-to-day research experiments. In some cases, such as if a jar of phenol accidentally spilt or soaked into our clothing, caution dictated that we remove our pants and shirt immediately and contact the emergency hotline (Phenol vapor acts an anesthetic as well as corrosive acid, and thus eat away at your skin without inflicting any pain. Retaining phenol-soaked clothes was like rubbing your body in Novacaine and then setting it on fire.). From these experiences, I developed little concern for my personal appearance and greater discretion in my choice of undergarments.

Back in high school, we never had much choice in our apparel either; slacks, dress shirt, tie, and jacket were the rule garnering these young men with the illusion of respectability. Yet except for the occasional joke tie that spun like a propeller or sang old Christmas tunes, no one cared about much less noticed our day-to-day wear. In college, I adopted the same dress, trading in my shirt, tie, and jacket for grey golf polos. It is thus that managed to live one-third of my life without a pair of jeans.

Thus, when Fisch called, I reasoned it was about time I bought a pair and at least to see how I liked them. Patrick bought his first pair just after meeting Tiff. I was buying my first pair with Fisch, discussing the revolution of geekdom and how clothes can secure my breed-ability.

“Videogames, comics and anime are popular and cool now,” Fisch said quickly, splicing through the jean rack. Geeks have accrued greater respect today . . . an attractive eccentricity, if you will, to members of the opposite sex.”

I told him that he had obviously not been to any anime convention.

“Outliers,” he said with a wave. “The point is that in the end, the geek, the dreamer, the visionary will succeed where the jocks and lax players have failed, hindered forever by their steroids and excessive keg stands. Meanwhile we’re ready to make history, much like Spartans against . . . ooo, this looks good. Try it on.”

“Didn’t the Spartans die?” I ask, fitting a white jacket from the sales rack tightly around my shoulders.

“Only in body,” Fisch said. “Nice, now we just have to secure some jeans and shirts then.”

“It looks nice,” I said cautiously. “But judging by these other guys around us. It’s not really everyday wear. I’m not really going to fit in.”

“So you only wear it on your date,” Fisch said. “Though why on earth would you want to blend in like everyone else is beyond me. You need to stand out, not enfold yourself into those ubiquitous banal trends of the masses. Lead for once . . .”

“Okay,” I said, considering if I had ventured outside my normal routine of late. Perhaps it was time for a change . . .

Not bad I said to myself.

Not bad, I said to myself.

At the end of the day, we bought two stripped shirts, a rumpled white jacket, and a pair of jeans. Leaving the store we walked out to the parking lot and talked about some old classmates and future girlfriends.

“I mean, seriously, dude,” I asked leaning against my car. “What are the chances? Clothes are one thing, but you know me and my odd hobbies . . .”

“Higher than you think, Murph,” Fisch said. “I have a friend, who’s a professional cheerleader. She plays frickin’ Everquest at home, probably into D&D too. A twelth-level elf warrior or some shit.”

“Well, Everquest is quite addictive . . . like crack for gamers.”

“Face it, man. You start dressin’ right, and they’ll be no stopping the mob of hot girls racin’ to tear those clothes off you.”

“Right, well . . . as exciting as that sounds – and it does – these clothes were not that cheap. Just warn the deluge to strip me slowly, ok?”

“Trust me, it works for that guy on G4. Look at the girls he works with. Tina Wood and that Oliva chick are hot!”

I returned home, clothes in tow. Quickly I stretched my jeans, shirts, and jacket across the bed to admire. Not bad, I said to myself. Maybe there is some sense to Fisch’s rantings: a chance to stretch my boundaries without totally sacrificing my identity. His words seemed honeyed with wisdom and audacity. I felt ready to step into a whole new era.

Quickly I strode over to the computer and typed in G4, eager for more ideas, more insights into this ‘cool geek’ persona. The following video flashed on my screen:

As the video ended, I strode over to the bed and threw my clothes unceremoniously into the Macy’s bag. Neither for revolution or girls, would I ever emulate that Kevin twit . . . regardless of his fashion-sense and breed-ability. In the end I just felt embarrassed to be a gamer.

