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.

Signs of The Times

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Every weekday, my son Ryan and I have been taking a walk together. Since he’s doing high school virtually, his virtual gym class requires him to walk 2 miles a day, for a minimum of 45 minutes. Ryan has a special app that tracks these walks for reporting back to his gym teacher. It’s really a good idea and great exercise for both of us.

Since this routine started a month ago, we’ve been walking the same route pretty much every time. Up our street, across the main drag, crossing into the older neighborhood to the east. Whereas our subdivision is only about 15 years old, our walking neighborhood is more well-established. We are solidly middle class, but the other side is a little more upper-middle class, with fancier houses and bigger properties.

We are now less than one month away from the 2020 presidential election in America. One of the little games Ryan and I play on our walks, to pass the time, is counting the political signs. When we first started doing this, there were more Trump than Biden signs, which isn’t surprising considering the demographic of the neighborhood. Our street is more culturally diverse, so I expect to see more Biden/Harris signs here, which we do. The older neighborhood we walk in is definitely more white bread, more affluent, more conservative. Today I noticed two Mercedes SUVs in the same driveway, and we usually have to dodge the big trucks belonging to the lawn service companies working both sides of the streets. These residents don’t cut their own grass. Not surprisingly, they were more Trump/Pence supporters.

This house gets an A for effort, but an F for decency.

It kills me every time I walk by this house. It’s not enough to have a Trump/Pence “Keep America Great” yard sign; these folks felt the need to hang Trump 2020 banners on the columns of their front porch. That’s fine and in character, I guess, but what gets me is the ironic slogan “No More Bullshit” at the top of the left banner. Who puts curse words on a banner in front of their house for all to see? I always tell Ryan how I’m tempted to stand on their front porch and yell “No More Bullshit” over and over again at the top of my lungs. I mean, that’s what they’re doing, right? But I don’t. We just keep walking and I smile to myself at the image.

Over the weeks, more signs started popping up in our adopted neighborhood, but a funny thing started happening. It seems the Biden supporters were starting to catch up to the Trumpsters. There are also more signs for candidates for the lower political offices, like US and PA congressional folks. In addition, I’ve started noticing some of the other signs that have popped up, not specific to any presidential candidate but political in their own way. Here are some of the more interesting ones:

Can’t we all get behind this?
Blue lives matter?
Isn’t it sad that we have to say this?
Oh no! When did Communism sneak onto the ballot?

People really show their stripes without naming their candidates, don’t they? In fairness, the “In This House We Believe…” sign was planted right next to a Biden/Harris sign, but all of the others were flying solo. Ryan thought we should count those houses for the presidential candidate that made the most sense for the sentiment expressed, but I told him that would be cheating. One can assume the anti-Communist is a Trump supporter, but with Putin potentially pulling the strings, who knows?

Finally, I find it funny that at least 3 sets of houses in this neighborhood have Biden/Harris and Trump/Pence signs directly across the street from each other. It kind of reminds me of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys! In each case I believe the Trump sign went up first, then the Biden sign was the reply. Shots fired across the bow! I wonder if these neighbors can picnic together after all of this nonsense? The funniest case had one house put up a Trump sign, only to have their neighbor across the street respond with 5 Biden signs, to which the Trump house replied with 2 more signs. This is fun to watch!

Regardless of your political leaning, please make sure you vote on November 3rd, 2020. God bless America! 🇺🇸

Trump on the left, Biden on the right; shouldn’t that be reversed?

P.S. – As of today’s count, the Biden houses have made a remarkable comeback and are leading the Trump houses, 14-11. We’re only counting the houses with signs, not total number of signs.

Black Lives Matter

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The last two weeks have been a tough time in America. The murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by four policemen in Minneapolis, has unleashed a torrent of protests here and across the globe. Sadness, anger, frustration, and rage have been among the feelings I have been struggling with. I cannot imagine what people of color are feeling, particularly African Americans, who have been dealing with these emotions for over 400 years.

The sin of slavery is a grotesque stain on the fabric of American history. “That all men are created equal” was written by Thomas Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence, but did he really mean it? Jefferson was a slave owner, as were many of the signers of this important document. What hypocrisy! How can you say that all men are created equal when you continue to subjugate an entire group of human beings in slavery?

There is much that isn’t taught in American history books about slavery, and that’s sad. There are many reasons for this, and I believe a contributing factor is the ongoing undercurrent of institutional racism in our country. You don’t have to look farther than current events and the current occupant of the presidency to see this for yourself. I’ll get to those things shortly, but first I’d like to delve a little deeper into history.

You can get your learning on the subject of racism from many different sources. For me, the most recent education began when my wife and I went to see Hamilton on Broadway two years ago. What a wonderful show! The amazing thing about it was how Lin-Manuel Miranda used hip-hop music and actors who were mostly people of color to tell the story of one of America’s most misunderstood founding fathers. My first thought when I saw a black man playing George Washington was: how’s this gonna work?

