november 2000

There are really only three things that I use Napster for: to download songs that aren't available on CD (such as live bootlegs, outtakes, or music that is just plain out of print), to listen to an artist who I am not sold on before I purchase a whole CDs worth of songs, and to preview an album by an artist that I already like so much that I just can't wait for the album to be released.

A good example of this last category is the new Radiohead record, "Kid A". Despite their best efforts to keep it from being uploaded to Napster (the album was only released to journalists on custom-made MP3 players that couldn't be attached to a computer), the tracks still found their way onto Napster about a month or so before the album was actually released. Now, I knew that no matter what I was going to buy that album; I am a Radiohead junkie, and I've been waiting three years for a fix. It was great to be able to listen to that album for a few weeks before I could purchase it; if anything, it made me even more excited about getting a copy for myself.

I also like to listen to things that I am interested in buying but not completely sure about yet. You can go to sites like CDnow and listen to sound clips for most artists, but even the high-bandwidth versions are still lacking somewhat in quality, and sometimes 30 seconds just isn't enough (especially when they sample the wrong 30 seconds). Plus, the sound clips aren't available for every album, and for many indie labels that don't have the distribution network behind them to allow for a national release of their artists, they aren't there at all because the online music retailers don't offer their music for sale.

The first artist that I listened to on Napster with the express purpose of sampling their music was DMX. DMX happens to be a very well established artist who doesn't really need my support, and the clips on CDnow probably would have been enough for me to decide whether or not I wanted to invest in the album (which I did). But for every person like me who tries out a more established artist like DMX, there are hundreds who are listening to great but little-known bands like Modest Mouse or Le Tigre or (and perhaps most importantly) any of the thousands of unsigned bands who have uploaded their material to Napster in an attempt to expand their fan base.

One of the things I enjoy doing most on Napster is looking for rare or out-of-print songs from artists that I am already a fan of. Cactus World News released a single album in the US in the mid-80's. I owned this on casette and loved it. Unfortunately, it was never released on CD in the US, so when I was converting my tape collection to CD, it got left behind. I still really like some of the songs on that tape, but until Napster I never had access to them in a modern format. I've also been able to download some other great stuff that I just can't get on CD, like demos from Liz Phair, and live songs from groups as diverse as R.E.M., Ben Harper, the Replacements, Radiohead and Yo La Tengo.

Napster has recently received financing from Bertelsmann (better known as BMG, one of the five major record companies that is currently involved in legal action against Napster) to develop a subscription-based service. They won't release the details of this service, but there are some big questions that need to be answered before anyone will sign on: Will the subscription service be optional (that is, will Napster in its current form be allowed to continue, with the pay service coming as an upgrade of sorts)? How much will the service cost, and will it be recurring monthly fee or a one-time only signup fee? Where will the content for the service come from, the record companies or individual users or both?

I would not pay more than $2 a month for Napster's subscription service (or maybe a one-time $10-$20 fee), and even then only if it kept the features that I prize now: availability of music before its official release and availability of songs that are otherwise unattainable, such as out-of-print music or bootlegs and outtakes. And this is precisely the kind of content that the major record labels would like removed from the service altogether; there's no way they're going to agree to release albums to Napster weeks before they're available in the stores, nor will the labels released control of unpublished or out-of-print material. What Napster has to realize is that the majority of the content that people use the service for is provided by the users themselves. No one is going to pay in order to have the privilege of sharing their hard won gigs of music files.

Napster is in a fairly untenable position right now: instead of going to court to find out if the service that they offer is illegal or not, they've decided instead to ally themselves with the corporations that are trying to shut them down. At least if they had gone to court, they could have either continued as they are, as the community of individuals who make up Napster want it to be, or they would have been shut down because their service was not legal. Fine. But at least they would have remained true to the original vision of the service: to allow music lovers to share songs with one another. Now, the best they can hope for is to keep a decent portion of their user base with a more restrictive service; at worst, they will simply be a tightly regulated promotional machine for the corporate record conglomerates. If I want to hear sound clips from an album that has already been released, I can go to CDnow and I won't ever have to pay a fee. And most of the times that will be enough for me to make a purchasing decision.

