Checking in

It is hard to believe cold weather is already here, but our lawn is covered in leaves, and Honey has begun nagging me to put up the Christmas trees. As I watch my various plants and trees enter their dormant phase, I am already looking forward to next spring when they will burst forth with new life. The growing season never seems to last long enough, and this year seemed to fly by in record time.

Like every year, this one has had its highs and lows. I officially became a business partner on January 1st. The legalization of gay marriage in Illinois allowed us to travel to see our friends get hitched in Chicago, and we took that opportunity to continue on to Wisconsin to see our wonderful friend Barb. We saw Cher in Nashville. We spent several relaxing days in Gatlinburg last month.

Some of the low points included losing my coworker and friend, Jerry, and then learning of Barb’s passing a few months later. Both affected me deeply, but I try to focus on the good memories. I will never forget Jerry’s belly laugh, his dirty sense of humor, or the way he never ever let life get him down. I will always remember Barb’s unwavering courage and the way she exuded love to everyone around her. I am so thankful we took the time to go visit Barb this summer, and I feel blessed to have known and loved both of them.

We are currently in the middle of refinancing our home. I can get the interest rate down from 5.25% to 3.375% – which will shave 10 years off my loan while increasing my monthly payment by only $20. My goal is to have our home paid for in 10 years, just in time for my 50th (yikes!) birthday.

Other than that, life continues on as before. I always remind myself to appreciate the mundane moments, because it is hard to complain about being bored when you are comfortable and happy.

My exciting little life

Someone recently told me I have led an exciting life. After a few moments of denial, I admitted that my life has been pretty interesting.

A few examples…

  1. Growing up in a very strict household where I couldn’t watch television, wear short sleeves, or attend my school’s basketball games
  2. Coming out to my family at twenty years of age
  3. Creating a Michael Jackson fan site that became the catalyst for a trip to Germany in 2001
  4. Getting to see Michael Jackson in concert on 9/10/01
  5. Being in New York City on 9/11/01
  6. Meeting my partner of 9 years on the internet
  7. Getting to see some of the best performers on earth live in concert
  8. Traveling to various parts of the country
  9. Becoming a business owner earlier this year
  10. Having a scan of my Michael Jackson concert ticket included in an upcoming special on National Geographic

Even though I am typically scared of my own shadow, I am glad I have been willing to put myself out there on multiple occasions. Those are typically the moments that have been the most rewarding.

Weekend getaway

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Weekend before last, we journeyed to Chattanooga, TN. We managed to pack several activities into our two-day trip, including a visit to Rock City, Ruby Falls, the saltwater and freshwater aquariums, and IMAX theater. Although I had toured Rock City before, the other experiences were new to both of us.

Chattanooga was warm and sunny when we arrived Friday afternoon. We parked and headed straight for the aquariums. Although they were very nice, we both decided the aquarium in Newport, KY, is much better. Of course Newport wasn’t as crowded and had the added benefit of Mighty Mike.

After a delicious lunch at a nearby restaurant, we watched a 3D film at the IMAX theater titled Cities Under The Sea, which was about coral reefs and their important role in keeping our planet healthy.

We arrived at Rock City early Saturday morning to find conditions very foggy and overcast. I was really disappointed that the view from the top wasn’t as good as it would be on a clear day, but the sun began peeking out and conditions improved quickly. I love the outdoor part of Rock City, but I find the cave section of the tour very disturbing. I’m not exactly sure what neon-colored fairy tale characters have to do with nature, and the whole things makes me feel like I’m on a bad acid trip.

After touring Rock City, we arrived at Ruby Falls to find throngs of tourist waiting in line. We waited for close to an hour before riding an elevator down into the cave below. From there, we walked half a mile through narrow, slippery passageways to catch a short glimpse of the waterfall. It was beautiful, but we felt like we were being herded around like cattle. Very little time was allowed for photographs, although I did manage to capture a few.

