it’s spring in the northwest, so we planted a house

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Since flying back from Hawaii several months ago, my “other” job besides toddler wrangling has been researching housing pretty much twenty-four-seven…walking neighborhoods and trawling the web for all possible information related to setting up shop, long term, in Portland.

This week I can finally announce that the search phase of that project is complete.

The interesting thing is, after all that work we actually didn’t find a house. I know, I know, it sounds like a counterintuitive result to be happy about (kind of like when programmers smile at a weird phrase like EXIT_SUCCESS). I promise, though, that this story has a very happy ending…or perhaps, more accurately put, a very happy beginning.

Curiously enough, this whole adventure even kind of started with a “failure” of sorts. Upon returning from the islands and taking a look at Portland’s neighborhoods and the housing market with fresh eyes (fresh from the mind-numbing prospects of real estate on Oahu, that is) we almost immediately started having serious doubts about the area which we’d always dreamed would be our permanent home in Portland, the northwest Alphabet District. It turns out, we love to shop there, we love to eat there, we love to do all kinds of stuff there, we even love our nursery school there…but the simple fact is that the Alphabets have become, over time, kind of too fancy for their own good.

It’s a great place to be a single, twenty-something, partying hipster who rents and has no intention of sticking around forever…but the minimum buy-in for whole houses there (not to mention the property taxes that come along with them) has now far exceeded the grasp of an “average” family by any definition, especially along the streetcar line where we thought of living. There isn’t so much a sense of one community as of divergent groups awkwardly inhabiting the same space…transient younger folks renting for a few years between life phases, and wealthy older homeowners with a huge cultural gap between the two. This “donut hole” is a phenomenon well known to much of New York, or San Francisco, but feels extremely weird in Portland (and that’s saying something). It just doesn’t seem to fit the vibe of the city, and definitely doesn’t fit with our own expectations for how we’d like our kids to grow up. After all, one of our biggest concerns in Hawaii was the class disparity as it related to education options. Would sending our kids to public schools, exclusively accessible by the privileged, in one place really be any different than similarly exclusive private schools in another?

Having access to Portland’s excellent rail transit remains very important to us, both for the immediate future and over the long term. TriMet’s bus lines are great too, and we use them all the time, but rail lines change much more slowly than bus routes. While its infrastructure expenses are always a politically charged matter, I remain firmly convinced of rail’s long term boons to economic development and the health of neighborhoods. On a more personal level, easy access to rail means a massively extended “walkable” area for daily living, and that has a huge impact on lifestyle options whether you’re herding munchkins, a teenager eager to explore the universe without having to maintain a car, or a senior living with reduced mobility. Fortunately in addition to the downtown streetcar here we have an awesome light rail network which connects to it, so we started inspecting other interesting areas looking for anywhere rail lines meet with more diversely “family friendly” circumstances and thriving neighborhood schools.

This led us to wonder, what about the new Orange Line light rail alignment?

The Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project, underway for many years now (which actually constructed a station right under the balcony of our old apartment by PSU) is nearing completion and will be up and running before the end of the year. Besides opening up the SE to downtown via a new mode of transit, the project includes the new and unique Tilikum Crossing bridge that will only carry public transit, cyclists, and pedestrians. Not only will it be far faster a commute than the aging Steel Bridge which presents a choke point for the Red, Green, and Blue MAX lines, but it will also be immune to traffic jams. Since the Orange line’s alignment is almost entirely off street until it crosses into downtown, this means it will functionally become Portland’s first true “downtown express line” (my own transplant phrase, not something anyone here would say, nor would they probably point out its South Waterfront flyover as being the city’s first “el”).

Railroad dork excitement aside, it turns out there’s good reason for us to be intrigued by the new MAX. Not far over the river, south of Brooklyn but north of the city’s border with Milwaukie, lie Sellwood/Moreland and Eastmoreland, adjacent neighborhoods served by a pair of new transit stations (one with excellent pedestrian access, the other a convenient park-and-ride). We’d never really spent much time down there, apart from milady’s favorite sock store, so we started looking more closely at the region…and everything we discovered just got us more and more enthused.

On the Eastmoreland side of the tracks, there are beautiful old storybook homes, long blocks of twisty quiet roads fun to explore on foot or by bicycle, and the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden next to the the Reed College campus (both of which are covered in lovely hiking trails). Over in Sellwood/Moreland, there are smaller dense blocks, primarily Craftsman housing, and a massive public park that stretches a mile in length and ranges in terrain from wetlands to playgrounds to baseball and soccer fields, all bisected by a creek frequented by waterfowl and migrating salmon. In close proximity are three thriving business districts (Sellwood, Westmoreland, and Woodstock) each of which boasts a useful mix of chain grocery stores, local markets, eateries, and entertainment. The whole area is characterized by excellent public schools with active PTAs, a heavy proportion of families with kids, and an additional connection to downtown via the Springwater Corridor. Oh and did I mention the public pool, or the community center, or the amusement park, or the historic steam railroad? Yeah, as it turns out, I can wax on about how awesome Sellwood is for quite a while. The thing is though, while homes there are far more affordable…they still sell like hotcakes. Many are under contract within a day or two of entering the market. Some are pending the afternoon of their open house.

Thus began the hunt, and many an exciting prospect did we find…only to either discover a dealbreaker with regard to our requirements and renovation plans, or to find it already sold to a faster bidder. Meanwhile, at the upper bound of our project budget, we watched as new construction popped up block after block all well outside our parameters (urban skinny houses targeted at DINKs, artless monster homes rising three or four boxy stories and ruining the character of their blocks, etc). There were a few diamonds in the rough in the sweet spot in between, but they were mostly “make me move” unlisted homes whose owners were frustratingly unresponsive. We steeled ourselves for a long hunt, and started to ponder how best to reconfigure our townhouse should we happen to successfully expand our family before successfully securing new digs. Overall, despite having an awesome realtor helping us, the whole process was becoming a bit of a chore. Then, just as the season started to heat up, we made an unexpected discovery.

