Saturday, June 28, 2008

Note on pictures...

Right now, I don’t have WiFi or Ethernet access, so I don’t have any way of transferring pictures from my laptop to Facebook and Flickr. Once I get it set up, though, I’ll let you all know and post as much as possible. However, I might have to wait until I get to China and spend some QT uploading photos… I know you’re all desperately waiting.

Ever see a giant snail? Then have to grill and eat it? I have.

Wow, what a meal the other night (Wednesday – first night at the ryokan). Traditionally, guests don’t leave their inns to eat. Rather, the best chefs work at the best hotels and you can eat like a king in-house.

Yoko ordered a bunch of regional specialties at our dinner. The six of us ate in a private dining room, sitting on the tatami mats on small, legless chairs in traditional fashion. A very respectful, kimono-clad woman attended our room, bowing every time she entered and kneeing to open and close the door. With all of us wearing kimonos loaned to us by the hotel (also, standard), it felt like we were in some sort of silk wall hanging or watercolor portrait. Very cool…

The tables were already covered with food when we entered. Each of us had the same selection: Japanese hotpot (slices of raw fish and vegetables that you cook yourself in a broth and then dip in seasonings), sashimi, sushi appetitizers, a dish of rice that the attendant cooked while we ate, miso soup with lobster, vegetables and the usual Japanese garnishes of seaweed and pickles.

The Japanese, apparently, drink all the time (I mentioned the breakfast beer), so Yoko and Reiko ordered bottles of Sapporo and I asked for a bottle of white wine and we got down to business with hearty cries of Itadakimasu! and Kampai!

As we ate the food (which was all incredibly fresh – particularly the sashimi scallops), the waitress brought out two more dishes – regional delicacies. Yoko had arranged ahead of time for us to try both of them. The first, Red Snapper, was served broiled whole and garnished in a rich, sesame teriyaki sauce. With three fish for the six of us, each person received half of a fish respectively. Mine was piled high on a plate – eyeballs to tail, skin and all.

It was very good. The fish’s skin was perfectly crisp and the white flesh underneath melted away as it hit your tongue. Snapper doesn’t have a thick, fishy taste. Rather, the meat had soaked in the flavors of the marinade and had a light, buttery finish.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to eat the fish’s eyeball. Apparently that, along with the spine and tail, are the only things the Japanese don’t eat. However, Yoko did say I should try the eye socket because it was “good for your blood.” Not wanting to offend, I popped the wobbly disc into my mouth and crunched down on the jelly-filled substance. Um… the bitter flavor and awful consistency didn’t pair well with the rest of the delicious fish. Thankfully, I only had one socket to get through.

What I didn’t know at the time was that a little bit of whole fish was just a warm-up for the culinary adventure to come. Thing were about to get a whole lot scarier. Let me introduce you to owabi – an expensive, fresh-caught specialty. We Americans would refer to it either as “live giant snail” (me) or “Eeeeeeeeeek!” (Mom and Sis).

Now, most would be pout off by snails in the first place. Personally, I rather enjoy escargot as an appetizer, but they’re small, manageable and served sautéed in butter and garlic. Note the operative word there being “cooked.”

That night, not all of our dinner was served out of the oven. Rather, the owabi was placed, shell-down, on a small plate and presented separately from the rest of the meal. I think the intention was to have us guests especially note its wriggly freshness.

That was kind of hard to miss; the underside of the slimy snail rippled and wriggled as the animal struggled to flip itself over and ooze off to the closest tidal pool. At first, the snails just undulated quietly, almost like they were breathing rhythmically (Were they? I didn’t ask… too busy trying not to have a “reversal.”) But after a few minutes, their struggles became fiercer and they began to twist their bodies back and forth, rocking their shells against the plate. Clink, click, clack.

For a brief moment, I had to steel myself to find some courage to quietly go on with dinner. Jen and Mom both let out shrieks and had to hide their respective snails out of sight. I can’t say that I blame them – owabi ain’t gonna be winning no beauty contest this century. We also didn’t have any warning that a giant, oozy, wriggling snail was going to feature as the main course. Just, plop, here you go – enjoy!

Thankfully, we didn’t have to eat the snails raw. There wasn’t any way I could do that. Each table has a small 4x4-inch grill with a sterno can. At the proper time, our server lit the sterno and I dropped my snail, shell down, onto the flames. The struggles intensified.

“How do you know when it’s been cooked?” I asked, reasonably.

“Oh, when it stops moving of course.”


