A look at the least important things in life

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The Screwdriver Diaries: European Edition, Part One

There is a lot of pressure to have fun on vacation. Most of the working class gets a limited amount of R&R time, and to waste it in any way is an almost unpardonable sin. To me, waste is the most relaxing thing one can do – waste a day reading, waste it sitting and thinking and talking and writing and drinking wine in a foreign country. You won’t regret it.

I know there will be people that find my stories of leisure and relaxation from Italy and Ireland to be boring. I know that because I read travel guides and websites and got recommendations, solicited and unsolicited, from many people before we left and I gotta be honest, I ignored a lot of you. It’s not because I don’t appreciate your ideas – I may not but that’s not the point. I wanted to do things that sounded fun to me.

The following recollections are not suggestions of what you should or should not do if you decide to journey across the Atlantic. If you’d like to follow the path we laid down, know that you’re following the path of a Catholic math nerd and a head-in-the-clouds Protestant vagabond who got endless enjoyment from walking to the nearest pub or wine bar in between seeing buildings that were hundreds or thousands of years old. We did not exactly trod the same ground as the people who did the day-long biking tours.

We had a wonderful time. Mrs. Me loved Italy, I loved Ireland and we both enjoyed Vatican City tremendously. But there were many little moments that made this the ultimate ‘baby moon’ (apparently that’s the name of the last big trip before you have a kid) and I tried to make notes of what I wanted to say about each of them.

Do Something

Mrs. Me and I are pretty non-confrontational when it comes to each other. We both go with the flow. And while that’s a helpful state for a marriage most of the time, standing on a corner in a foreign country while having the same ‘What-do-you-want-to-do-I-don’t-care-what-do-you-want-to-do?’ conversation five times a day will only leave both of you frustrated. Somebody has to take control a little bit.

Vatican City

I’m not Catholic. I won’t ever be Catholic; you guys have a lot of rules, and I am not much for following rules. But even a Protestant can be moved by the sights and sounds around Vatican City. It’s been the cornerstone of the Christian World for a millennia. That’s a good run.

Instead of trying to clumsily use words to describe what I saw and how I saw it, here’s some photos.

View of the Basilica from the Vatican Gardens

View of the Basilica from the Vatican Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The whole of St. Peter's is a giant mosaic. That is really hard to do.

The whole of Saint Peter’s is a giant mosaic. That is really hard to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That's a fun view of Saint Peter's Square.

That’s a fun view of Saint Peter’s Square.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vernacular

On our final night in Dublin, we were sitting in a pub – stunner, right? Anyway, this old fella got a beer from the bar and sat a table near us when nature called. He sauntered up to us and asked, in a very polite growl, if I could tell him which way the Jackson room was.

I was not prepared for this question.

I was prepared for some language barriers in Italy, in that the extent of my Italian is hello, good-bye, thank you, you’re welcome and swear words. Buongiorno dannazione was not a sentence I expected to say and I was proven correct.

But Ireland is an English-speaking nation, and I had a tough time keeping up with them. Accents – so many accents, so strong that even the non-Gaelic’s occasionally sounded Gaelic. Anyway, turns out ‘Jackson Room’ is a slang term for bathroom.

The boys from Belfast giving it all they've got.

The boys from Belfast giving it all they’ve got.

 Irish baseball

I wouldn’t suggest this to anyone who didn’t appreciate the novelty of the event, but somehow we stumbled onto the Irish professional baseball league and went out to watch a game. Skill-wise, it was equal to a low-level high school JV game. The youngest player looked to be 16, and the oldest was probably in his 50s.

I’ve been watching baseball since I was a fetus, and I saw things that Sunday afternoon I have never seen before. Like a dropped pop-up that somehow turned into a double play. Like a rundown that ended after three throws when the baserunner stopped because he didn’t know what he was supposed to do anymore. Like players smoking cigarettes and wandering off to piss in the woods between innings. I heart you so much, Irish baseball.

