Album Cover Art By My Favorite Artists

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I’ve been posting daily in my newer blog, Panda’s Tiki Today, for over two months now. There I’ve been showcasing Tiki items I own in the following pattern: mugs, art, books, music, décor, and drinks. While featuring some of the Tiki music I listen to, I’ve noticed something. Worlds colliding.

Many of the Tiki music albums I have feature cover art by my favorite artists. These include SHAG, Derek Yaniger, Mookie Sato, and Mark Thompson. I’ve taken to mounting some of these CDs on the walls of my Tiki Lounge, usually adjacent to the larger artwork by these amazing artists. I found these clear plastic mounts that do the job nicely and unobtrusively, making it appear like these discs are just floating on the wall.

Since a picture’s worth 1,000 words, I’ll stop talking and start showing you these wonderful mini art pieces now.

Ursula 1000, Kinda’ Kinky, art by SHAG
Various artists, Pink Panther’s Penthouse Party, art by SHAG
Martini Kings, Palm Springs Serenade, art by SHAG
Martini Kings, Weekend in Palm Springs, art by Derek Yaniger
Brian Setzer Orchestra, Rockin’ Rudolph, art by Derek Yaniger
Clouseaux, Snappy 45 Set, art by Derek Yaniger
Sweet Hollywaiians, Ticklin’ The Strings, art by Mookie Sato
The Breakers, Torch Light, art by Mark Thompson

TV Shows I Grew Up With

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As a Generation-X kid born in 1965, I spent my formative years watching some amazing TV shows. I count the 1970s as the golden years of television. Not so much for the shows that were new during that decade, though there were some great ones then, too. All In The Family, M.A.S.H., Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, to name a few. No, I speak more of the shows from the 1960s that were on as reruns when I was in my preteen years.

These are the shows I grew up watching over and over again, and I still enjoy today, 50 years later. I will list the dates they originally aired, but know that I was binge watching them in syndication, 5-10 years later. Here we go.

The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71, CBS). Of all of the situation comedies that were popular in the 1960s, this show had the longest run. This is probably because it had a creative premise and it was really funny. Max Baer Jr.’s Jethro character stole the show, but he had a great cast around him. The show also had a memorable theme song, sung by bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. One of the most interesting notes about The Beverly Hillbillies is how it shared a connection with two other sitcoms of that time, Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. Known as the Hooterville Trio, these three shows shared a common destination: Drucker’s General Store in Hooterville, run by Sam Drucker. Granny from TBH often travelled “home” to Hooterville, which is where PJ was located. Oliver Douglas from GA was also a frequent visitor to Drucker’s, as his farm was situated just on the outskirts of Hooterville. What a cool premise to link three shows together this way.

Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71, CBS). This was probably the first show I started watching religiously, and it helped turn me into a bit of a World War Ii buff in my youth. I remember watching this with my grandfather, who was Ukrainian and spoke very little English. He would laugh hysterically as the Germans acted like utter buffoons, which he seemed to understand. It’s interesting to me that all of the main German characters were played by Jewish actors. Apparently, they only agreed to portray Nazis if they could make them appear as idiots. Mission accomplished. On another note, the character of French POW Louie LeBeau was played by Robert Clary, who himself was a Holocaust survivor. The anger he summoned up towards his German captors on screen was very real, as I heard firsthand when he came to give a speech on the Holocaust at Drexel University while I was a student there.

Batman (1966-68, ABC). This was the first depiction of the Caped Crusader, big screen or small, that I can remember. Though it seems a bit campy compared to the dark movies that followed, the 1960s Batman series is now considered a classic. What made this show great was the never-ending cast of guest stars who portrayed Batman’s villains. Caesar Romero as the Joker. Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. Frank Gorshen (and John Astin) as the Riddler. Julie Newmar (and Lee Meriwether/Eartha Kitt) as Catwoman. Oh my, Julie Newmar, meow! What a stunning picture of womanhood she cast upon the screen. I believe she was my first crush, and probably my first hard-on, as a young boy. An interesting side note to this show were the cameo appearances made out a window as Batman and Robin climbed up the side of a building. Among many others, I remember Werner Klemperer (Col. Klink from Hogan’s Heroes) popping in during one episode. One of the stranger instances of worlds colliding.

Ultraman (1966-67, Tokyo Broadcast System). From the Land of The Rising Sun came the first great science fiction superhero on television. I was so addicted to this show as a kid! Ultraman set the standard for story-telling and special effects in the 1960s, and was one of the first Japanese shows to gain traction in America. The English dubbed version aired on ABC at around the same time as the Japanese version played in its homeland. I grew up with the English version, but recently have gone back and started watching the original, with English subtitles. Looking back, the special effects seem primitive. However, there’s something about grown men in alien monster suits, rolling around and destroying miniature models of Tokyo’s landscape, that makes me happy. With the rise in popularity of Asian programming today (see Cowboy Bebop, Squid Game), it’s fun to return to the show that started it all. P.S. – there’s a modern, anime version of Ultraman on Netflix, which focuses on Shin Hayata’s son, Shinjiro. I’ve just started watching it and it’s pretty cool.

Speed Racer (1967-68, Fuji TV). Speaking of anime, here is a show that some consider the first anime series to make it in America. Talk about great storytelling – Speed Racer had it all. Action, adventure, heroes and villains, and a really cool car. The Mach 5 could do lots of crazy stuff, like jump great distances, mow down a forest of trees while driving with retractable circular saws, even drive underwater. All thanks to the ingenuity of Pops Racer, a car designer who created this car for his young son, Speed. There was also an older brother, Rex, who disappeared and became Racer X, a shadowy character who devoted his life to protect his younger brother. He was my favorite, and I still have my purple Racer X t-shirt that I bought over 30 years ago! Probably the most consistent (and funniest) plot line of this show was the youngest son Spritle and his pet monkey Chim-Chim stowing away in the trunk of the Mach 5 to join Speed on his many adventures. Good times. Go Speed Racer go!