It took a few minutes of some frantic, wavy death-wriggles, but the little guy eventually stopped moving. I left him on the grill to cook for a few more minutes. Can’t be too careful, you know.

We got my flip rolling tape (I’ll try to post it soon) and I dressed the owabi with a pat of butter and squeezed a lemon wedge over it. The outer edges of the snail’s body contracted involuntarily when the acidic fruit juice hit it. While it did that, I ignored the double-twist somersault my stomach performed simultaneously. “Too late to stop now,” I thought.

I sliced off a piece using a knife and fork.

Hmm… that looks big.

I cut it in half.

Better, but…

I cut it in half again.

After that, there was no turning back. I stabbed a chunk, took a breath and popped it into my mouth. One chew. Two chews. A third… and then I had the rhythm going.

The result? No gagging, spitting or choking. The snail was tough, springy and fairly flavorless as a whole. I’d say part of the texture came from possible over-cooking, but that’d just be a guess (note: probably incorrect – our dinner the next night contained three small slices of owabi, served cooked and they were similarly tough). If I had to compare the snail to anything, I’d say it’s probably like a scallop – only with 1/10th of the flavor and about 20 times the chewiness. Japaanes love subtlety in their flavors, so that’s probably what makes this exotic treat a $40-per-piece delicacy.

As for me, I would’ve been perfectly satisfied with some shrimp tempura or gyoza or something. But, hey, you only live once.

Still alive in Japan… catch you soon!

Eating, bathing, eating, bathing... and then eating and bathing some more.

(Editor’s note: This was written a couple days ago, but since Mike was trapped out in the Japanese boondocks with no Internet, no cell phone and only an honest-to-God rotary telephone in his hotel room, it couldn’t be posted until now. Also, this along with most posts will be cut from emails to Sonja, so if Mike says he loves you, he really means he loves her. Although he does love you, too… he’s just not ready to say it out loud yet.)

So, during out day-and-a-half in-country, we haven’t done much of anything besides eat. It took us a couple hours to get from the airport to Yoko’s place. She doesn’t live too far from the city center (45 minutes or so), but the airport is on the other side of Tokyo. We took a bus from the airport to a hotel that’s about 15 minutes away and Reiko picked us up there with a friend’s mini van to fit the ridiculous amount of baggage.

Yoko had a spread of fresh sushi (ordered from a local place) along with some handmade food waiting for our arrival. She cooked a cabbage stew, which is Grandma’s favorite dish. I didn’t get the name of it, but it’s cabbage, potatoes, carrots and strips of beef cooked in a light broth - very nice. We had fresh salad and an egg custard that had chunks of fish in it (Sounds disgusting, but it’s actually quite tasty - almost like a omelet, but with a consistency of pudding, served slightly warmed. That sounds even worse, no?). We ate, drank beer, talked and Grandma showed off her suitcases of gifts (that took an hour). It was a lot fun, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Mom, Jen and I slept in the living room downstairs. Yoko’s couches, which are soft leather benches, can be pushed together to form small beds. I had my own, but Mom and Jen had to share the equivalent of a twin. We were all so tired, it wasn’t really a problem.

I’ll have to take some pictures of Yoko’s place so you can see it... it’s interesting and I’m glad we got to stay in a “real” Japanese home. Every single square inch of space is filled with something useful. The ceilings are low, the seats are small and I sometimes feel like a giant - it’s kinda fun!

As it turns out, Yoko doesn’t have the Internet at her place and, oddly, this hotel we’re in doesn’t either. It’s weird because it’s an incredible nice place. I have no idea where in Japan we are, but it’s a four-hour bus ride from Tokyo. Our hotel overlooks the Pacific (the room Grandma, Mom, Jenna and I are sharing has a ocean view). Originally, we were going to Hakone and Mt. Fuji, but apparently Yoko decided to come here with her time share privileges instead. She thought the weather would be better.

I think there’s less to do and see here, but that’s okay - it is a vacation after all, right?

Our hotel (the Okomoto Club in Atawa) is a tradition ryokan (Japanese Inn). The rooms are all covered in tatami mats and are subdivided by sliding rice paper screens. At night, while you’re at dinner, the staff comes in and lays out futons on the floor for you to sleep on. They’re remarkably comfortable and have thick, yet breathable, comforters. If I can afford to buy one, I might and then cruelly make my mom and sister cart it back to the States for me.

