Single Guy Goes Out on a Date

Yeah so before I talk about Vegas or the Philippines, I wanted to just quickly recap an event that took place a little after Christmas.

Now I’ve mentioned very briefly here before that there is a certain sushi restaurant in my town that I frequent…quite regularly, and it isn’t always because they have the best and freshest fish in town. Although to be honest, they do. Actually the first time I went, I decided to stay just a little bit longer because of the very cute waitress, the owner’s daughter. Over the next couple months I became a regular, and I got to know the owner and the owner’s family pretty well. The owner, her father, took a particular liking to me, and often even if she wasn’t there, I’d stay and chat for a bit with him. He’d tell me stories of his travels, having worked as a chef in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and even more abroad.

Two years ago she left to join the US military as an army mechanic. Since then I’ve still maintained my regular status at the sushi restaurant, getting closer with her parents and enjoying the conversation and of course, the sushi. I even got to meet their eldest daughter when she stayed and visited for a time. She lives in Seoul, and we even exchanged contact info so if I’m ever in Korea to visit we could meet up and she could show me around. Well I’ll admit, more often than not the conversation with the father inevitably ends up around his daughter, the one I’ve been seriously crushing on, and he would always ask to find out if I was single and looking. Around November was the first time I could actually answer that a) yes I was single and b) I was actually starting to look again. And wouldn’t you know it, his daughter just happened to be planning on spending a couple weeks around Christmas back at home on leave.

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So here I am on the 23rd of December and I’ve got this freshly baked cheesecake to deliver to them as a Christmas present and oh wow, would you look at that, their very cute very sweet daughter happens to be back from duty and looking mighty bored. It’s actually quite funny how much her father is absolutely not trying to hide how pleased he is to be trying to set me up with his poor unsuspecting daughter. Before I know it he’s made two sushi rolls and put a plate in front of myself and her and is ushering me to sit down and spend some time. So we get to chatting and I’m hearing all about her experiences in the motor pool. I’m amazed and in disbelief that this quiet tiny girl is responsible for the care and maintenance of some of the mightiest pieces of metal and machinery in the US army. She’s telling me about how she almost got stuck underneath a giant tire that she was trying to change and how she can simply reach/crawl into parts of the giant vehicles that would require other mechanics special equipment to get to and best of all, how she ended up becoming a certified marksman despite the fact that she can’t load the .50 cal without the help of her spotter. Somewhere in between my fifth piece of sushi and the story of how she ended up being the Korean translator for her squad mates at a civilian hospital when one of them got way too drunk to bring back to camp I realize, the conversation is going really well, it seems like we’re both having a good time, and I’ve been at the restaurant talking to her for the past hour.

So I finally work up the courage and figure, why not actually ask her out on an actual date, where we can have a conversation without her father leaning over the sushi counter with a giant unabashed grin. I ask her if she’s free sometime after Christmas, we settle on the 26th, bada bing bada boom, it’s all set and I go home with a belly full of sushi and a heart full of hope.

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26th I arrive at the restaurant to pick her up (convenient that her and her family live in the apartment above the restaurant) and we’re off. First good sign is that she cannot stop telling me how much she loved the cheesecake I brought. I present her with the option of going to see a movie or playing some pool since I remember from way way back before she deployed that this was something we had in common. She chooses movie. We see Ferdinand, this generic animated kids movie about a bull who, shocker, doesn’t want to charge and maim others. It’s you know, simple, safe, but she chose it and she got some good laughs out of it so, you know, it is what it is. The movie ends a bit earlier than I thought it would, so we head to the dinner spot I chose sooner than anticipated. So soon, in fact, that the restaurant isn’t even open yet, and my sudden presence at the door actually jolts the staff inside sitting down to their shared meal before they open for the evening. Oops, sorry. Recovering from the minor setback, luckily there’s a nearby bar where we can at least grab a pint and wait for all this to blow over.

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So here’s where the story takes a turn for the…unfortunate. Maybe it’s the liquid courage of the seasonal brew on tap but my date, who has for the most part of the evening been responsive, receptive, and relaxed, suddenly tenses up and says she has something to tell me. Something, mind you, that has been on the back of my mind for quite some time and comes to no surprise to me at all. ‘Jerel, I have a boyfriend.’ Which of course answers the question I’ve been wondering for the past two years and even more so ever since I’ve gotten the chance to spend more time with her, ‘how can someone like her still be single?’ Turns out her well-meaning but oblivious father has been enthusiastically and emphatically trying to promote me to her while ignoring the clear signals that she met someone at base. His two worst offenses? Not being Asian (read: white), and being in the military. I’ve been sent to run interference on a match her, again, well meaning but ill advised, parents, disapprove of.

In a ways I’m flattered, because normally you get the girl and then gotta win over the parents. It’s nice to know had things worked out differently I was already in their favor. But relationships are tricky, difficult things. And with her being re-stationed in Texas and him staying at the base where they met in Korea, long-distance relationships are even more of a strain on the heart. Love and relationships are difficult enough without someone trying to drive a wedge between two good people doing their best at making a run of it. And I’m not going to be that wedge. Which is exactly what I tell her. She sighs in relief, and even knowing the reality, the truth, the dim chance of this ever becoming something, I suggest we go and have that dinner, finish the date that really isn’t a date. We finish our beers, head on over to the restaurant, and have a nice meal. It’s her first time having yakitori (Japanese BBQ) and I enjoy playing gourmand guide, ordering various skewers and having her try different things while we just chat and laugh and share over food and a few lemon sours.