Rankin & Bass Christmas Specials (1964-74, CBS). These weren’t television series, but rather TV movies that played only once a year. However, they were as ubiquitous to many children growing up in the 1970s as the shows above. Of particular delight to me were the stop-motion animation classics that I still watch to this day. The three best, in my opinion, are Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1970), and The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974). This is the holy trinity of R&B specials, and outside of A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), these are the most memorable Christmas specials to me. Who can forget such classic characters as Yukon Cornelius, Burgermeister Meisterburger, and the Miser Brothers? And the music in these shows was fantastic. Admit it, you just started singing “I’m Mr. White Christmas, I’m Mr. Snow” in your head, didn’t you?

My Three Grudges

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I don’t like to hold a grudge. We all need to minimize the negativity in our lives and focus on the positive. Forgive and forget, some people say. Or, others say forgive but never forget, so you won’t get fooled again (you’re welcome for the earworm). My ex-wife falls into that category.

However, there are some acts that are so egregious, that they are unforgivable and unforgettable. For these, we hold a grudge. This is my story of three such transgressions, which will live in infamy.

1. Allstate Insurance. When I first started driving, as a teenager, I carried Allstate auto insurance. On my 18th birthday, I got my one and only speeding ticket. Who knew a 1974 Mercury Capri could go that fast? I’m proud of the fact that I haven’t been caught speeding since!

Fast forward to 1990, my 25th birthday. My insurance rate had gone up because of that one speeding ticket. It was already pretty high because I was a young male driver. Now that I was 25, a double witching event in the auto insurance industry would work in my favor. First, insurance rates come down when you reach 25 years old with a safe driving record. Second, my one and only speeding ticket would be expunged from my record after 7 years, which just happened to be on this same day.

Armed with this knowledge, I called my local Allstate insurance agent in Lancaster PA, where I was living at that time. His name was Owen White. I will never forget that name, because of what Owen said to me when I asked him about reducing my auto insurance rate on my 25th birthday.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Montero, but we can’t lower your rate. That discount only applies to new Allstate Insurance customers, not existing customers.” Are you kidding me?!?

“Owen, do you mean to tell me that I have to leave your company, and then come back as a new customer, to qualify for a lower rate as a 25-year old driver with a clean record?”

“Yes, Mr. Montero, I’m afraid that’s correct.”

“Well, Owen, let me tell you this, and please listen carefully. The first part of that solution will come true. I am leaving Allstate Insurance. As for the second part, let me be perfectly clear: I WILL NEVER USE ALLSTATE INSURANCE AGAIN, EVER.”

And I never did. I switched to Erie Insurance at that time and bundle my auto, home and life insurance with them now, which is a nice piece of business. Poor Owen White called me weekly after I left, trying to win back my business. I told him the same thing every time he called: he had the chance to keep my business and he blew it. Owen stopped calling me after a few months. I wonder whatever happened to him?

I hold no ill will toward Owen White. He was just doing his job, following the company line. As for Allstate Insurance? You fucked me, so fuck you. I will never forgive or forget what you did to me. And I will never use your services again, as long as I live.

2. Weis Markets. Let’s skip ahead ten years to the year 2000. I was now living in the Lehigh Valley, where my employer UGI had relocated me to be the customer relations manager for their area office here. As part of my job, I had to negotiate with customers and prospects whenever we wanted to obtain a right-of-way to locate a new gas line on private property.

One such situation occurred when we were asked to run a new gas main to serve the Mack Trucks plant in Lower Macungie Township. The majority of this main extension was along a state highway. Getting permits from the state was time-consuming and costly, so we tried to get as many private rights-of-way as possible for this project.

A large portion of this main extension fronted on the property of Weis Markets, a regional, family-owned supermarket chain headquartered in Sunbury PA. Weis had multiple locations in the Lehigh Valley, including one less than a mile from my house. They typically cater to an elderly clientele, but the Weis store in Lower Macungie Township was a newer store with a more diverse target market. They didn’t have natural gas available to this store. Yet.

I first approached the Weis people with our request for a private right-of-way on their property to extend our gas main. In exchange, I offered to provide them a gas service lateral for their store, free of charge. This was no token gesture, as the service line for Weis would run a pretty long distance and be costly to UGI.

At first I got a positive response from the local Weis Markets person I was working with. However, he told me he would have to run it by his superiors, which in this case were the Weis family members at corporate HQ in Sunbury who ran the show. These corporate wonks did their homework and knew that UGI was typically willing to offer anywhere from $2-$10 per linear foot for a private right-of-way. This was true, but it didn’t take into account any additional costs (like running a service line) or the alternative costs (the state permit in this case).

Armed with this knowledge, the negotiation with Weis Markets took a turn for the worse. Here was the opening offer from a corporate engineer:

“We know that UGI is willing to pay $10 per foot for a right-of-way, and we know that you need Weis Markets to grant you this right-of way to extend your gas line to the Mack Trucks plant down the road, so we suggest you start the bidding at $10 and let’s see where we come back to you.”

