The Best Non-Required Christmas Letter 2009 (Narcissistic Edition)

Let’s be clear, this letter is all about me, me, me. There’s no need to deny it or pretend otherwise. This is my chance to brag about what I’ve done, what I know, and how awesome I truly am. It’s where I yell “LOOK MA!” as I hit that bulging hornet’s nest with a big stick. In other words, I speak before I think. And I never expect to get stung.

But since this is after all, the season of giving, I’m willing to cut you in on my conceit. At least once a year, I’m willing to take the focus slightly off me, and give you some attention as well. I’m sure you deserve it. So if you send me your ‘me, me, me’ letters, I will read them (as far as you know). I’m also willing to go a step further and thank you for your attention now, even if, deservedly, it lasts but briefly. So, I am humbled by those that read every word of this letter, grateful to those that skim through it (looking for juicy parts), and wholly forgiving of those that press delete before opening it (even though they won’t know it). Let’s get started.

2009 was a year. Profound. But what type of year was it?

Was it an up year? Or a down year?

Was it a smack you in the face year? Was it a lay quietly in your snuggie in front of the TV year? Was it a throw down your top and drive off into the sunset year?

Did it make you laugh? Did you make you cry? Did it make you sing karaoke against your will? Did it throw caution to the wind? Did it excel in every way?

Who cares. 2009 was what it was. Don’t over think it. Let’s pause here to look at a few of the non-required highlights.

Breweries – Let’s all shout an ode to beer, the joyous liquid. In my questionable wisdom, I made a point to check out a barrel-full of beer making places. In Maryland, the District of Columbia, Ohio, Michigan and Washington. The real question is, why am I writing this drivel instead of sitting at the local brewpub? Hmmm, this letter may end up shorter than usual…see ya!

London, England – Okay, I’m still here. You lucked out. I’ve been to London a number of times over the past few years, but this was the first time I’ve stayed on the East side, in the Shoreditch district. Nearby is Brick Lane, with its overabundance of tasty Bengali Indian cuisine and curry restaurants. Conveniently, the 2nd Annual Stag & Dagger music festival thumped on the first night we arrived. 100 bands in 20 venues, all within spitting distance of the hotel. Of course, we also had to lay waste to messy shwarmas and salt beef bagels (liberally slathered in sinus clearing mustard) sold in the late night walk-up stands. And we drank caipirinha from fishbowls for good measure. Somehow we also managed to visit the Westminster Abbey and Winston Churchill’s Cabinet War Room (the underground command bunkers during World War II).

Baseball – In my quest to see a baseball game in every Major League stadium, I added three new stadiums in 2009, in Cincinnati, Detroit and Cleveland. Each stadium had its own charm (like gigantic tiger statues in Comerica Park). In two of the games my team, the Seattle Mariners, lost badly. Crap. The M’s lone highlight was Ken Griffey, Jr jacking a solo homerun. Also on the agenda was watching the ground crew making the field playable after a rain delay, feasting on hot dogs, and other impressive things. Next year…maybe a visit to Chicago?

Leavenworth (Washington state, USA) – It’s a small Bavarian village on the other side of the Cascades. A good place to enjoy Oktoberfest, a bit of bratwurst, the fall foliage, and visit a few vineyards and wine tasting rooms.

Books – Instead of this letter, please read “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson and “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell.

Paphos, Cyprus – First, rent a car in Larnaca. Second, learn to drive on the wrong (left) side of the road. Third, enjoy. We took a leisurely drive from Larnaca to Paphos, through a few quaint villages along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. We sat on the waterfront and enjoyed a lunch infused with seafood and beer. Then we drove around with no particular destination and no goal. Scenic and refreshing.

Icicle Ridge Winery – Not to be outdone by its sudsier cousin (our good friend beer), I also managed to raise my pinky finger during tastings at 13 different wineries in Northern Virginia and Washington state. Yes, that’s right. I may now qualify as something of an expert wino, even though I retained none of the possible knowledge that I could have attained. Icicle Ridge Winery (WA) was the best of the lot, with a free tasting (11 wines!) and a great setting. Also good were Village Winery and Vineyards (VA) and Chrysalis Vineyards (VA).