Before I drop her off for the night she asks me to keep her boyfriend a secret, and I in turn ask her to find a reason for why the two of us shan’t ever be that doesn’t jeopardize my good standing with her father and all the freebies he always gives me whenever I come in to dine. We come to a mutual agreement and understanding. We get back, I walk her back into the restaurant where her parents are, I stay and chat with them for a bit, and then go back out into the world with one less source of hope.

I learned a few things that night. Like how important it is to check the operating hours of restaurants. And just how lonely I’ve been these past two years. It’s when I’m presented with the alternative, the possibility of what life could be, that I realize how much I am missing out on. And I don’t mean that in the desperate, ‘I need a girl’ tone I might have had before all this. I mean that in that ‘it really is time to open up to new possibilities and see the world for more than what you can do and see on your own’. I will admit my heart sank further than I remember it could in a long time after hearing about her boyfriend. It showed me how much more room there is in my heart to fill. Don’t get me wrong, I have been, these past two years, overall exceedingly happy and content with my life. So happy and so content in fact, that it is the level of happiness I can already feel on my own that spurns me on to want love again because if I can be like this on my own, I can only imagine what it would be like to find someone to share with again.

But most importantly, I learned that if a father wants you to go out with his daughter, you make him swear first that she’s actually single.

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Single Guy Does Music Mondays: ‘Manila’ by Hotdog

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Just two weeks after getting back from Las Vegas I found myself packing once more, this time for the Philippines, where I’ve been for the past two and a half weeks. A month from now I’ll be packing yet again for my first experience travelling to Korea. Three very different cities in the span of just three months, each with their own unique and fascinating stories to tell. Stories of extravagance limited only by one’s own imagination, immense progress, and of course, the ever-enduring strength of family and love.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the Philippines, land of my ancestors. I’ve been content to be immensely proud of my heritage from a comfortable distance, keeping numbers of years in between each visit (my last trip being seven years ago). This was however, perhaps the first time I’ve been able to sit down and reflect and investigate what it is about Manila that just wouldn’t let me call it ‘home’. This was perhaps the first time, since I was six and traveled to the Philippines for the very first time ever, that I caught a glimpse of what could make me love Manila once more.

In the coming days and weeks I’ll explore this more in detail, but until then, I wanted to share this song about the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, a song, as its writer will explain, is more for the vast numbers of Filipinos outside of the Philippines, yearning for their home. For the city that has always held its arms out for all the sons and daughters of the Philippines, no matter where they come from or what shore they call home.

Single Guy Says, ‘Saudade’

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When it comes to the full range of the complexity, depth, and range of the human experience, there are just some things English cannot satisfyingly express. Some things are negligible, though nice to have words or expressions for when the situation arises. Like the Japanese term ‘bakku-shan‘, which is what you would call someone who is very attractive from behind but is ugly in front. As in, ‘don’t get your hopes up, that girl over there is a complete bakku-shan, wait until she turns around’. Tragic. Others are so culturally specific it might be hard for others on the outside looking in to grasp. Like trying to explain to my friends what ‘papak‘ is, but how can you explain the term for eating something that is supposed to be eaten with rice without rice when my friends usually eat without rice in the first place? Or trying to complain that American bars have no good ‘pulutan‘, or food that is meant to be had with drinks? Some of the best Filipino foods are these ‘pulutan‘ dishes that just have certain characteristics that scream ‘eat me with a cold beer’. Then there are the deeply complex and emotional terms, like the Danish word ‘hygge‘ that expresses a profoundly peaceful state absent of emotion or complication, a source of gentleness and soothing.

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Saudade‘ is one of the latter, a word in Portuguese and Galician that captures a very specific and yet universal form of longing. Sometimes for something or someone we’ve lost, sometimes for something or someone we never even had or even knew existed. It is an emotion we have almost all felt, but only those familiar with ‘saudade‘ could accurately describe and therefore, celebrate and even chase after. There are many ways to try and explain ‘saudade‘, but each effort to try and pin it down feels like trying to capture a butterfly only to kill it and mount it onto a frame. It’s only beautiful when it’s alive. As in, when you experience it for yourself. Some expressions come pretty close though. ‘Saudade‘ has been described as ‘memory of something with a desire for it’, or others have called it ‘a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy’. It is the immense weight of longing paired with the deep gratitude of having had it once before. A moment’s recollection when emptiness, appreciation, and yearning happen all at once.

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I am sure we have all had certain moments where longing for something that is no longer there or missing something that was never there to begin with have in turn affected how we felt about situations, experiences, or people. It’s like a cavity only the dentist forgets to fill it in afterwards, and when you run your tongue along your tooth you can ‘feel’ the emptiness left behind. But, and this is the bittersweet medicine of it all, I don’t believe ‘saudade‘ to be an inherently negative emotion or experience. I believe what makes a moment, an experience, a person, a place, a thing filled with ‘saudade‘ is the implied gratitude, the deep appreciation for being blessed with the realization that there is more to what is already here, what we already have, and the tinge of hope that we might yet find it again or discover it for the very first time. That’s what makes pain something beautiful, what paints longing with appreciation. It is in the very slight tinges of bright color that we dot even the bleakest memories and thoughts. To know and understand and experience ‘saudade‘, we must by definition first realize that there is something great that is missing. For some, we know this because we had it once before and we lost it. Love, romantic love missing the embrace of someone special, or familial love, longing for relatives gone or missing, is an example of this. Or, it could be that we know in the depths of our soul that we are missing something we never had to begin with. Passion, creation, the call to a greatness that would break the static of our landscape, could still be considered ‘saudade‘. It is to know what it is we are missing, what prevents the ‘wholeness’ the ‘completeness’ of our being, to relish in the melancholy of longing that we are fortunate enough to feel and appreciate because we were so blessed at one point to have felt it before, and to be armed with that painful passion, that uplifting burden of loss, to pursue it once again. You left me, and I miss you, and I know I can only feel this deep chasm of longing and emptiness because it was once filled with your love, and though you are gone and I can never have you again, I am happy to know how much I can be filled with love, and I chase now not you, but love.

