5 Ways to Maximize Your C25K Workouts

Yo, Adrian, I did it!

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It’s been a long time coming, dear readers – 8 weeks, 24 workouts, and 16 pounds (7.3 kg) to be exact – but on Saturday, August 19th, I completed my final run using Couch to 5k (C25K) from Zen Labs. C25K, as I mentioned last June, is a running app that can get you off the couch and ready for a 5k in just eight weeks if you stick with it and do the assigned 30-minute exercises three times a week.

I can still use C25K to prepare for a 5k or 10k, but the 8-week preparation program is complete. Theoretically, I can now sign up for a 5k and completely annihilate all the other runners or something.

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Historical artifact: this is my treadmill screen after I finished my last run. 5 minute warmup – 30 minutes of running – 5 minute cooldown – 20 minutes and 11 seconds of extra walking to decompress.

It goes without saying that I am now a superhuman expert on all things related to C25K, running, fitness, and general wellness. And because I’m such a nice guy (not to mention humble), I’d like to share some of my wisdom with all you commoners out there. These pearls of knowledge will be your guide should you choose to follow in my inspirational footsteps. Take notes. These are:

            5 Ways to Maximize Your C25K Workouts

(1) Go to the bathroom before you start your run.

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I’m probably putting this one first because I’ve been teaching kids for the past six years. Seriously, y’all, go to the bathroom before you go for a run. When you have to pee, it is physically impossible to focus on anything else. There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s no piss break in C25K. Go to the bathroom!

(2) Focus on building stamina, not speed.

One of the great things about C25K is that it meets you where you are. If you’re significantly overweight (like me) and you’re saying to yourself, “It sounds great, but there’s no way I can run for five minutes,” don’t worry. C25K knows that. That’s why you only have to run for one minute at a time during the first couple of weeks.

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This isn’t me, but I know how this guy feels.

One mistake I made as I started becoming more accustomed to running was trying to increase my speed too soon. It was an okay idea at first, but as the workouts became longer I found myself getting tired and wanting to quit. Over time I realized that the most important thing was simply not to stop. To accomplish this, I set three speeds for myself.

Trot (3 mph/6 kmh) – If I found myself sputtering out or wanting to stop, I’d jog/trot for a while until I felt I could start pushing myself again.

Baseline (4.3 mph/7 kmh) –  My “just going along” speed. In some of the later workouts (28-30 minutes) I stayed at this speed the entire time, running comfortably.

Fast (5 mph/8 kmh) – If the mood hit me just right – say, if an adrenaline-pumping song came up on my playlist – I’d turn it up and really take off for 4-5 minutes. But afterwards, I’d always come back down to Baseline or Trot so I wouldn’t burn out or stop.

I’m sure this is all Point A /”No Shit” advice to experienced runners, but I just have to make the point. Choose a speed that you won’t go above, a speed that you won’t go below, and a speed right in the middle. You can work on getting faster once you’ve finished the program and go back to the beginning. For beginners, the important thing is to keep on going. You don’t have to set any land speed records; you just have to finish. Stay in your lane.

(3) Download Don McLean’s “American Pie” and learn all the words.

I know this sounds like a joke, but hear me out. As you get into the rhythm of C25K, you start to become less intimidated at the thought of running for two, three, or even five minutes at a time. Personally, I was doing just fine until I was suddenly required to run for eight; that’s when I really hit a mental wall. Eight minutes, man. It seemed so perilously close to the dreaded ten minutes! I just knew I was gonna fail on my first few attempts…until I made an interesting observation.


“American Pie” is 8 minutes and 32 seconds long. And because the lyrics tell a narrative story, you end up paying more attention to the words than to the music (especially during the catchy “Bye Bye, Miss American Pie…” chorus). If you just sing and move along with it, you won’t even notice how long it is. By the time Don McLean gets to “Helter Skelter in a summer swelter,” you’re already halfway done with your run. And when the song is finished, so are you. It’s also nice because it starts slow, moves at a nice pace through the middle section, and then slows down again at the end. Great rhythm for beginning runners. Seriously, listen to this song while you’re running. You’ll see what I mean.

(4) Take your rest days seriously. Oh, and use Instagram.