Tossing on some shorts and an old T-shirt, I jumped on my bed with a few books, and my DS.  After a few levels of Zelda and a page or two of my latest One Piece manga, I fell asleep, dreaming of princesses, pirates, and Tina Wood

Lost in Wonderland, 2008

Over the years since Dasad and I first attended Otakon, the East Coast anime convention, my fascination with anime and manga has risen to new heights (or sunk to deeper depths) such that I can only ponder (and shudder) at where my interests will lead me next year. Curiosity provided impetus for our first visit; the following year, my love for stories and all things weird beckoned me back, a fact that still astounds Dasad today:

"Wait, you want to go back?"

"Wait, you want to go back?"

“Wait, you want to go back?” he wrote, ostensibly astounded after I pre-purchased tickets. “Why in the world would want to go back? Anime conventions are like social quicksand. Do you WANT to die alone and unloved?”

A little dramatic perhaps but I understand his concerns. Still normality never appealed to me, and so despite my impending destiny, I bought tickets again this year. Recently a few new anime series had captivated my imagination, and thus compelled me to seek out new DVDs, posters, and art books. Yet the real reason, my honest intent was to purchase an anime figure.

Buying an anime figure in the otaku community is akin to primal man’s first successful hunt or a wide receiver’s first touchdown: a rite of passage as well as a point of no return. Some otaku collect hundreds of figures, which they entomb in little glass cases or scatter around their workstations like protective spirits. Yet while owning hordes of figurines is a mark of honor in the anime community, everywhere else collectors are stapled as “thirty-year-old guys who plays with dolls.” Social quicksand indeed, conventions are more like a social black hole.

Normality never really appealed to me . . .

Normality never really appealed to me . . .

Still normality never really appealed to me, and thus this year I convinced Dasad to join me yet again. As we stood in line, I think he still had trouble coping with this decision:

“Remind me again why I am here?”

Dasad and I stood at the end of a long line into the convention center. Dressed in normal street clothes, we actually felt outlandish among the various costumes, makeup, and hand-made wands donned by the rest of the conventioneers. The lady before us was applying copious layers of red face-paint on her boyfriend’s face and arms while adjusting her lank black wig and the sash of her red kimono. Hellboy and Hellgirl then sucked down a can of Red Bull and leaned against the building to cuddle. Dasad wrinkled his nose. The couple smelt of soggy gym socks.

We should have dressed up, I thought.

We should have dressed up.

We should have dressed up.

“Freaks,” Dasad muttered. “I mean, we just visited the anime convention last year. What purpose do we have in coming yet again?”

“Well,” I said, focusing my camera on a host of ninja piling from a nearby van. “Last year was a bit of a farce. Months of waiting which amounted to a measly four hours of convention time, hardly enough to catch music videos and browse the marketplace. This year, the family gave me the whole day off to geek out.”

“Fine for you maybe, but what am I doing here? Besides inhaling geek funk, oh terrific . . .” The couple apparently had kissed. When I saw the girl again, her face shined with smudged paint, like a lioness after dining on fresh zebra. Dasad and I changed lines.

“You’re here,” I said, snapping a few more photos of some tight-donned swordsmen, “Because you’re a good friend who rejoices in my happiness.”

“Nope,” Dasad mumbles as the swordsmen’s ten-foot carboard sword nearly skewers him. “Freak, get far away from me and take your freak-stick with you.”

“Ummm, let’s see . . . there is a chance that I might get assaulted and/or molested by freaks, and you would not be here to watch and/or laugh.” At this point, I realized that we were in the wrong line altogether. Pre-registered attendees could go right inside.

" . . . take your freak stick with you."

". . . and take your freak stick with you."

“As well as capture your humiliation for posterity,” Dasad considered. “Okay I can accept that. Your camera does take movies, right?”

