Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Good Freaking Morning!

Usually we get woken up in the morning by roosters. Yes, actual roosters. Cockadoodle doo! Yes!

Seriously, there are chickens and roosters all over the island, thousands of them, and from about 6 a.m. on there's this cacophony of crowing. The poultry don't belong to anyone, heck it's a rare day when there aren't a half a dozen of them in our yard. There are a couple of hens out back clucking right now. And the roosters don't just crow when the sun rises, they crow all damn day and sometimes at 2 in the morning.

But the roosters weren't the culprit this morning. Oh no. I wish it had been roosters. The roosters are nothing. We got woken this morning about 6:30 by the loudest music I've ever heard. And I've been to a few stadium rock concerts back in the day.

Think the loudest pickup truck stereo you've ever heard going Boom-da-da-Boom-da-da-BOOM!-da-da-BOOM!!! Now imagine someone parked that truck in your bedroom.

Turns out this morning was J'ourvert, part of Festival. Every Caribbean Island has its own festival, and St. Croix's is in the weeks before and just after Christmas. We're in the last week of Festival right now.

J'ouvert is the morning tramp - a tramp being when they put a band or a DJ on the back of a truck and drive slowly down the street with people dancing and bouncing in its wake all the way into town. They do several of them during Festival. And J'ouvert is the one they do in the morning. I don't know why, but there you go.

Now, understand that this Jouver't was forming up THREE BLOCKS from our house, and that tells you how loud the music was. It was fucking LOUD. About 8 million decibels, I'm thinking. Louder than a jet plane, that's for sure. I know this because a jet plane actually flew over our house while this was going on, altitude no more than a thousand feet as it descended towards the airport, and I didn't hear a damn thing. THAT'S how loud J'ouvert was. And it went on for about an hour before the truck got moving and they finally faded from our range of hearing.

And the good news is, they started late. They were supposed to start at 5 a.m., according to the schedule. Thank goodness for island time. Nothing starts at the advertised time, unless you're running late and then it's early.

And all that noise didn't wake the kids up.

I'm looking forward to (seriously, I'm looking forward to it) the Saturday Festival parade. It starts about five blocks from here, and it's sort of a super tramp (for those who like their '70s references musical. Get it? Super tramp, Super Tramp? Never mind.) Bands on trucks. People dancing down the street behind them. The winner is the band that gets the most people following its truck. They toss out T-shirts and CDs to get people following them. I've seen photos, and the street is just a mass of swaying, writhing bouncing dancingcelebratingfunhaving humanity. But it starts at the relatively decent hour of 10 a.m. And we'll be there, dancing.

In the Caribbean - you don't WATCH a parade. That's for wimps. You dance it.

UPDATE: A story on Tuesday's J'ouvert, including a photo that really gives a feeling for the event (click on the photo to make it big enough to see anything), is online at The St. Croix Source Web site. The Source is the online newspaper (a paper with no paper) that I work for. Judging from Bill's story, I must have several of the details wrong. I don't care. It looks like fun!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

What a Place to Live!

Tori and I were at the Caribbean Museum Center of the Arts in Frederiksted Saturday covering an open house. (I works for the St Croix Source, this was an assignment.)

Anyway, after the event we headed out. Walking through the door we saw the arched portico framing the last blush of the sunset, lights from the cruise ship pier reflecting off the water. Stars and an incredibly bright Venus shone in a velvety blue sky, while a warm breeze played on us.

"We live in a good place," we agreed as we crossed the street to the waterfront and sat on a bench.

Tori tried a couple of times to capture the scene with the camera, but it was impossible. This was more than could be taken in by the senses. It filled our souls.

We'll have a longish post wrapping up all the Christmas activities in the next day or two. But this has to be said.

We live in a very good place.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Update – You'll Never Guess What We Found


Yes, we found fruitcake. Sort of. It's cakey, a little light fr fruitcake (that is, I could lift it.) And it's round with a hole in it, like a Bundt cake. So I don't think you could use it as a doorstop very well.

But it's cakey and it's got that awful fruit in it. And Janet is delighted.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve in Paradise

By Mad Sally

The day before Christmas in paradise. A day before Christmas just like any other day before Christmas. We've spent too much money and still have tons of shopping to do. Boxes and bags of potential delight hidden all over the house. Where's the wrapping paper? Do we have enough tape? What about batteries? There are never enough batteries on Christmas morning.

