Holidays 2007 in Scottsdale

Free wi-fi at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Boo-yah. (I wrote that back on Dec. 30, when I started writing this post, and now, weeks later, I'm still trying to finish)

With the addition of so many little kiddies to the family, we tried something different for the holidays this year and rented a vacation home for a week in Scottsdale. The four bedroom house had a pool, a hot tub, a grill, a pool table, a home theater room, and lots of flat screen TVs. My favorite was the home theater room. It had six plush, reclining, leather theater seats with cupholders, arranged in two rows of three, the back row raised off the ground slightly in a stadium seating configuration. A small and somewhat middle-of-the-road projector hung from the ceiling, shining its picture on a screen flanked by theatrical curtains. The kicker was an old school theater-style popcorn machine.

James and Angela had said before the trip they planned to rent a Toyota Solara convertible. So as I stood curbside waiting for them to pick me up from the airport, I thought it odd that a flaming red Mustang pulled up next to me, the passenger waving at me. A second glance revealed that it was Angela sporting her giant movie star sunglasses.

"We decided it was too cold for a convertible," she explained. So we drove back from the airport in a cousin to the future KITT (Knight Industries Three Thousand). The engine makes a suitable American sports car growl, a low, menacing rumble.

That car is no friend to the environment. "I can see the fuel gauge needle moving!" Angela said as she drove.

We all have our natural roles at the holidays. Mine are chiefly around entertainment: I'm responsible for bringing lots of movies on DVD, bringing by Nintendo Wii, and taking photos or video. The parents did most of the cooking. James and Angela bought most of the groceries. Joannie was our liaison to the vacation home owners. Karen looked up info for our social outings into Scottsdale, like the location of hikes and downtown attractions. My dad was responsible for playing with the grandkids in a semi-educational manner.

I brought two movies from the past year for people to watch: The Bourne Ultimatum and Once. James bought Pan's Labyrinth. When the kids weren't watching the Pixar Short Films Collection in the home theater room, those three movies occupied most of that room's screening time.

Usually we'd put on a movie after the kids had gone to bed and the dinner table had been cleared, dishes washed. That meant starting at 10pm some nights, so it took some people a few days to find the time to watch a movie start to finish without having to run off to collapse in bed.

Every one enjoyed all the movies, especially Once.

Our family has just the right mix of personalities to escalate things, so the day someone mentioned the durian, the so-called "king of fruits," and discovered that most people at the table had not eaten it before (come to think of it, that someone was probably me), it was inevitable that we'd end up buying one from Ranch 99 and forcing every one in the family to take a bit on video camera. See, the thorny-skinned durian is famous for its polarizing taste and odor. Those who enjoy it worship it and, I suppose, are the ones who dubbed it the "king of fruits." Those who find it revolting describe the odor as similar to that of rotting sewage or trash. I count myself among the latter.

The durian we bought was not as malodorous as the ones I'd encountered before in China. I remember the scent of raw durian to be so revolting that I couldn't bring myself to eat it raw. I was only able to consume it after it had been incorporated into a pancake, which was actually decent. But under the glare of my father's video camera, there was no escaping it this time. My dad chopped it open and scooped out the yellowish flesh onto a styrofoam plate.


James, the most curious one of us all, stepped up first. Or perhaps it was Sharon. Either way, both found it neither tasty nor awful. I was next and spooned a generous heap into my mouth.

Big mistake.

The taste of it reminded me of its smell and nearly made me gag. It took me about a minute of stomach-turning chewing and mental fortitude to swallow it without coughing up my dinner. I seem to recall breaking out into a sweat as I tried not to heave in front of my family, a sign of weakness that would be recounted at family reunions until my funeral. Karen, Joannie, Mike, and Angela had similar reactions.

My dad was convinced our revulsion was merely in our head, that we had prejudged and condemned the fruit without giving it a fair trial. To prove his point, he took two large bites and chewed away with no reaction. I'm convinced, however, that my dad has lost all feeling and taste sensations over the years. I've seen him slice his finger open nearly to the bone and have minimal reaction, and I thought his nonchalant reaction to the taste of durian was related, somehow, to his indifference to pain. Still, he pitched out the rest of the durian, giving our trash that evening the smell of, well, trash.

Some random holiday notes:

  • Most played song: No One by Alicia Keys. By the end of vacation, was I sick of the song? Probably. But for the one week before you reach saturation with a catchy tune, it's toe-tapping good times.

  • Most listened to local radio station: Phoenix's Movement 97.5. Like the music they'd play at a dance club that you're just slightly embarrassed to admit you like (think Tone-Loc, Timbaland, Fergie). Driving around in the Stang, blaring 97.5, I realized that James, Angela, and I were a parody of suburban cheesiness.

  • Some random food consumption stats: 4 boxes of Gobstoppers, two bottles of Scotch (one Macallan, one Glenlivet), two gallons of Tampico (my brother's private equity firm owns them, so drinking this was a show of solidarity), about twenty bottles of wine, somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty dozen eggs, maybe six cases of water. Last chance for some fun before the New Years resolutions kicked in.