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All in all it was a nice trip, and I would highly recommend Chattanooga for anyone looking for a nice vacation with plenty to do.

Gallery

Photos from the original World Trade Center’s observation deck on 9/9/2001

During my visit to New York City in the fall of 2001, I had the privilege of visiting the top of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The observation deck encompassed both an indoor and outdoor viewing area. I have included photos from both vantage points, as well as a photo of the original globe that rested at the foot of the towers and a model of the southern tip of Manhattan that was displayed on the observation deck.

I took the following photos with a 35mm camera on 9/9/01 – two days before the towers came down. You can read more about my experience here.

Our trip to New York City

We left home on a beautiful Saturday morning, swung by to pick up our friend Betty, and headed for New York with Liza Minnelli’s ode to the city playing on the radio. After twelve hours of driving, we stopped for the night at a lovely hotel. We were up early the next morning and arrived in the Big Apple shortly after noon. The traffic wasn’t too bad, even though our GPS routed us right through the heart of midtown to meet up with Betty’s daughter, Lisa, at the hotel.

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We stayed at Affinia Gardens on W. 64th St., which is a fantastic little hotel in a great location. We quickly unpacked and headed out on foot to see Central Park and Rockefeller Center. We also visited the gorgeous St. Patrick’s Cathedral before heading back to the hotel for the evening.

Monday turned out to be quite warm, with the high near 90 degrees. We purchased bus passes from GrayLine which enabled us to hop on any of their tour buses for the next 48 hours. Our first trip took us downtown as far as Battery Park. We saw Macy’s, Ground Zero, Wall Street, the pier, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, the United Nations, and hundreds of other fascinating buildings.

After arriving back in Times Square, we headed to Rockefeller Center and rode the speedy elevator to the top of the building. Sixty-seven floors might not be the tallest rooftop in Manhattan, but it certainly provides one of the best vantage points. Central Park stretched out on one side of the building, while the Empire State Building loomed on the other side. We could even make out the Statue of Liberty in the distance!

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We wound up walking everywhere the first couple of days until Lisa’s daughter, Lauren (who is attending school in NYC), showed us the ins-and-outs of the subway system. Armed with the HopStop app on my cell phone, we were able to take advantage of New York’s amazing public transportation over the remainder of our stay.

Tuesday morning started with a trip to Battery Park for a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The statue is closed for repairs, so we didn’t stick around very long. Once we arrived back in Manhattan and grabbed a bite to eat, we headed for the 9/11 Memorial.

I knew visiting the memorial would be an emotional experience, but I don’t think I realized how much it would hit me. I was actually shedding tears before I ever even got through security. Walking into the open space surrounding the two pools was akin to entering a sanctuary. Everyone was quiet and respectful. The thousands of names engraved around the outside lip of each pool were overwhelming, especially when you encountered one that listed the name of a particular woman and her unborn child. More tears.

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The new building going up at Ground Zero, One World Trade Center, has already reached 100 floors. Its beauty and size was a reminder of the continuation of life. The sounds of ongoing construction were the only distraction in an otherwise peaceful setting.

Honey and I took another bus ride that evening which started in Times Square and drove across the Manhattan Bridge before circling through Brooklyn and back. Seeing the city light up was such a treat, but nothing compared to the view from across the river. We could see from the Statue of Liberty all the way past the Empire State Building (which was lit up in red, white, and blue).

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We rose early the next morning to take yet another bus tour – this time around Central Park and through Harlem. Our bus stopped in front of Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment, and our tour guide recognized him standing outside the front door with his wife. He was courteous enough to wave and smile as we all snapped photos like the paparazzi.

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Wednesday night was the first time either of us had seen a Broadway show. Wicked was certainly a good way to start. Our seats were great, the acting and singing was phenomenal, and I loved the way they tied everything in with The Wizard of Oz.