In the big picture, Napster doesn't even matter. If they had continued on and their service had been found legal, they could have certainly built the best brand for sharing music on the internet. But even if they are shut down, or if they are assimilated by the major labels and turned into something contrary to what they are now, it doesn't matter. The record companies need to realize that this problem isn't going to go away, and the more they try to crush music swapping or control it, the more insidiously devious the technology will become. The weakness in Napster, at least according to geeks, is that you can legally attack it because it hosts the servers which keep track of the users and their music libraries. It is not truly a peer-to-peer system because it relies on the Napster servers. But the day is not far off when someone will write a true peer-to-peer system that doesn't require these middlemen servers. When the authors of this software release it for free on the internet, there will be no one to sue, and no way to shut down the thousands of personal machines and servers that are running the clients. No real way to even detect who is using the client.

The goal for the record companies should be to find a way to be comfortable with Napster and its potential future cousins. The only way to stop or control this type of activity is to create a global Orwellian police state in which every connection to every server can be traced back to the individual user (which is already pretty much the case), and then corporations full access to all of that data (which they don't have now). And that's just not going to happen. If anything, the trend is going to move in the opposite direction, towards more privacy for users and less power for our corporate monitors.

There is no reason that a service like Napster and the global conglomerates that control the distribution of music can't peacefully coexist, and even symbiotically help each other to thrive. It just takes the ability to look at distribution structures in a new way and the desire to try and forget about presumed profit and control for a few minutes.

I don't think Drew Barrymore is really all that attractive. I'm sorry. I just don't.

She can't act, either.

MTV's Jackass is a really stupid show. And not in a good way.

Holy fuck. I can't believe what I just saw. I'm watching CNN while I'm writing about my trip to Pennsylvania, and they're showing footage of (what else) the protests for and against the recounts in Palm Beach County (I'm trying to avoid writing about this right now because I can tell that everyone is getting a little sick of the non-stop coverage, even though we're all obsessed with it and we all have pretty strong feelings about it). The one clip that grabbed my attention showed a middle-aged white man berating an elderly woman for not being smart enough to figure out the ballot (I guess she was claiming she was one of the people who accidentally voted for Buchanan instead of Gore). She then responds that this gentleman has no right to condemn her because he is from a different county where the ballot was laid out differently. Then a younger white man, wearing sunglasses and an American flag bandana, says out of nowhere that it's obvious that the woman really wants to vote for Lieberman, not Gore (I am assuming that he is assuming that she is Jewish). The camera crew, who don't normally get involved when taping crowd interactions, is taken aback by this enough to ask the man what he means by that. This asshole then seems to have a dim recognition that he is on national television and that his remarks may have been interpreted as anti-Semitic (they were by me—everything about his tone and demeanor suggested that he thinks that "Jew" is a dirty word). He pauses for a second before stupidly answering, "She knows what I mean". It sounds almost like a threat the way he says it. I saw an interview with the woman who is in charge of the Palm Beach election board (who announced the decision to do a county-wide hand recount based on the results of the hand recount of four sample precincts in Palm Beach) in which she says that she has been receiving death threats. Makes me sick. The politicians have made this situation ugly enough; it's disturbing that ordinary Americans seem to feel compelled to contribute to the enmity that obviously exists between the two campaigns.

Listen, I definitely have my preference about who wins in this election, but it's pretty clear that no matter who wins, they're going to have a lot of fence-mending to do given how close and contentious this election has been. Plus, neither candidate really wants to do anything to rock the boat. People like things the way they are now, for the most part. If you screw with things and the economy starts to head south, even if your changes aren't a direct cause of an economic slowdown, the voters are going to blame you and punish your party two years from now in the Congressional elections. It's obvious from the election results that the country is already fiercely divided; we don't need to enhance this division by getting into ugly personal attacks on people whose viewpoints we disagree with. Leave that to the politicians.

