Two years ago Mom hosted an ugly sweater party. She bought horrible sweaters for everybody to wear ironically. When I showed up at the door, she handed me this one.
"I'll show you!" I said. "I'm gonna enjoy this sweater un-ironically! I'm gonna wear it with total sincerity, every single Christmas from now on!" And so I have done.
I didn't have the money this year to fly home to Chicago for every holiday, so I told Mom she could pick either Thanksgiving or Christmas. She picked Thanksgiving. So for Christmas I didn't go anywhere, and just video-chatted with my family on Skype. (Some weird bug between my webcam and Skype makes my video stream appear upside-down to people on the other end.)
Here's what I did instead.
Christmas Eve, Sushu's family took me to a light show at Six Flags. Partly sponsored by China, it had a bunch of corny light-up and/or animatronic versions of Chinese mythological figures, international landmarks, random Christmasy stuff, etc.
Plastic, bright-blue christmas tree with gaudy lights, flanked by palm trees? Yup, this image sums up Christmas in California.
This dragon made of hundreds of porcelain spoons and bowls was legitimately cool though.
Sushu's bro John and I shared a humongous funnel cake, with strawberries and whipped cream. I scoffed at the offer to use a fork. My hands were disgusting afterwards. I regret nothing!
On Christmas morning we went to see the new Les Miserables movie, about which I have already shared my opinions.
The morning of the 26th I got up early and made sandwiches before we began our road trip to Seattle. We swung through Oakland to pick up Chris and then got onto I-5 north.
It's about a 14-15 hour drive, similar to the distance between Connecticut and Chicago, but with more interesting scenery. On the way we saw massive clouds of migrating birds. We took turns reading out loud from Journey to the West and singing songs from Les Mis.
In the very rural, very conservative northern Central Valley we saw Tea Party signs with ominous warnings ("Watch Out, Congress"; "The Second American Revolution is Coming!") and even a sign proclaiming "State of Jefferson".
Just before I-5 crossed into Oregon, we were rewarded with this lovely view of Mt. Shasta.
We lost time due to snowfall in the high mountain passes. It was well after dark when we arrived in Seattle.
We met Alexis in a grocery store parking lot. I volunteered to drive the next segment, and scared all the passengers half to death when I started to back out of the parking lot across two lanes of traffic. Some kind of brain malfunction had made me literally forget that going forward into a street was a thing that cars could do. I stopped before getting into the road, so everybody was fine, but it's going to take me a while to live that one down.
Then we picked Chris's longtime friend Les. With five people now in our party, the car was pretty well packed. We went to a fancy Chinese seafood restaurant for dinner; a fire alarm went off while we were eating because the upstairs neighbor had dropped a lit cigarette in a trash can and the firefighters had to show up to deal with it.
The next morning, we went here: the EMP (Experience Music Project), a museum of rock music and science fiction, funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.
Rock AND sci-fi? It's like it was made just for me! I'm not going to pass that up, even if it IS housed inside what may be the single ugliest building on the face of the planet, a clashing-color, crumpled-shell monstrosity designed by Frank Geary.
It's basically Paul Allen's geeky souvenir collection on display. You can see the whole thing in a couple hours. Fun, but not much reason to go back. The room where you can jam out on real instruments is the best part, but we had to fight a lot of kids for the privilege.
The monorail runs right through the middle of the EMP building.
I heard from the Seattlites that the monorail is just one of many useless public works projects that Seattle's corrupt city government has used to embezzle citizens' money. It could have been cool except that the tracks only cover six blocks of downtown.
It was apparently the real-life inspiration for the Monorail Episode of the Simpsons.
Later, I totally failed to parallel-park on a steep hill. Something about Seattle made me suck at driving.
We poked around a local anime model-kit shop, hung out at a tea shop run by Alexis' friends, and then went to Les' house where he showed off his Minecraft world full of extremely impressive redstone constructions. (The high frame-rate made Sushu motion sick.) Les is a video game programmer and has worked freelance on many high-profile games. He's a really cool guy and I wish I got a chance to hang out with him more.
The Seattleites took us on a whirlwind tour of all their favorite restaurants. I think I gained about ten pounds. Thursday lunch was a Cambodian noodle place tht made an amazing durian shake, and dinner was an underground Tibetan curry shop. Friday lunch was at a tiny ramen shop, supposedly the best in Seattle -- they make a fresh batch of noodles for lunch, but only enough for like 20 or 30 people, so if you're not one of the first 20 people you don't get any, so we were lined up on the sidewalk 30 minutes before the shop opened.
