Bicoastal Life

When I started visiting other cities in the United States, my focus was on the things to do at each destination. This influenced my decision to take a weeklong management training course at Washington DC two weeks ago and pay inflated prices to fly out to Temecula, California to attend a cousin’s wedding this past weekend. But when I left each city, I found myself questioning my perspective on travel—am I actually enjoying the travel more for the people than the places?

There have been prior trips where the people I met overshadowed the fun event we were at (East Coast and West Coast.) When I arrived in Washington, there were two goals to accomplish: to finish my training and to temporarily enjoy the city lifestyle after each day at work. That lifestyle—the opportunity to hit up a pro sports event, or some nice restaurant, or a concert in the evening after a productive day at work—has become my American Dream after almost two years of living in a rural town, and what better way to get a taste of the Dream than at our nation’s capital? I had dinner at my DC favorite, Ted’s Bulletin, squeezed in a couple scenic runs, and watched the Washington Capitals (lose 5-0 to Dallas) and the Washington Nationals home opener (a 2-1 loss to Atlanta). These nights were much better than my usual evening routine of hiding away in the apartment, playing video games and eating ice cream alone.

But when I left Washington, the sadness at the end of the trip was not because of the loss of the big city perks. I was most disappointed about leaving the 29 coworkers I met at the training course, all of whom I’ll (likely) never see again because they are based in the Beltway. I learned a lot more in the course than expected because of the diversity in the class and the good-hearted nature of everyone there. The five coworkers I shared a table with—the instructors divided the 30 of us into five groups of six—kept me motivated and happy to show up to work each morning. You know you’re in a good place with good people when each morning starts off so bright.

(For the sake of transparency, yes, I found myself attracted to the coworker who sat next to me, so she was a big factor in this positive outlook. And yes, at the end of the week, I told her I would have asked her out for drinks if I didn’t have to leave. And yes, I told her because I love awkward endings.)

In California, I looked forward to taking my parents to In-N-Out for dinner and showing them the Los Angeles I’ve grown to love from three consecutive years of vacationing there—the mountains, Griffith Observatory, and driving on a freeway. My only concern was the flood of relatives’ names and faces I’d have to learn at the ceremony and reception, most of whom I hadn’t seen since I was two years old, when my parents lived in San Bernardino, and whether they would be judgmental for my ignorance regarding most of the family tree.

My relatives proved me wrong with how the kindness that they showered on my family and me. Between the outdoor wedding, the reception, listening to as many stories as possible from each relative—it was an emotional roller coaster of happiness and getting choked up. The five hours at the ceremony and reception went by too quickly; there were still so many more stories to exchange, more laughs to have, and more wedding cake slices to eat. My newfound relatives (who knew extended family could be so cool?!), rather than the far-too-short 24 hours I had to explore Southern California with my parents before the wedding, consumed my thoughts as I flew out of LAX.

The evolution of my perspective on travel is probably down to a combination of maturing and the relative isolation I live in. This new perspective is also a gentle reminder to appreciate the time I get to spend with the familiar people I love and the new people I meet, no matter how brief that time may be.

Tammany Hall

If you took an AP American History class in high school, one of the topics was the rise of political machines in the major cities of the United States. New York City’s political machine was known as Tammany Hall; it’s most notorious period was under the man known as Boss Tweed. While the machine is dead today, the former headquarters for Tammany Hall is alive and well–as the campus for a film school. I wrote about the former headquarters for Tammany Hall over at Untapped Cities. Check it out! 

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Opening Day

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The first rule of going to the ballpark to take in a baseball game is to only do so in the summer.

I found that out the hard way when I went to Washington Nationals’ home opener against the Atlanta Braves on Friday, knocking out the bucket list item of attending an Opening Day game. I got out of work early, hopped on the Metro, bought the cheapest tickets available at the box office, and ended up in the third tier of seats at right field, directly behind the foul pole.

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I told my friends and family through Facebook that I loved them, in the event that a foul ball struck me.

It was overcast and the temperature probably hovered around the 50’s. Those are perfect conditions for running, but terrible for sitting in a seat for three hours to watch grown men throw a ball and hit said ball with a piece of lumber while grown men in a different uniform catch said ball with a glove made of leather. Even with the jacket zipped up and gloves on, I was freezing the entire game, except when we all stood up for the Presidents Race in the middle of the fourth inning. (Seriously, that’s worth standing up for?) Teddy tricked Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and Taft into lining up to spin a wheel for prizes; the former Rough Rider ran to the finish line when the other presidents were distracted.