Single Guy Does Music Mondays: ‘Rio de Janeiro Blue’ by Freddy Cole

Compared to his older brother, the legendary Nat King Cole, Freddy Cole is much more laid back with a rough gravelly voice that is perfect for jazz and blues. Which is why I love his cover of ‘Rio de Janeiro Blue’ which was first written and performed by Richard Torrance in 1977. It’s got just that right balance of sophisticated slick smoothness that makes it great ‘turn down the lights, baby’ music. Hahah. But the real reason why I chose this song is because of the end, when Cole keeps repeating this Portuguese word, ‘saudade‘. ‘Saudade‘. Before this song, I had never come across this word, this expression, this (as I later found out) complicated to capture emotion. The emotion of ‘saudade‘.

Now, maybe you’ll be curious and you’ll want to just Google the term for yourself to find out what it means. If like me this was your first time hearing this word you might be tempted to look it up. But, if you’re able to resist the urge, it is a tradition in Brazil to celebrate the feeling of ‘saudade‘ on January 30th, which happens to be tomorrow. And I wanted to introduce this song today so that tomorrow I could write about ‘saudade‘ means to so many people and of course, what it means to me. So if you can manage to stifle your curiosity and maybe just listen to this song once, twice, or even thrice, to get an idea, an inkling, a feel for what you think ‘saudade‘ might mean, we can investigate it and discover it, tomorrow, together.

Here are the lyrics to help you get started.

Rio de Janeiro Blue
The clouds come-a creepin’ and you got me weepin’ this moment
I can’t believe you’re really gonna leave this town.
Everyone knows, I can’t make a move without you
your turnin’ my whole world, upside-down.
And I get a feelin’ that I’ve seen the last of you, Rio de Janeiro Blue
The salty air, your wind-blown hair, reflection on a dream.
Thoughts of you with who knows who, flowin’ through me like a stream.
Brazilian serenaders, linger on
help me lose my soul, in your song.
And I get a feelin’, that I’ve seen that last of you, Rio de Janeiro Blue.
Months go by, I wonder why, I’m left here on my own.
Could it be my destiny, is to live this life alone?
These dark and rainy days have turned me cold
Long and sleepless nights, gettin’ old.
And I get a feelin’ that I’ve seen the last of you, Rio de Janeiro Blue.
Rio. Rio. Rio.
Saudade. Saudade. Saudade.

Single Guy Tries Making Katsudon and Tonkatsu

Thanks everyone for your kind words of condolence. Much better now and glad to just be trying to gain back some semblance of normal and routine as life marches ever forward.

Speaking of forward, I know this is exceptionally tardy but I wanted to share with you all pictures and stories from way back in November when my cousin stayed at my family’s home over winter break and I decided to use the opportunity to cook together. My first ever attempt at making some of my favorite Japanese ‘comfort foods’, crispy tonkatsu and rich katsudon.

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My cousin and I toasting before we start cooking

It’s almost unbelievable to think it’s already been ~4 years since my cousin arrived to begin her Master’s at the esteemed Juilliard School. Having her so nearby all this time has been an incredible opportunity for the two of us to get to really know each other, spending many nights and afternoons talking, sharing, and exploring New York and New Jersey. But one of my favorite experiences with her has been helping her learn how to cook. I remember one time going into the city and meeting up with my cousin to go grocery shopping and then make a full meal from scratch in her apartment. So it seemed only natural that, given the time we had over the holidays, I’d want to have another night for the two of us to cook and bond.

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My cousin and I standing proudly in front of our work

This was going to be quite the special occasion for a number of reasons. For one, it was the quality of the ingredients being used, which I’ll discuss more later. For two, it was two days before Christmas and we were all getting into the festive spirit. And last but not least, this would be a rather large undertaking (a meal for six people with three different side dishes and two selections of entrees). For the most part up until now, these cooking experiences with my cousin were simple dishes meant to highlight fast weekday casual meals and simple preparations for easy home cooking. And for the most part we had disparate roles, more like teacher and student than chef and sous chef. But it had been four years, my cousin has in that time become a skilled and confident kitchen presence, and so this was our first opportunity to both really take charge and take equal roles.