Like most ryokans, this place has its own onsen (natural hot spring) and they’ve built indoor/outdoor facilities for men and women. Hallelujah that there was no “family room” and I didn’t have to see my mom, sister, grandmother, great aunt and second cousin naked. I’d have to stick chopsticks in my eyes, throw up and drown myself all at once.

I had two visits to the onsen today. It’s very relaxing, but it definitely gets you out of your comfort zone as you go in completely naked and it’s one big open room full of strangers. The resort we’re at either caters to the old people or retirees are the only ones that can come up here during the week, because I was surrounded by a lot of wrinky, bald-butted Japanese old dudes.

There is some etiquette involved in using an onsen. You first enter the Japanese version of a locker room (the main difference is that it doesn’t smell like socks and the floors are A) clean and B) covered in bamboo tatami mats). There, you strip off your kimono (yup, I’ve been wearing a robe around the ryokan - hotel), put it into a basket in a cubby hole that serves as a locker. After that, you head into the main room of the onsen. But instead of heading (nude) straight for the pool of steaming hot water, you first must wash yourself. It’s along the lines of showering before you hop into the public pool, only that here, people actually do it. And they don’t pee in the pool, either.

Along one wall, stands a row of overturned buckets, which you can use as a stool to wash yourself. There’s a smaller bucket, about the size of a standard Tupperware container, which you can fill from a faucet and rinse yourself off. If you prefer using a showerhead, those are also available. It’s customary to at least splash water over your body (in particular, the family jewels), but you also have the option to use provided washcloths, soap and shampoo to give yourself a head-to-toe cleaning. I picked that option for both visits - no use in offending anyone! Plus it’s fun to scrub-a-dub-dub in a room that looks like a giant tub.

Both times, I chose to hop into the indoor spring first. It’s a large tile bath with one step leading down into it and benches lining the sides. The water’s only about 3 feet deep, so you can splash around, but you can’t swim. It’s quite relaxing.

I did commit an onsen faux pas. Not wanting to look like I was scared and never done that before, I strutted around like I owned the place. Everyone’s naked, no reason to hide along the walls or anything, right?

When I first went in, there were only three other people: one guy washing himself off (for 25 minutes!) and two in the outdoor spring area. So, I left my washcloth at the stand and hopped in the spring. Then, a group of about 8-10 guys came into the room... and every single one of them had their washcloth hovering or cupped over their ding-a-ling. So, although you’re naked, you’re not supposed to just walk around hanging brain. Whoops (Note to self: write to Lonely Planet and tell them to include that in their next edition… it would’ve been nice to know).

I got out and grabbed my cloth and tried to fit in. I think I failed, though, as everyone else had a nice, normal, white cloth and somehow I’d wound up with a florescent green one from my room. Holding it in front of me, I looked like a gay Indian, wearing his favorite loincloth to a sweaty nightclub. Rock on.

Once I figured that out, I enjoyed myself a little more. I took a second dip at night and had the place to myself. It was fun being in the outdoor onsen by myself, looking up at where the stars should be (it was too cloudy to see anything), palm trees (didn’t know they had those) and a the lights from a couple other hotels (I pretended they couldn’t see me). I sat there on the stone tiles of the tub, listened to the trickle of fresh water coming through pipes into the tub and sighed contentedly.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ramblings from Japan...


My “entertainment” selections for the 12-hour flight from Chicago to Tokyo: The Spiderwick Chronicles, Definitely Maybe, The Bucket List, Mad Money, Shine a Light and The Other Boleyn Girl. Let’s just say I read. A lot.

Boingo’s airport signal strength (both in Chicago and Tokyo) is equivalent to me trying to do bench press reps at the NFL combine.

What the heck did people do to kill time waiting to board before the iPhone? Currently going through email, SMS, Twitter, Facebook and Bejeweled withdrawl.

Did you know Cup o’ Noodles qualifies as a “meal” on United Airlines’ long-haul flights. Me neither.


Upon seeing pictures of my fiancée, my second cousin Reiko remarked, “She has a nice bust!” Normally, I’d chalk that up to as a “lost in translation moment,” but she repeated it several times.

My great aunt Yoko (who’s hosting us while we’re in Tokyo) has a fat toy Chihuahua who’s terrified of me. It’s like a hairy, freaked-out football and I want to kick it.

Grandma, in addition to slipping right back into her native language and culture, also started slipping out of her clothes. Apparently, pants are optional if you’re 70-plus. Thank goodness she wears huge cotton briefs.