The game was sloppy. Washington had two players caught stealing in avoidable baserunning gaffes, while Atlanta left fielder Justin Upton apparently gave up an inside the park home run. Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond hit a ball that apparently landed under the outfield wall; Upton tried to declare a ground rule double to the umpires. Desmond kept running while the umpires didn’t acknowledge Upton’s claim, so Upton eventually ran to the wall, dug up the ball, and threw it home in a futile attempt to throw out Desmond. The celebrations in the stands turned into boos when the umpires reviewed the play and ruled it a ground rule double. The overturned run, plus all the runners stranded on base throughout the game, cost the Nationals in end—Washington lost the game 2-1.

Nationals Park is a beautiful stadium, but that may be because it’s still new. You have to remember that my gauge for baseball stadiums is Wrigley Field—my standards are low. The statue for legendary pitcher Walter Johnson was my favorite part of the ballpark, because it’s supposed to depict a time lapse of Johnson’s delivery. Johnson’s delivery is probably my favorite one in the history of the league, but the time lapse on the statue makes him look like a four-armed monster with moss growing on three of those arms. Monster… How fitting for a pitcher who had 417 career wins, 3,508 strikeouts, 110 shutouts, two 30-win seasons, and 12 20-win seasons.

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Lightning Returns

I finally finished Lightning Returns, the final installment of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, after a month of personal and work travels delayed me from completing it in March. Here’s my reaction to the game and the XIII series as a whole.

The gameplay in Lightning Returns was easily the best of the series. The constraints of playing most of the game as a party of one, plus access to only three paradigms and four abilities each for those paradigms during battle, plus the limited number of carried recovery items, plus the imposed time limit to finish the game, forced me to do a lot more planning/decision-making than in prior games of the franchise. (I never carried more than two Phoenix Downs/Wings so I could have more room for Turbo Ethers.) The set-up of the paradigms and their abilities for each boss fight, particularly the final battle, was often the difference between a relatively easy fight and a nearly-impossible cause. After I added a Steelguard to the Midnight Mauve paradigm (my offensive/debuff mage) and tacked on a Thundara spell to the Ultima Weapon-wielding Soldier of Peace, the final battle went from a struggle to retain HP to a battle of attrition. The path of attrition meant it took me 19:37 to finish the final battle–there’s only so many attacks you can get out in 30 seconds before you’re forced into a defensive stance for the next minute–but the loss of HP and limited number of recovery items never was a problem. As for the time limit, I liked that the game forced me to be efficient with the quests I chose and the strategies selected to finish them. Efficiency is underrated in Role Playing Games; I’d rather face this time limit and get things done than be forced to grind endlessly to make the game manageable.

While the story was weak and pretty predictable, I’m content with the fact that the storyline ended the way it should have ended. Part of the problem with the story was that while XIII was open-ended enough for Square Enix to create a developed world and fleshed out characters, XIII-2 erased that potential flexibility and depth by just being a terrible bridge between XIII and XIII-3. Square Enix realized those issues, and in XIII-3, chose to be straightforward to rectify them, sacrificing the creativity of XIII along the way. This also shows up in Lightning Returns through the dialogue and some of the accompanying (monotonous) voice acting, but since the story finished the way it should have been finished, I won’t be too bothered by the flaws here.

Here is a list of other positives from this game that I hope Square Enix incorporates in future installments of the Final Fantasy franchise:

[1] The Omegas. The idea of making a species of monster extinct is exciting in a morbid kind of way.
[2] The Stagger system with perfectly-timed Guards. Physical attacks now make more sense; if the block is executed perfectly, why shouldn’t the enemy be punished for it? Thankfully, XIII-3 punishes them.
[3] Bosses susceptible to Poison and other Status Ailments. Square Enix has jacked up enemy HP and defenses to unseen levels since XIII rolled around, but the capability to force the staggers and bad ailments on enemies is a good balance for those inflated stats.
[4] The Moogle Village, kupo. Enough said.