The theme of the night’s dinner was Japanese comfort food, and I wanted to really focus Wakame Saladon the incredibly delicious and satisfying, deceptively simple looking yet complex in flavor, home meals. For sides we prepared shrimp and seafood gyoza, pork gyoza, and a wakame salad with slices of octopus, tobiko, and toasted sesame seeds. The wakame is a variety of seaweed with a firm chewy texture and slightly sweet flavor. You can find it sold in dried strips in Asian markets, and we first rehydrated and plumped them back up with a mixture of water and seasoned Japanese vinegar. I mixed the wakame with thin slices of cucumber that also slightly pickled in the vinegar Gyozamixture, then garnished with slices of boiled octopus, toasted sesame seeds, and tobiko, bright orange flying fish roe with a wonderfully sweet and salty taste that bursts in your mouth. The key to good gyoza (dumplings) is in the balance of steaming them to delicate doneness while frying the bottoms just enough to add crispiness and a slight crust. My cousin was entirely in charge of watching the gyoza, steaming them at first and then, once the water was all evaporated, frying the bottoms to a nice crispiness and creating the gyoza dipping sauce with a blend of soy sauce, sesame oil, and Japanese chili oil.

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But the real star (I mean aside from my cousin and I of course) of the night was the incredible Berkshire pork loin I brought home from my local Japanese grocery store. For those of you who might not be familiar with Berkshire pork, consider it the Kobe version of the other white meat. Berkshire pigs are a prized breed from England and are pretty Tonkatsu 2.jpgrare. They have an incredibly tender, juicy, and fatty meat with a large amount of marbling that makes it just oh so perfect for frying in high temperature without risk of drying up or becoming tough. Instead it remains tender, moist, and retains so much of its incredible fat and flavor. I would be preparing the pork pretty much the same way but then finishing it in very different styles. The pork I pounded with a mallet just a bit to break up the fibers and further tenderize the meat, then a standard flour, egg, and dip into Japanese panko breadcrumbs flavored with honey. I then deep fried the thick cuts of juicy pork until GBD. Golden brown and delicious. The much coarser style of Japanese breadcrumbs created a beautifully rugged and jagged surface area that crisped and made a satisfyinglyKatsudon 2 loud crunch when I cut into it and the meat inside was perfectly done. The first preparation, tonkatsu, was to serve it sliced right out of the fryer on top of a bed of shredded lettuce alongside a homemade tonkatsu sauce that I made with freshly ground sesame seeds, chili flakes, and a thicker Japanese sauce similar to Worcestershire. This meal is especially popular with students around exam season, as ‘katsu’ in Japanese means ‘to win’, so it’s eaten for good luck. My brother, aunt, and father had it prepared this way. My mother, cousin, and I had it a different way, which is my favorite way to also have grilled eel. After the pork is fried and sliced, I place it in a shallow pan with onions simmering in a broth of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, and dashi broth and then pour an egg on top, cooking it til just barely done, then putting it all over rice with a lot of mistuba, or Japanese parsley. The flavorful simmering liquid soaks into the rice and the still runny egg adds a layer of richness and creaminess.

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You should have seen it. My cousin and I moved around that kitchen like a well-oiled professional machine. We finished everything in an hour and a half, and that’s with me finishing a growler of beer and my cousin almost completely downing a bottle of wine on her own. Because drunk cooking is the best kind of cooking and the most fun way of cooking. The constant motion, the sounds and smells, the intense concentration and sense of purpose, it was a great night. And the food? Tasted better than the pictures. But honestly, that’s not the pork, or even the chefs. That’s just plenty of good old-fashioned love.

In Loving Memory, Aida M. de Vera

There is a lot of catching up to do, and I think the best way to start is with the most recent events. It’s been hard to get back into the regular flow of things for the past week. The weather here on the East Coast two weeks ago, with its strangely named ‘bomb cyclone’, meant that all the snow and ice canceled our flight back home from Vegas. Of all the cities in the world to be ‘stranded’ in, Las Vegas would definitely not be the worst, but there were some difficulties getting a hotel room last minute, complications with extending the car rental, and concern over how when we did get back we’d be able to get into our house without anyone around to clear the two feet of snow and thick slush that had definitely piled up.

The night we finally returned we were hoping to just pick up and recover from the two extra days we had lost, when my mother got a call from the Philippines. My grandmother, her mother, had just passed. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and over the past few months it had gotten progressively and exponentially worse. She could no longer recognize anyone, was no longer eating, and apparently that night my grandfather and my uncles still in the Philippines were going to meet to decide if they would go with the doctor’s recommendation of keeping her on an IV. Her health was deteriorating at an alarming rate. It seemed that the conversation was moot, as during the night, my grandmother, Aida M. de Vera, passed peacefully in her sleep.

Everything after was a blur of activity. The next morning I was calling up old friends from my travel agent days to help book last minute tickets for my mother and father. Not 24 hours after getting off one plane, they were packing again to board another. From one six hour domestic flight to a twenty one hour trans-Pacific flight, there I was hugging my parents goodbye as the Uber driver came to take them to JFK, leaving my brother and I at home for the past week to take care of other things. (The sudden extreme cold weather proved to be too much for one of our stores, and while we were in Vegas the old pipes burst, covering everything in water and then freezing, damaging everything inside. Electrical equipment, walls, ingredients, all lost to water and ice damage. I had to have meetings with our insurance agent, claims adjuster, and contractors in my parents’ stead.)