My wife and I went to Hershey, PA, this weekend, the first vacation we have taken in a long time besides family visits. For a while, our schedules didn't match up—we were starting new jobs and didn't have much vacation, etc. For the last year or so, we've had plenty of vacation time, but have been unable to leave for more than a couple of days at a time because of a newly diagnosed diabetic cat who is painfully scared of everyone on the planet except us. He requires two insulin shots a day, and must eat almost immediately after the shot or risk getting too low and dying. We've been working on a desensitization program for a while now, gradually increasing his exposure to the vet tech who gives him his shot and feeds him while we are gone. He finally reached a point where he has become so accustomed to her that he doesn't even hide when she comes over anymore, so we decided it was time to take a little trip and give him a bigger test.

But enough about the cat. I could go on and on. Worse than having a sick child. (I can say that now, being childless, but I'm sure that having a sick child is actually much worse.)

We picked Hershey because it was within two hours of where we live (so we could return home quickly if there were any problems), and my wife has good memories of visiting that area as a child with her parents. Plus, I had been obsessed with Milton Hershey when I was very young. Strange, because I don't have a big sweet tooth—but I remember reading a biography of him over and over as a child. I was impressed even then with his decision to give up his caramel business, which is how he made is first million, and invest everything in newly manufactured chocolate making machines in an attempt to create milk chocolate. He was so dedicated that he actually bought the prototype machines that had been built for a World Expo held in America. I didn't understand at the time how much guts that really took, but I knew that it was a brave thing to do.

So I was really looking forward to taking a tour of the factory. Since it is turning into the off season for that part of the country, we were able to get a pretty good rate on a hotel that was only about a mile from the plant; we drove up in the morning leaving enough time to spend the first afternoon at the Hershey plant. Trouble was, the plant isn't open to tours anymore—they've moved the "tour" to a thing called Chocolate World which is located adjacent to the amusement park there. (By the way, if you are headed up that way and they ask you when you drive into the parking lot if you are going into the park, tell them no—even though the park is free, they charge you $6 for parking if you say you are going there. If you tell them you are going to Chocolate World, you get one hour free parking—and the two attractions share the same lot. Plus, that one hour is on the honor system, so they really have no way of knowing how long you've been there and whether or not you actually went to the park or not. Of course, I learned this the hard way and am $6 poorer as a result, but hopefully my experience can at least benefit others.) I knew that Chocolate World would be lame, but we decided to give it a try anyway. It was pretty half-assed—a hallway with some pictures and basic info about Hershey, and then a ride that takes you through a simulated plant and the whole process of creating milk chocolate.

I was very unimpressed. I know that the conveyor belts that supposedly showed the wrapping process were fake, but I could not figure out if the supposed vats of chocolate were really chocolate or just brown paint. There were appropriate chocolate smells at various points along the tour, but those could have just been piped in. It was probably paint.

When I asked about getting a tour of a real Hershey factory, I was told that I would have to go to Oakdale, CA, which has a factory built expressly to allow tour groups on the production floor. That just sucks, quite frankly. The only thing that salvaged this experience slightly was being asked to participate in a taste test on our way out, probably because my wife and are two fairly normal looking adults and we were just about the only people who didn't have three or four kids in tow, which I imagine would complicate the taste test situation considerably. We taste tested two different caramel sauces for ice cream and had to fill out a short survey about each sauce. We were given two Hershey bars for our trouble. Like I said, I'm not a big sweet tooth, but it was cool to see behind the scenes of the product creation process.

That night we went out to a restaurant that came highly recommended by the local travel guides. I was a little put off by the fact that it was attached to an Econolodge (maybe hotel restaurants don't have the same stigma attached to them in the North that they do where I come from), but the food was very good. We were going to try and finish in time to go to the opening of the Hershey Christmas celebration, but between the slow service (they were pretty busy, with several large groups taking up a lot of the staff's time) and the cold drizzle that was falling by the time we finished, we decided to bag it and head back to the hotel.

More tomorrow on our trip.