You haven’t been entertained until you’ve watched two technologically ignorant septuagenarians spend eight minutes yelling at each other and jabbing fingers at a ticket machine in confusion. All they had to do was push the “English” button in the corner, told me which station we needed to go to, and we’d have been off in 30 seconds. But, no…


They have Aflac commercials here and they use a duck, but not Gilbert Godfried’s voice. It’s kinda weird. And the duck has one feather sticking up on the top of its head, too. I thought you should know.

Also, Akinori Iwamura (the 2nd baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays) hit a home run today and it made it into the news block, not just sports. They love them some Japanese ballplayers over here, even if they’re playing in Tampa.

Japanese ping-pong players get endorsement deals from the Asian version of Gatorade. It’s like watching Forrest Gump, only lamer.

The Colonel is still the spokeslogo for KFC. Only he looks a little Japanese... that could just be the late-night sushi talking, though.

I’ve seen maybe six other Caucasian people in a week here (discounting the tourists at the airport), yet 25% of Japanese advertisements feature blonde-and-blue-eyed Abercrombie-esque models. It’s strangely disconcerting.


I am taller than every women I’ve seen and at least 2/3rds of the men. I’m 5’8” on an extremely good day with reduced gravity. This rocks.

I wear flip-flops, which confuses Yoko to no end. You see, to her (and every Japanese person over 50), flip-flops are indoor house shoes. It’s proper to cover your feet when you’re outdoors. We’ve compromised, though: she stops pestering me to wear sneakers and I just have to wipe my feet with a washcloth for five minutes before I come into her house.

The Japanese society is one that revolves around the clock and punctuality. Trains arrive the instant they’re supposed to (not a minute sooner), people meet you exactly when they say they will and a dinner reservation for 6 p.m. actually means dinner is set for six. But, when the Nagels arrive, they make history - for the first time ever, a bus was delayed. Why? Because our cousin had to stand in front of it for 10 minutes, while my grandma and great aunt teamed up to get us lost and make us late. Ever been glared at by two-dozen angry retirees while you’re trying to find a seat on the bus? It’s not fun.

Having a shaved head apparently makes you a Yakuza (Japanese mafia). So not only am I taller than everyone, but people are terrified of me. Although, I don’t know if it’s the hair or the flip-flops that’s setting them off…

Ask for mizu at restaurants and you get odd stares. Refill a water bottle at a bubbler and people point and laugh. Apparently, you’re not allowed to drink anything besides tea or Sapporo (which, incidentally, they serve at breakfast).

Bidets – surprisingly powerful and well-aimed.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

My virgin effort...

The audio and editing suck, but it was my first try with the Flip and iMovie. At least it's somewhat coherent... and hopefully I'll figure out how to get a thumbnail image in there, too.

It's a start... enjoy!

Also, here's the link to my YouTube account.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

I've done my packing, now it's Grandma's turn

I'm going to post a Japan itinerary (I leave in four days). But frankly that's about as exciting to read as a calendar, because, well... you are reading a calendar. So before I get to some mind-numbing list of dates and places, I thought I'd feed your Internet entertainment craving with a little peek into the mind of my grandmother.

For those of you that don't know, I'm traveling through Japan with my Grandmother (who is Japanese, was born there and moved to the States and became a citizen about 50 years ago), my mom (born on a military base in Japan) and my sister (like me, born in a hospital here - much less exciting). It's going to be a two-week jaunt through family history, meeting relatives, seeing the "homeland" and sharing rooms in ryokans.

Well, Grandma is quite the character. I love her to death, but she definitely has her quirks. One of them has to do with her luggage - or, rather, the items she wants to bring that can't fit into her suitcases. It's Japanese tradition to bring gifts when you visit. It's been a few years since Grandma's been back to her homeland, so she's loaded up on those... that seems sensible enough. The quirk she has about packing has to do with A) the type of gifts she's bringing and B) the seeming illogical assumption that famine has arrived in Japan and we will starve for two weeks. This has led to over-packing, which has led to me checking an extra bag just for her stuff.

Thank goodness I pack light.

Grandma's packing list:

1 faux Coach bag - She actually is bringing six of these. But she didn't want to have trouble with customs, so she gave me one. Apparently, she thinks that will make a difference.

1 set of Japanese flip-flops - because, you know, they're hard to find in Japan.

3 Red Sox t-shirts - this makes sense. Dice-K mania is huge; the relatives will love the shirts. I want a Seibu Lions jersey, myself.

3 Charles River Laboratories t-shirts - I don't think anyone's asking for the leftover swag from a company Grandma hasn't worked for in 5 years.