I’m sad to say I don’t have too many memories of my grandmother. When my mother had me she was young and scared and completely unprepared, away from home for the first time in her life and in a country thousands of miles away, across two oceans. My grandmother and grandfather came here and helped raise me the first year. My grandfather even took a job at a local 7-11 to help out, while my grandmother passed on all her knowledge and experience and expertise to my mother. How to feed me, bathe me, and my mother even told me stories of how my grandmother would massage my legs at night while I slept, to help straighten my legs and prevent me from becoming bow-legged and my feet from pointing out. Though she was an integral part of my upbringing, I was too young to remember anything personally. Just stories and pictures. And because, for various different reasons, I’ve always been reluctant to go back to the Philippines, I haven’t seen my grandmother for around ten years, since my last trip. I would never have thought that ten years ago would have been the last time I saw her, hugged her. I would never have thought that the still strong, vibrant, loving woman I saw then would in time shrink into herself, become wary and paranoid and fearful of everyone, eventually lose memories and expression, and then pass on forever. There were always opportunities, chances to go. My parents and my brother have been there and back at least five or six times in the past decade. But I always found more reasons not to. They would tell me stories of Lola’s condition, the fleeting moments of coherence, the joys of recognition, always mentioning, wondering, if I had been there, would she have recognized me, would it have made her happy to see me.

I’m ashamed to say now we’ll never know, and I’ll always have to cling to far distant recollections of my grandmother, never having the chance to replenish old memories for new. But let me tell you, I do know this. When my grandmother passed there were plenty of tears. I cried for old memories. I cried for missing the chance for new ones. I cried for missed opportunities. I cried for shame, and in longing. I cried for my mother, crying in the hall, shaking, trying to stay standing, asking to no one in particular, ‘what do I do, what do I do, what do I do?!’

I will forever know my grandmother through the lasting effect she had. I will know my grandmother through my mother, who possesses so much of the strength and tenacity and ability to overcome and adapt that she saw in her mother. I will know my grandmother’s love through the love she showed my mother, and the love my mother in turn gave to me. I will remember my grandmother in every proud, straight step I take into the world.

Single Guy Says ‘Happy Boxing Day’

Happy belated Christmas everyone, I hope you spent it surrounded by family, love, warmth, and happiness. And good food of course. I’m in the midst of packing, getting ready to leave for a week in Las Vegas with my family. It will be a brand new year when I return, and I can’t wait to read and catch up on all the great stories, experiences, and writing I’ll have waiting for me from you all when I return.

At the same time, between the past week and this coming week I’m sure there will be plenty for me to share  when I get back, so here’s a quick preview of what to expect just in catching up on all the holiday festivities.

  • My cousin and I made a Japanese feast for dinner, with special premium ingredients I bought from a Japanese market. I’ll be posting pictures of the meals and of us in the kitchen, plus writing about how much fun it was and how exciting  it was to spend a good part of the day just doing some serious cooking.
  • As is our tradition, we spent Christmas Eve at my great-aunt’s house, and Christmas Day at home. We exchanged gifts, did a gag gift ‘white elephant’, and played all kinds of Christmas games, sometimes for prizes of money or for punishments of drinking.
  • Las Vegas is sure to be an incredible time. My family and I love Las Vegas, and we’ve been back almost every other year, but this will be our first time spending New Year’s in the heart of what will probably be the biggest and best city-wide party in the world. My brother and I will be headed to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to drive supercars around their track, go to a shooting range to shoot weapons from WWI and WWII and more modern weapons like those used by US SWAT forces and Cold War-era fighters, we’ll be trying a whole new list of exciting and unique restaurants, and catch plenty of Vegas shows.
  • And perhaps last but certainly not least, as I sit here typing and packing to try and push my mind away from the crushing disappointment, I will let you all know how my first date in two years went, how fun, how thrilling, how promising, and how shattering to find out mid-way that she already has a boyfriend with whom she is unfailingly happy. Thank god Vegas is the last place where one has to think of normal life, or worry about normal problems, or normal disappointments.

Anyways, since I won’t have the chance to say it later, I wish you all a very happy and prosperous new year, with plenty of riches in love, laughter, and happiness.

Single Guy Sends You to Philadelphia

On the occasional Friday night when I don’t have anything to do, I find myself enjoying a few pints at my local brewery. I’ve been there often enough now that I’m considered one of the ‘regulars’, and I can look around in the crowd and with a wordless nod, recognize the others who faithfully congregate here week after week. I’ve had some friendly conversations, met some nice people, but the only constant face I can always rely on and expect to see is Chelsea, the unfailingly amiable bartender.

A couple weeks ago, on a slower than usual night, we talked about holiday plans. Whose relatives would be visiting whom, who decided to forego all of the holiday traditions and run off to some warm Caribbean island. And she mentioned she and her friends would be visiting Philadelphia sometime in January. Immediately my ears perked up. It’s been pretty obvious if you’ve read some of my posts that Philadelphia is one of my favorite cities, holding a lot of special and emotional memories for me. So jumped at the opportunity to share some of my experience, knowledge, and dare I say ‘expertise’, with someone who was about to explore it for the first time. I wrote up a little travel guide breaking Philly up into Center City, with Market Street and the heart of the historic district and waterfront, and South Philly, the artistic, creative, colorful, but troubled younger sibling.

I don’t know if I’ve ever fully laid out my ideal Philly trip map, but I figured since I went to the trouble to create this for her, I ought to share with you all too. Whether Philly is one of your own favorite destinations or you too have never visited the City of Brotherly Love, I hope you might find something here that entices you, encourages you, excites you, calling you to Philadelphia.