Music – I rocked out to a load of concerts (18), listened to a few dozen new albums and used my airline miles to buy a new iPod Touch to keep them all at my fingertips. Of the concerts, I enjoyed Green Day and Chris Cornell. The Barack Obama inauguration concert with a ‘yes we can’ variety of artists on the National Mall was also worth noting. Garth Brooks played three songs and proved why he is still a great entertainer. Of the albums, I enjoyed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘It’s Blitz! and Pearl Jam ‘Backspacer’.

Road Trip (Ohio and Michigan, USA) – Traveling a hefty 2,197 miles through the states of Ohio and Michigan, with your wiener dog as a co-pilot, while blaring CDs over and over, is a fine way to spend a week or so. I managed to attend some ball games, nosh good food, sip some beer, take in a few sights and generally make a nuisance of myself. Especially interesting were slipping about the University of Michigan campus, gaining potential music knowledge at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (none retained), and sifting sand between my toes along the shore of Lake Michigan.

Hiking – I’ve been missing out on hiking over the past few years, mostly because I’d be off traveling or because I’m just flat lazy. So one of my 2009 New Year’s resolutions was to do more day hikes. And lo! I succeeded! I joined the local Capital Hiking Club and managed to trek about Virginia and Pennsylvania. I also did a hike in Washington making about 12 day hikes in all. A majority of the hikes were along portions of the Appalachian Trail that runs from Maine to Georgia. One day I might have to tackle that whole beast.

US Open Cup Championship (soccer) game (Washington, D.C., USA) – The expansion Major League Soccer team, Seattle Sounders FC, enjoyed a fine first year of existence. They played well, made the playoffs, and broke multiple attendance records. Additionally, all US soccer teams at all levels of play participate in an annual domestic tournament called the US Open Cup. The Sounders advanced to the championship game against DC United and pulled out an incredible victory on DC’s home pitch. We came adorned in blue and green to witness an energetic game and proved that US soccer fans can have a bit of passion for the game. Case in point, over 100 Sounders fans traveled all the way from Seattle to attend the game, while singing songs and shouting like only hooligans can. Oy! Now bring on the World Cup!

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia, USA) – Whether is was camping in the rain or hiking among trillium flowers or standing still to escape notice of that bear or swimming underneath freezing waterfalls or pausing dramatically to allow that rattlesnake to get the heck out of my way or scrambling over rock formations to see the incredible view, I spent a good amount of time in Shenandoah National Park. Thought you should know.

Television – Surprisingly there are quite a number of decent new shows to look out for, including Community and FlashForward. Others to either keep watching or start watching at all cost are:  Fringe, Dexter and Lost.

Truck Bed Sledding – If you think that using a black inner tube or a regular sled are the correct ways to careen crazily downhill, then you are wrong. The actual correct way is to find a cast-off truck bed liner in the woods, pull it to the top of a precipitous drop and then on the count of three, have six or so screaming diehards jump in and hold on for dear life. Sanity and medical insurance not included.

Tower of London (London, England) – The Tower is a sprawling fortress bursting with historical intrigue, death and Beefeaters. It consists of 20 total towers, with the largest, the White Tower as the most famous. Our Beefeater gave us a rousing tour of the grounds and told of horrific beheadings, disappearing young princes whose bodies turned up hundreds of years later in the tower wall, wars, and crazy kings. Basically the history of England could almost be summed up within these walls.