Maybe I’ll write more someday on what I’d like to see–and not see–from future games in the Final Fantasy franchise, but these four items made me happy when I discovered them. Overall, Final Fantasy XIII had a better story than XIII-2 and XIII-3, and the gameplay of XIII-3 trumps that found in XIII and XIII-2. I’m glad this chapter of the franchise got the ending it deserved, and that it was accomplished through the fun and wild battle system of XIII-3, but we can now finally move on to the future of Final Fantasy. Here’s hoping that the next chapter of Final Fantasy only needs one game to be fully resolved.

The Pittsburgh Jaunt

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PITTSBURGH – The clock struck 3:30 P.M., and the Pittsburgh Penguins were leading the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 with just about two minutes left in the game. Perfect. I was seated in the Section 222, right in the middle of Row F, itching for the final buzzer to blare so I dash out of the CONSOL Energy Center and begin my one mile walk to the Liberty/Tito Bus Stop. From there, the 4:11 P.M. 28X bus would pick me up and get me to Pittsburgh International Airport by 5:00 P.M. for my 6:42 P.M. flight to Providence.

But with 1:28 remaining in regulation, Tampa’s Ondrej Palat blazed by two Pittsburgh defenders who were caught standing around, created a short breakaway, and scored to tie the game at 3-3 and send it into overtime. Pens fans reacted in verbal disbelief; I winced inside about the possibility that the overtime and potential shootout would put me in another bind like the one I experienced in San Francisco.

About a minute into overtime, Tampa committed a Too Many Men on the Ice penalty and elected for defender Michael Kostka—Chris Hemsworth’s Doppelgänger—to serve the 2:00 in the sin bin. Sixteen seconds of game time later, at 3:40 P.M., Penguins forward James Neal fired home a one-timer to seal a 4-3 Penguins victory and to send all of us—especially me—home happy. I finished my stroll to the bus stop at 4:00 P.M. and watched some of the filming of Fathers and Daughters across the street until the bus arrived a little late at 4:15 P.M.

It was nice to finally return to an airport without rushing for once.

—–

Watching the Penguins play the Lightning was the only reason why I was in Pittsburgh for eight hours. That’s right: I flew into Pittsburgh via Baltimore at 9:45 A.M., left the airport at 10:30 A.M. for a 45 minute bus ride into downtown Pittsburgh, and walked a mile for an 11:35 A.M. arrival at the CONSOL Energy Center for the 1:00 P.M. game. Along the way, I met a woman from London who flew to Pittsburgh to spend a week in the city just to watch the Pens games in this week’s homestead.

(She said she was from “between Arsenal and Queens Park Rangers,” when I asked her to describe where in London she’s from. I told her that I only understood the geography of London through soccer.)

As a kid, she discovered the Penguins through some old hockey game that she and her family used to play on a Super Nintendo. For some reason, she always played as Pittsburgh and stuck with them through the glory days with Mario Lemieux, the dark days of bankruptcy, and the present-day revival under Lemieux’s ownership and Sidney Crosby’s captaincy.

The game itself was the antithesis of the Freeway Faceoff I saw in Los Angeles. It was fun. Tampa and Pittsburgh opted for an attack-first over a defend-first mentality and the stars for each team delivered. Crosby opened the scoring in the second period with a one-timer that blazed by Tampa goalie Anders Lindback in the near post. Tampa’s Steve Stamkos—who was recovering from his horrific leg injury when I saw the Lightning lose at home to the Canadiens in December—poached a go-ahead goal early in the third period for the Lightning’s brief 2-1 lead. But it was Evgeni Malkin who stole the game with two goals, two assists, and very elaborate goal celebrations that I’m only used to seeing from Patrick Kane.

Two pre-game ads, though, defined my Pittsburgh experience: the flying of a blimp sponsored by US Steel and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Local Union No. 5) serving as the sponsors for the player stats televised on the Jumbotron. Isn’t it amazing how history continues to seep into our present in subtle ways?

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Gold(en Gate) Rush

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If you ever watched Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation as a kid—repeatedly, in my case—you probably remember Plucky Duck’s road trip from hell, where he endured Hampton J. Pig and his unusual family, a chainsaw-wielding maniac, and other hazards en route to the HappyWorldLand theme park. Upon reaching HappyWorldLand, Plucky, Hampton, and the Pigs ride only the monorail around its perimeter (“There’s the Stairway to Heaven! And the Bullet Train to Heck!”) before the family declares it’s time to go home—to save the other rides for future trips. Poor Plucky only got a ride-by of HappyWorldLand as a reward for surviving this trip.