1 bottle, Centrum Silver - taking your vitamins is good. Taking 250 over a 16-day span is not.

2 family-sized packages, caesar croutons - we're visiting a friend Grandma has who likes salad. So we're bringing salad. Right.

24 tea packets - didn't they INVENT tea in Asia?

12 instant coffee packets - this makes sense. I can't live without coffee.

1 jar instant coffee - in light of above, not needed.

1 box, Pop Secret popcorn - not a clue as to her reasoning on this one.

1 box, SPANISH Pop Secret popcorn - Porque?!

2 packets, guacamole mix - "This way, if we find avacadoes, we can have chips at night."

6 pounds of Lindt chocolate -
Either these are gifts, or G-ma has one heckuva sweet tooth.

1 bottle for salad dressing - Yes, we're bringing a mix-your-own dressing bottle. Just in case that awesome ginger salad dressing you get at sushi places has been sold out nationwide.

1 blue rubber bath mat - This is actually a gift for her sister. Hey, at least it's not socks.

8 granola bars - Great for flights. Except they'll be checked in the cargo hold.

2 pounds of whole grain spaghetti - This was actually a compromise. Grandma originally wanted to bring the pasta AND two jars of homemade sauce to Japan, but we talked her out of it. Although, it would've been easy to spot my suitcase at baggage claim - it would be the one leaking.

1 jar, brownish-orange, thick gel with pungent order - I don't know what it is. It's wrapped in a paper towel and then encased in bubble wrap. It smells, strong, of ginger. I think Grandma might have preserved some at home? At least, that's what I'll be telling the Homeland Security agents when they've dragged me off to a mirrored room after my stuff's been confisticated at check-in.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends...

Come on now, let's not get our knickers into a twist and anoint Coldplay the World's Biggest Band and Chris Martin as a falsetto-singing, British world-savior. All the pop music magazines did that for X&Y, and we all know how well that turned out.

Thankfully, the press seems to have taken a vicodin or three and just chilled out, man. While the fourth full-length from our (current) favorite fab four finally hit shelves today, there has been much less buzz surrounding this one. I don't know if it's because we've realized that pumping something up too much only leads to abject disappointment (no, that was not a penis joke... entirely) or that anyone who names their kid "Apple" can't also be the second-coming of Ghandi. Instead of magazine spread after magazine spread of blah-blah-blah, we've had one single released online and another made into one of those wicked-cool iTunes ads. That's good enough for me.

Maybe the record label execs relaxed this time around, realizing that they're going to be swimming in royalties either way after yet another chart-topper. Or maybe the band just got fed up with answering the same questions at every interview. Who knows? But it just seems quieter this year. That's okay with me. Not every band has to pull a U2 when they drop another record.

Thanks to something I'll call "industry connections," I received a copy of the album (possibly illegally, so I won't say how to thus not incriminate any co-conspirators) last week. For anyone who likes Coldplay - either secretly or openly - you'll be happy to hear that this album is solid, track 1-13.

Throughout the wordily titled Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, Chris Martin's vocals take a backseat to the music. His voice, at times, falls to a whisper-level croon as the guitars rise and swell (this time, definitely not a penis joke) around him, making it hard to figure out exactly what he's saying. For me, the lyrics were always the best thing about Coldplay tracks, so it was surprising the band moved in that direction. I didn't like it at first, but after a couple listens, the effect grew on me.

It did so mostly because the music on this album is far catchier than on any of the band's others. The guys took a page from Radiohead's playbook and centered each track around a single riff, building and layering the guitars, drums, organs and piano throughout (with the occasional string section, steel guitar or middle-eastern lute thrown in for good measure). The result is a whole lot of theatrical buildup that gets you toe-tapping and head-bopping; the music keeps you listening for long enough to start to pick out Martin's words. And when you do, you find some gems:

Those who are dead, are not dead.
They're just living in my head.
And since I fell for that spell, I am living it, as well.
Time is so short and unsure, there must be something wrong...
You thought you might be a ghost
You didn't get to heaven, but you made it close.

If you're a fan of the band, definitely pick up the album. I won't say it's the year's best, but it's probably in my top-10 so far - and I don't see it dropping from there anytime soon. I give it a solid B+

Now if only I had scored tickets to one of the free shows in New York or London....

Friday, June 13, 2008

That's right, I'm packing...

Editors' note: I'm writing as a featured blogger for - which is a social networking site dedicated exclusively to travelers. The site recently celebrated its first year anniversary and has been quite successful, so it's an honor for me to be a part of it.