Just as every good diet has a cheat day, every good exercise program has a rest day or two set aside for lying in bed, reading, drinking water, listening to music, and relaxing. Yeah, I know there are a lot of ‘roided-up bros out there who say things like”Where is my rest muscle and how do I train it?” –

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but I’ve found that taking an occasional break from exercise really speeds up my results and helps me stay mentally sharp. Your body needs time to recover from all the awesomeness you’re putting into it. So, take some inspiration from The Big Lebowski. When everything around you (including your leg muscles) is burning out of control, just take it easy, man.

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And by the way, in defense of the “‘roided-up bros” I poked fun at a couple of paragraphs ago, I just have to say that weightlifters/health nuts/gym rats/whatever you want to call them are often among the most positive people you could ever hope to meet. Post just one pic of your treadmill screen on Instagram and watch how many likes and “Good job! Keep it up!” comments come flooding in. Some of my greatest supporters during C25K have been people I’ve never even met. I’m grateful to all of them. Thanks Instagram squad!

(5) Don’t worry. You’ll look awesome in the morning.

It’s not something I can explain with any kind of competency, but for some reason I often look and feel bloated after a long run. My clothes are soaked with sweat, and I have to peel them off before I get in the shower, but my belly still resembles that of a pregnant woman or silverback gorilla.

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The face I make when I’m still fat after an awesome workout.

I’ve researched this, and apparently it has something to do with proper water intake and sodium levels. Like I said, it’s not something I can explain with any kind of expertise. The point is, you should drink a lot of water before, during, and after your run. And even if you still look like a gorilla afterwards, don’t worry. The bloating will subside as you sleep and you’ll look awesome in the morning.

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So what’s next for me? Run a 5k? Climb Everest? Do a motivational lecture tour? Well, I still have 53 lbs (24 kg) to go before I hit my goal weight. So, to that end, I’m gonna keep going to the gym, running (maybe with the Zombies, Run! app), eating right, and even throwing some weight training into the mix. I’ll keep you posted. When the time is right I’ll even post some shirtless before-and-after pics for everybody to drool over.

Good luck to everyone out there who’s working hard to lose weight or attain a personal fitness goal. Drop me a line if there’s a program you think I might benefit from. And if my advice is worth anything to you, I’d like to state emphatically that C25K has been a great experience for me and I recommend it to anyone who’s willing to give it a try. Best wishes, all.

J.
8/21/2017

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What’s in the Box?

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Few of life’s simple pleasures are as exciting for people living in foreign countries as the pleasure of receiving a package from home. It’s like a surprise birthday or Christmas present in a way. You get home from work, you stumble into your apartment building, and BOOM! There’s a box waiting just for you. And it’s filled with STUFF! And some of that stuff can’t be purchased in the country where you live. (I know that sounds illegal, but get your criminal minds out of the gutter. I’m talking about Raisinets and Little Debbie snack cakes here.)

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So I was more than a little upset when the package my parents sent me a few weeks ago mysteriously disappeared en route to South Korea. According to the post office website, it went from Gulfport to Miami to Incheon (Seoul’s major flight hub) to….? Well, we didn’t know. The website said it was “in transit to the destination” but that’s where the trail went cold. Phone calls were made. Intercessory prayers were offered up to St. Anthony and Padre Pio. Korea Post said it was still in the States. USPS said Korea Post must have lost it. Whatever the truth was, the package was M.I.A. for more than six weeks.

I went through four of the five stages of grief before the damn thing finally turned up. It was a little smashed and had clearly gotten wet somewhere along the way, but everything inside was okay. (True sad story: my mom once sent Kimchi a two-pound bag of Pup-Peroni as a present. Customs confiscated it.) I’m so happy that this story had a happy ending that I’m now going to make a list of all the cool shit I thought I’d lost. Just pretend you’re interested.

Shirts

As an adult, I accept the fact that I must wear collared shirts, nice pants, and occasionally a tie to work…But no one cares what I wear on weekends or at the gym! That’s why I’m constantly ordering horror-themed shirts from Fright Rags. It took a while, but I finally managed to get one of their Evil Dead (v.6) shirts before they sold out again. Also got their “Enjoy Horror” shirt because it was on sale.

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This Hattori Hanzo shirt is the perfect attire for those days when you feel like killing your treasonous ex, their current love interest, a Japanese mob boss, a suburban mom hiding a gun inside a box of Kaboom cereal, a hospital orderly, and like 88 other people.