“I think . . . it has that video camera switch. Hold on . . .” I snap a few photos of some greenish wizard holding a large gray bomb and hand the camera to Dasad. I have to give my friend credit; he possesses a true talent for taking quality shots, holding the camera like an expert marksman. Meanwhile I shoot on the run, like an 80’s action star. Almost one-hundred percent of the smeared and blurred shots I delete afterwards were my own.

“So what are you looking for today?” Dasad asks inspecting the camera. “What’s the agenda?”

“Um . . . well, last year we came home with lots of stuff. DVDs, box sets, posters . . .”

“Speak for yourself. I came home with a bad rash and five hours lost, which could have been better spent watching Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares.”

“Well, this year I wanted to maybe buy some artbooks and maybe, if it’s not too expensive . . . a figure.”

“A figure?” Dasad said, suddenly smiling a broad Cheshire grin.

I have always had a fascination with carven figures and models – not that I myself am much adept at the art. When I was a mere tyke, Mom would collect David Winter houses, intricately carved Old World cottages, houses, and ruined castles. Never allowed to touch – lest my PB&J-smeared hands desecrate the artwork – I would nonetheless stare at them from behind glass doors. Now anime figures are equally detailed, and unlike my mother’s other collections, the childish Hummel figurines, do more than push wheelbarrows, plant flowers, and stare dumbfounded into space. Meanwhile, anime and video game characters can wield swords, mount spells, and look cute in bathing suits, hair billowing with the summer breeze. Moreover the transition from the 2D realm into three-dimensional statues fascinates me, and I wanted to commemorate this convention by buying my first figure.

"A figure?  Which one?"

"A specific figure? Which series?"

Nonetheless, this further descent into geekdom frightened me a bit. I have always been a moderate fan at best, picking and choosing my shows based on good-storytelling and interesting plot-lines, always ready to keep my obsession in check. Thus, purchasing a figure scared me some. Dasad of course knew this, and in order to relieve me of my fears, mocked me openly.

“Any specific figure? Which series? A sexy one? You, pervert you . . .”

“Umm . . .” I muttered, my face reddening. “No specific one in mind. Maybe Fate/Stay Night or Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya . . . or anyone that looks good.” Despite my mortification, the quest for the perfect figure had an opposite affect on Dasad, who at once seemed excited, ready and willing to humiliate me as I shopped.

The industrial plaza and its maze of venders regrettably were closed until eleven. Thus, we change direction and head for the art gallery and AMV contest. Navigating around the convention center is like finding oneself a rat in a maze. If you refuse to jump through the right hoops, you might find yourself lost, electrocuted, and a fire hazard.

“Whoa, that fuzzy Pikachu just shocked me,” Dasad shouts as we make our way through the crowds to the lower lobby.

“Wow,” I admired. “That’s quite a costume then. What do you think of the pageantry so far?”

"I can't even recognize half these characters."

"I can't even recognize half these characters."

“I can’t even recognize half these characters. The Dragonball and Naruto guys, sure. But what about that guy with the blue hair . . .”

“Gurren Lagann,” I said, taking a hurried picture. “Awesome show, the plot spans several years and considers the ramifications of changing the world and having to live with those changes.”

“ ‘kay, what about that one: the green haired girl in the straitjacket?”

“Umm . . . Code Geass, I think. New show, I haven’t seen it yet, but I hear it’s very popular in Japan now. The DVDs just came out this week so I’ll probably pick them up later today,” I said, now scanning the hallways and atriums for characters. Many I recognized but failing fluency in Japanese could not pronounce their names. “The kid with the guitar over there might be FLCL or Beck, I’m not sure. And the bunnygirl over there in her mom’s S&M clothes, well, I’m not quite sure what that is . . .”

We passed a large couple stretched out on a black couch. The husband rested his head in his wife’s lap; she slouched down in the sofa, eyes blurred over a magazine. I stopped to photograph a few cosplayers posing near the outdoor veranda.