During the course of my time at the Olympics, I'll be posting blogs on their site. I'll include links here, too, though so you can click through to the travel posts.


I’m getting ready to leave on my next adventure. In ten days, I’ll be boarding a plane for trip halfway around the globe. Behind me, I’m leaving an apartment, bills, job obligations and (most importantly) a fiancee, friends and family and setting out for a 2 1/2 month long journey through Japan and China.

There are a ton of preparations for the trip. I need to make sure my banks know I’m going, bills have to be paid in advance, my car has to find another home for a while and someone has to water my plants (not that I do that enough, anyway, but it’d be good to have them not be entirely brown when I get back). This part of the trip sucks - it’s no fun thinking about logistics and budgets. The fun part is flipping through travel guides and reading trip blogs and finding the cool, out-of-the way places to visit or a funky hostel to sleep in.

The one tedious part of trip prep I actually enjoy is packing. I love pulling out my stuff, laying it all out and fitting it inside of my luggage. There’s a routine to it that starts to get my blood flowing as anticipation of travel ramps up. Plus, I always play The Beatles’ Come Together album. I don’t remember where that tradition started, but every time I hear it, it makes me think about heading out on the open road or through the nearest check-in gate.

While with each trip, my packing list changes, there are always a few standbys you’ll find in my bags... (follow the link HERE for the rest of the article)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The scariest moment of my life...

The first emotion is absolute shock:

I'm sitting in my chair, just staring at the computer screen. My mouth moves, but no sound comes out... I must look like a beached fish, gasping for oxygen. That's pretty much what I feel like - it's hard to draw a breath and the air moves raggedly through my throat, rattling slightly.

Followed by furious, burning anger:

Just then, my brain seems to catch up with my body. My fists clench involuntarily, fingernails digging into palms, as my whole body stiffens. It's a reaction to the fire that was lit in my belly. A soft matchstrike at first that quickly - nearly instantly - builds into a raging inferno. The heat shoots up my chest and consumes my head as my face turns a brilliant shade of scarlet.

Gasp. I gulp in a lungful of air and a profanity explodes out with the exhalation. It doesn't give me any sort of release, so I try it again - louder and clearer, slamming both fists down into the arms of my chair. The exclamations and pounding come faster, in rhythm and the furniture in the room shakes. No one can hear me, it's nearly midnight, as I vent my frustrations to the air.

Which gives way to quiet, pleading denial:

I sink back into the chair and cease shouting. The sides of my hands are sore from slamming into the wooden arms, but I'm not thinking about that at all. Now, I'm once again looking at the computer screen. This time, shaking my head slightly and muttering, "No, no, NO," over and over again. I re-start everything, hoping that something's changed, like a desperate patient reviewing test results... but nothing has. The results are the same. The file is empty.

Last, a sickening realization:

I just deleted my entire music collection. Thousands of dollars and years of accumulation gone in an instant. 8,500 songs, 100 videos, 75 gigs of data... wiped out. I sold my CD collection last year and can't get the songs back. There is no backup. I am screwed.


Friends, I hope and pray that this never, ever happens to you. Perhaps I am way to (psychotically) attached to my music collection, but I felt like a large piece of me died that night. This thing that had always been a part of me. Full of favorite albums, rare tracks, defunct local bands, Internet-only downloads and live cuts, I'd babied it over the years. Like a gardener, I pruned back albums that I no longer listened to, added new areas to appreciate, maintained it when it got old and upgraded to digital. More than mere enjoyment, my music collection was a hobby, no, a passion.

And then, in an instant, it was gone. I was alone. It was terrifying.

It all happened when I tried to re-partition my external hard drive so I could set up Time Machine to backup my data. If you're not tech-savvy, don't worry - I didn't understand half of what I just wrote.

Basically, I have an external hard drive to hold my music collection (it's too big to fit on my laptop). Time Machine is a Mac program that automatically backs up your computer. So, if you delete something by accident or if everything crashes, you can recover all of your files - not too shabby, eh? I wanted to use half of the external hard drive to house my music collection and half to back up my computer. To do so, I had to divide it (or "partition"), which is kind of like drawing a virtual line through the thing.

When I partitioned it, the program said that it would not touch any information stored in the current section of the drive, which is where I had all my music. It would just separate out a new chunk of space for me to use. Simple enough.

Except some glitch occurred - I don't know what - and my entire hard drive erased itself.

Poof. Everything was gone.