In just 3.5 hours on Monday, I had my equivalent to the Plucky Duck ride-by. My flight from Los Angeles back east had two layovers: a 3.5 hour one in San Francisco and a 1.5 hour stop at Chicago O’Hare. This would be my first time in San Francisco and I was determined to make it an adventure by completing the three hour trip by public transportation from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to the Golden Bridge and then back to SFO for my flight to Chicago.

The whole trip depended on my 6:00 A.M. flight from LAX to SFO landing on time at 7:30 A.M. The flight took it one step further and landed 10 minutes early, giving me some extra time to catch the 7:43 A.M. Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) train from SFO for an 8:10 A.M. arrival at the Daly City station. From the Daly City station, I would catch the 28 Muni bus at 8:15 A.M. to arrive at the Golden Gate Bridge by 8:53 A.M., and get 10 minutes with the engineering wonder. I’d leave the bridge at 9:03 A.M. on the reverse route to return to SFO by 10:23 A.M. to get through security as quickly as possible and board my 11:06 A.M. flight to Chicago.

All went well until the bus didn’t show up at 8:15 A.M. A 28L bus showed at 8:20 A.M., though, so I naively stepped on the bus without a thought; a 28L should have the same route as the 28, right?

Apparently not, because the L in 28L meant “Limited.” The 28L I boarded doesn’t stop at the Golden Gate Bridge, but instead bypasses the Golden Gate Bridge through California Road and Presidio Avenue.

I didn’t realize that discrepancy between the routes until I finally pulled up the route map on my phone at 8:53 A.M., wondering why we weren’t at Golden Gate yet. We were already on Lombard Street.

My mind started scrambling. “I really screwed up this time.” “Abort this mission, forget the Bridge, I have to get back to SFO.” “Crap crap crap crap crap.”

I tugged the Stop Request cable to my left. I needed to get off the bus and just get on any outbound 28/28L that would get me back to the Daly City BART station by 10:15 A.M., so I could arrive at SFO by 10:30 A.M. I got off my 28L bus somewhere on Lombard around 9:05 A.M., crossed the street to the outbound stop, and a 28 bus picked me up a few minutes later. I’m feeling lucky—I’ll make it back to SFO on time.

In my angst to return to SFO, I forgot the 28 went to the Golden Gate Bridge. Lo and behold, the bus pulls up and stops at the Golden Gate Bridge some ten minutes later.

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I had no time to get off the bus to take a picture with the bridge in the background, so in minute the bus idled in front of the bridge, I snapped away and longingly stared from inside the bus. Even with a glass panel separating us, the Golden Gate Bridge is aesthetically perfect. It looks so beautiful against the gorgeous blue and green background provided by the water, the sky, and the hills. The engineers and builders of yesteryear who created the Golden Gate Bridge just left me in awe as the bus pulled away, and I tried to maintain eye contact with their creation for as long as possible until it faded away.

With the bridge out of sight, my angst set in again. So many San Francisco State University boarded my bus and slowed down my trek to the Daly City station, but I somehow made to the station by 10:10 A.M. and arrived at a SFO passenger security line by 10:35 A.M. Thirty minutes until takeoff—I would need an efficient TSA security to help me out here.

I didn’t get that.

There were two Boarding Pass/ID check lines that sped me and the six others ahead of me through that portion in about five minutes, but there was only one line for the bag and body scans. The TSA-Pre line for the x-rays wouldn’t be opened for us, despite no one enrolled in TSA-Pre showing up here. Ten excruciating minutes later, I took the x-ray and got the OK from TSA to proceed and dashed to the nearest Departures board. United Airlines Flight 1638 departing at 11:06 A.M. to Chicago O’Hare: Gate 67.

I started off walking fast, until I realized I had more than one long corridor between the Departures board and Gate 67. My walk turned into a speedwalk, and then finally an alternating speedwalk and jog. For the first time since I arrived in California, I broke a sweat.

There’s Gate 60. It’s 10:50. I’ll make it.

I arrived at Gate 67 with fifteen minutes before departure and there were still about six or seven people boarding my flight. So yes, I spent 3.5 hours on public transportation just to drive by the Golden Gate Bridge and then idle next to it for a minute. If you’re smart, you won’t follow my path and turn your Golden Gate trip into a stressful Amazing Race challenge. The bridge is to be savored in all its glory; I’ll be back soon to give it the proper time it deserves.