“It’s ten o’clock in the morning,” Dasad whispered to me. “The convention opened at nine. Are they already exhausted?”

"I'm not quite sure what that is."

. . . the crowd's reaction to specific scenes and anime amaze me.

“Parents,” I said. “They have a long day ahead of them.”

We strode down to the anime music videos (AMV) contest. In previous years, the AMV’s proved the highlight of the convention. Fans would combine technical artistry, fast-paced songs, and their favorite shows into a short four-minute music video. Very impressive all in all. Yet this year, most of the videos – particularly those categorized as romantic or sentimental – proved more soporific than sensational. I believe Dasad fell asleep through half the entries, which failed to maintain his interest – and mine.

Nonetheless, the crowd’s reaction to specific scenes and anime amaze me. In past years during a particularly intense or memorable moment the audience, the size of a small stadium, would shout, cheer and clap. I would smile, infected by the crowd’s energy and excitement. Even faced with a dull video, the love of the fans for the medium made the whole experience bearable and fun. At home my own excitement was often met with odd stares and rolled eyes; here I could love my hobby with abandon.

Moreover, I discovered that some songs even improve when coupled with a little animation:

Eventually the industry arena opened, and a tide of conventioneers slowly flooded the marketplace, settling to a steady current throughout the numerous stalls and booths. Anime markets are an example of chaos in bloom. Otaku love to buy things: figures, books, DVDs, posters, key chains, anything associated with their favorite series. As I mentioned they are fairly obsessive people, and as Dasad and I drifted through the stalls, we witnessed fans dancing, posing for pictures, congregating around videos, and some – shoplifters – escorted out by security.

Half-way into the arena we encountered a group of girls dancing, shifting their hips back and forth and flapping their hands near their heads like cat ears. Energetic synth music blared in the background.

“By all that is holy, what is that?” Dasad asks.

“Caramelldansen,” I said. “A Swedish song set to these two anime characters dancing . . . well, like these girls. It’s a very addictive song. If you listen once, you’ll never get tired of it.”

“I have no idea what is going on anymore.”

“Neither do I,” I laugh. “That’s all the fun.”

Nonetheless, despite the choreographed dancing and ensuing chaos, we found our way into a relatively unpopulated booth to begin our search.

“So what are we looking for?” Dasad asked, fingering a large robot I recognized from the series RahXephon.

“I’m not sure myself, but I have to display it at home with the kids so . . .”

“PG-13?”

“Nothing excessively graphic . . . oh and no robots. I hate giant robots.”

“Gotcha, how about this one? It says ‘Cast Off.’ Does it fire missiles or something?”

“No, that means her clothes come off.”

“Whoa, okay. So no.”

“No, I’m not into that stuff. And the family would never let me live it down if I bought it.”

“Fine, but I’m making note of it . . . just in case you change your mind. Oooh . . . this one is sexy. Hey Murphey, don’t you want a sexy figure? Why don’t we buy the one with the swimsuit?” Dasad has a wonderfully honest way of embarrassing me in public. Possessing no shame – but then who does at an anime convention – he will announce with great acumen what I am thinking but probably too embarrassed to speak aloud.

“Ooo . . . I like the one with the girl in the short school uniform. Hey dude, did you know you bend the box at just the right angle you can see up . . .”

“Let’s go over there,” I interrupt, my face as red as sunburn.

. . .  rising from the earth as if flying

. . . rising from the earth as if flying

After much searching, I finally find the figure I am seeking: a Belldandy figure from the anime “Oh My Goddess.” The statue is well-crafted, beautiful with flowing robes, hair, and ribbons, rising from the earth as if flying. Dasad simply shrugs and asks for my camera. He films my purchase, much to the concern of the old man behind the counter as if he fears my whole exchange will appear on Inside Edition later that night. His eyes dart from side to side, and anxiously he quickly slides my credit card while shoving the figure in my hands.