What?!? What happened to agreeing to a free service line in exchange for this right-of-way? These jerks had really changed their tune. My reply:

“I’m sorry, but $10 per foot is the absolute max UGI will pay for this right-of-way, and that doesn’t include the cost of your service line. We do have an alternative in using the state right-of-way for this main extension, and we know the cost of that alternative, which puts the actual cap on what we’re willing to pay you.”

“I’m sorry, but none of those things matter to us. We suggest you start the bidding at $10 per foot.” To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars Episode 1: the negotiations were short.

“Well, I’m sorry you feel this way. I’m afraid UGI is not willing to pay that much for this right-of-way. You’ve left us no choice but to obtain a state permit to extend our gas main. And if you ever want a gas service for this Weis Markets location in the future, it will cost you. Shall we say $10 per foot to start?”

And that was that. We ended up getting a state permit and ran this gas main right past Weis Markets, just a few feet from their property in the state highway right-of-way. We did our best to minimize the disruption to their store traffic, but I can’t say that we didn’t tear the shit out of their front lawn and driveways to save time and money. We did eventually restore everything properly, and grass grows back, but the scars from where we cut the paving across their driveways are permanent. I would enjoy seeing those cuts, if I ever planned to go near that store again.

But, you see, that never happened. In fact, I refuse to set foot in any Weis Markets store to this day. That includes the one less than a mile from our house, which they just refurbished into a shiny new supermarket. My wife and son have been in there, and they tell me it’s nice, but I will never know. I won’t forbid my family from going into a Weis store occasionally, but I discourage it. We have alternatives close by, including Wegmans and Giant, that are better supermarkets in my opinion.

Its been over 20 years, and Weis Markets is still dead to me. You fucked me, so fuck you. I will never forgive or forget what you did to me. And I will never shop in your stores again, as long as I live.

3. Chase Mortgage. The third transgression just took place earlier this year. Since we built our current house in 2006, we had already refinanced our mortgage once. With interest rates at all-time lows and the equity in our house growing, it was time to refinance again. Since our last refinance, our mortgage had been sold twice, most recently to Chase Mortgage.

I have experience with Chase, both as our most recent mortgage holder and as one of the first credit cards I ever owned as a young college student. I was pretty irresponsible back then and racked up some pretty big credit card debts, including a Discover Card and Chase VISA. Once I graduated from college and got my first real job, I consolidated my debts with a loan. Although Discover allowed me to keep my card (which I still use to this day), Chase made me give up their card.

I wasn’t terribly happy with Chase for doing this, but it was my own damn fault for being reckless with credit cards in college. I suppose I appreciate the loyalty Discover has shown me for all of these years, which is why they are my primary credit card today. This didn’t stop me from getting a new Chase Disney VISA a few years ago, but we only use that to get discounts on Disney trips and merchandise.

Anyway, back to 2021. Since we had our mortgage with Chase, I figured we’d give them the first crack at refinancing. The process was going smoothly until they ran a credit check. They came back with a score of 716, which I thought was a little low. At the same time, Discover was showing me a FICO score of 725, and Wells Fargo (our main bank) was showing me 730.

The reason this matters is that Chase has a stupid rule that they won’t refinance with an equity withdrawal (we had some projects to pay for) for anybody with a score below 720. Since they had me at 716, they wouldn’t refinance our mortgage. I was in disbelief! They were willing to shoot me down over 4 points? I challenged my mortgage rep on this.

“So, what you’re telling me is that you won’t do this mortgage refinance for me? You’re willing to lose my business over 4 points of my credit score, which two other financial institutions have rated above 720?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Montero, that’s correct. We could do the refinance without the cash out for you.”

“But that’s one of the main reasons we’re doing this, to get the cash out while keeping the payment and term the same. Are you sure you can’t do something here, as I do have other options? Could you please speak to your manager?” This was followed by a short hold as he went to speak with his manager. When he returned, the news wasn’t good.

“I spoke with my manager, and unfortunately there’s nothing we can do. It’s a Chase rule, and we can’t bend it. I’m really sorry.”

“Well, I’m sorry too. I’ve already spoken with Quicken Loans, and they’re willing to work with me, so I’m afraid Chase is losing my business because of this stupid rule. Have a nice life.”

And so we proceeded to refinance our mortgage with Quicken Loans / Rocket Mortgage. And what a painless and pleasurable process that was! We were able to provide all required documents online, skipped the physical house appraisal, and had approval very quickly. My credit score was not an issue for them! A few short weeks later a title agent came to our house to close the mortgage, and three days after that we had a check in hand from our equity and a new mortgage. Simple.

As for Chase, well, you know my refrain by now. You fucked me (twice), so fuck you. I will never forgive or forget what you did to me. And I will never use your services again, as long as I live.

The moral of my three stories: don’t fuck me! In business, as in life, you should treat people well, and they will reward you with loyalty. If you do the opposite? Expect us to hold a grudge.

Another Trip Around The Sun

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Today is the eve of my 56th birthday. Yes, I celebrate this milestone every year on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in NYC, which happened when I turned 4 years old. I am not gay, but I am an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, so I’m happy to share this special date. But I digress.

As I ponder my life to this point, as we often do on days like this, I realize that 56 years is a long time. I don’t feel old, and I certainly don’t act old, though my kids would debate that. Today I’m thinking back to the time when I was half this age, 28 years ago.

Flashback to 1993. Where was I then, in this life’s journey?

I graduated from Drexel University in 1989 and started working for UGI, the gas utility in Central PA. I began as an engineer in their Lancaster office but after 3-1/2 years I switched to their marketing group and the Lebanon office. I must have known I wasn’t cut out to be an engineer while I was still at Drexel, as I took business classes during my senior year there. These came in handy as I was pursuing my MBA at Lebanon Valley College in 1993, which I would complete three years later. Looking back, this switch from engineering to marketing was a pretty important inflection point in my career, as I’ve been in energy sales ever since.