  • Most watched movie: Once. That scene in the music store? I've seen it about 28 times now. Best scene of the year.

  • Most played video game: Wii tennis. I'm impressed by how hard and flat my four-year-old nephew Ryan can crack the ball in Wii Tennis. Wii sports is the great equalizer. Young children who have infinite patience can, through repetition and immediate feedback, can develop some wicked skills in sports like Wii tennis and bowling. I discovered this the hard way when I ran into a six year old girl who nearly dropped a 300 in bowling on me. I was not amused.

  • Number of kisses planted on my nephew Connor's cheeks: 389.

Connor and Auntie Angela

Some personal highlights:

  • Scoring 100 in pop-a-shot at the Sugar Bowl ice cream parlor in Old Town Scottsdale. I'm pretty good at pop-a-shot, but for one transcendent moment, I entered the zone. The rules are simple: 45 seconds to shoot as many baskets as possible. Each basket counts for two points, except in the final 10 seconds, when they count for three each. You shoot with a cantaloupe-sized basketball at a smaller than normal basket. I think I missed two shots the entire round, breaking 100 on my last shot. I felt like Michael Jordan in that first half against Portland, or Reggie Miller at the end of the game against the Knicks. "That will be your opus," said James. If so, then that will have been one sad life.

  • Scoring a birdie on hole 10 at Troon North. On a good round, I usually shoot one birdie out of sheer luck. But not having played golf in a while, I wanted to snap my clubs over my leg while hitting on the driving range before the round. I thought I had a better chance of actually killing a bird than scoring a birdie during the round (hundred of wild guinea roamed around the golf course, apparently oblivious to the dangers posed by amateur golfers like myself). But by the last several holes, I started to slow down, and my swing started to come around. On the last hole Alan and I played, I hit a drive about 270, a pitching wedge to within 5 feet, and toilet-bowled a putt for my birdie.

  • The craziest moment of the holiday, by far, occurred on the third hole of Monument Golf Course at Troon. This par 5 hole is known as the Monument hole for the massive rock sitting right in the middle of the fairway about 260 yards out. Just past that hole, as I walked towards my ball to play my third shot, I spotted what appeared to be a small tiger sitting on the hill. The golf instructor who was riding with us was strolling up the fairway. James and I asked him what it was, and he said it was a bobcat. I stood my ground, expecting it would wander off, but our presence didn't faze it in the least. Soon it wandered into the fairway, past my ball. I took a couple steps back, but it didn't even look my way once, even when our instructor tried to shoo it away. The bobcat was gazing across the fairway. I followed its line of sight and realized it was looking at a rabbit sitting just off the fairway. It crept slowly across the fairway. I couldn't believe the rabbit didn't spot the bobcat which was now within 25 or 30 feet. Though the bobcat was now crawling on its belly, it wasn't hard to spot against the green fairway, and its tail wagged expectantly. And then, just as I thought it might be sitting there for a half hour, the bobcat shot towards the rabbit which dashed off through the bushes across the cart path. The bobcat didn't go after the rabbit but hurled itself into a bush. A narrow escape for the rabbit, I thought. But I was wrong, on both counts. First I spotted the bobcat coming out on the other side of the bush, another rabbit in its mouth. Then I heard our instructor Ryan hitting the brakes on his golf cart. The first rabbit I'd spotted had run across the path just as Ryan was cruising by in the golf cart, and Ryan had hit it. I walked over and saw the rabbit's cotton ball of a tail sitting on the cart path, and we found the rabbit nearby, limping around, one of its back legs broken. Rabbits are pretty damn cute, and we all felt awful, but I wasn't about to pick up a rabid rabbit and try to fashion a splint for it or anything like that. I thought it would be dramatic if I took an 8-iron to it, put it out of its misery, tears in my eyes, screaming "Damn it all to hell!" as I brought the club down again and again, but I didn't. Life, death, the circle of life, and a three putt bogey, all in the course of one hole. Only in Arizona.

  • Seeing Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West. I've seen Taliesin in Wisconsin and Robie House in Chicago, and both were inspiring. Now I just need to get out to Fallingwater. Many Heloise Crista sculptures adorn Taliesin West, and they're great.

Most mornings, I'd be woken around 6 or 7am by the sound of my nephews running around. This would be after I'd stayed up until 3am by myself, maybe watching 30 Rock - Season 1 on DVD in the home theater room, or reading The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, or something else. So I'd spend the day sleepy. But not tired. The thing about vacation that keeps me running on so little sleep is the thought that I could get sleep at any time. When you're working, you're never sure how much sleep you'll get from one night to the next, and that worry is more mentally exhausting than anything else.

Most awkward moment of the holidays. Just as we were about to wrap a book I'd bought for my nephew Ryan, he burst into the room and surprised us. He grabbed the book, looked at the cover, and said, "Don't get me this book. I already have it." Then he ran out.

I went running with James and Angela and even Alan a few times. There's a budding movement to try and get as many of us together to run the NY marathon this year as possible. Will it happen? I'm not sure. It's a new year, though, the time to resolve such things.

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