Shopping in paradise had been a challenge. The island seems to be about ten years behind in everything, especially commerce, so those little things on everybody's Christmas list are difficult to find, if not impossible.

Like fruit cake.

My mother wanted a fruit cake for Christmas. God knows why. They really are one of those (edible?) creations that would have been better left undiscovered. But she is of an age where fruitcake is a tradition.

Bless her.

But is there a single fruitcake on the island? Not that I have been able to find. I ask one of the many locals who sell their home-baked delectables in front of the gas station door, "Good morning" -always start the conversation with 'good morning,' 'good afternoon,' or 'good evening' or you will not get a reply- "Do you have fruit cake? My mom wants a fruitcake for the holiday."

With a look of incredulity, the confident, buxomly older woman dressed in a tight plaid apron with her hair wrapped high in matching plaid replies, "De fruitcake? I have de fruit bread, look at de fruit bread!" She grabs my hands and takes me to the back of her minivan, pulls out a bowling ball sized loaf of bread dotted with color, and thrusts it in my hands.

"What's in it?" I inquire with a smile.

"De fruit! De fruit be in de bread!" She laughs at me.

Stupid tourist.

I politely decline, which is a very difficult thing to do here as people with their insistent tones of voice and infectious passion for all things make it difficult to ever say no, and I quickly get away in hopes of finding a "real" fruit cake.

Needless to say, a few days later and 132 miles on the car, I should've taken "de fruit bread."

That is just an example of what is not available in paradise. There are no crossword puzzle calendars, no boxed sets of "Twilight," no CD section at the local Kmart, no reliable video game dealer, no copy of the movie "Amalie," no Bionicle "Mistika," and the list goes on. Sure if we'd been on top of it, we'd have ordered online in advance. But anybody who knows us understands that organized is not our forte.

Really, I am not complaining. It is just another aspect of my mentality that needs to adjust to island time:

Wants and needs require modification, accepting that desirable is the closest available option. In other words, take the fucking fruit bread.

Two days ago I spent the morning at the beach in Frederiksted, which, by the way, is a mere three minutes away from my front door. There was nobody else there.


I read a great book while lounging on the sand.

I snorkeled in the pristine cerulean waters.

I witnessed flying fish leaping out of the water.

I watched sailboats tack into the Caribbean trades.

So worth the loss of a fruitcake.

Mad Sally

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bertha's Better

We had been running Bertha, our '97 Nissan Pathfinder that had gotten a tankful of bad gas , trying to burn off the gunk, but it was still taking several minutes of cranking to get her to start. I had learned what to do to make her stall in traffic and, more importantly, how to recover before she completely stalled out. As our friend Brian - who apparently reads the blog from Oregon - commented, we would have to replace the fuel filter because it was undoubtedly fouled with whatever bad was in the gas.

We had heard something similar from a guy here who commented that filters have a tendency to foul more quickly on the island anyway. So we made up our minds to do it. After doing a little research on Nissan Web sites I decided not only could I do this, but it would actually be pretty easy. Maybe the easiest thing you can do on the car. We don't have a mechanic here yet, and finding a good one you can trust is hard under the best of circumstances. So we were game to DIY it, even though virtually all my tools are still in storage 4,000 miles away in Oregon. I have here one small crescent wrench, a couple of pairs of pliers and four screw drivers. But based on my research that ought to do it.

It's a typical St. Croix story. This (Saturday) morning Tori and I walked four blocks or so to the auto parts store, got the filter for 15 bucks, went across the street to the hardware store where we got a couple of clamps for the fuel line. I was thinking, "I really should have a socket wrench for that bracket, cuz the bolt is probably frozen." But I already have two socket sets – in Oregon. It was hard to decide to spend the money, so we decided to forgo the new wrench. We walked home and got to work.

First - disconnect the battery. Always a good idea when you're working on the fuel system. Then clamp off on the tank-side hose and remove the hose. No trouble. On to the bracket that holds the filter in place.

And that bolt was stuck. I mean stuck solid. WD40. Still stuck. It's been in place for 11 years and wasn't going to loosen without putting up a fight. Part of the problem was the bracket frame had a small lip on it so I couldn't get wrench or pliers or anything on it squarely. Finally I said to Tori, "Gotta have the right tool. I'm going back for the socket wrench." She just said fine, but didn't get out from under the car where she continued tinkering with that frozen bolt. (Frozen Bolt would be a good name for a rock band, wouldn't it?)