Pounding the pavement near two properties that had proven disappointments (nice homes, but with some critically inaccurate listing details) we came upon a lot which had just been demolished in an amazing location. Lovely street, low traffic, right on the park, walkable to both train stations and two of the three business districts, large trees, near the creek…this was the very definition of too good to be true. Curiously, there was no big sign planted in front to advertise the future home’s design or the builder’s contact information, so we immediately presumed this was one of those situations that cuts out MLS altogether (wealthy out of town buyer makes huge cash offer, owner moves out, buyer tears down the house they just bought and puts up whatever they like, etc). With so many folks coming to Portland from hugely inflated places like NYC or LA these stories are not uncommon. The only clue as to the lot’s circumstances was a small, handwritten sign stapled to one of the survey stakes containing its permit numbers. Figuring it was at best a hail mary, we texted our realtor to reach out to City Hall.

It turned out the lot had actually just been demo’d by a small Portland area builder (not one of the cheap/ugly McMansion factories) new to the neighborhood, interested in building more appropriately-sized and well-designed homes and establishing a reputation in opposition to the fairly strong resentment many locals feel towards big boxes…and most importantly it had not yet even been advertised. My mind raced with references to Glengarry Glen Ross at imagining how perfect a “lead” this was, and we eagerly awaited more responses to feverish communications with the builder through our realtor. Before we knew it we were out in Happy Valley sitting around the guy’s kitchen table hashing out our mutual interests in broad strokes (and by the way, if you’ve never been to a builder’s own house, it’s a lot like eating at the reception for a wedding of two professional chefs). Point after point, as we each ratcheted down our long lists of expectations, we kept finding ourselves cheerily nodding heads. This was really happening, we had discovered an opportunity to affordably build a “dream house” exactly where we’d want it to be. We talked the specifics over with our bank and insurance folks, did a flurry of research into various permit details, and in only a few days were successfully under contract with an amicably agreed upon list of amenities. This afternoon, we walked into an office tower downtown and cut our escrow check…and if all goes according to plan in roughly 120-150 days (probably late July or early August) we’ll have some new keys on our keychains.

We are so beside ourselves, and the last few days have been such a whirlwind of time-critical tasks and meticulously researched decisions, that we’ve barely had time to tell any friends and family so apologies if this is just now reaching you for the first time…but guess what you’re about to have some pretty choice crash space to come visit in the hipster rainforest after this summer!

Happily at this point we’ve reached a relative lull in the process as things calm down and construction is poised to begin. There are many smaller details to hash out within the amenities list like finishes and appliances and exact measurements, but overall we’re extremely pleased and excited. For the nerds, you’ll be excited to know that the neighborhood is being rapidly lit with fiber as established ISPs feel the pressure of Google’s impending moves west. The upper floor will have a ventilated hardware closet just outside what the plans call a “Games Room” which I’m redesigning as a home theater and editing studio (sorry wet bar, you’re being replaced with third row seating). For everyone else, there will be three full baths including one in a ground floor dedicated guest suite, and a playroom upstairs for visiting munchkins to frolic in whenever the living room is busy with grown up stuff. We’re eschewing the somewhat vestigial idea of a formal dining room for a big eat-in kitchen and a den, which will function as a home office. A city-sized single car garage will occupy one back corner of the lot with a long driveway which can easily accommodate guests, and the rear half of the property will be fenced for little ones to play in (when they’re not running around the park just a few steps from the front door). Speaking of the front door, in true Craftsman style, there will be a long porch running the full width of the building with views down the road, over the creek, and into the park.

If you’re the sort of home improvement geek who’s just chomping at the bit at this point to see plans, let me know and I’ll be happy to e-mail you some PDFs…there will be some small alterations not-yet-documented but they’ll give you a general sense of what things will look like in black and white (as far as colors and exterior finishes, we haven’t even gotten to that yet). Later down the line, we’ll probably have some more realistic/complete renderings to enjoy and I’ll be happy to share those too.

It feels appropriate, with all the warm sunny days we’ve been having lately (sorry east coast) that this should be a good time for planting the seeds of something new. We’re very excited, and can’t wait to welcome our friends from near and far to our new home…but be patient and stuff because for now it’s still basically a pile of straw and mud with a lot of potential. More as it develops!

*domestic*

we now return to our regular programming

It’s been nearly six months since I last sat down at this blog, and a lot has happened in the meantime! We executed a reasonably smooth move back to the mainland, we’ve had tons of friends and relatives visit (in both locations) during the transition, and now, at long last, I have a desk in an “office” space with a real-actual-computer on top of it. You know, I’ve learned a lot by moving to an island and back but the most heavily underscored lesson has to have been I am not a notebook computer person.

Some folks are still mentioning surprise, so yes, we’re no longer in the middle of the ocean. After a couple months of settling in and happily entertaining guests we are now once again fully fledged denizens of the hipster rainforest in all its glory (just as we enter early spiders and clouds season). We’re pretty well set up in a townhouse downtown, and have started preliminary research on neighborhoods in which we may settle down over the coming two or three years. The women in my life have found an amazing job and an amazing nursery school here, and so in between housecleaning and grocery shopping I am now sorting out what exactly “comes next” among my own pursuits. I have no brief or fully baked answers to that yet, but stay tuned as I figure our the details. I have lots of old ideas and new ideas swimming around in my head.

I recently had the wonderful experience of taking a road trip with my mom, which afforded us both opportunities to chat about life and to take in some of the truly spectacular experiences the interior of this state has to offer (including two of the seven “wonders” of Oregon). I’d love to say I took a hundred photos a day to share, but I didn’t. Somewhat uncharacteristically, I barely broke out my camera. I didn’t check the Internets much either. I mostly found brief periods to chat with home base and exchange giggles with our munchkin, and that’s about it. So I don’t have a lot of digital ephemera to pass on, but I do have a lot of thoughts about digital ephemera from the experience that I want to try and unpack, so here goes…

It is very exciting to me, just as it is to most people I know, that amazing gizmos of acceleratingly amazing ability have been exploding into our lives in recent years. We call them phones or tablets or notebooks or watches but these twentieth century labels almost trivialize the borderline magical “powers” these devices grant us, particularly with regard to interpersonal communication beyond humanscale distances. Without them, we are just meat puppets with very tiny voices, not very much unlike all the meat puppets who have come before us. Before I get all philosophical and start quoting about Cylons, I’ll try to get to a point.

