Boy, quite a bit happened this year – some good, some bad. Some podcasty. Following is the account of my insane, bittersweet holiday in my hometown.
DAY ONE: I fly in. Things are already ridiculous because I have to catch a BUS to the airport, when I thought I was getting a ride from a friend. Oh, well. Also, I was running on a pathetic 5 hours of sleep (thanks to Shannon) and a bagel-with-cream-cheese from the BWI terminal. Still, I manage to make my flight, connection in Cleveland, and I’m suddenly back in St. Louis, trying to explain to my parents what part of the terminal I’m in while watching for my suitcase. Blah blah blah, I hang out with my immediate family for a few hours and eat a couple rice cakes, then borrow my mother’s car for a very special dinner date. Not the kind YOU’RE thinking of, but one of equal importance to me.
I haven’t seen Jennifer in at least 7 years, probably closer to 10. Another lifetime ago, we were best friends. Back in elementary school, our relationship was of an amorous nature (as much as it can be, haha). To blow the lid off a pretty open secret, we were both interested in each other at points when it mattered, as well, but never at the same time. Over and over, life and familial obligations got in the way, and we lost touch. Until this year, when we started corresponding via FB (that magical glue that holds acquaintances together). A plan was made: Pantera’s Pizza, where I’d always meant to eat but never had, and she swore up and down they were the best in the area.
Despite my grandmother trying to force me to teach her how to use my USB mic as I’m going out the door, I’m only a few minutes late and she’s already inside. I sit down, and I feel The Awkward trying to settle over us. “Who the hell is this across the table?” we were both thinking. Still, we powered through, going up to order and get drinks and such until we had more or less defeated the foul beast and settled in for a rousing game of catch-up.
After one beer, five breadsticks, a large half-pepperoni and three hours, we had swapped life’s battle scars and compared notes. Mostly about vomiting. A gregarious waiter added some color here and there, and the lights randomly going out gave us a fun “WTF” moment. Toward the end, I learned there was a particularly good reason she hadn’t ordered any alcohol for herself. I was honored; she hadn’t even told most of her family yet. She and Donnie, her fiancée, had my sincere congratulations.
Then we took the obligatory selfie in the parking lot (is it still called a selfie if there’s two people in it?), stood on the borderline between needing to get out of the cold and back to the rest of our lives and not wanting to prematurely cut a fun evening off at the knees. No regrets, though. We’d have to do this again sometime, and so forth. I listened to Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Auld Lang Syne” on the way home, and had a hard time not overly-identifying.
DAY TWO: After a good night’s sleep and a somewhat lazy morning, I went to see Frozen with my mother/stepdad/halfbrother/halfsister (the immediate family to which I previously referred). It was really good, and I highly recommend it; a cut above most Disney fluff. Then we went back to my parents’ place, ate spaghetti, and proceeded to watch Despicable Me, which I am very late to the game on. Entertaining, and surprised me toward the end. Solid stuff. Then we watched the Minions short films, which weren’t nearly as good as the movie, but whatever.
I’ll take this opportunity to explain that I usually spend any hometown visits staying with my grandparents instead of my “immediates”. There are three reasons for this:
1. They have not just one, but two extra rooms, even with my aunt and uncle staying with them. My parents have… a couch. Really, this is the only reason necessary to provide, isn’t it?
2. After high school, I spent a few years living with my grandparents. I’m very comfortable in that house.
3. Not to bring everybody down or anything, but… they’re in their eighties now. I have a finite period of time left to spend with them.
Therefore, when I tell you that after Despicable Minions we went back to their place and chatted for a while before my mom left, you’ll get why.
DAY THREE: Being a Sunday, this is kicked off with a pre-Christmas church service. Now, I’m no longer a very religious person. The reasons are my own and fairly uncomplicated, but suffice it to say I still love and respect the God of my formative years. I just seldom see eye-to-eye with His well-meaning people. It was a nice, quiet service, and most of the congregation was happy to meet the grandson of two of their elder members. Lovely.
Afterward, we were off to Ravanelli’s. They’ve been around in the southwest Illinois area which I call home for as long as I can remember. A lot of other places I loved have either disappeared (Brenda’s) or moved (Dave’s Movies & More), but Ravanelli’s has stood strong, merely redecorating once or twice. Their toasted ravioli is a true treat, and nobody makes house dressing like theirs. This time, however, I went for broke: ravioli, cream-of-chicken soup (also superb, but only served on Sundays), salad with house dressing, and tenderloin steak tips seared with onions and mushrooms (sorry, Joanne). I stuffed myself and enjoyed every freaking second.