While in line there, I met Amy, a really cool friend of Ben and Alexis, who is also a programmer. She and I and Les bored everybody else with our programmer shop talk while hanging around a bubble-tea cafe.
I was happy I got to meet such cool people on this trip. But after a few days I was starting to get burnt out on socialization. I'm an introvert by nature; even when I'm enjoying a conversation with a new acquaintance, it still sucks energy out of my invisible socialization-energy meter. When that meter runs out I really need to go crash in my cave of solitude with my books or my computer.
Anyway, we didn't get much more time to hang out because Friday afternoon it was already time to start heading for home. We got to Portland on Friday evening, where we had Hawaiian food with Chris' sister Bianca, and went book-browsing at Powell's. (My haul: How Music Works by David Byrne; Ready, Player One; Vol 1 of Saga; and Level 2 of Integrated Chinese.)
We spent the night at Ben's house in Portland, so that we'd have a shorter drive home on Saturday. Ben himself wasn't there, but his housemate Barry welcomed us. (I've enjoyed reading Barry's blog without ever knowing I had a connection to the author.) He wanted to talk about comic-drawing, which normally I would have loved, but by that point my socialization meter was completely empty, so I'm afraid I rather rudely sat in a corner reading an old copy of Rogue Trader for most of the evening.
Alexis rode back down to California with us, and stayed at our house for a few days more.
A beautiful view driving down out of the mountains, back into California.
Sushu sneaks a picture of the fancy birthday dinner her parents prepared.
At the birthday party, I had a long conversation with Sushu's childhood friend Yipeng. He talks like a sports jock / dudebro, but he's got a really geeky side too, which Alexis and I exposed by engaging him in reminiscience about old Magic: The Gathering cards. We ended with an agreement to play a sealed deck match next time we meet.
On the 31st, Alexis unleashed her Italian food-snob side and made fantastic pesto and tiramisu for all of us, using ingredients we plundered from a bargain-basement Italian food import store in Seattle.
Meanwhile, Sushu and I rehearsed for our New Year's Day taiko performance. It was our first time to join in playing the group's newest song, Kouki Tenmei. Kouki, which the senior students brought back from a song exchange with a taiko group in Brazil last January, is an extremely fast, rhythmically complex song that I've had great trouble learning. There are three distinct parts which, lined up perfectly, have awesome-sounding polyrhythmic interplay. But if one part is just a tiny bit off, it sounds like a chaotic mess.
Since we were in China for three months in the summer, we were three months behind the rest of the class on Kouki, and I was quite nervous about it. So the day before, we set up the world's jankiest practice drums (cardboard boxes attached to stools with bandages) and ran through our parts repeatedly.
New Year's Eve midnight karaoke with Alexis has become quite a tradition. This is what, the fourth year we've done it? Fifth year? We picked up Ben, who had come down to San Francisco to visit his mother in the hospital, and headed to Gamba karaoke in Cupertino. Ben claims he can't sing, but he does a respectable Bob Dylan (some would say that not being able to sing is an advantage for doing Bob Dylan) and he joined me for a very manly duet on "Princes of the Universe". Gamba is amazing because if you pick an anime song -- Rose of Versailles, Utena, Evangelion, Mazinger Z -- chances are they have the actual opening animation to go with it. Sang some Earth, Wind, and Fire with Alexis and of course everybody joined in on "Pengyou" which has sort of become our less-lame replacement for Auld Lang Syne.
Emeryville Taiko keeps the Japanese New Year tradition of Mochi-pounding. Here, Etsuko-san keeps the glutinous rice mass wet while instructing volunteers how to wield their mighty rice-pounding hammers. Sensei and Matt (background) try to keep everyone in rhythm with a festival pattern on shime drums.
Just to increase my nervousness, a film crew from a local TV station showed up during our rehearsal to interview people for a human-interest piece they're doing on Emeryville Taiko's continuing problem with finding a permanent home. (We've had to move between four different practice locations in the past two years -- the noise complaints make it hard to find a lease, go figure.) They wanted to interview me, but I've had bad experiences with being quoted out of context by the media, so I tried to stay off-camera.
The performance went well! I had made all my Kouki Tenmei mistakes during rehearsal, so the real one went pretty well. I even started the song off, which was not exactly how we planned it, but it worked out. Miya, playing the flute solo on Kacho Fugetsu for the first time, was as nervous as I was, but she did great.
Lots of our friends, and even Sushu's family, came to watch the concert and eat mochi. The mochi was made into some really good o-zoni, which I hadn't tasted for almost ten years.
Happy 2013, everybody!