Living full time with a child opens your eyes to the world around you in a way that perhaps only elementary school teachers, apart from parents, know well. Before kids, I tended to think about how mediated or curated my experiences of the world were only for my own sake, but now I am largely responsible for that mediation and curation for another human being…who is even more open and impressionable than my necessarily jaded thinking can probably fully appreciate. There are times we get lost together pouring sand through our fingers or scrutinizing the structure of flower blossoms that I can’t describe in words (without resorting to cheesy poetry).

To sum up a lot of very complicated and specific thoughts on the matter in one awkward fell swoop, I am growing way too uncomfortable with how algorithms and business models (beyond my reach and beyond many people’s comprehension) are shaping the interactions I have (or am even capable of having) with my fellow meat puppets. I’m not preaching doom and gloom or climbing under a tinfoil blanket or anything, but I’m becoming too acutely aware of how messed up this all feels to keep wasting quite so much time playing the videogame of social media with as much fervor. I need to figure out how to become more of a “casual gamer,” and less of an “MMORPG addict,” with regard to these bizarre networks and the unpredictable ways they control how my friends and I stay in contact.

I don’t know what I’m planning to do exactly, but I know that whatever it is I’m going to piss some people off or even worse, just be silently removed from their view by the mystical librarian robots that live inside these services deciding who sees what from who and how often. To an extent that already started when I stopped posting to Facebook years ago and just let it echo my tweets and blog posts, but it’s going to get “worse” (or arguably, better) as I read less, “Like” less, and generally care less about Facebook content even when it’s created by folks I’m genuinely interested in staying in touch with.

Hiking among sagebrush in the middle of nowhere this past week, I think I just hit some kind of personal threshold with this stuff. Maybe it’s because I’m a dad now, maybe it’s because of an impending high school reunion, maybe it’s just because I was momentarily relaxed enough to be more introspective, who knows? All I can say is that when my cell phone finally reacquired a tower when descending towards the Columbia gorge one day, I knew my relationship with technology had changed again. I remember a similarly profound feeling the first time I heard modem tones, or the first time I wrote BASIC code on my parents living room floor in front of a glowing television.

If you don’t hear from me as much in the future, and you happen to have had a chance to read this, by all means, please say hello. I’m probably not ignoring you. In fact, I’d probably love to hear from you…but some machine someplace may just have decided that our knowing each other is not presently of optimal value. Don’t let that cut us off. I’ll do my best too, but remember, it takes at least two people and a certain amount of effort to overrule these kinds of invisible decisions.

Social networking can be amazing, but it can also be insidious…and I find that a certain conversation from Star Trek about root beer and being in an “uncharacteristic mood” comes to mind a lot lately.

*thoughtful*

buying low maintenance, high definition home video

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If you already hate DRM, just skip down to the next boldfaced line…if you’re not even sure why someone would, read on.

If you love movies, and you love being able to watch them at home, it might seem like there’d be no better time to be alive than the present moment. After all, we have affordable high definition widescreen television sets, relatively commonplace access to relatively fast Internet access, and a very large majority of everything you’d like to watch is probably available to instantly stream or download to your living room whenever you’d like via any one of a number of reliable services.

But what about when it isn’t?

Sometimes your broadband Internet connection isn’t exactly feeling “broad” on a given day or at a given time (cough cough cable companies). Sometimes your ISP is straight up broken, or you’re having weird technical issues with this streaming/download service over here, and that streaming/download service over there is working fine…but it doesn’t like the kind of device you have, or the web browser you use, or it doesn’t have the season of that show you’re looking for. Sometimes the title you’re looking for, which isn’t necessarily obscure or unheard of, just isn’t available anywhere online for some stupid reason related to a bunch of executives and lawyers arguing in a far away room, with no concern whatsoever for artists who make things and viewers who crave those things.

For the past two decades or so, many film nerds have excitedly built up impressive libraries at home of tapes or discs containing the stuff they love the most (and have had the hardest time locating) for easy viewing and sharing with friends. These days, though, that era is slowly but surely coming to a close. Laserdiscs, VHS and Betamax are collectibles, DVD sales are waning each year, and while Blu-ray has clearly “won” the high definition battle with HD-DVD it has also clearly lost when it comes to user adoption (most Blu-ray players in people’s homes spend far more hours streaming Netflix or Hulu than they do spinning shiny plastic).

What’s worse, Blu-ray has such a complex and expensive licensing scheme that’s its become something of a gatekeeper as to which movies ever see a home video release in high definition. If you don’t have a monied studio behind you, forget about it. It used to be that an independent filmmaker could find a small local shop to mass produce some DVD copies of their film which they could then self-distribute, like a garage band making their own CD. If you want your movie to look like it was released before the 1990s, you still can. But what if you want viewers to see the same high definition that you shot and edited in?

Virtually all high definition distribution of truly independent cinema (not the stuff put out by the “independent” sub-brands of billion dollar corporations) is now done almost exclusively online. If you don’t like it, oh that’s fine, you can generally still sell or buy a DVD. But that DVD is standard definition, interlaced, and probably requires a lower quality audio track. Doesn’t exactly sound like a reason for someone to eagerly cough up for shipping and wait several days, does it?

So instead you hop online, using your computer or phone-like-device of choice, and your streaming service of choice, and you pay to “rent” or “buy” the indie flick you desire and in mere seconds after supplying your credit card information, there it is…but as a former president once famously said with a straight face, “that depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Thanks to a whole field of pesky technologies collectively known as “Digital Rights Management,” or DRM, your experience might not be as you expect or hope. What if you don’t finish watching that rental within 24 hours? What if your purchase downloads on a computer that your spouse or friend was logged into instead of you? What if your computer gets screwed up, (which lets face it they do on a much more frequent basis than the average VCR or DVD player) and you want to switch to watching the movie on another machine? What if the company that makes your phone or tablet or set top box and the company that sold you the downloadable content don’t like each other, so the content you end up with doesn’t play on your hardware by design?

These sorts of things (doubtlessly you’re thinking of your own additional examples) happen all the #$%* time these days, and generally there’s little to nothing you can do about it.

Unless, of course, you remove the DRM from that content you’ve just downloaded.

Just imagine, then you’d have a nice, standard-format piece of digital media that you could play back on every device you own using any software, move easily between different hard drives, thumb drives, or memory cards, and (perhaps most importantly) back up with all your other important files in a way that’s not dependent on one specific vendor or application to restore it in case of trouble down the road. Now some film distribution companies already offer such options for easy purchase at reasonable prices, no DRM strings attached. Most services, however, don’t…including Apple’s own iTunes Store (which, ironically, does sell DRM-free music by popular demand).