Also, I picked up the check. This is going to sound like a braggy thing, which it kind of is, but I include it because this is the kind of thing I would have been completely unable to do as recently as last year. Now, however, I can as long as it doesn’t turn into a regular habit. It was a good feeling to treat my grandparents to a meal for once, when it was normally the other way around.
Shortly after this came a little last-minute Christmas shopping with my cousin, Shannon. Now, I hadn’t seen her in the flesh in over 3 years (Facebook correspondence doesn’t count), and that last time was a passing howdy at best. She’s a tall drink of water these days, nearly up to MY height! It’s actually a little unnerving. Anyway, we exchanged gifts (both books) and took off for the city.
We hit the St. Louis Galleria, which is a very pricey mall. Nearly every store in it was perused. Shannon had a cold, which meant we had to stop so she could catch her breath several times. A little Teavana and Auntie Anne’s gave her the strength to soldier on. I didn’t even get anything besides food there; she only got a shirt for her mom and a keychain for me (it was a buy-one-get-one deal). Still needing something for her dad, we headed to Trader Joe’s, which I had never experienced before this day. I find it to be beyond acceptable. I got chocolate, sunflower kernels, and cheese – and also a free wine sample, which is a very weird thing to stumble upon in a supermarket! Her dad got a gift card.
Following this, I’m pretty sure we went from there straight to Shameless Grounds, which is a slightly alt-scene coffee house in the southern part of St. Louis. By which I mean anything BUT straight, both because it’s LGBT-friendly and because we got abysmally lost on our way there. But I digress. I ordered the “Chauvinist Pig”, which is a ham-and-bacon sub that I fell in love with. They played BINGO (not that we won, but it still added to the experience). It was fantastic, and I’d gladly visit again.
DAY FOUR: More of the fun shopping times, this time with my mother and sister; the other half of the family decided to sit around the house and be lazy, I guess. At the Fairview mall, I picked up my rugged new leather boots that make me look like some kind of steampunk cowboy thing for about half their retail price. We also poked around Build-A-Bear (for my sister’s benefit), and checked out the sugar bears (see previous parentheses). From there, we went to Five Guys, which nobody in the Midwest has ever tried, it seems like. Even though my sister only had a grilled cheese, they all liked the food, which pleased me since it was my idea and all. I also sprang for this. That reminds me, I need to check my bank balance…
Next, we hit Ross, Marshalls, and Five Below. From those places, I got a pair of Levi’s (that actually FIT me), some Turkish Delight, and a couple of discounted Blu-Rays (one of which I ended up giving Shannon later). I also tried on some hoodies but never found a good one for a decent price, which was a futile search that would last the rest of my trip.
Eventually, I struck out for the city again, where I met Pat and Donna for dinner at The Vine, a middle eastern place. Yes, at least that one time this year, I ate the food of my people. I also met Ruth’s niece and a couple of Pat’s friends (through his mushroom hunting adventures, I do believe). We all ate lamb and chicken and hummus, and tried sips of their VERY strong coffee. The waitress who took our orders – who had been the ONLY waitstaff person on duty when we got there – received an extra tip from us for putting up with such a crappy night. Gifts were exchanged, pictures taken, hugs and holiday well-wishes passed around. Then I was braving the cold again.
DAY FIVE: Christmas Eve on Aunt Kitty’s farm. Firstly, Shannon had to work, and therefore she swung by to give us her seven-layer-dip-that-only-has-four-layers to keep refrigerated and deliver to the farm on her behalf since she was going to be late. Only problem was… while trying to ring the doorbell, she dropped it. We managed to sweep up the spilled lettuce and most of the cheese, but some of it was smooshed and had frozen to the pavement. It’ll thaw by spring, I suppose – and anyway, the rest of the dip was fine, and we had lots of spare shredded cheese to replace what had been lost. All’s well that ends well. I did that while fixing my grandma’s recipe for potato casserole.
Then we were on the farm. It was decidedly a poor showing this year; in my age bracket, Ryan was sailing around the world with his boat buddies (though he did call to wish us a Merry Christmas), and Dawn was off on a romantic liaison with her fiancée. Then there’s Casey, who almost never shows up to these anymore, Peter and Lauren, who… I honestly have no idea when the last time I saw either of them was, and Alyssa, who elected to flounce off to Alabama with her beau. That left me and David to hang around and shoot the breeze, which we did.
And this was the year I spiked the punch.
Well, I spiked my punch. The thought of getting the entire family drunk filled me with wicked glee, but I knew in reality it would end up being a mess so I exercised restraint. Therefore, all I did was add a few drops to my own cup and no more. Then I followed David outside while he took a few puffs and we compared notes and family in-secrets. Since most of you are not privy to this information, I’ll leave it at that. Then he showed me his new rifle, I got him a copy of my newest book, and we rejoined the slowly-shrinking crowd inside the farmhouse. Eventually, Shannon showed and added to the conversation, and then she gave me a lift home so we could run by Walgreens for some random crap.