Ultimately, acceptance:

It was gone. All gone. There was nothing more I could do.

My laptop's internal fan whirred to a stop, both silence and darkness filled the room as it turned itself off. Slowly, I picked myself up from my chair. Now past midnight, it was time for bed. 90 minutes of denial, frustration and vain attempts to turn back time had failed. I'd started trying to calculate the costs of rebuilding my music library... hours spent transferring files from friends' computers, re-buying albums that I couldn't live without... but it was overwhelming. I could never get it back.

I gave up and went to sleep, which came surprisingly fast. Perhaps I'd exhausted myself with worry.

"Tomorrow's another day," I thought, just before I drifted off.

A happy ending:

Brian, my brother and resident Apple-expert, sent me a link to Senuti. It's a progam that's intended to back up your iPod. You can use it to unlock any iPod and transfer the music files, playlists and videos back to your computer. It's free (donations encouraged) and works extremely fast...

A little ray of hope burst through my sickening cloud of despair. Maybe, just maybe, the program would work like advertised. I quickly downloaded it, opened it up and clicked the "transfer" button.

You could not imagine my joy when I saw names of songs flashing through the list, each one announcing a successful copy from the iPod back to my iTunes library! I shouted out of happiness, "Whoohoo!" Pumped my fists and ran around my room in circles.


I'm a child. And I turn 25 next week.

12 hours of depressing loss led to 3 hours of joyful exuberance as the program took 60 gigs of music and videos and restored them to all of their organized glory. In the end, I recovered all of my music and only lost about half of my videos (all from seasons of Lost and The Office).

I don't know what the lesson is here... I'm sure there's one somewhere. Frankly, I'm still too much in shock to figure it out. For a day, I ran the complete gamut of emotions - loss, depression, denial and anger to disbelieving happiness and celebration. I feel like it's the 2004 Sox-Yankees playoff series all over again.

I love life!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Mike's culinary adventures...

I like to cook and I like to eat. I'm not a gourmand, by any stretch of the imagination, but I enjoy good food, nice preparation and am always willing to try new cuisines or dishes. I wouldn't call myself a chef, but I do know how to throw together a nice dinner party or prepare a table for two.

It seems lately, however, that my culinary endeavors have been limited. Some of it, no doubt, is just because I haven't taken the time of late to cook. Food prices, too, have made buying fresh produce and meats a more costly experience and with every bill I pay, I have to say goodbye to that thick, juicy steak and hello to some chicken nuggets.

But the biggest factor is probably my kitchen itself. Or should I say "kitchen," because it's only masquerading as a place to prepare food. My bachelor pad has a sink and a full set of cabinets, but that's it - there's no oven and no stove. So, for the last four months, I've been cooking with an electric burner, plug-in wok and a small toaster oven.

At first, it was a huge pain. I had to plan all my meals, when shopping, on their annoyance level to prepare. Things had to fit inside the oven (about 12"x6"x4"), for one - that eliminated any roasting or broiling, pretty much. Also, they had to be pretty quick-cooking... the electric burners are about as powerful as my car's cigarette lighter.

After a few weeks of trial and error, I've come up with a miniature cookbook for bachelors stuck in a similar situation (or anyone who lives in a dorm room). It's kind of amazing, but 7 years after I moved out of the dorms, I've come back to the EasyMac days.

-Pasta ain't easy-
If you're like me, you think breaking spaghetti to fit into a pot is akin to spitting on your mom. The point of spaghetti is to have long strands of pasta to twirl with a fork and spoon or be able to slurp up 12 inch strands of fresh, wheaty goodness. In keeping with that life philosophy, I have a stainless, two-gallon pot to make spaghetti in (it's also great for washing your feet, but that's another story...).

But with the awesome power of my 10-watt hotplate, it takes a full hour to bring a gallon of water to a boil. This means that, if I want to have spaghetti for dinner, I need to start cooking it at lunchtime, in the hopes that I'll actually be in the mood for pasta when the times comes.

Spaghetti is out. In, though, are some nice, handmade egg noodles that I can drop clusters of into a smaller pot of boiling water. I also am a big fan of Annie's pasta, too. That still takes longer to cook than normal, but at least I get more instant gratification.

--Pizza better not be frozen--
Some nights, I'm lazy. All I want to do is heat up a pizza and enjoy it with a beer and sit and watch the Sox or the C's. It's pretty simple.