For years I’ve put off making HD video “purchases” myself on the iTunes Store for the simple reason that I don’t want to spend money on something that’s actually less versatile than a Blu-ray disc (and come on folks, that’s a pretty low bar to step over, BDMV is a horribly annoying format). It’s always been fairly simple for me to pop a Blu-ray disc into one of my computers and export a video file that plays on anything I like. For years, I’ve wanted similar software for iTunes Store video purchases, so I could watch my favorite low budget indie productions in glorious high definition, without all the limitations of a nearly-obsolete DVD.

Since Apple started selling video content online, there have been a few periods during which, briefly, you could accomplish such a feat…but only if you knew how to get multiple bits and pieces of code from various places and glue them together (using, often, gross things like Java) and once you’d assembled your Rube Goldberg workflow any number of events could break it (including something as innocuous seeming as an update to iTunes). Plus lots of those little bits of software had a way of occasionally disappearing.

More recently, I’ve discovered TunesKit.

I was excited to find that TunesKit seemed to be everything I’d wanted in a native Mac application for repairing an iTunes video purchase crippled by DRM. It’s small, it’s fast, it’s simple, it has an intuitive user interface, and it promises to export a clean DRM-free version of whatever you buy or rent from Apple without any loss in quality because it’s not re-compressing the content (just stripping out the tiny DRM parts and saving the audio and video streams inside a more standardized manner). If you’re extremely nerdy, you might refer to this as remuxing, as opposed to transcoding. The bottom line is, every single pixel of video and channel of surround sound that goes in, comes out looking and sounding the same. There is no concern about how much “loss” occurs because there is no quality loss in such a process.

But does it really work that way? I decided to download their free trial and give it a shot.

The trial version behaves just like the full version of their software (which costs $46 USD) but with the limitation that processing stops at the five minute mark. I figured that would give me plenty of test media to make up my mind with, and immediately hopped over to the iTunes Store and downloaded an indie documentary I’ve been excited about for months that just came out yesterday. I made sure to configure iTunes to get me the full quality 1080p version, and voila, after verifying my credit card information my file promptly downloaded…to some location inside my iTunes library I could probably never find on my own.

I didn’t have to care about that, because when I fired up iTunesKit, I didn’t have to go find that file at all. Without leaving iTunes, I just dragged and dropped (like, just the movie poster image that you would normally click to play it) from the iTunes window to the iTunesKit window, and up popped the movie with all its details. Then you hit the “Convert” button and wait…but not very long. The process takes only a small fraction of the runtime of the media you’re processing, which was a very good sign (a telltale mark that there’s not some kind of lossy transcoding going on). Oh and if you like, if there are multiple tracks of video or audio or subtitles you can choose which ones to keep…though there’s no reason to exclude anything, unless you’re trying to save diskspace.

The resulting file was, of course, only five minutes long…but what was there was PERFECT.

The resolution was the same, nothing appeared to have been messed with, the surround sound channels were all there, and on playback the image was visually identical to what I saw in iTunes (and yes, as a paranoid freak I totally walked up to the TV and stared at specific patches of certain scenes over and over, back and forth to be sure). This was, in reference to my earlier comparison, exactly the same level of utility I’d gotten used to with ripping my DVD and Blu-ray library.

For my needs and expectations, TunesKit appears to be a solid tool worth its price.

I look at it this way, if someone offered me a little black box that plugged into my Mac and let me do the same thing, would I consider that a reasonable cost? Well yeah, and this is software not hardware…it’s more likely to be rapidly upgraded as Apple’s file formats and operating systems evolve (in fact, they’ve already tested the app on the Yosemite beta). Oh and your license for TunesKit is a “lifetime” one, which means when there are necessary updates, they’ll never charge you for them…and if you do ever have some technical issue that their support folks can’t resolve for you they promise a full refund.

I’m probably going to putting this thing to a lot of use in coming months, and if any unexpected hiccups crop up, I will be sure to return here and let folks know. In the meantime, happy home theatering (with all of your “digital rights” in tact).

*cinephillic*

somewhere over the rainbow, or put a bluebird on it

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“Hey, I can see my house from here!”

This spring is a rather auspicious season around our household. It was just about twenty years ago now that milady and I met, having lunch with mutual friends at a concrete table under a skylight in a suburban Virginian high school. A little over just one year ago, I found myself at this keyboard trying to figure out how to tell all the folks we know that after all our previous crazy adventures (including the birth of our munchkin) and all the places we’d explored across the country together, there was another chapter to come…on an island chain in the middle of the ocean.

So much has happened since then, and I haven’t had many chances to sit down and tell people about much of it, so let me attempt to start catching up. I apologize in advance if this gets a little long, and kind of jumps all over the place…welcome once again to the scattered hypertext that is my internal monologue.

When we first set out on this leg of the great “where are we gonna settle down, wait, are we ever going to settle down?” tour after medical school, I often found myself referring to the experience of west coast living as having been “transformative.” Having spent time in Hawaii now, I feel like there needs to be a more superlative form of that claim. I don’t think I’ve ever lived someplace, or even been someplace, that has had such an impact on how I think, how I live, or how I see what I want out of life.

For most of the past year or so, we’ve lived on a tropical island, and if that weren’t a novel enough experience, we’ve also been doing so as new parents. It’s hard enough to try and put into words how much becoming a dad effects you, let alone how profoundly going through that metamorphosis, in a place like this, has changed the way I see the world. I’m not even sure where to start with the “dad” stuff, so first I’ll focus on the “home” stuff.

For those who have never been here, Oahu is probably the most industrialized (and westernized) bit of paradise you’re likely to find on the planet. Amidst all the waterfalls, rainbows, lush jungle, and rocky cliffs you only need drive an hour or two from any point to find a fast food chain or a big box store or a shopping mall. The thing about a volcanic isle, though, is that because the entire interior is mostly peaks and ridges which defy modern development, the same can be said of how quickly you can turn a corner and find yourself face to face with the untouched, natural, and ancient.