Kruger Park (South Africa) – If you like near death lions, lithely trotting leopards, angrily charging elephants, curious rhinos, trapped in your room bats, baby giraffes extending their necks for food, muddy snorting hippopotamus’, racing zebras, suspicious buffaloes, bashful bushbucks and more impalas then you can shake a stick at, then you’d do well to book a three-day safari through Kruger Park. If you like breathtaking sunrises, curious rock formations, sparse forests, post-wildfire plains, high bluffs with views forever, gigantic baobab trees, dusty scrub brush, flowing rivers, darkness illuminated with spotlights, and an occasional camp or lodge in the distance, then drive around in your white 4-wheel drive for hours on end. If none of this appeals you? All the more for me.

peace and merriment to you and yours

View the Wordle version:

Blue Blazes, President Hoover, and a Skinny Dipping World Record

Editor’s note: Okay, so you were probably enticed to read this post from all that ‘skinny dipping’ in the title. Not to completely disappoint you, but no photos will be available nor was any actual nudity involved. Please continue. Or show your true colors by leaving to google ‘skinny dipping’…


Having spent a good deal of time exploring  and hiking around Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park over the past few months, I feel compelled to share some of the highlights of the national park.

AT with white blaze
AT with white blaze

The Appalachian Trail – spanning 2,175 total miles, from Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian Trail (or the AT as it’s referred to by the serious about hiking sort)  runs through the full length of the Shenandoah. About 101 miles of trail. I’ve done a range of different hikes in the park, and most of them included chunks of the AT. The AT uses white blazes (paint on trees and rocks) to distinguish it from the blue blazes used for other park trails (for hikers only).

At Camp Hoover
Camp Hoover

Camp Hoover (or Rapidan Camp) – In 1929, President Herbert Hoover needed his very own fortress of solitude. He sent his minions out to find the perfect retreat to conduct state business while fishing and enjoying nature. The Marines built it smack dab in the middle of what would soon be the Shenandoah National Park. Camp Hoover was visited by other US presidents, but Roosevelt opened Camp David because it was not wheelchair accessible (get out your hiking boots if you want to go). The buildings that remain have been turned into a museum (the Brown House was Hoover’s residence) and showrooms in the middle of idyllic nowhere.

Dark Hollow Falls – with a nice 71 foot drop and a good climb, this is a great place for a scenic lunch and a few photos.

Matthew’s Arm campsite– Up north and slightly away from the crowds that go towards the middle of the park, this campsite had good sized sites and good shade. No showers, but then again, you do need that extra special scent to repel the bears and the mosquitoes.


Random cemetery – Until 1929, people actually lived where Shenandoah is now, but they got kicked out in favor of the National Park. There are still a few remnants of their existence, including one particular small, stone walled graveyard off Keyser Run Fire Road. A blue memorial plaque with a short poem describing their plight has been added, giving the place an even more melancholy atmosphere. 

Trillium flowers
Trillium flowers


Trillium flowers – Big, white flowers (kind of like daffodils) everywhere along the trail, makes for a fine afternoon walkabout.



Stony Man Summit – One of the highest points in the Shenandoah (4010 ft elevation), this affords a startlingly, panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. The rock formations are impressive and a good place to practice not falling off of a high cliff.

Bears! – Yes, there are bears. Black bears, to be precise. One was ambling along about 10 yards from the trail, not really caring about the nearby hikers (must have already snacked on a park ranger). No one was mauled. Yet.

Little Devil Stairs – Don’t let the ‘little’ fool you. This trail is all devil, all the time. Climbing about 1500 feet in a short distance this trail, weaving over (but not under) the churning and falling stream many many times, will kick your butt. It doesn’t help  when it starts to pour down rain when you get to the top. The angry rattlesnake waiting to lunge at your ankle is also unnecessary.

South River Falls – Another waterfall (83 feet) to add to your photo collection. Or not.

White Oak Canyon swimming hole
Swimming hole

White Oak Canyon Trail – descending a ridiculous amount (3,200+ feet), past a series of huge waterfalls,  we finished at the bottom waterfall for a crisp, frigid dip in a  nice deep swimming hole. Standing under the cascading waterfalls, you could get a bit of a water massage. Speaking of which…



Skinny dipping world record (July 11, 2009)– an attempt to set the Guinness world record for most skinny dippers at one time happened (I suppose) on July 11, 2009 at 3pm. Was it successful? No idea. While ‘dipping’ in the swimming hole on White Oaks Canyon trail, one of the hike leaders suggested we participate in the ‘skinny’ portion at 3pm. No one took him up on the offer. Besides, the water wasn’t going to do the guys any favors.