Ryan Air

I was excited to fly on what had generously been dubbed the ‘Southwest Airlines of Western Europe’ from Rome to Dublin, but what I didn’t know was that if your bag weighed more than 15 kilograms (about 33 pounds), they would slap you with fines and yell at you in Italian. Fly Aer Lingus; it sounds cooler anyway.

Cabbies

I discovered cab drivers in Ireland are an occasionally devious bunch. Drop you off one place when you wanted to be somewhere else. Drive you around because you don’t necessarily know where you’re going. One tip I picked up was to never grab a cab that’s parked out in front of the hotel: that’s a dead giveaway that you’re a tourist and don’t know where you are.

Conversely, the Italian cabbies, in addition to being insane drivers, were never exactly fussed about getting you to your destination. More than once we were dropped near where we were trying to go, and then given vague half-English, half-Italian instructions on how to get to the end of our journey.

Trains

Continuing our travel theme, I’ve been on a train maybe four times in my life. I’ve never lived anywhere that it was more convenient to travel by train than car or plane. And after visiting Europe, I kind of wish I did because what a luxurious way to travel.

I’m not talking about a subway system here. I’m talking commuter train with seatbacks and tray tables that you could put your whole weight on and take a nap (did that) and no luggage restriction at all and no turbulence or chance somebody is going to rear-end you because they’re texting. If you get the chance, I highly recommend it. We’ve already decided that’s how we’ll travel next time we head across the pond.

The Colosseum

As Mrs. Me pointed out, it sure is weird to be taking selfies in a place where thousands of people fought to the death over the course of a few hundred years. Still… between the Colosseum and the Forum, there was a very Gladiator feel to the place.

Many, many people died here for sport once upon a time.

Many, many people died here for sport once upon a time.

Gelato

As pubs are to Ireland, small gelato shops were to Rome. Every few feet you could be sure to find another small gelato shop, and it would be delicious every time. I lost count of how many times I had gelato in Italy. In related news, I’m significantly fatter now than I was when we left.

Irish food

Fish and chips. Bangers and Mash. ‘Blank and blank’ anything was a good combo in Ireland.

Now, the full Irish breakfast – that would catch up to you if you had it too often. Irish bacon (rashers), sausage, mushrooms, potatoes and pudding is all delicious but have a couple of helpings of that and then walk around all morning, toss down some early-afternoon dark beer and flee to the bathroom.

Italian driving

Driving in Rome seems to be a complicated dance. Traffic rules are nothing more than helpful suggestions. Drivers just weave into traffic, and create a space wherever they want to. And despite all this haphazard nonsense, not once did I see two Italian guys standing outside their cars screaming at one another in Italian. I was there six days and not once did I see a wreck. They know what they’re doing.

I spent a lot of time doing this.

I spent a lot of time doing this.

Ceilings

In Italy, one spends a lot of time staring at the ceiling. Even the most out-of-the-way cathedral is likely to be adorned with an epic scene splayed across its ceiling and of course the Sistine Chapel is the piece de resistance of such things.

Naked people

Not naked people wandering the streets (that I saw anyway). But if I’m understanding what I saw correctly, the way to have a masterpiece of art was to make sure it prominently featured some naked folks. There were whole rooms devoted to people who were missing clothes.

Part Two…sometime. Maybe tomorrow.

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The Screwdriver Diaries, Vol. 1

(The following were culled from drunken writings during my most recent vacation. I’ll post these as often as I find them.)

At the time of this writing, I’m sitting on a cruise ship somewhere between Miami and the Bahamas. I’m drinking a screwdriver, listening to music and people-watching. That’s as much scene-setting as I can do; I’m not going to tell you what kind of underwear I have on (tasteful boxer shorts with little tiki men, ladies!).

Cruises can be hokey – it seems many of the activities are designed specifically to embarrass the cruise-goers. Cruises can be fun – everyone seems content to start drinking at 9 a.m. like the end of the world is nigh. Cruises can be exhausting – this morning, I woke up, ate and then went right back to sleep because I felt like it and I could. And of course, cruises can be a little dangerous and disgusting, although I’ve seen no poop-covered walls on this one (although this was written on Tuesday of a week-long excursion).