I got married to my first wife in 1989, and three years later we moved from a small apartment in downtown Lancaster to our first house in Ephrata PA, about 20 minutes north in northern Lancaster County. This turned out to be a convenient location, as my work took me from Lancaster to Lebanon and then Reading PA, all a reasonable commute from Ephrata. In 1993 I was happily married, but this union of four years would only last another eight before dissolving in 2001. After moving to the Lehigh Valley in 1999, my marriage was on the rocks when I met the love of my life. My first wife and I separated in 2001 and my current wife and I were married two years later. Jess and I remain happily married to this day.

In 1993 I was heavily into the Grunge music scene. Having lived through the MTV music era of the 1980s in high school and college, the new music coming out of Seattle and Chicago in the 1990s was a refreshing change as I entered adulthood. I still remember listening to WFNM college radio in Lancaster with my work friends and “discovering” Nirvana when I first heard their song Lithium. I was blown away! This was music I felt was ours, even though we were a bit older than the typical Grunge demographic. It didn’t matter. We soaked it all in: Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins. Sadly, Kurt Cobain took his own life only a year later, and was later followed by Layne Staley and Chris Cornell. The Grunge music scene was relatively short-lived, but I’m happy to relive those days on the SiriusXM channel devoted to this music, appropriately (for me) titled Lithium.

During my time at UGI, my work friends and I started a tradition on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. We would all take the day off and go golfing in Schuylkill County, then grab a quick lunch and head to the 1:30pm brewery tour at the Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, which would end with enjoying some beers in their Rathskeller lounge. In 1993, I also made a fateful stop in the Yuengling gift shop which would change my life. This was the year they started a new series of collectible train cars, and I bought the Black & Tan boxcar. This was the start of a new hobby for me, one that would completely absorb me as I began collecting O-gauge toy trains, collectible buildings, and other bric-a-brac that became my 8’x8’ train layout. This layout followed me to my new home in the Lehigh Valley, and the hobby remained my main passion until it was replaced with my current obsession, Tiki, starting in 2008.

Though this Memorial Day tradition eventually fell by the wayside, there is one other event that my old work friends and I still celebrate: playing cards. We started doing this around 1993, when we all still worked at UGI. We were the so-called Lancaster Mafia, because we all began our careers in the Lancaster office at around the same time. Bob, Brian, Joe, Tom and me. We’ve been playing cards together ever since, even though all but Bob have moved on from UGI and moved out of Lancaster. We take turns hosting, and since we all live within an hour of each other, it works well for us. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to our get-togethers, but we are now scheduled to reconvene on July 5th at Bob’s house for our first cards night in over a year. Good times!

Wow, looking back to the halfway point of my life was a lot of fun! I didn’t think I would have this much to write about, but I’m happy to remember all of this stuff. Here’s hoping I’m still around to document this point in my life in 2049. Aloha.

A Tale of Two Cities, or, My Hat Story

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29May2016, Chicago IL. Five years ago, I took a 3-day weekend trip to my favorite city, with my daughter Natalia, to visit my friend Bruce. We did a few of my favorite things: lunch at Pizzeria Dué; visiting the Art Institute of Chicago; walking the Navy Pier at night.

On this day, we took in a ballgame at historic Wrigley Field, where the hometown Cubbies were taking on my Philadelphia Phillies. On a beautiful Spring day, we witnessed one of the worst baseball games I’ve ever seen. Both the Phillies and the Cubs took turns trying to lose this game, and in the end my Phils prevailed, losing 7-2.

Before we left the stadium, I decided to buy a Cubs cap. I had seen somebody else in the stands sporting a cool powder-blue lid, with the old-fashioned cubby logo on the front and, most importantly, the flag of Chicago embroidered on the side. I’ve always loved this flag! When I found this hat at a concession stand, I was taken aback by the price: $41. I had never spent this much money for a baseball cap before. Now I have. This beauty is now mine.

A funny thing happened later that year: the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. For the first time in 108 years.

23May2017, Houston TX. Another year, another baseball game in another city. This time, I was in Houston for business with our sales team, and we decided to take in an Astros game. In a relatively uneventful game, the home team defeated the visiting Detroit Tigers, 6-2.

Before the game started, after we had loaded up on beers and ballpark food, I decided to visit a concession stand and find a cool cap. I was already sporting a retro Astros t-shirt, and I was long a fan of the old rainbow-themed jerseys, so the perfect hat found me: a black Astros cap with a rainbow brim. I bought it, and it cost me a helluva lot less than $41!

A funny thing happened later that year: the Houston Astros won the World Series. For the first time ever, which was 55 years as a baseball franchise.

So, twice in two years, the same thing happened. I attend a game in a different city, buy the home team’s hat at the stadium, that team goes on to win the game that day and the championship that year. Strange, huh?

As this story started getting around, my friends and coworkers started bugging me to come to their towns, attend a game there, buy a hat in their stadium, so their team could win a championship. Cleveland. Milwaukee. New York. The requests came pouring in, and suddenly I felt this strange sense of power. But where should I try next?

04Nov2018, Baltimore MD. This year I was attending a football game at M&T Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens. We were in the Constellation Suite, where I was entertaining some customers and prospects along with my Constellation coworkers and their guests. It was first class all the way, with local craft beers and tasty crab cakes to beat the band!