But, being the thrifty bachelor that I am, I don't want to order an entire pizza - it's way too much food for just me and it's about twice as expensive as a nice, frozen pie. I'd much rather turn to DiGiorno or Red Baron.

Here's the rub - neither one of those fits into my teeny toaster oven. They come frozen, so you can't cut them in half without defrosting. This defeats any sort of non-planned pizza popping, which is the whole purpose of it, as far as I'm concerned.

I tried buying smaller frozen pies (the store-brand kind... it was the only ones I could find). However, they were A) too small and B) tasted like poo.

Luckily, I stumbled onto a solution. You can buy Boboli (or Boboli-like alternatives) pre-made doughs, cut them into half-moon shapes, slop on some sauce, add a medley of cheeses and whatever fresh ingredients I want. Bingo - now I have slices that are better than any frozen 'za out there.

--Grilled Cheese--
I used to grill sandwiches in my cast-iron skillet, back when I had a real gas stove. Those days are over and my skillet sits mostly unused in my cupboard, since it takes almost as long to heat as water does to boil. I could still make grilled cheese with a standard, Target-issued pan that's as thin as a couple sheets of tinfoil, but even that takes longer than I want... Grilled cheese just shouldn't take more time to make than it does to visit a fast-food drive-thru.

So, I happened on this alternative - make the sandwich and pop it into the toaster oven. In less than two minutes, you have ooey-gooey cheese and toasted sides, with no flipping. I was impressed when I tried it the first time and haven't gone back since... I suppose it's common-sense to know that you can put something into the oven and it'll get heated and toasted, but, uh... that thought never did dawn on me.

Okay, I'm done rambling... totally bored with this post. But I figured I should get something up here, since it's been a while...

Peace out. I'm hungry.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Street Viewer for Google Maps...

View Larger Map

Have you checked out Google Maps Street Viewer yet? If you haven't, it's a 3-D map function from select cities that shows you what it looks like if you were driving or walking on the streets themselves. It was launched to much fanfare almost exactly a year ago.

Personally, I pretty much ignored it after the first day, since I don't live in San Fran, Denver or any of the six original cities. However, since the debut, Google has quietly been adding cities to its uber-cool map feature. While they still haven't made it to my current living place for even the regular maps (which I've mentioned before), they did recently add Manchester, NH to their lineup. Manchester is New Hampshire's biggest city, but only has about 150,000 citizens. So, apparently to not waste their time in the Granite State, Google added surrounding communities - including my hometown of Auburn. That's my parents' house in the picture. One of the car's is mine (I used to park it on the lawn when I kept it in storage), the ones actually in the driveway belong to my family that still lives there. I have no idea who the other cars on the lawn belong to and that yellow school bus up on blocks in the back belonged to a roving, homeless, evangelical preacher that set up camp for a couple weeks.

I've found myself spending (no, wasting) time slowly clicking through the streets, trying to see if I can spot a neighbor out in their yard or driving by in their car. So far, I haven't come up with anything good (I was kinda hoping to spot my mom walking our dogs or something), but I keep checking back when I have some down time from watching lint collect on my floor or detecting patterns in TV static - you know, the usual things I do around my home/office.

Every time I finish clicking down a road or find myself trying to peer around the corners of houses, I feel a little bit like a Peeping Tom. I'm staring at people and their homes without their knowledge, taking my time to peruse their windows and yards and checking out the make and model of their cars. Wow - that sounds even more creepy written out like that.

Real-to-life-everything is the wave of the future. And there's definitely an advantage to show someone what turn-by-turn directions look like. However, it's going to take me a bit of time before I feel totally cool about Street Viewer.

But since the function isn't going to go away (more towns are being added practically daily), I guess I just gotta keep being a Peeping Tom until that weird feeling in the pit of my stomach goes away. Maybe it's guilt, maybe it's because the milk in my fridge is dated June 1st. Only time will tell...

In the meantime, check out some fun Street Viewer images at

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pardon me while I toot my own horn...

Okay, so apologies for bragging, but it's nice to get validation from time to time. Plus, I can share this news with you as an excuse to have you read something that I actually got paid for, as opposed to reading my ramblings that have made me zero bucks over the past year.

Good Catch Publishing, one of my freelance employers, selected a piece I wrote for them as their "Catch of the Month" for June, which means they picked me as the author of their favorite article for that 30-day span. Pretty cool, huh? The piece is a chapter of a book and details the true story of an Oregon man and his struggle to overcome an addiction to pornography. You can read "I Can't Do This Alone" by following the link.

It is a long one, so apologies. But I hope you like it!