The Fishbowl, the Dukes, and the Beheading

So, you’ve sauntered into the heart of London with a gleam of mischief in your eye and wallet full of pounds. While the sun is in the sky, oh why oh why would I want to be anywhere else? What to do, what to do…here’s a few things…

2nd Annual Stag & Dagger Festival – 100 bands in 20 venues! Oh the humanity! The first night in London we spent checking out some bands and wandering around the East side of the city. The Filthy Dukes at the Vibe Bar kept us entertained for a bit.

Tower of London – after multiple visits to London, the Tower had never made my excursion list. Until now. We had a right jolly Beefeater (a Yeoman Warder of the Tower) give us a tour and clue us in on bits of the sordid history of England. Best story was when Jack Ketch, the executioner, gave James Scott 5 blows with his axe before having to use a carving knife to finish the gruesome beheading. Or the time where two princes went missing in 1483, leaving Richard III as the king. The princes were found 180 years later in a wooden box behind one of the White Tower walls as it was knocked down for renovation. We also saw the Crown Jewels…

Westminster Abbey – pretty much where everyone to ever live in England is buried…even with the copious number of graves and memorials, still a beautiful and reverent place.

O2 Academy Brixton – seems to be the happening spot to see live music in London. We saw The Tings Tings one night in this cavernous and well appointed venue.

Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms – the underground bunker where Winston Churchill and his cabinet planned and executed their World War II plans against the Nazis. Churchill would often go outside and watch the Luftwaffe destroy London with their biltzkrieg.  While smoking his cigar.


What to eat and drink…

Caipirihnas in a fishbowl – exactly what it sounds like, with exactly the effect you would expect. Fish not included.

Salt Beef Bagel – late night eating, especially when everything else is closed early on Sunday for the Bank holiday, deserves a stop for salt beef slapped on a bagel with a dollop of nasal cavity burning mustard.

Cream Tea– a spot of tea and a couple scones, with jam and clotted cream on the side. Oiy.

Indian food on Brick Lane– everywhere you walk, hawkers try to entice you into their restaurant. But choices abound. We let a Londoner pick for us.  Try the Balti lamb korma.


What not to do…

Tate Modern– ummmm, yes… if you like modern art in all its various motiffs, then this is certainly the place for you. But if you can do without strange movies (Blood and Feathers anyone?) and randomly weird artistic expression, than there is plenty else to do in London.

LDN out


Five Random Books: History Lessons You Didn’t Learn

Jonesing for some historical knowledge that will impress your friends at the next dinner party? Say no more. You’ve come to the exact right place at the exact right time.

Not interested in history? Don’t have any friends? Sigh…I think American Idol is on now…

Read these books at your own peril. You might learn something. Which in your case, might be a first.

The Pirate Coast (Richard Zacks, 2006)  This tells of the United States’ involvement in the Barbary Coast and the shores of Tripoli in the early 1800’s. A man leads the country’s first marines to depose the pasha of Tripoli by putting the less than deserving brother in his place. Covert affairs, the US begins. Also, it tells of the war against the Barbary pirates and the primary rationale for the early US navy.

Ghost Soldiers (Hampton Sides, 2002)  Made into an decent but not great movie (The Great Raid), this is an excellent story detailing the rescue of the surviving prisoners of war from the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. If you even remotely like epic, incredible stories or anything about World War II, make sure you read this book.

Isaac’s Storm (Erik Larson, 2000)  Even worse than Hurricane Katrina, this hurricane in 1900 rips through Galveston, Texas and kills 6000 people. The tale is recounted from the perspective of one meteorologist who didn’t know what he was dealing with.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (Alfred Lansing, 1999) Ernest Shackleton went to the the South Pole and got stuck. This is the epic tale of how he and his crew survived for 1-1/2 years and what they had to do.

Under the Banner of Heaven (Jon Krakauer, 2004)  Explores how religious fundamentalism can poison the human condition through the eyes of the Mormon faith and two brothers that killed their sister-in-law and niece because God told them to. Scary and yet true.