The second day of our trip to Hershey, my wife and I had talked about driving to Lancaster and doing the Amish country thing, but I woke up Saturday morning with a craving to go to the Crayola factory in Easton, PA, which was about an hour and half away. Plus, the Just Born corporation, makers of Peeps, Mike & Ike, and Hot Tamales, is located in nearby Bethlehem, PA, and even though they said they didn't offer factory tours when I wrote to them, I was still hoping to at least see the factory and maybe be able to talk my way into a fresh box (we didn't end up having time, though). I think the main reason I wanted to go to the Crayola factory was because I was so disappointed with the Hershey factory experience; I wanted to go to a real factory and see products being made, and the Crayola people made it sound like that that was just what you could do.

Of course, I was disappointed again, but not nearly as much. The real Crayola factory was located on 15 acres of land outside of town; that's where they make every single Crayola product sold in North America. The so-called Crayola Factory was really a four-story museum complex that featured tourist information for Easton on the first floor, the Canal Museum on the third and fourth floors, and the Crayola factory demonstration on the second floor. Also on the second floor was a display of lots on Henson-related stuff—Sesame Street costumes, Fraggle Rock puppets, Dark Crystal, and of course muppets. I'm still trying to figure out the connection to Crayola, other than the kid-centric target demographics.

The guy giving the demonstrations looked like he could have been the host of a kid's show on public access. He was wearing a large, cat-in-the-hat style hat with what looked like a neon jigsaw pattern on it, and he made constant bad jokes and puns. He reminded me a little of a magician you would hire for your kid's party. There were two separate demonstration areas, one each for the crayon and the marker demonstrations; they were essentially large Plexiglas cubes that let the kids get right up close to the action without risking any actual contact with either the host or the products. They also had mirrors over the demonstration area and tv screen so that everyone could see what was going on even if there were several rows of people between you and the action.

The factory demonstrations were okay, though. One demonstration shows how they make crayons and one shows how they make markers. The marker demonstration really just showed the machine that makes the markers and how it works, but the crayon demonstration showed the process that had been used for decades to make the crayons, which hasn't been updated all that much and still involves a lot of human production. It was the closest I came at any of the factory tours to actually seeing a person create something. The crayons and markers that they make at the "factory" are never sold, though—they are given away to visitors to the factory. Each visitor is given two gold coins when they arrive, which they can put in a machine to receive either a four-pack of crayons or a Crayola marker. We got one box of crayons and two markers and kept one coin as a souvenir.

Of course, the Crayola store is conveniently located next door to the Crayola factory. The store was actually pretty cool—we bought a few boxes of Crayons, including some of the newer variations, such as glitter crayons, crayons that release smells when you color with them, and crayons that show up even when you use them on colored sheets of construction paper. They also had markers whose ink would only show up on a special kind of paper, which seems like a good idea to keep kids from marking on the walls and the furniture until you look at the fine print and see that the ink can still cause damage to paint and wood finishes. Plus you also have to buy all your paper from Crayola, and I bet it's not near as cheap as regular paper.

I also bought a blue crayon commemorating the production of Crayola's 100,000,000,000 crayon. The wax for that batch was poured by Mister Rogers himself, and the actual 100,000,000,000 crayon is wrapped in special foil label and is on display in the factory demonstration area. It was given away as part of a promotion, but the winner sold it back to Crayola for a $100,000 bond (which is probably far more than it would be worth on eBay). I can't figure out if the crayon I bought is actually from the same batch (there are 1200 crayons per tray), or if it was just made as part of the celebration, but I think it's cool no matter what. They also had original Crayola stock crates on sale for $29. I thought those were pretty cool too, and I almost bought one, but I talked myself out of it at the last minute. They seemed to have plenty left, so hopefully if I change my mind in the next year or two I'll still be able to get one.