I walked to the hardware store. Now this is the most typically St. Croix part of the story. The hardware store only had half-inch drive socket wrenches, but only had 3/8-inch drive sockets. So I also had to buy an adapter - which thank God they had! I knew from my research that the bolt was 10 mm, but I also bought the 9 and 11 mm sockets "just in case." I was tired of walking to the hardware store.

Thus armed, I walked back home. Where Tori was sitting on the porch. "It's done," she said. Two minutes after I'd turned the corner she had worked the bolt loose enough to undo the clamp. The rest of the job was absurdly simple, and she'd finished it up before I got back. I did use my new socket wrench to tighten the bracket – the 10 mm socket was right. I was able to get almost two more full turns on the bolt, so it wasn't a complete waste. That filter won't be coming loose until the day of judgment.

The first time I started Bertha up it still took five minutes of cranking. "The line is empty, drained of fuel. It's supposed to take a few minutes," I told myself with more hope than certainty. Bertha finally roared to life and I drove to the gas station, the good one, the uphill one, where I paid a lot more for the gasoline but it's worth it to just get gas, not gas and something else. I had to turn off the engine to fill it of course.

Now here's where the rubber meets the road. I got back in the car and turned the key.

And Bertha fired right up! Huzzah! We did it! It's certainly no worse (always a concern when I crawl under a car with tools) and it appears to be fixed.

So we seem to have a functional car again. And a good thing to since we haven't even started our Christmas shopping. That'll be the subject for a post in the next few days.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Topography of Fuel

Our 1997 Nissan Pathfinder – named Bertha for the tropical storm that passed the island two days after we bought her in July - is ailing. It's not, I believe (and fervently pray) a fatal illness, more like a bad flu.

Sunday I bought gas - not at one of the two stations I usually fill up at. I was on the road and noticed the needle was almost on E. The station I pulled into happened to have the best price I'd seen in a while, about 20 cents less than the other stations I'd noticed that day. So I was feeling pretty clever as I filled the tank. 15 and a half gallons into a 16 gallon tank. I figure I saved somewhere around $3.

And then the trouble started. The next morning the car died right after I'd dropped Tori and the kids off at school. It took almost two minutes to get it to start. Trouble getting started the next time and the next. Tuesday morning it started up fine, but that as the last good news - automotive-wise – since. Yesterday it actually stalled for Tori on the highway (the one actual four-lane road on the island.) It was rough getting back home.

Clearly I'd bought a bad tank of gas. Almost certainly there was water in it. What seemed odd about that is that every station on St. Croix gets its gas from the same place – the Hovensa oil refinery on the south side of the island. So it can't be the source. What had happened?

At our regular service station Tori put in a half tank of premium. While she then tried to restart it – another two or three minute ordeal - a guy on the corner drinking offered the observation that the place we had bought the bad gas is situated in a small depression.

You have to understand there are no storm drains on the island at least none I've seen. Rainwater runs down the street and guts, and pools in low spots - like that gas station - and sits there, seeping into the tank. He pointed out that our regular station – where Tori ran across the guy – is actually raised slightly above street level, not much but enough, so that the rain runs away instead of forming a lake.

So there you have it. On St. Croix you can't make your fuel-buying decision solely on price, and quality is a non-issue since it all comes from the same place. You have to consider the topography of the station. Is it nicely elevated? Or do you have to worry about what might be in the underground tank besides fuel?

Anyway, we've run about half the new tank out, and I added a water-treatment product (which cost slightly more than the $3 I saved on the cheap gas.) We drive over some fairly bumpy roads (of course we do, we live on St. Croix) so that should mix the dirty gas, the new gas and the additive. This morning Bertha started after less than a minute of cranking instead of two or three. All the way to school and back it ran pretty well, except for once or twice when I sort of goosed the accelerator and the engine hesitated and hiccupped. Backing off the gas smoothed it back out.

The problem will probably continue another week or so, but it should clear up eventually. Sort of like when you get over a flu. You're not better all at once. But eventually everything's all right again.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Sports Fan's Lament

You pull up roots, move halfway across the hemisphere make new friends, develop new habits.

But you never lose your connection to your sports teams.

I moved from Chicago almost half a century ago, but I'll always be a Cubs fan - even though I don't even follow baseball anymore. I was born a Cubs fan, the son of a Cubs fan. That means I have a family legacy of some of the most painful memories in sports. Summer of '69? That might mean all sorts of political and social upheaval to you, but mostly to me it means the Great Choke, the year the Cubs fell apart in August and lost the pennant to the Mets.