Thursday morning, Honey and I went to see an exhibit titled Bodies. The displays were real human bodies that had been donated to science and were in various stages of dissection. Some bodies were intact, but stripped of flesh so that the muscles were revealed. Others contained only bones, or sections of muscle pulled back to reveal implanted medical devices. Body parts were labeled to explain various cancers and diseases. We could see the difference between healthy lungs and those of someone who smoked.

One of the most fascinating parts of the exhibit was fetal development. They actually had a sign up warning people to consider whether they wanted to go through the room, and reminding us that all the fetuses had died in utero. It was amazing to see a blob of white matter no larger than one-half inch and learn that it already had a heartbeat.

After leaving the exhibit, Honey and I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a beautiful day, and the city looked absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t have my camera with me, but did manage to capture a few shots with my cell phone.

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Speaking of cameras, I took around 800 photos while we were in New York City. Honey’s mother gave me a zoom lens for my Nikon that enabled some amazing shots from the top of Rockefeller Center and from the ferry that carried us to the Statue of Liberty.

After making our way to Times Square one last time, we ventured through Central Park and made our way back to the room to get ready for Lauren’s dance recital. She was fabulous, and her performance was the only breath of fresh air in an otherwise dark and depressing program.

We left Friday morning to drive home, and decided to whiz through Washington, D.C. on our way since neither Betty or Honey had ever been there. It seems one is unable to do anything quickly in D.C. (we should have known, right?), so we wound up getting stuck in traffic for around two hours. We did get to see portions of the Capitol building, the White House, and the Washington Monument as we drove through, but we were very surprised at how “locked down” the city was in terms of it being almost impossible to get anywhere near the White House due to barricaded streets and police cars. Most of the public parking lots were even blocked off by police cruisers.

Needless to say, New York City is one of my favorite places on earth. Actually being there on 9/11/01 made it hold an extra-special place in my heart, but this trip enabled me to really fall in love with the city. It might sound a little cheesy, but I actually felt like I was home while we were there. It felt like being at the center of the universe.

And I miss it already.

New York City!

Very, very soon, we will begin the long drive to New York City. This will be my third trip to the Big Apple, but it will be Honey’s first time to experience the sights, sounds, and smells (covers nose) of what just might be the greatest city on earth.

The last time I was in New York was when 9/11 happened, so I will admit to having just a bit of anxiety. We plan to visit the 9/11 Memorial while we are there, which I expect to be a very moving experience.

Other plans include seeing Wicked on Broadway, visiting the observatory at the top of Rockefeller Center, and taking the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty. I have never seen Central Park in real life, so that will be a must. I also have a list of skyscrapers (finished and under construction) that I have to see, but One World Trade Center is at the top of the list! Can’t wait!!

For me, from Michael

I just finished watching “Oprah Remembers Michael Jackson” and am feeling a bit melancholy. It actually aired yesterday, but I recorded it and finally got a chance to watch it this evening. Almost three months after his untimely passing, tears still frequently cloud my vision.

autographThere is an autographed photo of Michael that hangs over the desk in our home – the end result of a trip that I made to Germany several years ago. Sitting here looking at it, I suddenly realized that I’ve never shared the story of that trip or how I managed to have my name handwritten by the King of Pop.

It was a very early morning in January of 2001 when I was startled awake by the telephone ringing. A man with a strong Asian accent asked for me by name. The combination of being half asleep and his broken English was making it very hard for me to understand what he wanted, but I finally figured out he was calling in reference to a Michael Jackson fan site that I had been running for a few years. Although I had closed the website a few weeks earlier, he had gotten my name by looking up the details of the domain name that I had been using. He talked for a few more minutes about how he was working on an official website for Michael Jackson and needed my help. He would email me with further details.

Needless to say, I was skeptical and a little taken back by the phone call. I soon received an email from him explaining that he worked with a company that was based in Germany. This company had recently signed a contract for exclusive control of Michael Jackson’s name in Europe – meaning that they alone had the right to market and sale official MJ merchandise in that part of the world. How any of this concerned me was even more amazing… he claimed they wanted to use my fan site as the basis for a new official Michael Jackson website and would simply enhance it by adding an ecommerce section to sell merchandise.