All in all, the Crayola Factory was worth it. It would definitely be worth it if you had kids—the guy who did the demonstrations was very good with the crowd, and the children really liked him. There were also lots of creation-type activities to do with Crayola products—coloring with chalk on a sidewalk, making abstract wax art with crayons, making slides with markers that the kids were allowed to keep, and making clay sculptures in a really big room with lots of windows. Plus, they all seemed to really get into the Jim Henson stuff. Not so sure about the canal museum, though.

We had tentatively planned to spend the morning in Easton but still try to make it to Lancaster for an Amish buggy ride and dinner, but by the time we finished lunch it was almost 2:30. We decided instead to skip Lancaster this visit, and just take a leisurely drive back while stopping to look at any interesting roadside attractions.

Tomorrow: our afternoon of detours.

The first detour we took on the way back from the Crayola factory was to Crystal Cave, which was about 7 miles of winding back roads off of the interstate. It was a nice drive, though—lots of barns with the Amish good luck symbols painted on them. Crystal Cave itself wasn't bad, but it was a little small and the tour wasn't helped by the blasé monotone of Brandy, our teenage tour guide. To be fair, I'm not sure how much enthusiasm I could work up to deliver some of the truly awful jokes that were in the script that Brandy had to stick to, but it still seemed like she could have put a little more effort into it.

Crystal Cave seems especially noteworthy for its continued existence despite the idiocy of the farmers who first discovered it. It wasn't a cave with a natural entrance; it was accidentally blasted open by a farmer in 1871. The early explorers also played pretty rough with the cave, knocking down formations that were in their way, rubbing other formations for good luck (and thereby stunting their growth), and leaving graffiti in the cave. There was also a hole at the top of the cave that the explorers had once poured kerosene into, hoping that when they lit it it would act as a huge kerosene lantern that would allow them to see the rest of the cave clearly. Due to the humidity in the cave, however, it simply created a smoking fire that caused them to have to abandon their cave exploration for almost three weeks while they waited from the smoke to clear out. Plus it destroyed any formations that were in that area.

One thing that really pissed me off, though, (aside from the giggling trio of college students who never seemed to tire of making phallic references every time they saw a stalagmite) was a man in our group who seemed to think that the two year old he was carrying was somehow beyond the very strict rules for living caves. Before we went into the cave, we were given numerous stern warnings about touching any of the formations, since the oil that is on our skin acts as a shield from the mineral water that helps a formation grow. A quick touch from our fingers can stunt the growth of a formation for up to 500 years, or even cause it to stop growing entirely. Despite this fact, I saw this father allow his child to touch some formations in the cave on at least three occasions. I just don't understand this behavior, these people who think that the rules only apply to other people. It was especially frustrating because we had already visited one formation that had been destroyed by the original explorers who had discovered the cave; since there is nothing that they can do so save this formation, they allow visitors to touch it. But I guess that just wasn't enough for this guy.

Crystal Cave is nice if you're really into caves and you're not pressed for time. The drive from the interstate to the cave is nice, and there are a few good formations—a couple of decent flowstones, a few nice columns, and a pretty good stalagmite cluster. The also have a video presentation at the beginning of the tour that describes the history of the cave and describes how caves are formed in general.

I was also going to write about our second detour stop, but I have so much to say about it that I've decided to save it for a separate entry tomorrow.

I found out last night that my mom has cancer. I don't really have anything else to say about that right now.

We left Crystal Cave at about 4:00. Our only plans were to have dinner and get to the Hershey Christmas celebration before it closed at 10, so when we saw a sign for the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Indoor Miniature Village" at Roadside America, we decided to stop. I have been to the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama (just north of Birmingham) during a recent visit with my friend Regan. It is an outdoor collection of various miniature buildings and dioramas created by a monk, Bother Joseph, in the 30s and 40s. It includes the Tower of Babel, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a diorama about Hansel and Gretel and a dragon, and large scale representations of Rome and Jerusalem, among many other creations. I really loved that place; if you are anywhere near it, make sure that you spend a couple of hours there. It is still run and maintained by nuns and monks, and there is a really cool cemetery located adjacent to Brother Joseph's creations.