If you’ve ever laid under a starry sky on camping trip, someplace far from light pollution, and felt the shocking humility that comes with staring the milky way in the eye…try to imagine bumping into that exact feeling all the time, every day, for days and days on end. I’ve got to tell you, it never gets old. You never get used to this place. I think, perhaps, there are mainland transplants who stay so heads-down in their old routines and practices that they may notice a lot less, or feel no such overwhelming awe…but that’s arguably more ignorance than comprehension.

I don’t think it’s possible to spend very much time here and not find yourself deeply questioning, well, just about everything…from grand ideas about how man should interact with the planet to the simplest minutiae of your everyday life. You know how some people pay lots of money to float in salty sensory deprivation tanks and (some might say trip out but I’ll be kind and say) meditate for an hour or two now and then? I feel like I do this every time I look out a window or walk down a street. It’s just that intense here. There are endless examples I could cite to explain what I mean but one I often share is that there’s a COSTCO warehouse in a neighborhood down between Diamond Head and Koko Head called Hawaii Kai. Every time I shop there, I make it a point to text someone a photo from their parking lot, captioned something like “this is the parking lot of a COSTCO.” Beyond the familiar red-striped concrete block structure is the bluest, brightest, most astonishing lagoon you’ve probably ever seen (unless maybe you grew up in the Bahamas). It looks like something that was photoshopped for a brochure.

That happens a lot here, by the way. You could very easily leave the HDR mode enabled on your cell phone or the bracketing mode enabled on your camera for days and not notice. Hawaii is a place where real life looks like HDR, all the time.

To get back to my point, though, there’s something about living out here that almost unavoidably forces you into a very introspective sort of mode most of the time. When you’re confronted with such awesome sights continuously, their proximity and immediacy sort of challenge you in a way. It’s like you wake up in the morning, you look out the window next to your shower, and a massive volcanic crater wall covered in impossibly lush jungle flora taunts “so what the hell are you doing with your life?” It’s funny, I catch myself thinking about Oahu a lot as an almost personified, sentient force…and if it wasn’t for Michael Bay and Damon Lindelof ruining the phrase you would probably hear me refer to “the island” as a sort of character in our lives all the time. It’s no surprise to me that native Hawaiians speak so often and so passionately of their relationship with “the ʻĀina” (the land).

Being around all this relentless beauty, on a scale which can make you feel small and even insignificant, also heightens the “contrast” you see every day beyond the visual spectrum. While blessed with unspeakable natural bounty, Oahu is also an all-singing-all-dancing showcase of possibly the worst outcomes of colonialism, blind exceptionalism, poor urban planning, unsustainable growth, and wealth disparity that our country has yet seen. It’s just easy to forget sometimes, because to look around you’re constantly made to feel like you’re in Jurassic Park. In reality, however, of the limited places I’ve traveled I’d say the only region that remotely compares in this respect would be the very edges of the DC suburbs. There, you will often find “the one percent” and the most desperate of the nation’s poor living in neighboring ZIP codes. Here, you will more often find them living on the same block of the same street, on opposite sides of a cinder block wall.

If you know your history, though, this doesn’t come as much of a shock. This is what a gold rush style occupation looks like when it happens on a slim strip of land crammed between mountains and the open sea. It’s like, if you could imagine the daily life of Los Angeles abruptly crammed into a shape thinner than Manhattan. Swirl the collapse of the sugar industry into that mixture along with the economic disaster that befell Japan at the end of the previous century, and you can begin to imagine what “development” looks like (in fact, unless you’re talking about software that’s a pejorative word here). There are parts of the southern and eastern coasts where massive swaths of half-built McMansions sit vacant, and yet median home prices continue to soar even as the population slowly shrinks (no matter how many lanes they add to the highways). Less than a generation ago? Those entire regions were still covered in productive cane fields, which milady lived among as a little girl.

Honolulu is a city of well over a million people without a single walkable neighborhood, which is why we chose a small town on the windward shore as our landing pad for this big experiment…a scant thirty minutes outside the city’s amenities with none of its issues (there are even fewer bugs here). There are aspects of Kailua that are, indeed, idyllic especially for a family. In some respects it’s quite urbanized for its size. For example, I can walk from my front door to several bus stops, no less than five grocery stores (three big chains, two small local markets) and two weekly farmer’s markets as well as strip malls, a large hardware store and even a Macy’s (the only freestanding one I’ve ever seen).

But there are also no sidewalks on most streets…so doing so with a stroller or a baby carrier can be fairly uncomfortable and kind of scary. Half the town is completely devoid of shade, too, because as homes infilled halved and quartered lots, nearly all the native flora was removed, Lorax style. Between breakfast time and the early evening, the sun this close to the equator is no joke even with one of those light blocking parasols some of the wiser tourists carry (yes, I totally have one and it’s awesome). The sad result is that many people here make northern Virginia style trips of less than a mile, over and over again, all day long inside air conditioned Hummers and Range Rovers (and the occasional beat up rusty 80s minivan) while you’re melting, waiting, at an intersection which may or may not have a crosswalk.

Mind you, still, while this happens (if you just look above the single story buildings all around) you’re staring at breathtaking beauty in all directions, and when you cross that intersection you can probably rest in the shade at any one of several sidewalk cafes sipping cold POG and munching a fresh papaya. So keep all this in perspective. Most folks can’t wake up in the morning and say “hey, let’s go rent a kayak to paddle out in between dolphins and sea turtles to the deserted minor islands for a picnic lunch.” In Kailua, that could absolutely be your random Saturday morning during any week of the year (though you might have to surrender your spot to a monk seal).

Over the past year, we’ve learned a great deal about living in the tropics, from how to reorganize your kitchen because you’re just a visitor and the islands are leased from sugar ants, to how to stay cool and sane on a hot day without need of A/C, to how to gather a tasty variety of groceries for your family without breaking the bank (you can seriously cut your bills in half here, if you learn various tricks and methods…just be aware that will still be twice what you’re used to). We’ve also learned a great deal about parenting, probably the most significant of which is that “daycare” is not necessarily a dirty word even when one of you is at home, and there are miraculous and amazing nursery schools out there which will absolutely benefit your child and provide experiences that a single person in a small apartment with a tiny yard below just can’t replicate.