But the biggest thing I’ve taken away from both cruise experiences I’ve had so far is that every cruise ship has every cross-section of humanity on board at any given moment. Carnival and Royal Caribbean are the modern-day melting pot. For an amateur people-watcher such as myself, the buffet line is as much for the observation of human nature as it is for the fried chicken.

The most stand-out of the cruise-going populace are the rednecks, mostly because they are so very loud and in your face about what a good time they’re having. It’s 11:30 in the morning, they’re a sixer in, it’s time to party and you’re either with them or against them. They start the week with the intent of having the single best week anyone has ever had; they’re usually tapped from a combination of low-level alcohol poisoning, heat stroke and high-grade sunburn by the third day.

Other people are almost exactly the opposite, refusing to spend money and nickel-and-diming their way through the cruise and only doing things that are free. These people usually have children, and they’re usually very angry.

Some are foodies. I don’t mean that in the ‘food snob who needs to know what’s in what and how it’s prepared’ way; I mean people who come on these things in order to eat like a starving Ethiopian child at a Golden Corral. My father-in-law is one of these; by my guess, he’s had four meals today. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon.

There are some who can be found either in the gym or poolside. I have to assume that they spent the last few months putting a ton of effort into their bodies and want to keep that going (by using the gym) and show it off (shirtless/in a bikini at the pool). Not to delve too far into personal tangents, but the reason I worked out and ate right since January is so I could eat whatever I wanted, drink and smoke as much as was necessary and not keel over dead on Thursday. Short of elective plastic surgery, cutting out beer, getting hooked on HGH and going vegan, I doubt I could attain that level of muscular fortitude anyway.

And of course, the degenerate gamblers are out in full force, ranging from those content to sadly pull a slot lever over and over again for hours on end to the ones that are happy to lose at blackjack to the Horrible Shuffle Machines or worse, the Carnival incarnation of old-fashioned Vegas blackjack with shoes – only minus all the queens in the four decks, which is awful and should be outlawed. When I sat down at the blackjack table for the first and currently only time, one guy to my left had just had no luck at all; he was down to just a couple of chips and was justifiably frustrated by his inability to get good cards. Of course, I lost 25 bucks in about four minutes and fled the table; I know when I’m not wanted. I wandered by a few hours later to observe the same guy in the same spot with the same miniscule amount of chips. He could’ve treaded water the entire time; he could’ve gone on a huge run and lost it all; he could’ve been down $15,000. But the fact that he was still there led me to believe he had a problem. I believe he said he was a schoolteacher; I hope math is not his subject, because probability has kicked him in the dick.

And that’s just the crazy people pay money to come here. The people that work on cruise ships are insane. Allow me to tell the following story:

So Monday night, I break away from the family for a cigar-and-whiskey tasting back in the cigar bar. I’m one of the last people to get to the bar for the tasting, so naturally I’m one of the last people out and the bartender, a Filipino chap named Gerry, strikes up conversation. As we get into this, I find out a few things about him:

  • He works on boats for six months at a time, going on six cruises per month, before getting two months off. Workers are allowed off the boat for a few hours whenever it docks in its home port (in our case, Miami). That means in a given six-month period, Gerry and the rest of the crew are on land for right around 72 hours.
  • He’s worked on boats for 27 years. He told me he was in his early-50s. He also said that the night bartender on the deck above us had been working on cruise ships for 32 years; I have to assume he’s the Methuselah of cruise ship bartenders.
  • Gerry is married; his wife lives in the Philippines still. He sees her when he’s on his two month break, meaning he gets off a boat after six months, then goes to the airport to fly halfway around the globe to see her. And my wife hates it when I’m gone on a week night.

(Some of the details have been marred by the consumption of beer and ALL the liquor.)

I can’t decide whether he has the best life ever – cruising around the globe, seeing new places and sending all his money home to live like a prince two to four months out of the year sounds pretty alright. However, I can’t imagine not getting to set foot on land for more than a couple of hours a week. And again: my wife hates it when I’m gone to Wal-Mart for too long of a stretch. I like being married; seems like it takes a different breed to stay married to someone in an occupation such as that.