I wasn’t planning this, but I decided to buy a Ravens hat at the stadium. It took me a while and several concession stands before I finally found the perfect purple lid. Sadly, this cap wasn’t actually perfect, as it didn’t have the Maryland flag anywhere on it, which is another of my favorite flags. So I bought a team pin with the flag logo in it and permanently attached it to the side.

Sadly, the Ravens lost that day to their arch-rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-16. My customers were happy, as they are Steelers fans and brought their Terrible Towel to prove it. My prospects, who are Ravens fans, were not amused, but we all still had a good time. I, of course, had to represent my Philadelphia Eagles by wearing my Chuck Badnarik 60 jersey. As a Ravens fan who saw me in the stadium said, “typical Eagles fan, wearing that jersey to a Ravens-Steelers game!”

A not-so-funny thing happened later that year: the Baltimore Ravens did not win the Super Bowl. They made it to the playoffs, losing in the first round to the San Diego Chargers, 23-17.

My hat streak was over.

How did this happen? Was it because I switched from baseball to football? Was it because the home team lost that day? Was it because I drove to the game instead of flying there? Was it because the hat I bought was missing one of the elements I was looking for in a cap? Who knows?

All three of the home teams in question were on the rise, but only the first two made it all the way to the top. Both the Cubs and the Astros overcame extremely long championship droughts, while the Ravens had won two Super Bowls in the past 20 years. I guess it just wasn’t their time. And my time was up.

I haven’t bought a cap at a sporting event since. I did buy a 50th anniversary jersey at a Philadelphia Flyers game a few years back, but that doesn’t count. The Flyers are my absolute favorite sports team, and they haven’t won a championship in 46 years, so they’re long overdue. I guess I need to buy a new Flyers cap at the Wells Fargo center soon…

The Noble Savage

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“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine’, and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754

So, what does this have to do with me? Well, for starters, I share a birthday with Jean-Jacques Rousseau: June 28. Of course he’s a bit older than me, being born in 1712, predating my birth in 1965 by 253 years. Secondly, I’m a fan of Rousseau’s philosophy of life. He has been credited as the founder of naturalism and environmentalism, and his writings on the equality of mankind in his/her natural state underpin today’s movement towards diversity, equity and inclusion.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 28Jun1712 – 2Jul1778

Rousseau’s politics were also ahead of their time. His publications, Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract, were cornerstones of The Enlightenment across Europe and influenced the American and French Revolutions.

It is Rousseau’s concept of the Noble Savage that really brings it home for me. He believed that human beings achieved a third stage of enlightenment:

“Hence although men had become less forbearing, and although natural pity had already undergone some alteration, this period of the development of human faculties, maintaining a middle position between the indolence of our primitive state and the petulant activity of our egocentrism, must have been the happiest and most durable epoch. The more one reflects on it, the more one finds that this state was the least subject to upheavals and the best for man, and that he must have left it only by virtue of some fatal chance happening that, for the common good, ought never to have happened. The example of savages, almost all of whom have been found in this state, seems to confirm that the human race had been made to remain in it always; that this state is the veritable youth of the world; and that all the subsequent progress has been in appearance so many steps toward the perfection of the individual, and in fact toward the decay of the species.”

In essence, Rousseau theorized that the more humans take their cue from nature, the better off we all are. Starting with self-preservation (amour de soi) and continuing through compassion for others (pitié), we are at our best when we forego competition with our fellow human beings. It was the development of “polite society,” where we started deriving our self worth from others (amour propre) and trying to out-do our neighbors, that it all fell apart. Pride comes before the fall. Wars, genocides and slavery took this idea to its evil extreme.

On a cheerier note, the other aspect of the Noble Savage I appreciate is how it informs Tiki culture. Going all the way back to Paul Gauguin at the dawn of the 20th Century, we see where members of advanced society forego its trappings in search of a more primitive lifestyle. Gauguin hoped to reinvigorate his art by “going native” in French Polynesia, first in Tahiti and then in the Marquesas Islands.

Paul Gauguin, 7Jun1848 – 8May1903

Sadly, what Gauguin found when he arrived in the South Pacific was that French colonization had beaten him there, and the primitive lifestyle he looked to adopt was already tainted by European societal standards. Tahiti wasn’t as bourgeois as Paris, but it certainly wasn’t as natural as its beauty would imply. Paradise lost?

The spread of Tiki culture in Mid-Century Modern America was also a mixed bag. What started as an escape from modern society became a bastardization of the primitive Polynesian lifestyle Tiki had borrowed. Although the motives were pure, the execution felt a bit artificial and led to the eventual downfall of the first Tiki movement by the 1970s.

However, I believe the Tiki revival that begin at the dawn of the 21st Century is getting it right. Tiki devotees like me are much more sensitive to the feelings of native Pacific Islanders, and shy away from the garish cultural appropriation of Party City Tiki in favor of authentic cultural appreciation. When we understand the origins of a particular Polynesian carving style, and appreciate the history and skill of oceanic voyagers, we are practicing lei ka’apuni honua: the lei encircling the world. I think Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be proud.

Write What You Know

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I started this blog over 7 years ago with my first post, Tiki 101. When I re-read this first effort, I realize I’ve come a long way with my writing. The best advice I got from two people I asked to critique my blog early on boils down to this: write what you know.

The first person I asked was Tracey Shifflett, a friend and colleague in the energy industry who was the Marketing Communications Director at the American Gas Association. Tracey told me that after she read Tiki 101, she felt like she was reading a textbook. It was informative, but not particularly compelling. Tracey was right! She suggested I put myself into this blog, and not just write about what others had to say. I realized I hadn’t used the word “I” until the last paragraph, where I at least made a recommendation. This needed to change immediately.