Four

Sometime just after the clock struck midnight and Saturday turned to Sunday, I tried to learn how to count to four. I failed miserably.

Before you question my credentials as an adult human being, it goes one-two-three-four. The only time I can’t seem to perform this function is when I’m trying to dance; God blessed me with a broken internal metronome. All it took was a visit to a dance studio to discover this issue.

After the Freeway Fracas, I drove to Long Beach, where my college buddy Alberto was partaking in some open floor salsa dancing. With no experience in salsa, I figured I didn’t need to dance. I would just sit back and watch the dancing and attack these hard hitting questions I came up with during the 40 minute drive to Long Beach: Why/how is dancing an expression of art and/or emotion for these people? Are there are any moves I could absorb just from observation?

The rectangular, white building that houses the dance center is unassuming from the outside. Stepping inside, the dance floor was wider and deeper than I expected; it wasn’t a tiny, congested square that you normally encounter in the hotel banquet room that’s hosting a wedding reception. Each pair of dancers, many of them clad in green for St. Patrick’s Day, could shake and spin and travel across the darkened dance floor with room to spare. The dancing was seduction taking the form of motion and music.

I looked toward the back of the building and spotted Alberto, dressed for the occasion with a sleeves-rolled light green collared shirt and gray khakis, dancing with a woman in a black and white dress. After exchanging greetings with him, I staked out a spot against the wall, watching the moves and listening to the music with arms crossed. It was fun to just listen to the good music and be surrounded by so many people in my age bracket.

Then she caught my eye.

She was a brunette about my height of 5’9’’, in a St. Patrick’s Day-obligatory green top and black skirt, her brown hair in bangs and a ponytail down to her skirt. But it was her eyes, which looked alluring from afar, that grabbed my attention. She was standing at the end of the row of chairs to my left, waiting for someone to ask her for a dance. Within some indeterminate amount of time, she walked by me twice with brief eye contact, danced with a few guys, and took a break from dancing. My resolve to just be a rigid observer among the fluid dancers was bending and bending…

…and then broken.

Alberto showed up as she walked by me again and asked her to dance. They looked good on a dance floor. After their song ended, I rolled up my sleeves and my brain let out an internal “[Expletive], I’m really going to go through this.” I was setting myself up to fail on the dance floor with her, but I knew I’d regret it if I just did nothing the rest of the night.

I waited for a few songs, until she sat down and the DJ played a slower tune, then I made my approach.

“Hi!” I said, because that’s always a good icebreaker. “I don’t know anything about the salsa, but I’ll try to learn. Would you like to dance?”

“Yeah, sure,” she said. “I’ll lead since you’re new to this.” (That was easier than expected.)

With hands held, she began counting. One-two-three-four. Whoops, I stepped in the opposite direction as her and after the fourth count. This slower beat is a little harder to keep up with than I expected.

“You could take classes here and learn how to do all this,” she said after I found my footing.

“I’d like to, but I live in Connecticut,” I replied. [After she asked what brought me here] “I’m just trying to get away from winter for a few days.”

One-two-three-four. Hey, I was finally starting to get this timing thing down. I could maintain better eye contact, nodding my head a little, and she in turn began shaking her hips, taking more pronounced steps, and nodding to the beat. Comfort level established, so I took my turn to ask a question.

“So you grew up in Southern California your whole life?”

“Yep,” she said. I was proven right here—her eyes were alluring.

“You’re really lucky.”

“I know.”

OneTwoThree—. Crap. Overconfidence got me. I somehow forgot how to count correctly after this part of the conversation and derailed things. Before I could regroup, the song ended—what a dud of a finale. I gave her my name, asked for hers, and then used that info to thank her for her time (i.e., putting up with me).

After returning to my perch against the wall and watching all the other guys lead their partners so well, I felt bad and wished I could have done better for her. This still bothers me, five days later, even though I’m operating under the assumption that the experts she later danced with more than made up for my disaster. Despite this nagging (that will eventually disappear), it was worth getting out of my comfort zone for a few minutes to try something new and quite fun.

I arrived in Long Beach with low expectations, but I got way more out of the experience than I imagined when I first jumped on the 405 to get to the dance center. Anyway, this was just my long-winded way of promoting the following ideas: (1) don’t be afraid to set yourself up for failure; (2) carpe diem and no regrets; (3) when you’re clueless in a dance floor, remember: one-two-three-four.