I didn't really think that anything could compare to the Ave Maria Grotto, but man, Roadside America sure comes close. Their slogan is that you will see more than you expect, and that is certainly true. In essence, it's a gigantic train set, or a gigantic combination of several train sets. It features running water, several constantly running trains, and a bunch of trains and other widgets (like oil wells, a hot air balloon, a water wheel, and a cable car) that only run when visitors press a button. A large scale interactive miniature world. I was very surprised to learn that it had been completed in the 1950s; I mean, it feels like it was created a long time ago, but to think that it's been operating in more or less its current form for 50 years is astounding. The creator, Laurence Gieringer, died in 1963, but his family continues to own and operate the attraction to this day.

The level of detail is amazing. The village takes up pretty much all of a room that has to be at least 60' x 30', and is complete with churches that have hand-painted miniature stained glass windows, tons of car, people, and animal models in addition to all of the plants and waterways. There are bridges, tunnels, lakes, rivers, parks, mountains, bridges, a coal mine, a country club, a baseball field, an airport, a zoo, and much, much more. It was really too much to take in in one visit. We spent well over an hour there, and the only reason we left is because they were closing for the day. And it is an excellent value at only $4 for adults. It was easily the most entertaining thing we did, and also the cheapest.

The miniature world also creates a fascinating historical record. Many of the scenes, such as the 1800s frontier town (dubbed "Sleepy Hollow", although apparently not in honor of the Washington Irving tale of the same name), record places and times that the builder remembers from his childhood, things that had probably long since vanished by the time he built the village, and are certainly extinct now. Things like the organ grinder with his pet bear cub, the butcher's wagon with the pack of dogs following close behind hoping for a scrap, and the town dentist, who also doubled as a horse doctor. In fact, the brochure that they hand out, in addition to giving you an extensive biography on Gieringer, is filled with little details that make the experience that much more fascinating, from the cost of beer at the local hotel (6 for 25¢) to the fact that in these frontier towns, men would keep their shaving cup at the local barber's in order to keep better sanitary conditions.

The coolest thing of all, though, was the so-called "Night Pageant". This demonstration, which happens about every half hour (we saw it twice), requires that all visitors retreat either to a platform at the far end of the display or to one of two balconies that run down opposite walls. Then, the overhead lights are slowly dimmed while the streetlights and house lights are gradually turned on. All the while, there is very old patriotic music playing (Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America) and there is a slide show with religious sayings and images of Mary and Jesus that are projected on to a wall with the statue of liberty painted on it.

A little cheesy, maybe, but you know what? While I was standing there, aware of the distinctly 1950s outdatedness of the whole thing, I was honestly touched by the real sincerity of the piece, and the obvious love and affection that Gieringer put into creating it. It's a sincerity that very few can pull off convincingly; U2 manages it on "All That You Can't Leave Behind", and Brother Joseph puts it on display it at the Ave Maria Grotto. It's there in the response of Flannery O'Connor, who, when asked to comment upon a lengthy metaphorical explanation for the black hat that one of her characters wore in "A Good Man is Hard to Find", replied, "Well, I made it black because that's the color hat they wear in south Georgia." It's there in every syllable of Hunter S. Thompson's masterwork "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", which dissects the American Dream in all its horrible beauty.

So, I don't know. Maybe it's just a gigantic train set. But it's a gigantic train set that you could only find in America.

When we got back to Hershey from Roadside America, it was probably about 6:30 and already dark. We weren't really hungry because, due to an overly long wait for our meal at a tavern in Easton, we hadn't eaten lunch until about 2:00. We decided to go to the Hershey Park Christmas celebration and then go somewhere local for dinner. When we got to the parking lot, every car in front of us slowed down, was asked a question by the person in the tollbooth, and then proceeded without paying anything. Here's where not being local got us screwed, though. When we pulled up, she asked us if we were going into the park. We said yes because we were. We were then told that it would be $6; if we had said we were going to Chocolate World, we would have been let in free. I'm sure everyone from Hershey knows that already, and even the girl in the booth seemed almost embarrassed to take our money. Even though I was irritated for being so stupid, I figured $6 would be worth it, since admission to the park was free and we weren't planning on riding and rides or eating anything.