Philadelphia Winter Guide

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***SEASONAL*** RiverRink Winterfest at Penn’s Landing (now until the end of February)

Penn’s Landing is a beautiful waterfront area with a boardwalk and it’s just a short walk from Center City and all of Philly’s historic attractions. During the winter the area is transformed into a winter village, with an ice skating rink, a giant Christmas tree, restaurants, and an outdoor area with fire pits, board games, and little cabins with seats and blankets. It stays open pretty late, so it’s a nice place to check out at night and get some ‘adult’ hot chocolate, relax in one of the mini cabins, or go ice skating.

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Franklin Fountain and Shane Confectionery – 116 Market St.

This place is awesome for that old-timey vintage feel that’s legitimately authentic, and not hipster-y. They even still use the same original push-button register from when the Fountain first opened. The staff still wear the same white apron and red bow ties of old-fashioned soda perks and ice cream parlors. They make their ice cream in-house, and in winter they have a special menu with things like hot milkshakes and fresh baked apple pies, brownies, and cookies. Their ice cream is super-rich and they’ve got some interesting and unique flavors. Then next door there’s the Shane Confectionery, where they make all their chocolates by scratch. It’s a great place to get snacks and souvenirs. Their truffles come in like a hundred different flavors, they have great decadent bon bons, and the chocolate covered potato chips are really good.

Sonnys Famous

Sonny’s Famous – 228 Market St.

Philly is undoubtedly the land of cheesesteaks, and everyone has their favorite. I can’t tell you Sonny’s is the best in Philly. But I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of cheesesteaks, and I only go back to Sonny’s. Maybe it’s the fresh bread delivered daily. Or the fact that they use whole, thin slices of rib-eye beef slow cooked in its own juices, without oil. Maybe it’s the mushroom and onions that I add to my Cheese-Whiz. Or I’m just a creature of habit. But it’s right in Center City, in between the historic district and the waterfront, so it’s all along the way.

Reading Terminal

Reading Terminal Market – 51 N 12th St.

If you ever needed proof that God loved us and is in everything, just wander Reading Terminal Market, and you’ll understand that there is a great and wonderful beauty in the chaos of the universe. There are some great eateries, like Pearl’s Oyster Bar for some great chowder, po’ boys, and fresh oysters, or the numerous Chinese stalls with tender juicy roast pork and crispy duck. There’s also an Amish confection booth that has the BEST gummy bears ever. Don’t ask me why or how. The mini ones are best. Have lunch, or grab some fresh unique doughnuts, ice cream, or whatever. Walk around and explore the countless seafood stalls run by scrupulous Chinese families with an exacting eye for the freshest and best seafood. Grab a few free samples of the incredible array of fine cheeses and charcuterie at the cheese and cured meat stands. Look and marvel in horror at the chocolate covered onions. I wouldn’t recommend actually trying it though.

Nan Zhou

Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House (CASH ONLY) – 1022 Race Street

A block away from Reading Terminal is Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House. Take a wild guess what their specialty is. Chewy, fresh-made noodles stretched by hand through hundreds of folds to create incredibly long strands of perfect noodles. It’s surprisingly incredibly cheap to get some of the best, most authentic Chinese food in Philly at this historic restaurant. They have an equally impressive and superbly flavorful selection of appetizers and dim sum. I don’t know how adventurous you are, but I would highly recommend getting either the spicy beef tendon or spicy pig’s ears to go with your noodles. Regardless, you can never go wrong with delicious pork and chive dumplings, if you must.

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Time! – 1315 Sansom St.

I have to admit to my own great shame that of my numerous trips to Philly, I only recently discovered Time! on my last one. Not too far away from Reading Terminal, Time! is an incredibly impressive bar with a kitchen menu that rivals its drinks menu. I sat at the bar, alternating between one modest yet sophisticated cocktail and a plate of understated but quality food. Deviled eggs, a macaroni and cheese with crab meat and smoked bacon, a juicy house-made sausage, punctuated with perfectly made Sazeracs, Negronis, Old Fashioneds, and their own oak-aged Vieux Carre. If you’re not a cocktail person they also have an impressive selection of fine whiskey with options for tasting flights, but the real reason why I want you to go to Time! and make sure you have at least two hours to dedicate to the visit is the fact that Time! always has an amazing lineup of live jazz bands performing in the corner of its simple bar room.

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Brauhaus Schmitz – 718 South St.

Hard to miss Brauhaus Schmitz as you’re wandering Philly’s more ‘artistic’ and ‘flavorful’ district of South Street. The exterior reminds you of a giant beer barrel, beckoning you inside. Brauhaus Schmitz is the best place for authentic German food and beer. They have over thirty German beers on draft and a mouthwatering selection of imported cured meats, authentic German bratwurst, knockwurst, and every-wurst, and wonderfully crispy schnitzel. It’s undeniably German and yet still feels like eating dinner at home.

Magic Gardens

Philadelphia Magic Gardens – 1020 South St.

The Magic Gardens is the ongoing and literally boundless project of local Philly artist Isaiah Zagar. He moved to the area in the 1960s, and his artwork can be seen all around South Philly in murals and mosaics decorating building walls all around South Street. The Magic Gardens doubles as his studio and also a living, breathing, ever-changing work of art. He creates these elaborate and beautiful mosaics using reclaimed materials like broken mirrors and glasses, bottles, bicycles, and hubcaps. You can enter the exhibit and see some of Zagar’s works in progress, and it’s a complete departure from the Philly city life. The outdoor area is a labyrinth of narrow stairways and passageways, all built around whatever Zagar could find and where he could put it. As long as the weather is dry, the Magic Gardens is open to the public.

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Atomic City Comics – 638 South St.