And it did. With my second blog post, Keeping The Tiki Torch Lit, I put myself in the narrative. This post told the story of me and my family’s travels to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and how these trips showed me the importance of Disney in the Tiki space. I traced the history of The Enchanted Tiki Room debut in 1963, through the opening of the Polynesian Village Resort in 1971, and finally Trader Sam’s in 2013. I got to report on all three of these Tiki landmarks firsthand.

The second person I asked about my blog was another friend, Heather Crownover. I was a couple of months into it and finding my voice, and I was about to publish a post about some other personal interactions I’ve had with Tiki. This was going to be a long piece, as I planned to tie in a wide variety of places including Disney Parks, New Orleans, Jamaica, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Heather suggested I break this into a series of blog posts, one dedicated to each place, so I could better focus on my individual experiences with each. She was so right to suggest this! The resulting series was titled Aloha Spirit Ramblings, with an introductory post followed by 6 individual stories from each place. I’m happy that I devoted enough time and space to each place without writing a novel.

This concept of publishing a series of blog posts on a specific topic has served me well over the years since Aloha Spirit Ramblings. I used it to document my trip to The Hukilau in 2014, daily live blogging from our family vacation to the Polynesian Village in 2017, and step-by-step descriptions of my creative process in various projects in 2020 in my other blog, Creating Stuff.

Which brings me to my latest inspiration: Ernest Hemingway. Yes, I know, we all had to read Hemingway in high school, and many of us didn’t care much for him. He was the greatest American novelist of the 20th Century, and he was a larger-than-life character as a person. The myth of Hemingway is not nearly as interesting as the man himself, however.

I have been watching a series of Zoom conversations, hosted by PBS, featuring Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, creators of a new documentary miniseries on Hemingway. This 3-part, 6-hour series debuts on PBS on April 5-7, 2021. I’m really looking forward to watching this! The conversations have been fascinating, exposing me to many sides of Hemingway I never knew.

What made Hemingway such a great writer? Besides stripping down prose to its bare essentials, he wrote about what he knew. The quote in the featured image of this post says it all. Hemingway knew a lot because he lived a lot, and his greatest gift was his ability to observe everything around him and document it meticulously: people, places, and things, especially in nature.

Though I haven’t lived a life anywhere near as exciting and adventurous as Ernest Hemingway, I like to think of myself as a Renaissance man. I have many interests, and I explore them pretty deeply. It is this wealth of knowledge and personal experience that has fed my writing habit. In my blog posts and short stories, I have learned to write what I know. Most recently, this has been about Tiki culture, but I’ve also delved into the subjects of art, music, cocktails, cooking, social justice, to name a few.

In my writing, I’ve tried to regurgitate the knowledge I’ve obtained, but more importantly, I’ve infused it with my relationship to that knowledge. Whether it be through my personal interactions with subject matter experts, my visits to places of interest, or my reflection on things I’m passionate about, my stories have become more compelling because I’m in them. I believe this makes me a better writer. More importantly, it makes me happy. Sure, I love to have an audience for my work, but I mostly write for me.

Windows

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A proper Tiki bar has few (if any) physical windows to the outside world. Since they are meant to be an escape, their windows should be more virtual. These can take many forms, via artwork, music, or audio-visual presentations.

Trader Sam’s Volcano Window: https://youtu.be/zJS3TkX21_o

A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge is my real and virtual escape to a Polynesian Paradise. The virtual component takes the form of my Facebook page, this blog, my podcast, and my 8tracks radio station, all of the same name. The real part is found in the basement of our house, which we built 15 years ago with this purpose in mind: my wife gets final say on all furnishings above ground, but the basement is mine!

Like many Tiki bars in northern climates, my basement set-up is a welcome respite from the cold winter outside. It’s warm, with plenty of tropical decor, and very few real windows. In fact, there are only two small windows plus an egress door in the back of the space, which minimize the amount of natural light down here. The windows flank my home-office workspace, which is good to keep me connected to the outside world while I work my day job, but are far from the front of the space, which is also good for reasons I’ll explain later.

Now let me show you the virtual windows in my Tiki Lounge. As mentioned before, these windows take the form of art, music, and A/V presentation. Each help me create a faux Polynesian paradise in their own way. Let’s start with three pieces of art that I find particularly evocative of my own Bali Hai.

MAI-TAI SUNSET, Kevin-John Jobczynski, 2016

This first piece of art by Disney master artist Kevin-John was his first foray into purely Tiki art. I love that he found a way to print his art on an actual piece of driftwood, then mounted it on a burlap background with a dark bamboo frame. More importantly, this view from a seaside table really transports me to a tropical world. It is a window to a fantasy life, ironically hanging just below one of my small physical windows. I like this view better!

LAGOONSCAPE, Dawn Frazier, 2017

This second piece of art is a print by Dawn Frasier, a talented artist who was one of the original leaders of the Tiki revival at the turn of the century. Her work has been featured in many important Tiki events and publications, and I adore her art. This panoramic piece features the moon at night over a tropical lagoon, with Dawn’s amazing color palette lending a dark, cool aura to her world. The moon has always been a window into my soul. I find myself attracted to artwork depicting the moon, which leads me to the next piece…

PANDA’s ZEN, Mark Thompson, 2021

This third piece of art is an original painting by Mark Thompson, who is known for his Tiki, hot rod and pin-up work. I only recently discovered him, but I fell in love with this piece when I followed his progress posts on Facebook. The colors of the moon shadows on this tropical island are brilliant! Talk about a window into paradise. This piece, which I just received this weekend, has everything I love in an escape: the moon, palm trees, Tiki torches, and a panda perched on a Tiki by the water. Mahalo, Mark.