We walk off and I hurriedly stuff the figure into my backpack. “So I have less to carry,” I explained to Dasad.

“Sure, sure,” he said. “Don’t worry no one cares. Shove your shame into your backpack and let’s head out. I’m starving for burritos.”

We leave the industry arena, and hesitantly I look back. Given more time, I think I could have bought a bit more, but for the sake of my stomach, sanity, as well as my wallet, we depart. Until next year then . . . when I will try to convince Dasad to buy that schoolgirl figurine.

“Fat chance,” he said his mouth full of rice. Oh well, but then perhaps I have a good lead on Christmas gifts . . .

Lost in Wonderland: 2007

Last summer, after much nagging and badgering, I convinced Dasad to accompany me to an anime (Japanese animation) convention. Our individual takes on the whole scene differed greatly. Being more comfortable with spectacle and chaos, I found the bizarre melting pot of costumes, adolescent crowds, giant swords, and unhygienic otaku (Japanese for “obsessed fans”) intriguing. Dasad on the other hand . . . well, you’ll see.

The day began somewhat like this:

We enter the convention center and walk up the stairs to pick up our badges. I bounce along, ready to take in the landscape of cosplayers, eager to watch some shows and enter a few video game competitions. Dasad winces as a pair of black wings grazes his shoulders. “I wish I had brought my bottle of Febreeze,” he mutters loudly. A group of four girls and one guy dressed in short-skirted school uniforms giggle behind him. The guy titters in baritone.

. . . ready to take in the landscape . . .

. . . ready to take in the landscape . . .

“Oh come on,” I say, “It’s not that bad.”

“That one guy in the green spandex, smelled like piss.”

“The Rock Lee guy? Yeah, well, it’s probably just an old costume from last year,” I said ruffling through my bag for a schedule of events. “You stuff an old costume in the attic or basement with a few moth balls and it will accrue a . . . uh, certain pungency.”

“So will the human body if you live off Cheetoes and don’t wash it once a month . . .” Another cosplayer dressed in black leather and an odd assortment of chains and belts wrapped around his body passed carting a ten-foot cardboard sword and some serious B.O. Dasad wrinkled his nose. “Hey,” he muttered, “next time do us all a favor and tell your mom to buy soap, freak. With all the hot springs in Japan, you’d think that otaku would catch onto the concept of regular bathing.”

“Come on, don’t concern yourself with the occasional smelly cosplayer, dude,” I said smiling at another cosplayer in white leather and little else. She smiled back. No cross-dressing for this one. “Not everyone smells of month-old sweat.” Some smell of lilacs.

“Anyway, I found where they’re showing the music videos contest so let’s have fun today. Get excited.” I somewhat shouted this, but no one notices. If anything they look on approvingly. A seven-foot tall guy in a stuffed-tiger suit gave me a hearty thumbs-up and a long growl.

"Oh come on . . . it's not that bad."

"Oh come on . . . it's not that bad."

“I get any more excited and I’ll piss my pants too.”

“That’s the spirit. We’ll make you an otaku yet.” That comment incited a wave of revulsion which I purposely misinterpreted [ignored] as the shudder of pure joy. “Come on, I’ll buy you a green tea and some pocky stix.”

And so went the entire afternoon. Though Dasad never stood still long enough for a picture, some of his looks of shear disbelief would have sent you sprawling to the ground. I have to seriously thank him for putting up with me that day. The convention can be quite uncomfortable even at the best of times, particularly if you’re not in the scene much anymore, so thanks again, man. I truly appreciate it.

Running Man

One of my irrational dreams involves running, racing against time or escaping from evil forces set to some dramatic soundtrack.  Like the guy in that Bon Jovi video . . .

Or those chase scenes in Scooby Doo episodes . . .

Life should come with its own soundtrack sometimes.  Maybe if it did, I might feel inspired to search more ancient Egyptian tombs or visit New Jersey.