I was aware of one of the previous products that this German company had created and knew that they were legitimate. My ego was stoked that they would consider using any part of the website that I had created, but I was even more surprised when he asked if I would come to Germany to meet with his superiors and help with the project – all at his expense. He even attached a photo of himself with Michael Jackson for good measure. How could I say no?

The next few days were a whirlwind as my ex and I prepared for the trip of a lifetime. We had our passports expedited, our luggage packed, and were on our way to the airport within days.

Upon arriving in Frankfurt and meeting our contact, we were allowed a couple of hours of sleep at the hotel before being driven to meet the firm that was working on the website. It quickly became apparent that what I had been told over the phone and through email was false. My website wasn’t going to be used in any form or fashion.

Their lofty plans involved a state-of-the-art site with three-dimensional shopping and innovative Michael Jackson merchandise – everything from gold-plated statues of the King of Pop to MJ stereo speakers. I was disheartened but still excited to be involved first-hand in anything that was officially connected to Michael.

We soon met the man in charge of the endeavor – a man who would later manage Michael’s career and be indicted on conspiracy charges as part of the molestation trial. His infatuation with the star was made apparent by the photos of himself and the star lining the walls of his office, although I now believe his interest was motivated more by financial gain than anything else.

We were given a tour of the merchandising facility, where we saw computer-controlled machines stitching emblems on caps, various t-shirt designs, and even a prototype of the shopping environment being planned for the website. One rather nice man pulled me into a side room where he showed me unreleased photos of Michael’s History Tour and gave me a sample of one of their products. Michael had been there many times, they claimed, and even pointed out a couch where he had sat on his last visit. I quickly sat on it myself, beyond excited to be touching something that had been in contact with my idol.

The next several days made little sense to me. While the rest of the firm worked on developing the visual and technical aspects of the website, I was asked to compose a short biography. I was also given access to the aforementioned exclusive photos and asked to choose which ones I liked best.

As the days wore on, I began to wonder why I had been asked to come halfway around the world to perform such a menial task. Surely I could have emailed them what they needed, or they could have simply had one of their employees do the job.

I was constantly reassured by the original contact that he wanted me as a permanent part of the team. He insisted that they needed a fan’s perspective, because he felt that Michael’s fans would be able to detect if the site was only interested in taking their money. He talked of Michael’s upcoming album and the need for a correspondent to cover any tour that would surely follow. He suggested that I spend half of my time in Germany and the other half in America. He promised that I would meet Michael in person if I accepted.

A few days later, a meeting was called between me, my contact, and another member of the website team. I was offered the same amount of money that I had been making at my current job, but I already knew that I wasn’t interested. The thought of flying back and forth was enough to make me need a nerve pill, and I was getting a rather bad feeling about this whole project.

I took a day to think about it and then informed them that I wasn’t interested and I just wanted to go home. We had already been there for almost two weeks and I was exhausted, homesick, and disillusioned. A day or so later, I was on a plane headed for the U.S.

A couple of weeks passed by before a FedEx driver knocked on the front door and handed us a large envelope. Tucked inside were two photographs printed with an inkjet printer. Both were autographed by Michael Jackson. Written in ink across the top of mine were the words “For Brian, Michael Jackson.” The photo was one of the unreleased shots that I had chosen for the website team.

Over the next few years, there were times when I regretted my decision to turn down their offer. I wondered where it could have taken me, what possibilities could have been in store, if I would have met Michael in person. As the years passed and I watched his life and career spin out of control, I knew I had made the right decision.

I’m still not sure why they spent so much money on travel expenses just to get me to write a biography. Whatever their reason, the website never launched and they were soon up to their ears in legal trouble.

Now, eight years later, we all know the rest of the story. And as silly as it may seem, I have a sense of satisfaction just from knowing that even though he had no idea who I was, Michael Jackson wrote my name.