DAY SIX: Christmas Day. Not much to say about this. Got up and helped with the food as much as I could (which wasn’t a lot, but I tried), then took a shower while we waited for the time when people began to filter in. It was nice. Ham was great, despite Jeff’s somewhat-butchering of the carving (at least it was cooked to delicious perfection, which he can also take credit for). “My” casserole turned out great. Enjoyed some geektastic conversation with Alyssa’s younger brother, Caleb (who I don’t even remember if I ever said more than two words to before), and at some point with my stepfather (who is a nerd in the most classic of senses). Presents were shredded and children did cute things, and Christmas music was played in the background. Awwwwwwww.
If memory serves, I also had some fun chatting with everybody online once all the festivities ended that night. Whee for staying connected!
DAY SEVEN: So this is when the sushi comes into play, in case you were wondering about that. Had a late, lazy morning, and was expecting my parents to come by for some lunch-of-leftovers. Therefore, I invited Shannon to drop by for that around one or two, after which we’d head out for the fabled sushi she’d been telling me about. Thing was, apparently my family was planning on dropping by for DINNER, not lunch. So we simply stood around in the kitchen, eating leftovers and talking to my Uncle Mike. I promised to bring him back a little sushi, since he said he hadn’t tried any since his days in the Korean war.
First up was TRYING to get Starbucks, but they were out of chai (which was all either of us wanted), so after picking up a present from one of Shannon’s friends, we stopped by Aunt Kitty’s farm again to literally kill some time before happy hour. I can think of worse ways to kill time, though. Chatted amiably about this and that for a while, then went to Wasabi.
Or tried to. Apparently, the restaurant only opened AT happy hour that day, so we had to kill time next door at Creve Couer Camera. I didn’t realize Shannon was into photography, but she was looking for a lens to go with her old film camera. They didn’t have one on hand, but said they could get it in. Was kind of pricey, so she said she’d check back.
Probably we ordered too much sushi, but it felt worth it to me, even though they forgot my tuna nigiri (but put a rush order on it when I reminded them). That bottle of sake probably helped smooth my mood over, if you know what I’m Super Saiyan. The spider-sushi, which has these crispy bits of fried nothing sticking out the sides to make it look arachnoid, was delicious, but the crunchy roll… well, the mayo concoction they drizzled on top was just a little tangy, and I didn’t realize precisely how low Shannon’s tolerance for spicy things is. Sorry, Shan.
For those of you still sitting there going, “Raw fish?! Eeewww!”, allow me to drop some knowledge on your Western head: http://local.dexknows.com/how-to-order-sushi
After that, we hit Annie’s for a dessert of concretes. I’d never been there to my knowledge, but they were good. Frozen custard is just something that people on the coast don’t seem to believe in (we had a similar conversation about deviled eggs, which both of us pounced on at Aunt Kitty’s), so I was thrilled to death. After this, I think we went home and that was it.
DAY EIGHT: My old buddy Scar had been trying for MONTHS to nail down our schedule for when I was in town, and the last thing I wanted to do was disappoint him. Alas, I managed to do just that when my Uncle Leonard showed up to say hi that morning. It bumped my departure back by several hours, even though his visit was only about 30 minutes.
Anyway, my grandpa drove me to the MetroLink station. Then he (unintentionally, or intentionally by way of good-natured ribbing) slid some guilt on me about spending so much time out with friends and ignoring my family, which was partially justified… but I told him “Look, I’m just trying to find enough time for everybody. It’s hard.” He agreed that it is in that kind of situation and told me to have fun.
In case you didn’t understand this already, my grandpa is awesome.
An hour-long train ride later, Scar meets me outside the platform and immediately drags me into Best Buy. This is not a surprise, because he’s pretty much a native New Yawker; speed and efficiency are just part of his DNA now. He buys some more RAM for his laptop and I get a new mp3 player, since… condensed version, my current one doesn’t have enough storage. After that, Vietnamese food and coffee, and back to his place for a little PS3, plus leftover Vietnamese with Emily eventually. Fawned over the baby for a while. Also watched Elysium, which turns out is a pretty decent flick. Skyped with Shannon for half a second to make sure we had the plan for Sunday morning ironed out (she was to pick me up from the Metro). Sadly, of course, the time came when we were too tired to soldier on, and we passed out.
DAY NINE: Up and at ’em early! Had some simple breakfast, then took a long, luxurious shower in their whirlpool tub (!) to ready for the day. Lunch was pizza though, which I was late for due to the length of my shower.