Funny, Ron Chernow had the same thought. Chernow is the author of the definitive biography of Alexander Hamilton, the book upon which Lin-Manuel Miranda based his musical. Miranda also wrote a book about the making of Hamilton, and in it he noted that Ron Chernow was a consultant to him on the project. Chernow questioned the casting of a black man, Christopher Jackson, to play George Washington. Then he saw the man perform. In his own words, Chernow says that Christopher Jackson was the perfect choice to play Washington, as he nailed the mannerisms, the speech patterns, and the tone of the father of our country.

If an authority such as Ron Chernow can suspend disbelief and applaud the choice of a black man to portray George Washington, then I have to agree with him. And I do! Christopher Jackson was amazing in the role. Chernow should know, as he also penned a wonderful biography of Washington. After seeing Hamilton the musical, I bought Chernow’s book, Hamilton, and read it voraciously. Then I read his biography of George Washington. Finally, I read his biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Here’s where my education got heavy.

To his credit, Ron Chernow views his subjects through the lens of racial discrimination in America. First with Hamilton and then with Washington, Chernow’s treatments don’t shy away from the topic of slavery and his protagonists’ score in regards to race. With Grant, the narrative becomes much more acute, as his story corresponds to one of the most tumultuous periods of civil rights in America. The Civil War and Reconstruction were two events presided over by Ulysses S. Grant, with spectacular results.

Grant is a forgotten hero of American history. He was the greatest military leader of his time, and he was a champion of civil rights. He supported Abraham Lincoln in the emancipation of the slaves, and enlisted freed black men in the Union army. As president, Grant was a strong proponent of Reconstruction. He oversaw efforts to cement the rights of African Americans, including the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving black people the vote and sending Federal troops to the South to suppress the Ku Klux Klan.

At the time of his death in 1885, Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the most popular American in the world. Why, then, has this great man’s legacy been so tarnished? Why has Grant basically been forgotten? After the end of his second term as president in 1877, civil rights in America took a major step backward, and it took almost 100 years for many of Grant’s efforts to be realized. Much of the blame for these setbacks can be attributed to a concept I just recently learned of: The Lost Cause. It is best described in this excerpt from a Wikipedia post:

“The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, or simply the Lost Cause, is an Americanpseudo-historical,[1][2]negationist ideology that holds that the cause of the Confederacy during the American Civil War was a just and heroic one. The ideology endorses the supposed virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the war as a struggle primarily to save the Southern way of life,[3] or to defend “states’ rights“, in the face of overwhelming “Northern aggression.” At the same time, the Lost Cause minimizes or denies outright the central role of slavery in the buildup to and outbreak of the war.”

I first heard of The Lost Cause while watching a History Channel miniseries about Ulysses S. Grant, which was based on Ron Chernow’s biography. At the end of the miniseries, The Lost Cause is mentioned as the main reason why Grant’s legacy has been reduced to that of a drunk, a butcher, who just got lucky as the commander of the powerful Union army that was victorious in the Civil War. This same ideology glorified the exploits of Robert E. Lee, the losing Confederate general who is seen as the embodiment of the Southern gentlemen and antebellum society.

Ironically, coming back to current events brought the concept of The Lost Cause full circle. Yesterday I read an article where the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, announced that the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond would be removed. This statue has been a focal point of demonstrations recently, as a massive symbol of the Confederacy and a continuing insult to African Americans. At the press conference, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said this: “It’s time to put an end to the Lost Cause and fully embrace the righteous cause. It’s time to replace the racist symbols of oppression and inequality — symbols that have literally dominated our landscape.” This is a remarkable statement from the leader of the city that was the capital of the Confederacy!

Finally, I leave you with a conversation I had yesterday with my coworker and friend, John Rowe, who is a black man of Panamanian descent. In the course of our normal workday, I asked John how he and his family were doing during the pandemic and protests. Sadly, he told me of a conversation he and his wife felt obligated to have with their teenage daughter, about how to act if confronted by the police. This breaks my heart but is not surprising, as I told John of a story I had just seen the day before about a very similar conversation. Apparently this is a rite of passage in the black community, which is really sad.

I cannot put myself in John’s shoes, as I can’t imagine having to have this talk with my 14 year-old son. It’s a helpless feeling knowing I can’t do much to change this narrative. What I can do is be more vocal in calling out racism when I see it. When you shine a light on evil, it tends to dissipate, like cockroaches scurrying away. The current occupant of the White House may have done us a favor by fomenting division and attempting to normalize racism, bringing many alt-right Nazi racists out into the open. It’s our job to expose these people for what they are. Only then will we truly realize and live the idea that Black Lives Matter.

16th St NW, Washington DC, 05Jun2020

I highly recommend reading Ron Chernow’s Grant for a thorough understanding of the history of institutional racism. It was a gut-wrenching read for me. You can also get the short version by watching the History Channel miniseries, Grant.