Looking around the boat, it certainly seems like the workforce skews ethnic. My blackjack dealer was of vague Scandinavian descent. I was brought drinks by a myriad of Filipinos, Laotians, and others of either Asian or Eastern European descent. The spa workers we were introduced to were British and South African. Our waiter was a tall, deep-voiced gent named James who I’m pretty sure was Jamaican (most of these nationalities are what I can remember them saying, what I read on their nametags or drunken guess at their accent). Asking around, it seems that the younger people from other countries take these jobs to see the world and the older ones do so to provide a much better life for their families back home.

It’s interesting to watch; the staff is respectful, yet have clearly heard some things from intoxicated passengers to the point where an unspoken I wonder what this shithead is going to say? looms over certain exchanges. Some passengers are courteous to everyone; some would elbow old ladies in the throat to claim a Ship on a Stick, the award du jour for winning at one of the silly games (I’m the proud owner of Ship on a Stick; sports trivia!). It’s very odd to watch and yet highly entertaining. If you enjoy observing the drunken human condition, you’d probably enjoy this.


Resolutions I Can Keep

imagesAs people are wont to do at this time of year, I feel it necessary to establish a New Year’s Resolution of some sort. There are ways in which I can better myself, and the beginning of a new year is a fine time to wipe the slate clean and start anew. Also, I know 2013 started three days ago – punctuality would be a solid choice for a resolution, but I am what I am in some respects.

One of my main goals for the next cycle around the sun is a holdover from last year: I have to keep losing weight. Discussed several times over in this space, my weight loss effort last year was a great success. If I manage to lose half of what I lost last year, I will have hit my stated goal with this attempt and that…that will be a good day. We will dine on beer and steak, two things have been less involved in my life of late than I would prefer.

The other two things I resolve to do are a bit more touchy, one because I don’t think I can do it and the other because it may cause some strife amongst people:

1.       I resolve to be more patient with others.

Those that know me probably think this an unlikely proposition at best – I don’t do patience, especially not with other people, or stupid people, or people that are not me and dammit you people should really try to be better crap no let me try this again.

(This is hard.)

It’s not that I don’t understand the flaws of others, especially since I am more flawed than most mammals. I just have a problem with incompetence, and my problem is that that the incompetence of others usually becomes a big problem for me (if that makes sense). In attempting to be more friendly and approachable and less likely to snarl at passerby, I will make a conscious effort to not snap at people for no reason. Please don’t test me on this.

This resolution will come into direct conflict, probably on a daily basis with the other hard-to-keep resolution, which is…

2.       I resolve to eliminate the stupid.

If you know me, you may not know that I actually don’t like you at all. Obviously this isn’t the case for all of you, but if you’ve come into my life thanks only to someone that I actually do like and are trying to facilitate some sort of horseshit ‘friendship’ that I’ve reciprocated only because I don’t like hurting feelings…just know that there’s been a change in management’s policy and we are no longer playing pretend.

I’m not doing this to be mean; it’s a matter of self-preservation. At this moment, I have a wife, a dog, 11 ‘very good friends’, 30-odd ‘enjoyable acquaintances’ and then there’s everyone else. The wife and dog win more often than not; from August to May, I spend quite a bit of time away from them and my home and I like my home. I’m on a mission to eliminate the nights and moments I’m away from them – or people I really want to hang out with – because I’m on some altruistic mission to make nice with somebody I don’t care about as much. Life’s too short. I apologize if you feel as though you’ve been convicted of something without trial, since it seems like I’m condemning people as bad friends or boring or failing to live up to invisible standards I’m setting for people I care about – while that’s not my intention and it’s certainly not fair, life isn’t always very fair. Chances are, if you’re on my not-as-important list, I’m also on yours and we’d both rather be hanging out with other people anyway.

(Addendum: Please don’t ask me what category you fall into, since that may put me in the unfortunate position of having to lie in order to spare feelings.)

Also, if you spend a great deal of time being a self-important jack hole or soul-crushingly depressing when I’m around you/see your Facebook/read your Tweets, know that there’s only room for one narcissistic asshole in my life, and it’s me. I can’t always be trying to out-smarm people, I’ve got to get some work done on occasion. These blogs don’t write themselves.