After lunch, we went out for a little walk, which was kind of nice since the weather had warmed up just enough to make it not unbearable. This, I believe, was part one of a twofold mistake. Having been cooped up with Shannon in her car on three separate occasions now while she had a cold, my working theory is that the virus was incubating in my system, and that most likely, walking around outside with slightly damp hair was the kicker. Also, throwing around a baseball for 10 minutes. Also, recording a podcast sitting on his deck. Yeah, spending over an hour in the cold can sometimes result in a cold!
Anyway, we had plans to meet a former coworker of ours, Yvonne, at the movies, so tiny tickle in my throat or not, off we went to the Des Peres cinema. Once she finally fought her way through the traffic and we exchanged “Long time no see” hugs, we treated ourselves to the latest Keanu flick, 47 Ronin. Pretty darn good, actually; I don’t know if it was fully worth the $10 ticket price, but yeah, definitely Netflix that when it comes out on disc.
From there, we hit the Elephant Room, an African(ish)-themed spot Scar had been raving about all day. He had a Blue Moon, she had an appletini, and I, being the only non-driver present, had not one, but TWO special extra-tropical Mai Tais. We also ordered a bunch of appetizers and shot the breeze, laughing at the weird decor and finding out what everybody had been up to all these years. At the end of it all, I ordered this weird flaming-hot cookie topped with ice cream dessert. It was delicious.
I had wanted to go bowling and Yvonne seemed up for it, but Scar announced he was kind of cached for the evening so we left things there. Yet he had just enough energy left… to go to White Castle. This still baffles me, since we had just eaten all those appetizers and the cookie for dessert, but hey, if it’s What You Crave… anyway, we took that back to his house and scarfed while channel-surfing and playing some Max Payne 3 until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore. Literally, he was snoring and everything. The life, my peoples.
DAY TEN: Vacation is almost over, and I have a cold.
Yep, when I pried my eyes open that morning, there could no longer be any denying that I had the dreaded Man-flu; I gargled with peroxide-water and everything the day before to no avail. Still, I pulled myself together as best I could, had some meager breakfast of a turkey sandwich and got ready to bounce out the door – but not before Scar got a few last pictures of us with his daughter. In his defense, she really is a cutie-pie, though.
From one station to another, where Shannon mostly arrives on time to pick me up. Another attempt to get our chai lattes from Starbucks – which succeeds! YAAAY! Once I have a little caffeine in my system, the cold starts to take a backseat and I can have fun again, after a fashion. Walgreens for drugs to fight off this nasty infection that makes my nose feel like there’s a balloon in there, a trip to Walmart where she gets groceries and I pick up a present for my grandfather… and then she surprises me with Her Plan: we’re going to get every single type of fast food I can’t find out East. This sounds like a really bad plan, but we decide to do it anyway: Jack In The Box, Dairy Queen and Hardee’s are either rare or nonexistent in the DC-Metro area, and I had a little from each in the span of an hour. Stuffed to the gills, we headed for home so I could meet my family for some hangout time.
So we kinda stood around and chatted for a minute with my grandparents before Shannon headed out. My grandpa loved the hat (it was a near-clone of mine), but it was too big so he’s going to exchange it. My parents, as it turned out, went home and ATE dinner instead of picking it up to bring to us, so I ended up snacking on stuff while blowing my nose until they showed. Then we all watched some Tim Hawkins DVD of theirs (which was actually pretty funny), chewed the flab for a while, hung around, yadda yadda. A little while after Immediate Family left, Aunt Sheila came up and said she was taking Alyssa’s oldest son over to her, since she and Boyfriend had just breezed back into town. We do so, it’s very brief, but at least I get to give her a hug and meet the new guy, who seems okay (though apparently they fight a lot). And then, I crashed.
DAY ELEVEN: This is kind of a non-day. Mom drove me to the airport while I ate my leftover mushroom-swiss-Thickburger from Hardee’s and drank the Jarrito that Shannon bought me. The cold made me feel miserable, and my ears popped twice as much during the flight. I just kind of listened to David Bowie the entire time (an airplane trip tradition of mine for many years now) and tried to doze off, both on the first flight and the connecting one out of Newark. Then I was home… riding the bus AGAIN, and hailing a CAB from the bus station. Because that’s what friends are for; when you’re suffering with the Cold From Hell, they leave you to fend for yourself.
What? It’s awfully hard to be forgiving when you feel like you’re two steps from your deathbed.
And thus endeth my story. Boy, am I exhausted, sick, and still slightly hung over. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. The whole trip was highly… educational, and every single day felt nigh-legendary. If only I could close out every year like that!
HAPPY 2014 EVERYBODY!