Watching our munchkin grow and change and explore out here has been mind-blowing over the past year (okay now I guess I’m getting to some of the “dad” stuff) and having her with us has been life-changing in ways I don’t think either of us could ever have expected or imagined. I chuckle whenever I think of Tyler Durden quotes now, because the line “the liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perceptions” takes on a whole new meaning as the parent of a mobile toddler. I feel like every day I learn as much from her as she does from me. It’s like having an inquisitive little buddha around all the time that loves to cock her head at you seemingly asking “why?” about a million things you suddenly realize you’ve gone nearly four decades without figuring out a solid answer for. All you can do is laugh and feel humbled, like a physicist trying to do a thorough job of explaining magnetism.

She’s also, incidentally, way better at yoga than I am. I need to stretch more.

The exponential rate at which she questions and learns, though, isn’t just a formidable source of introspection. It’s also a daunting motivator for getting the immediate future in order. So over the past couple of months, in addition to diving on coral reefs and climbing up volcanic crater walls, milady and I have been spending a lot of long nights and long discussions trying to figure out what our next steps are. The “ohana” guest-unit style apartment we’re living in is ample for a temporary vacation home (and we’ve even hosted guests of our own) but sooner or later we’re going to need to go house hunting again. Surveying the island, at considerable detail, regarding neighborhoods and school districts and commute times and climate patterns…it’s a fairly involved task with a lot of variables to weigh.

In the middle of all this planning, we’ve managed to take two trips back to the mainland to see friends and relatives and catch various folks up on all our adventures (apologies if I’ve driven anyone crazy with all the photos) and along the way we’ve struck upon the first truly insurmountable challenge to this entire expedition.

The sheer distance between the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the east coast of the mainland is not easily surmounted, even in the jet age, especially with children.

Parents can’t, after all, just sleep and watch some movies when there are literally mouths to feed, let alone inquisitive small minds to keep occupied. This challenge poses a significant obstacle, of course, not only to us but also many with keiki of their own who would otherwise want to visit (and the nature of families being what it is, over time that’s a larger and larger portion of our loved ones). Obviously, it’s not something that went unconsidered during the planning stages of such an adventure, but until you’ve really experienced it…I think we just honestly didn’t stretch our imaginations enough pondering how massive of a pain in the ass it would be.

Even the considerable financial costs are somewhat irrelevant when you face up against the sheer time involved (both in actual transit, and in disruptive time warp recovery and the packing/unpacking of entirely unrelated wardrobes). While you can get inventive in all sorts of ways about money, you just can’t “make” more time. In the past few months alone we’ve already missed a wedding and a funeral (seriously, as trite as that sounds) that meant a great deal to us just because of scheduling impossibility. What time we have been able to spend with loved ones back east has felt rushed and compressed, and the unfortunate side effect of having limited travel capability is whatever vacation you do spend off island, a combination of both spoken and unspoken expectation hangs in the air that those days are best spent catching up with folks rather than exploring new territory or just relaxing. Like an overtasked work week, your year starts to feel like a series of rushed encounters with a variety of wonderful people all of whom are somewhat surprised that “you have to go already?”

We’re pretty practical folks, so we started brainstorming ways that we could manage time differently, prioritize things differently, and spend more time with distant loved ones all while maintaining a home in a neighborhood on Oahu that meets all our lifestyle preferences. It looked like it could be possible, but with a lot of sacrifices and caveats. Then an interesting thing happened. While pondering career shifts that could, in fact, afford more time for these kinds of things, an opportunity presented itself from an unexpected source…an opportunity with more rewards and a lighter workload and even a somewhat less stressful work environment! What could possibly be complicated about that?

Well, it’s back in Portland…which is conveniently halfway between here and the east coast, and is only our absolute favorite place on the entire mainland.

So it may surprise some of you, and totally not surprise others, that after all the logistical madness of getting all the way out here, later this summer we’re returning to the hipster rainforest to feather a nest and establish a (yes, for really reals) permanent home base from which to stage all our further adventures as a family.

But wait, hold on, if you’re freaking out…just sit tight and bear with me. I could go into all sorts of details about the job and how excited we are and the zillion reasons why this is awesome but instead let me address the lump in anyone’s throat who’s going “NOOOOO I WAS GONNA VISIT YOU GUYS IN HAWAII AND JUST DIDN’T GET THERE YET,” be calm my friends. Unclench your raised fist, open your hand into a shaka, and wave it happily as you read on! One of the numerous considerations we poured over in making this decision was that we are just as much in love with the islands as your own imagination might be, and Hawaii has become an integral part of our lives and will continue to be such even if we won’t be waking up here every single morning.

To that end, all of our long range planning around this Pacific Northwest decision incorporates the expectation that as often as possible (especially during the years that kids will be growing up) we’d like to continue to do “beach week” style vacations on the east coast (OBX, Rehoboth, Myrtle, etc) and Hawaiian adventures in some form out here (or on the big island, or who knows maybe even Maui) every year. The point being, either way, we’ll be doing our traditional thing of renting a big fun place with extra bedrooms and inviting others to join. So if you’re worried about losing your future crash space among the breezy coconut palms, relax. Without going into too many details, the proportions involved with income and cost-of-living on the mainland are so dramatically different that this way we will actually be able to subsidize more fun vacation time with our peeps, not less. In fact, thanks to fewer shifts, significantly increased job flexibility, and locum tenens possibilities, some of those adventures might even be extended “summer vacation” style affairs (perfect for munchkins). The fact is, being located between both destinations and within easy visiting distance to the bay area, we’re probably going to see all of you more often than we have in years. So be careful what you wish for!

I’ve scribbled well beyond the attention span that should be fairly demanded of any blog reader at this point, so I’m going to take a break. Many more updates and thoughts about all this to share, and I’ll do so in other posts soon. In the meantime, best wishes from the “Pacific Southwest” and remember…aloha is a state of mind.

*a hui ho*

taking radio shack behind the woodshed

armatronI had to start this post with the above image so that I would have it staring back at me while I write, stirring up childhood memories and allowing me to experience the wonder and gratitude I want to recollect…because let’s face it folks, the disaster currently facing Radio Shack is as completely unsurprising as it is perhaps deserved.

If you watched the Super Bowl this year, or even just the commercials, you probably saw this…

…which is, on its own, probably my favorite geek-related piece of on air advertising since, ironically, the actual 1980s.