EVERY PAD NEEDS A HI-FI, Derek Yaniger, 2006

Next we move onto music. I have always taken my music very seriously, which I lampoon with the Derek Yaniger art I have hanging near my music collection. A. Panda’s Galaxy of Sound was a treatise I wrote on the five genres of Tiki music: Surf, Polynesian, Exotica, Lounge, and Space-Age Bachelor Pad. For a fun project, I created a physical model of this virtual concept and hung it above my Tiki music rack. This music is yet another window into the tropical escape that is Tiki.

Finally, we have our audio-video combo, the SHAG Tiki Room Theatre. This home theatre set-up in my Tiki Lounge is so named because it houses most of my art collection of Josh Agle a/k/a SHAG, the pre-eminent Tiki/Lowbrow artist of the last 25 years. This room also is in the front of the basement, far away from the actual windows, as I mentioned early on. This is important because natural light is the enemy of projection televisions.

My home theatre system includes a projection screen measuring 5-1/2’ by 8’, or 108” on the diagonal. Talk about your big window! This is much more than just a window into a Polynesian paradise. My family watches a lot of movies, shows, and sports down here. This has become extremely handy during a global pandemic, when going out to movie theaters, concerts and sporting events has been unavailable over the past year. No matter. We can come down into the basement, turn off the lights, fire up the projector and 7.1 channel surround-sound system, and go anywhere we want.

And that’s what an escape should be all about. You just need enough windows to make it happen.

Creativity, Diversity, Inclusion

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Last week I wrapped up an entire year of daily posting in my other blog, Creating Stuff. This daily exercise, during a global pandemic, is one of the things that kept me sane in my splendid isolation. Supporting Tiki artists by buying their work is another. Engaging with my workplace’s efforts to support Diversity/Equity/Inclusion (DEI) is a third. How does this all fit together?

This morning, as I was cruising Facebook, I read a post where somebody listed a ranking of “Essential” and “Non-Essential” occupations. Artists were at the top of the latter list. Disappointing, but not surprising, as our society tends to value people who make a lot of money over those who engage in the so-called “soft skills.” What this view neglects is that those people in the Creative Class are the ones who make life bearable, nay, enjoyable, for the rest of humanity to thrive in!

I borrow the term Creative Class from author Richard Florida, who penned a book, The Rise of the Creative Class, in 2002. Three years later, I was fortunate to hear him speak at a Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation event, an organization I volunteered with. In a nutshell, Richard Florida argued that the Creative Class of people were essential to driving economic development, particularly pertaining to the return of our vibrant urban cores, cities.

As artists, entertainers, and other creative types flock back to the downtowns, the entrepreneurs and businesspeople were sure to follow. The lure of a better quality of life would be enough to entice people to move into the more urban areas, where they would raise their children and support the Creative Class who were already supporting them.

This has certainly come to pass in the Lehigh Valley over the past 15 years, where our cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton have seen a renaissance in their downtowns. Development projects like the PPL Center arena in Allentown, the SteelStacks complex in Bethlehem, and the Lafayette College Arts District in Easton are great examples of sports/entertainment, music, and art driving economic development. These and other projects have created jobs, spurred the opening of restaurants and stores, and most importantly, brought people back out of the suburban shopping malls and into the downtown districts.

Sadly, one of the things I remember about that LVEDC meeting back in 2005 was a boycott of it by certain older members of the economic development community. You see, one of Richard Florida’s more controversial ideas was the gay index, one of several measurements he developed to rate living areas. The higher the concentration of gay people in a city, the more likely that city was to have a creative core and attract development. Well, this idea didn’t sit well with some of the founding fathers of the Lehigh Valley’s redevelopment efforts. So much so that they chose to skip the LVEDC meeting rather than sit through Richard Florida’s great presentation. How very sad.

The good news: most of those homophobic old fucks are now dead. They’re probably rolling over in their graves, because many of the successful new businesses in the Lehigh Valley are owned by gay people. In fact, the region’s leading arts and culture organization, ArtsQuest, is led by an openly gay woman, who happens to be a good friend of mine. Kassie Hilgert is the president and CQO of an entity that generates millions of dollars in economic and community development for our community. God bless you, Kassie. We know what the “Q” truly stands for. 😎

Talk about diversity! I’m so proud to be a part of this. I’ve been a community volunteer with ArtsQuest for years, and now I’m also volunteering with the company I work for, Constellation/Exelon, to help spread the gospel of diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout our organization. Exelon was out in front supporting the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, after the senseless killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. We have also long been supportive of equity initiatives for women and the LGBTQ+ community in our workplaces.

In 2021, I’m working with good people within Exelon as part of our Culture and Education initiative. My part in this is to help create and facilitate a series of uncomfortable conversations we call Opting In, which will be offered to all Constellation employs this year. We will tackle DEI topics such as Being An Ally, Privilege, Social Justice in the Sports World, and many more. I can’t wait to get started, and I will continue to be an ally to those groups who have been discriminated against and treated inequitably.

These worlds colliding of creativity, diversity, and inclusion truly makes me happy.

P.S. – I neglected to mention my support of the Tiki artist community, which has been significant over the past year. Obviously, this also makes me very happy. Here’s a sneak peak of the latest piece of art I should soon be displaying proudly in the Tiki Lounge, compliments of Mark Thompson. Mahalo, Mark, and aloha, Panda’s Zen!