Between the Marvel movies and the spread of things like anime and manga, it’s time to admit that nerd culture has become pop culture. Atomic City Comics existed way before everyone and their neighbor suddenly thought it was ‘cool’ to be ‘uncool’. They have a few vintage arcade games in the back you can play for a quarter and an extensive collection of Western and Asian comics and collectibles. It’s fun just to walk in, browse, explore, and read for a bit. The staff is super friendly and knowledgeable, and depending on the level of your nerd-dom, this place could be pretty fun to check out.

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Condom Kingdom – 437 South St.

Look I don’t know who you’re going to Philly with. Maybe they’re cool, maybe they’re not. If they’re not, don’t go here. If they are, absolutely check out Condom Kingdom. This is not for the faint of heart. That becomes readily apparent when you say the many sex toys hanging from the ceiling, and the sex toy crane game. They take the sale of high-end sex toys for both men and women as seriously as any discerning sommelier would treat picking a selection of wines. They also have a wide assortment of novelties and gag (no pun intended) gifts for bachelor parties, bachelorette parties, or you know, birthday parties if you’re so inclined.

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Pho Ha (CASH ONLY) – 600 Washington Ave

I have long since said that Philadelphia has the best pho in the country, and Pho Ha has the best pho in Philly, so you know what that means. The bowls of pho are ridiculously large and filling for what amounts to chump change. You can customize your pho, with different cuts of beet like brisket, flank, or top round steak. I would recommend brisket, beef tendon, beef tripe, and beef balls. If you’ve never had Asian beef balls before, they’re very different from western meat balls. The meat is minced finely and repeatedly beaten and pounded to create a chewy, bouncy texture. The bowls are served with heaping plates of fresh cilantro, lime, jalapenos, and bean sprouts to add to the still hot broth to cook right at the table. Vietnamese iced coffee, sweetened  with thick condensed milk, is perfect to cool down from the warm soup.

Single Guy Does Music Mondays: ‘The Christmas Waltz’

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When the ‘Chairman of the Board’ asks you for something, you don’t say no. At least, that’s what writer Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne soon found out when Frank Sinatra came to them and said he wanted an original Christmas song. It was 1954 and Frank was about to record a new version of ‘White Christmas’ and wanted an original song for the B-side. Cahn was initially reluctant, skeptical of trying to make anything new so soon after the hugely successful (and to this day still the most recorded Christmas song ever) Irving Berlin song ‘White Christmas’. But Cahn and Styne met in Styne’s apartment, began working, and when Cahn realized there had never been an original Christmas waltz, immediately began working on the lyrics of what would eventually become ‘The Christmas Waltz’.

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‘The Christmas Waltz’ is definitely one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, and not just because of its beautiful melody and picturesque, scenic lyrics. During the fall semester of my sophomore year of college, Beautiful and I took a dance class together. As part of our ‘final’ we had to pick a style of dance we had learned, find a song, and arrange a dance on our own. We picked the waltz, as it was the most elegant and romantic to us, and since our final was in December, we picked ‘The Christmas Waltz’ as our song. I remember us gliding across the floor in our classroom, our classmates and professor in a circle around us, but all we could focus on was each other. I wore a bright red Santa cap, and she looked so adorable with her reindeer antler headband.

Frank Sinatra would record ‘The Christmas Waltz’ as a B-side in 1954, in 1957 for his album ‘A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra’, and again in 1968 for ‘The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas’. Since then it’s been covered by Christmas song legends like Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, and Tony Bennett. You’ll most likely hear the Carpenters’ version of it on the radio this time of year, though Harry Connick Jr’s was the most popular, appearing on the Adult Contemporary Billboard Top 100 for two weeks, and Cahn even wrote a whole new set of additional lyrics when Mel Tormé recorded his version in 1992. Personally my music taste compass has been pointing more towards low and slow recently, so this version by She & Him is my current favorite. Simple and clean and with the right partner, I imagine just as beautiful to dance to.

Single Guy Says, ‘Sawatdee Khap’

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This review is way overdue, after seeing a movie recommendation made by M.Gin.

And boy howdy am I glad I listened to her suggestion. ‘Bad Genius’, known in Thai as Chalard Games Geong is an incredible film, inspired by true events, that went on to become Thailand’s highest grossing film of 2017 and gave rise to model-turned actor Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying. Oh and yes, for the entirety of this post I will only be copy-pasting that name.

‘Bad Genius’ is about Lynn, a young genius high schooler who gets accepted into a prestigious Thai school. Timid and studious at first, Lynn befriends the much more outgoing but academically challenged Grace. Lynn tries to help her friend with private tutoring lessons, but when all else fails, she comes up with an ingenious way for the two to cheat and share answers during a crucial test. After Grace tells her lavishly rich boyfriend Pat of their success, he offers Lynn an irresistible payment to help him, Grace, and his friends successfully cheat on their exams in increasingly elaborate and intricate ways. When she realizes that she could be doing bad for millions versus doing good for nothing, Lynn embarks on a cheating heist of international proportions with Grace and Pat. But to do so would require the help of another equally brilliant but straight-laced student, Bank. Success would mean financial and academic security but regardless of the outcome, the cost to their futures still remains to be seen.

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There’s an incredible amount of style and finesse to this movie, blending many different film genres to create a movie that’s part bank-heist and part social commentary. Most striking to me is how ‘Bad Genius’ sets cheating as a necessary evil versus class and social inequality but also as the tainted fruit of misguided friendship.