Radio Shack, which kids know today as a cell phone store that also carries a small variety of outdated electronics, overpriced cheaply made toys, and batteries for things called “wristwatches” (?) was once my absolute favorite place in the universe…and that was saying a lot considering that in a strip mall not far from my where my mom worked there was a Toys Я Us and a Chuck E. Cheese right next to each other. In fact, I grew up in a town with not one but two theme parks! But none of that could compare to Radio Shack.

It’s probably hard for someone from the always-online generation to understand this, but when I was young I actually coveted the Radio Shack catalog itself. You could probably argue that throughout my adolescence, it was my favorite book. I certainly spent more time staring at it than any textbook or novel. From humble switches, resistors, and soldering gear to the most cutting edge of “high tech” computer hardware, just about anything that captured my imagination could be found within its pages. That’s saying something too, considering that its rival for my affections, the Sears Wish Book, contained videogames and LEGO sets.

But here’s the thing, at Radio Shack back then, you could find everything you needed, including the knowledge, to program your own videogames. Today, they’d like you to come back and give them a second chance, and maybe gawk at a 3D printer that can build your own LEGO pieces. Well, I wish them luck with that.

Their “Do It Together” rebranding campaign, a play on the “Do It Yourself” mantra, aims to sell twenty-first century young people on the idea that somewhere between ideas like those in Make Magazine and your local hackerspace, there’s a dreamy brick and mortar store full of amazing equipment and educated staff who can help them turn their visions into reality. Is that true? Well, it’s probably true, even after closing more than a thousand of their stores, most folks (especially in flyover country) still have better access to a Radio Shack than a public workspace where friendly hackers hang out. I’m skeptical, though, of the human side of this promise. After all, if not for human interaction, why ride your bike or bug your parents to take you someplace when your web browser can mail order anything you can think of?

Where exactly is Radio Shack going to find a staff of employees who even approach the level of know-how, experience, and “gives a damn” that staffed their stores of yesteryear?

Maybe all this self-reinvention hoopla is making some of their shareholders feel better for the time being, but personally I remain unconvinced and without much hope for the future of the “electronics store.” I think near major urban centers sure, awesome places like Fry’s will probably always exist (teetering ever on the very cliff face of thin profit margins) but for the rest of the country, there’s more likely only a Best Buy (teetering ever on the very limits of what can be considered legal in ripoffs, customer disservice, and general douchebaggery). If Radio Shack is going to pull off a renaissance, they’re going to need to do better than putting bored teens who got fed up working at Gamestop into red polo shirts. They’re going to need some real geeks, including some folks who at least remember HAM radio and Ohm’s Law.

Something tells me that retired engineers and kids savvy enough to make YouTube rants into a job aren’t going to be interested in minimum wage.

I would love to be wrong though, after all, the store they’re claiming to want to be could be someplace I’d love to take my daughter someday…and more importantly there are millions of other kids whose lives could take a serious turn for the better if something so inspirational were a quick glance across from Claire’s Boutique or LIDS. But I’m really not sure that’s meant to be.

Prove me wrong, Radio Shack. The brilliant and unchallenged kids of the next generation are looking to you, out the windows of their parents’ vehicles in the strip mall parking lot. What are you prepared to do, to make them look up from their smartphones?

*harumph*

the most amazing song about chocolate, ever

babymetalThis is “babymetal.” Wait, is that the name of a mindbending mashup genre of music, or a group of performers?

Yes.

Metal Hammer describes this as “somewhere between I Killed The Prom QueenSlayer and a bonkers and slightly unnerving anime cartoon.” That’s a reasonably close estimation, I have to say, but you really just need to play the video. Now. Do it now, and whatever you do don’t stop before forty-five seconds or so…

If this is not somehow involved with a Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino movie in the forseeable future, I will be profoundly disappointed with the universe.

*amazed*

how to spend a week or so in paradise

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Over the course of the next few months, we have a number of folks coming to stay with us and rather than send out a bunch of e-mails, I thought I might put a little travel guide up here in case it were ever useful to someone else. Bear in mind, these parties involve grandparents, pregnancy, and small children so there’s no hiking or cliff diving or very adventurous stuff included (of which obviously Hawaii has plenty of, so by all means search elsewhere for such information). There’s also a ton more stuff to do around Oahu if you’re going to be around for an extended period of time, so just consider this a compressed “greatest hits” compilation.

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The most essential thing to do when visiting Hawaii is, for at least a couple days, relax at a beach and do almost nothing at all. Therefore I’ll start with the beaches of Oahu. There are more than a dozen of them, so I’ll just describe what I consider the “essentials.” For general touristy kinds of stuff, obviously Waikiki is where it’s at. It’s crowded by Hawaiian standards, but if you’ve been to the OBX or any east coast resort regions you’ll laugh at what that means (thank goodness). There’s lots of shopping, food, and amenities right by the beach. The surf is just tall enough to ride, but not tall enough to be scared of, and the bottom is mostly soft sand with occasional rocks. This is the option that’s most immediately walkable from big city Honolulu activities, if that’s what you’re in the mood for on a given day. You can also wade in the Hilton Lagoon, recognizable from every film and TV show ever shot here.

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For the complete opposite experience from the big city, Lanikai is as serene as it gets. No noise, few people, flat water, soft sand, perfect for splashing babies or reading a book. There is also a ton of coral and sea life close to shore for even the most unskilled snorkeler to enjoy. However there are no amenities at all, it’s just a strip of sand between luxury homes and the sea so you’ll need to bring water, snacks, etc. and take care of any “business” before leaving (fortunately it’s also minutes from our place). Also be aware there is very little natural shade! Best suited for half-days or as a launching spot to paddle out to Na Mokulua. Do not forget sunblock, especially during the middle of the day.

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Kailua beach park sort of splits the difference between these extremes and is in my very humble opinion (we did choose to live near it for a reason) the “best” all around beach in the state. The surf is almost as calm as Lanikai’s, but behind the sand you have dense shady trees and green grassy spaces with picnic tables. Within very short walking distance you can rent a kayak, eat a meal, find restrooms and freshwater showers, and parking isn’t difficult especially in the morning. The trade winds often blow strongly into the bay, so you may witness some amazing kite surfing acrobatics and you may also want to bring sleeves at early or late hours.