It was a little bit of a disappointment, though. The entrance to the park was nicely decorated, but the quality and quantity of the decorations fell off drastically the further you got into the park. There were a couple of places where it looked like they had done some cool stuff, but it turned out that they were decorations for some of the rides; in order to really see them, you had to pay to go on the ride. In the one of the very farthest corners of the park, however, they did have 9 live reindeer, who all looked pretty bored in that way that only cattle can look bored. Bored as a state of being. But it was still kind of cool to see them. They were much smaller than I thought they'd be. I thought they'd be more like moose; in reality, they were a little smaller than normal deer.

It took a good 40 minutes to wander around the whole park, and I did enjoy the bridge that you had to walk over to get to a different part of the park, but overall I wasn't that impressed. Maybe if I hadn't been the only person in the parking lot who paid $6 for the privilege of parking there, I would have been a little more forgiving, but as it was I felt like there just wasn't a whole lot to see.

After we left Christmas in Hershey, we decided to try and find a local family style Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant. Unfortunately, it was already after 9:00, which meant that most everything local was closed (the first night we were in Hershey we tried to go to a drug store right at 9:00, and were almost knocked over by the stream of employees leaving the building). We managed to find one that was open until 10, but when we arrived we found that it was in a gas station. Now, a good restaurant in a motel I can accept, however grudgingly, but I don't ever think that I'll be able to get used to the idea of a restaurant in a gas station. It's like having a doctor who also treats hazardous waste in his office; they just don't go together.

We ended up just going to Appleby's, which I know is pretty lame, but sometimes you just want something familiar. We were tired and hungry and it was getting late and neither of us felt like digging around for a good local restaurant. So we copped out.

Persons denying the existence of robots may be robots themselves.

I was going to finish up writing about our trip to Hershey with a description of our last stop, but I don't feel like it anymore. A brief synopsis: we stopped at Indian Echo Caverns on our way out of town, and it was much bigger and better than Crystal Cave. Our tour guide, a girl named Sarah, was great, and there was a lot to see in these caverns. Definitely worth a stop if you are up that way.

I went home for Thanksgiving, which for me is Wilmington, NC. This is the home of my dad and stepmother; when I was younger and the custody agreement determined where I spent my time, my dad always got me for Thanksgiving and my mom always got me for Christmas; I have found that as an adult I tend to stick to that pattern. My brother and sister from the second marriage came home from school, as well as my other sister who lives with my mom in Florida. I borrowed one of the Mini-DV digital video cameras from the office, and thought I was getting some really good shots with it, but it turns out that the LCD preview screen on the camera captures the colors a lot more accurately than the actual shots. I was able to fix most of them by adjusting the levels and the color balance, but I was still a little disappointed in the performance. Here are a few of the photos that I thought came out the best.

There is a drink called Sun Drop, a citrus drink that is like Mountain Dew except way better, better in the way that The Practice is better than the abominable Ally McBeal. You can really only find it in a few isolated spots in the country, including the Wilmington area, some parts of Illinois, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. It is impossible to find in Maryland, where I live now, and you can't even really find it in other parts of North Carolina; only the eastern part of the state seems to have it. So whenever I go to my dad's house, I always make a trip to Sam's Club to stock up on it. I was able to get six cases this trip, but even with careful rationing that will probably only last me until the Spring. With my sister Tori's help, I was also able to steal a large Sun Drop sign from an abandoned gas station; I hung it on my office wall this morning.