In the first sense, it strikes a personal and professional tone from my time as a teacher and someone who still cares profoundly about education. I know prestigious schools like the setting in ‘Bad Genius’ because I went to one similar to it in high school. My high Bad Genius Glassesschool has consistently been in the top rankings in the country, garnering attention for the many academic achievements of its students. It handpicks its student population based on a series of tests and interviews, with a very limited allocation reserved only for the top percentage of students in each district. But once you get in I mean…what happens in these schools? Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting in. You do your work, pay your dues, get in, get that extra blip on your resume, and you’re set after graduation. But what makes a school truly exemplary is not in how good the students are when they get in, but how much better they are after they leave. Some of these schools that are so reputation based forget their responsibility to actually elevate their students, and instead expect them to rise on their own. It leaves the truly naturally gifted to simply continue on unfettered but also unchallenged, and it completely abandons those who possess the potential but require the nurturing.

At the same time, a major focus of the story is the stark contrast in income and class. Lynn and Bank are both academically rich students, but Lynn lives with her father, a simple teacher earning a modest income, and Bank has to balance school work with helping his struggling family’s meager laundry business, sometimes having to wash the clothes himself by hand when their old and outdated equipment breaks down Bad Genius Celebration.giffrequently. Both are barely able to attend the school thanks to generous academic scholarships, which they must continually compete against each other and other schools for. Meanwhile Pat and Grace live lives of opulence and decadence, comfortable knowing their successes are almost guaranteed by the pedigree of their families. Academics isn’t so much a matter of success but of stature: Pat’s parents want him to attend the same elite American university his father attended, and Grace is expected to follow along. When some have so little, and others have so much, and those with few realize they possess something those with plenty actually want, cheating becomes a financial transaction. Almost a profession, finding a way to make money off of what one is good at. And isn’t that supposed to be the goal?

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I think Lynn and Grace could have truly been great friends. I think Lynn’s natural academic ability and her caring nature could have made her a great teacher, finding unique and personal ways to reach even struggling students, like Grace. On the other hand I feel Grace, with her warm and open nature, could coax the confidence and adventure out of Lynn. I believe the nature of their relationship started out with the purest of intentions, and they made an honest effort to do honest work, trading each other’s greatest strengths to help one another. But friends don’t always know what’s best for each other. They might see into each other and see what they want, but friends might not have the maturity, the restraint, patience, or understanding to know what they need. In the heat of the moment, with the pressure of a critical test deciding whether or not Grace could act in the school play, her true calling, Lynn reacted in any way a caring friend would. She helped her. Just, not in the way she needed. The way she wanted. And who among us hasn’t compromised a bit to help a friend in need? Or isn’t guilty of greasing a friendship for some benefit sometimes? It’s what happens afterwards that determines the true nature and health of the friendship. Can Lynn realize she is hurting more than helping her friend? Is Grace able to see that she is using her friend, and in doing so losing her more and more with each exam? It’s a dynamic of the movie that culminates in a very open and authentic ending.

Honestly, there’s very little not to enjoy about this movie. It’s a thrill, it’s dramatic, it’s Bank and Lynn 1incredibly sleek and smooth. My biggest gripe is actually with the community of movie fans ruining one of my favorite aspects of the film. ‘Bad Genius’ is not a love story. Not all stories have to be love stories. They don’t even have to have any love in it. In fact I’m pretty sure if you were to count them, most stories aren’t love stories. There are a few moments where Lynn and Bank seem to gravitate towards each other. The director of the film has even gone on to comment that the chemistry of the two characters was unplanned but had become an excellent element to play on. But to any objective viewer, it becomes very clear that while they may at times seem to get so close as to almost touch, they inhabit completely different worlds, revolving around completely different stars. And believe it or not, that’s okay. In fact, with movies and books more often thanBank and Lynn 2 not forcing unbelievable or untenable love stories into their midst, I’m glad in the game of ‘will they/won’t they’ ‘Bad Genius’ was smart enough to say ‘no they won’t’. They may have started out as similar stars, but the events of the film change their characters in pronounced ways, and the movie respects their growth, rather than slapping them back to the beginning like a rubber band brought back to snap at our wrists. I’m tired of reading so many fan reactions and reviews wishing and hoping the two end up together, or that in the sequel they become a pair. The story arc of these two characters is rich and lavish enough to appreciate without adding this element. HEY ‘MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US’, YOU COULD LEARN A LESSON OR TWO FROM THIS.

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There’s a lot to love about ‘Bad Genius’. Not the least of which is that it has given birth to a rising star-soon-to-be-legend in its main actress, (copy-paste) Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying.  Her incredible performance in ‘Bad Genius’ (her first one ever) has even earned her the Screen International Rising Star Asia Award at the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival Awards. (By the way, past Rising Stars have included the Philippines’s own Teri Malvar.) She does an incredible job expressing care, concern, confidence, and in intense moments, guilt. I can’t wait for her future projects, and I hope with the incredible success of ‘Bad Genius’ I see her in many more films. It certainly doesn’t hurt that she is absolutely stunning. Why yes, I did in fact immediately follow her on Instagram after watching the movie. No, that’s not at all strange.

I hope you have a chance to find this movie online. I won’t even ask how you found it or where you saw it, because I just want you to watch and enjoy. But if you can’t, here’s a great clip from an old Japanese movie that shows you just how clever and ingenious we Asians can get when it comes to cheating.