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North Shore surf is the stuff of magazine covers and National Geographic posters, and you can’t visit Oahu without getting a glimpse of it at least once. The really spectacular heights are occasional and mostly in winter, but all year long the pipeline is pretty scenic and worth a visit. Be prepared though, much like the barrier islands of the east coast there’s one road in and out…so water and supplies and patience are a good idea. It probably goes without saying, but you won’t be swimming here. There are absolutely zero crowds on the sand though, so you can lounge about as much as you like (and if you intend to photograph the breaks, you’ll need a long lens). The drive from Kailua takes about an hour by freeway, or roughly twice that long by driving a scenic route along the coast (and yes, you can easily take one way out and come back the other).

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When not frolicking in, or next to, the water, a lot of visitors to the island like to shop (or hey, at least browse, right?). While the Ala Moana Center in downtown Honolulu is pretty amazing and does feature a few interesting and unique stores, if you’re looking for specifically Hawaiian-themed and/or Hawaiian-made items rather than national brands you’ll probably be quite satisfied by the Kailua Town shopping center nearby. If you do want to head into the city though, I would say skip the mall madness and check out Hilo Hattie where there’s tons of island gifts, clothing, and souvenirs all in one huge store with no extraneous stuff (they even have their own snack bar, a-la IKEA but with way better soft serve). Their flagship store in Honolulu is also the last place you’ll find anything like the shopping experience that once existed in the downtown International Marketplace which was heartbreakingly shut down this year to be replaced by more mall stores.

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Sometimes, you need a break from swimming and shopping and Oahu is packed with amazing arts and cultural experiences, which are also excellent cloudy/rainy day alternatives. Iolani Palace is an absolute must-see, even if all you do is stop by to walk the grounds (which are free to the public). If you have a little time however, you can thoroughly tour the palace either on your own or led by a docent, and your ticket includes a short documentary film about the building’s history and the opportunity to browse the galleries in its basement. If you know little to nothing of Hawaiian history, this is absolutely the place to start. If you’re more interested after that and want to take a deeper dive, the Bishop Museum (also in Honolulu) is Hawaii’s world class history and science center and you can easily spend a day in there. Near both of these are the restored Mission Houses, and last but certainly not least there is the Honolulu Museum of Art which includes the Doris Duke Theater (the state’s only arthouse screen, dedicated to films you won’t find at a multiplex).

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Beyond downtown, there are three more remote locations worth a visit if you’re on a historical kick…one overlooking and two contained within Pearl Harbor. High above the city of Honolulu and atop the “Punchbowl” volcanic crater sits the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which might sound like a bit dour of a destination until you understand that this is what the view looks like from up there. There’s no admission charge or anything, and even if you just stay for a few moments before driving back down, you’ll be glad you made the trip. On a related note, to the west (or “leeward”) of the city you can visit both the USS Arizona and USS Missouri which each incorporate museums and war memorials. Returning to the eastern (or “windward”) side of the island you can also stop along the Pali Highway at the lookout, which affords an amazing vantage point above Kaneohe Bay.

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When you’re in the mood for taking in more natural beauty, but without getting your feet wet (or particularly tired) there are also a number of spots around Oahu worth stopping for a little while and taking in the scenery. Right here in Kailua, the Kawainui Marsh is a protected expanse of wetlands between our town (actually, the end of our block) and the mountains, affording you a completely unobstructed view of the Koolau Range formed by the walls of the volcanic crater in which we live. Driving along the Kamehameha Highway to the north or south there are many gorgeous landmarks to stop at, of which I would recommend at least seeing Chinaman’s Hat and the Halona Blowhole. Along the way you may also recognize the Makai Research Pier as the Island Hoppers helicopter base from a certain TV show about moustaches and Ferraris. You’ll also find lots of little pullovers and “scenic viewpoints” all along the road, which are opportune for photographs, a brief rest, diaper changes, or whatever. In either direction, the highway eventually meets up with the larger freeway system, so you don’t need to wind your way all the way back the way you came if you’d rather explore elsewhere.

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Finally, there are two more Oahu experiences that I’d like to recommend which don’t fall exactly into any of the above groupings, but are amazing because they involve not just sand and surf but going beneath the ocean to visit Hawaii’s amazing underwater scenery and wildlife. If you don’t mind getting wet, snorkeling takes even less effort than swimming and requires none of the advanced training or equipment that scuba entails. You don’t even need a boat, because in Hawaii there are incredible underwater views to be found right off the beach. You can rent gear very cheaply at a number of places right here in town, and while aforementioned Kailua and Lanikai beaches afford pretty amazing coral reefs and friends of Nemo to float over, the most spectacular snorkeling Oahu has to offer is to be had in Hanauma Bay. Now this place is no secret, and because of its fragile nature it’s strictly protected…parking is extremely limited and once the lot fills up it’s closed for the day (so go first thing in the morning). Another tip is that once a week, on Tuesday, all access to the bay is restricted to allow the wildlife to settle and recover somewhat from all their human visitors…so Wednesday mornings are the very best time to go if you can.

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Last but absolutely not least, we come to one of the most unique opportunities you’re ever likely to find on a vacation. When visiting Oahu, you can actually explore the sea floor (over a hundred feet down) without even getting your toes wet because operating just off Honolulu’s shores happens to be the largest and most advanced civillian submarine on the planet, the Atlantis XIV. The tickets aren’t cheap, but I would put this experience well above any broadway show or football game you’re ever likely to attend so take that for what it’s worth…the route includes multiple natural and artificial reefs, shipwrecks, and even a crashed airplane (insert various LOST references here) and the cruises last about ninety minutes. These generally book up beforehand, so a phone call or a web site visit may be in order for planning purposes. They leave from a dock at the Hilton Hawaiian Village (and yes, they validate your parking which is always important to note in Waikiki).

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That covers a lot of the fun stuff to do, and of course, I could go on and on forever about food…you know I love to eat and Oahu is full of wonderful restaurants at which to do so. So many, in fact, that it wouldn’t really make sense to try and list even a modest number of favorites (really, I just tried, and it’s a bit like food carts in Portland, there’s a reason people have written entire books on the subject). Suffice to say, on any given day, along any given route and near any given destination, we can help with suggestions based on your preferences and you won’t be disappointed. I won’t let anyone leave without trying a Dole Whip though, I’ll just say that right now. Missing that…would be like landing at the airport without receiving a lei!

Okay, that was a lot of typing, I need some POG. See some of you soon, in Hawaii!

*aloha*