We The People

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I love the United States of America. I was born in Philadelphia PA, the son of immigrants from Ukraine and Colombia. Don’t ask me how they met, I’m still wondering about that, and I haven’t seen my biological father since I was 5, so I’ll probably never find out. But that’s another story.

I love my country but I acknowledge that we have some problems. The year 2020 has really brought festering issues to light. From the COVID-19 pandemic response to systemic racism, political polarization and human rights abuses, Americans have a lot of areas for improvement. I don’t want to leave this country but rather prefer to fix it wherever possible. In order to do this, we need to understand where we come from as a nation.

I know the signers of America’s Declaration of Independence said that “all men are created equal,” but did they really believe it? Most of them were slaveholders, so did that make them hypocrites? Or by “men” did they actually mean white men, which excludes women and people of color? It seems ironic to me that this nation was started by people who fled religious oppression in Europe, only to create a legacy of disenfranchisement towards a large part of their own population. How did we get here?

I believe there are two concepts that inform American society today: Manifest Destiny and Rugged Individualism. Each, in their own way, help us understand how the United States of America, a nation created by rich white men, continues to be dominated by them to this day. We have done some horrible things over 400 years of our history, in the name of freedom and democracy. The ends do not justify the means.

Manifest Destiny is a phrase popularized in the mid-19th Century. It described (justified?) the right of the United States of America to expand its borders across the continent to the Pacific Ocean, as well as north into Canada and south into Mexico. This was done in the name of Divine Providence, meaning Americans were destined to bring their way of life to these lands. In other words, we were chosen by God almighty to bring freedom, democracy, and Christianity to the places where we chose to expand.

Sadly, there were people already living in the lands we decided to conquer, namely Native Americans. We tried our best to convert these heathens to our civilized way of life, but when they refused, we simply brushed them aside and took their land. This policy, along with slavery, were the two greatest evils perpetrated by the American people against their fellow human beings in our history.

Critics of manifest destiny argued that the idea of Divine Providence espoused by expansionists was just a cover for chauvinism and self-interest. This was the domain of rich white men who aimed to get richer. Sound familiar? I believe this trait in Americans exists to this day and explains how corporations have bred billionaires, at the expense of the common good. Greed and ambition are what drive capitalism, along with a healthy dose of arrogance and self-determination. Which brings me to the next concept…

Rugged Individualism is a phrase popularized by president Herbert Hoover at the start of the Great Depression. It has defined the character of the American ethos since the beginning: a combination of individual liberties and frontier spirit that helped us grow into the nation we are today. Hoover hoped the idea of Rugged Individualism would help us pull ourselves out of the hard times of the early 1930s without government intervention. He was wrong.

It took the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 for Americans to realize it would take more than self-determination to get us out of the Great Depression. FDR’s New Deal was a revolution in the United States of America: Socialism as a means of putting us on the path to recovery and positioning America to eventually become a global superpower. Many things we take for granted today, like Social Security, the SEC and the FDIC, all began with FDR’s New Deal.

Of course, Socialism is a dirty word in politics today. Conservatives cry Socialism whenever somebody suggests doing something for the good of all people, equating it with Communism. Liberals try to make the distinction between Socialism and Democratic Socialism in attempting to enact reforms, like the Affordable Care Act, designed to help the less fortunate. How ironic that we have forgotten the benefits of Socialist policies to benefit many Americans, except when it comes to corporations and the wealthy! The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. really nailed it when he said this in 1968:

So where do these concepts leave us today? In a mess! To me, Rugged Individualism is the biggest reason why the United States of America leads the world in the number of COVID-19 cases, illnesses and deaths. The idea of personal freedoms and self interest when it comes to something as simple as wearing a mask is absurd to me. If other countries can figure this out, why can’t we? Wear a fucking mask, if not for yourself, then for others. It’s basic human decency, people!

I spoke at length about racism in a previous post, Black Lives Matter. To me, Manifest Destiny helps explain how systemic racism exists in America to this day. It has to do with white supremacy and Divine Providence, or the belief that rich white men are destined to subjugate the rest of the world in the name of a superior way of life. In reading more about this, I discovered that Adolf Hitler actually referred to the American example of exterminating the Indians in order to occupy their lands, as justification for his quest to conquer all of Europe and eliminate all of its subhuman inhabitants (namely Jews and Slavs) in order to make room for the superior Arian race. Wow! That is not a good example we set for the world, yet it is downplayed in our history books while Hitler is (rightfully) vilified for his evil deeds.

We can and must do better. Although the Declaration of Independence had its flaws, I believe the United States Constitution mostly got it right. Especially when you consider that as a living document, it is open to amendments. Such as emancipation of the slaves; giving black people and women the right to vote; enacting term limits for presidents.

I believe we need to take that last one a step further and enact term limits for all Federal elected officials, and get money out of politics. I don’t think our founding fathers ever anticipated career politicians; it’s greed that makes that possible, and we need to eliminate politics as a money-making industry. This is how the rich get richer, by buying politicians to enact laws that ensure that they can maintain their advantages at the expense of others.

Finally, I’m saddened by the polarization of our two-party political system. We are divided as a nation like never before, and our leaders stoke this division with irrational fears and conspiracy theories designed to infringe on our perceived rights. Like it or not, we are all in this thing together, and need each other to get through this pandemic, correct wrongs against those less fortunate, and eliminate racism. It’s in our national DNA to act like jerks, and we fought a bloody civil war over 150 years ago because of the evil scourge of slavery. In some ways, we’re still fighting that war. Let’s finally end it so that we, the people, can truly become one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We are better than this and deserve as much.