One of the places I most enjoy having a Sun Drop is a little restaurant called Saltworks. I always make a point to go there when I'm in Wilmington; this time the whole family went there for lunch on Saturday. They serve hamburgers, soups, sandwiches, and things like that, but the I've never had anything but the hotdogs and fries. It's been around forever—I remember my dad taking us there when I was very young—and it is thankfully unchanged by Wilmington's recent economic boom (Wilmington has the third largest movie and television production city in the US, behind only New York and LA). Only the older breed of locals seem to know about it, and it is still a favorite lunch spot for construction workers and other blue collar types. Alec Baldwin, who owns a house on Figure 8 Island with his wife Kim Basinger, came in while we were there last weekend, but left without sitting down; all the better, I say. The last thing the place needs is to be discovered by the film people (they've pretty much ruined downtown). At Saltworks, the food is cheap and the decor is no frills and the hotdogs are the best in the world; even my sister Tori, who is a vegetarian, had a hard time giving them up when she switched to a no-meat policy in her diet (she now gets a grilled cheese or a bowl of lima bean soup). It's a great place to have lunch, so if you're ever in Wilmington, give it a try.

Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

My friend Doug and his wife Taeko came to visit last night. I haven't seen them since 1996, when Doug was the best man at my wedding (he lives in Long Island now, but we went to graduate school at UVA together). They have a 1 and 1/2 year old girl named Lana who was just about as cute a little kid can get, even if she was a little more wired than the cats or I were prepared for (the cats spent about 99% of her waking hours huddled together under our bed). Lana's favorite game was running out of the living room, swinging a wide arc through the kitchen and exiting the other side heading straight for the staircase that leads downstairs. Doug was always on watch for this; we're pretty sure she wasn't actually going to try and jump down the stairs, but we were a little worried that she'd build up a good head of steam in the kitchen and be unable to stop herself.

Lana is addicted to a certain Japanese cartoon show (Taeko is Japanese, and they are raising Lana to speak both languages). She had to see it constantly, so much so that Doug and Taeko had brought a VCR with them on their trip so that they could let her watch the videos in the hotel. They plugged it into our VCR within minutes of arriving, and it stayed on pretty much the whole time Lana was awake (except when she would run up to the machine and hit the eject button). I don't remember the title, but the main character was a man made out of bread whose head became useless if it got wet. A human baker, who I gather was sort of a mentor to the group of protagonists, was constantly baking him new heads so that he could easily replace a head that got wet. The other protagonist characters were mostly food-based, including a creature with sushi rice and seaweed for a head, two characters with stewpots for heads (you could open them up and eat what was cooking inside), and various Japanese vegetables. All of the food characters would feed hungry people by tearing off chunks of their heads. There was also a large robot-looking character who would spray liquid from his nose at the sun and create little jeweled beads which the protagonists would use to throw at the antagonist. The robot creature also had a son who looked just like him, but every time he would try to spray liquid from his nose at the sun to make beads, they would come out all clumpy and useless.

The antagonist was a little purple creature who liked to travel in a flying saucer type vehicle that could extend various Inspector Gadget-like appendages. Taeko told me he was supposed to be a germ. It seemed that the basic plot of each show revolved around a new food character (like Japanese cucumber man or spicy bean curd man) needing the help of the regular group of characters to overcome some plot by the germ man against them. Taeko explained that the larger goal of the show was to introduce children to new types of food and open them up to a wider range of culinary experiences, which makes sense because Japan is so obsessed with food (there is no better example of this than the Iron Chef phenomenon which, incidentally, I am obsessed with). It was a weird little cartoon, although I guess it's no stranger than Pokemon or Tamagotchi or anything else that Japanese pop culture has output over the years. And it's way better than Barney or Teletubbies.

It's a little weird for me to see Doug in the role of a parent. He and I have so many things in common and share so many simmilar tastes that it was easy for us to just hang out and talk about baseball or music or whatever even though we hadn't seen each other for years. He was still the Doug I knew, but he was also a father now. We talked briefly about kids (we don't have any yet, but we are thinking about it in the next couple of years), and one of the really interesting things he said was that he could no longer remember what life was like before Lana. When he and Taeko look back on their married life before her, it feels to them as if they were just waiting for her to arrive. There was something really profound and true about that, something that gets at the heart of what it must mean to be a parent in a way that I haven't really heard before. But I'm still not quite sure if I'm ready for kids yet.
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