I lived in L.A. in the '70s and still have an affection for the Dodgers, although as I say I don't care about baseball anymore. (I figure if the owners and the players don't care about the game, why should I?)

Now I've left the Pacific Northwest after 28 years in the region, but my heart as a sports fan is still there. And it's been a very, very bad year to be a fan. It's even harder watching from a distance.

You see, part of a fan's job, his or her duty to the team, is to always be supportive, always to believe, always to care so damn much that collectively we fans can will the team to victory. (See, you can tell I'm a Cubs fan. I still believe, even though it's been a century now.)

The year started with a bad season for the Portland Tailblazers. Seattle lost the Sonics. Not just a game - they lost the whole damn team! Oregon State's men's basketball had a pathetic, awful season, fired the coach and hired a guy who happens to be the brother-in-law of the president elect. Not that that will help. The Mariners started the MLB season with high hopes based on their huge team salary, and turned out to be the worst team in baseball this year.

But the hardest part has been football season, because I'm mostly a football fan and it's been terrible.

I've been a Seahawks fan since they started the franchise. Seriously, I was still in L.A. when the team first took the field, but I've been a fan from the beginning. I really, truly believed they were Super Bowl bound this year. Instead, for one reason and another having mostly to do with a vengeful God, they pretty much suck this year. Almost the same personnel that won the division last year, and they've lost all but two games so far in 2008. It's been crazy. They've had so many injuries, so much bizarre trouble, that it can only be ascribed to the diety. (They will win this weekend - they're playing the Rams who are much, much worse - but all that'll mean is they'll drop down the list for next year's draft and lose a chance at a better player.)

And if the 'Hawks have been in the toilet, the Northwest's college teams have been much, much worse. U-Dub didn't win a game this year. Not one. WSU won two games, but one was against the Huskies so that doesn't really count.

The lone shining spot was the OSU Beavers. They started shaky (they ALWAYS start shaky - when will Riley get them to start the season sharp?) but then they went on a roll. They won six straight games. They beat highly touted USC (I hate USC. Beating the Trojans was great.) All they needed was one more win or a USC loss and the Beavers would go to the Rose Bowl, which they'd last visited in 1965 (or 4 B.C. – Before Choke - for any Cub fans keeping score.) All they had to do was beat the hated University of Oregon Ducks in the Civil War game two weeks ago.

It took quite a bit of effort to find a way to listen to the game. We finally found a station in Oregon that streamed the game live, downloaded software, and gathered around the computer to listen to history in the making.

So of course, having built up our hopes, the Beavers lost. And they didn't just lose. The Ducks crushed them, exposed them, made us see that the whole six-game winning streak was a sham, even the win over SC. It was pretty awful. They'd just been setting us up to break our hearts. Why would you do that, Beavers? Why?

But it wasn't quite the end. The Beavers could still smell Roses if USC lost to its bitter cross-town rival UCLA last weekend. It could happen. That's the stuff that makes sports so engrossing, the possibility of the impossible, of the underdog rising up and bringing down the bigger, cockier rival.

Which of course they didn't. The Trojans ran roughshod over the Bruins. It wasn't as bad as the Ducks dismantling the Beavers, but it was a steady, workmanlike victory that put the nail in the coffin that was the Beavers' season.

Really, I can only blame myself. Even though I've moved 4,000 miles from the region, the fact that I still care about teams from the Northwest is enough to doom them.

Don't believe me?

Remember, I am the son of a lifelong Cubs fan. Dad brought his sports jinx with him when the family moved to Los Angeles in 1970. The 1972 Lakers were the greatest basketball team of all time. Don't give me Michael Jordan's Bulls or Larry Bird's Celtics or the Kareem-Magic-Worthy Lakers of the '80s. For one season the 1972 Lakers were better than any team ever. They finished 69-13, won a still-record 33 straight games. Think about that. For almost two months they didn't lose a single game. In the finals they beat the Knicks four games to one. Chamberlain, West, Goodrich, Hairston, Riley, Erickson, Ellis. They won all but five of their home games - they were 36-5 at the Forum.

My dad went to four Laker games that year. They lost all four. What are the odds?

So even though I'm now out here on my warm sunny island, as far from the Seahawks and the Beavers and the Huskies as it's possible to be, those jinxed fan rays that shoot out of me are still beaming clear across the continent and dooming my teams.

But just wait. Next year the Seahawks are going to win the Super Bowl. I know it. I'm sure of it.

I believe.