Speaking of, thanks to all that read/enjoy these blogs. Well, enjoy may be a strong word – I can’t say for certain that anyone enjoys them. But if you do (and I hope you do), know that I love writing them, plan to eventually do something bigger with them and appreciate the compliments. And if you don’t, to quote The Dude…

Enjoy 2013.


I’m Fat

You know what’s awesome about dieting?

Not a damn thing.

I’m alternately surly, sarcastic and downright ornery between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. My stomach demands food, RIGHT NOW. My apple, cheese stick and granola bar washed down with water is a far cry from the needs of my belly.

I know why I’m doing this. I spent five years (the four in college plus a post-grad year in Memphis) eating what I wanted, when I wanted with no ramifications. I also didn’t have a mirror in my house at the time.

And then one day last year I caught a glimpse of my shirtless self in the mirror and said, out loud, “My, what a slovenly fat ass you’ve become.”

I used to be trim (unhealthily so, actually) and athletic. I could run a couple of miles without stopping to throw up and without my knees screaming at me. I had devolved to the point where I wheezed like a fat man at Hooters when I walked up a couple flights of stairs.

I had to make a change of some sort. I didn’t want to have a heart attack because I over-exerted myself hauling groceries in from the garage one day when I was 29 years old.

Working out was out of the question, not that I didn’t try. Have you ever tried lugging 275 pounds around on a treadmill? It’s not impossible, but there are better things to do with your time. I would make the walk from my apartment to the gym (about a quarter mile away) and be exhausted by the time I got there.

I always said I would rather sacrifice my body and spare time to working out rather than give up eating like a liberated sixth grader. I realized fairly quickly that would not be the case, mainly because working out left my disheveled body a carcass of fail.

So I’ve been dieting. Since January, I’ve dropped a significant amount of weight – less than 100 pounds, more than 30. I’m extremely proud of myself; I list it among one of my chief accomplishments in life. Not everybody has the willpower to stop eating everything that isn’t bolted down. I did; I have no problem bragging about myself where that’s concerned.

It does have a downside though and it’s that you have to, you know, not eat stuff.

I eat the aforementioned apple/cheese stick/granola bar combo every day for lunch, unless I’m feeling froggy and go for Subway (the healthiest fast food option possible). Breakfast is either another granola bar or a bagel if I’m not being rushed. I take a zinc pill that’s supposed to confuse my stomach into thinking it’s full. I drink water, constantly.

And it’s all as miserable as it sounds. I miss fried stuff. I miss grease. I miss regular potato chips. Sure, I indulge on occasion – I’m as human as the next person – but never to the point of blissful excess I became accustomed to.

Some things I don’t do; full-sugar soft drinks – I’ve gone to Diet Dr. Pepper, which makes me want to put a kitten in a wood chipper just by admitting to it – and Gatorade are all but gone from my life. Pizza rolls are a seldom treat. Even regular hand-tossed pizza is an issue; the crust is so bad for you that I eat thin crust, which has the consistency of sun-dried boogers but may keep me alive for an extra two days.

(Notice: I haven’t cut out beer, but it’s been severely curtailed. The dark beers I love have become a once-a-day or every other day item. I’ve even begun drinking vodka and orange juice, since it offers some vitamins with my liver failure. Good times!)

My wife, bless her, has been accommodating of my change. She cooks healthy food for me, without complaint, even though it’s a tremendous pain in the ass and life would be much simpler if she just grabbed a pizza on the way home or popped in some corn dogs and tater tots (God, do I miss tater tots).

Why am I writing about this? Because this weekend, during my 25th birthday celebration, I’m going to eat all the food I’ve been avoiding. I’m going to drink dark beer and smoke a cigar and gamble and stay out too late and eat fried food at terrible hours. I’m going to party like it’s 2009, and if the end result is I’m dead by Tuesday – or worse, that I’ve put 10 pounds back on that will take more than a fortnight to lose – it will be the greatest weekend of my life.

(If I’m not dead, it’ll still probably be pretty good.)