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Got this one from Libertarian Country. I feel like they understand me.

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This design was created by Noir Nouar, one of my very favorite lowbrow pop surrealists. The day I discovered her artwork on Instagram was a good day.

Books


I read Bill Kauffman’s essay collection, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists, during my trip to Beijing in December 2014. Kauffman is hard to pin down politically, but his overriding obsession is with localism and smallness. He believes Americans should stop thinking of the USA as one large monolithic nation and start thinking of themselves in the more manageable terms of small towns, neighborhoods, and local cultures. It’s an idea I find interesting, and all of these books – Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, Wendell Berry’s The Way of Ignorance, and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio – have localism and small towns as their subjects.

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As with the work of Noir Nouar, I first discovered The Street of the Fishing Cat when someone posted a picture of it on Instagram. I liked the title and cover, so I ordered a copy for myself. By the way, my high school French teacher, Monsieur Myatt, has assured me that the Street of the Fishing Cat is indeed a real place in Paris. Writing that down under the “Curiosities” section of my bucket list.

Food
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Now that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are finally available in Korea it’s not quite as imperative for my parents to send me a stash every couple of months. But Reese’s Peanut Butter EGGS? That’s a whole other story. There’s something about the ratio of chocolate to peanut butter in these that makes them perfect. The Easter Bunny took his sweet time this year, but he put three bags of these inside the package.

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I also got a box of Count Chocula. Call me an overgrown kid, but I still love this stuff – and all the other General Mills monster cereals, really. Most people can name the three most popular varieties, but there have actually been five. Can you name them without Googling?

The Watch

And finally, the item I was most afraid I had lost to governmental incompetence: my new watch. I’ve wanted to own a nice watch for literally years now, but I’m not a big fan of the way a lot of luxury brands look these days. The Gucci and Rolex watches I’ve looked at, for example, have these enormous faces with three or four extra little dials situated around the hands that tell time. The whole look of them is too “busy” for my taste. What I was looking for was something a little simpler and more traditional, but which nevertheless had personality and matched my interests. Something like this Finnegans Wake watch from My Irish Jeweler.

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As its name suggests, this watch was made in Ireland and has the opening line of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake spiraling around its face: Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. How could any pretentious English teacher not fall in love with it?

If you think the stuff inside this package was lame and wish I’d write about something cooler, I’ve got a very simple solution for you…SEND ME STUFF! Just don’t use the United States Postal Service to do it.

J.
07/15/17

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The Brass Tacks – Pig Fetus (Official M/V)

Song: Pig Fetus
Band: The Brass Tacks
J. Wiltz: lead guitar and vocals
Mike Lujan: drums, bass, backing vocals, and wicked dance moves

For those who missed it on Facebook I’m once again posting the official “Pig Fetus” music video I edited together last week. I downloaded some new editing software and thought this would be a good way to practice using its different features. You’ll notice, for example, that the placement of the subtitles gets better as the video goes along.

A little history about the song itself. “Pig Fetus” is an original tune written by my high school garage band, the Brass Tacks – basically a two-piece outfit consisting of me and my buddy Mike Lujan. We went through at least four different bass players that I can remember (Steve, Eric, Todd, and Daniel), but none of them could stand to be around us for very long. The bass you hear in the video was played by Mike himself.

Like the rest of our songs (we had about a dozen originals) “Pig Fetus” was written in a very simple style using barre chords and basic drum beats. We always thought it sounded like a surf song – the “surf song from Hell” as we called it – which explains all the banter about “beach blanket buckaroos” and Annette Funicello at the start of the “live” segment.

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The lyrics are about my old gal-pal Jesi Johnson, who really did have a fetal pig that she kept in a jar of formaldehyde inside her room. Jesi eventually ended up moving to California for a short while, but not before giving me said fetal pig as a gift. (You can see why she was worth writing a song about.) Watch closely and you’ll see her twice in this video. The first time is in a clip near the beginning where we were dressed up for Halloween. I was the Trix rabbit and she was a mutilated Girl Scout that I had stabbed to death to get some Trix. The second time is at the very end where she gets her revenge by stabbing me with a nail file. We had fun.

The aforementioned Mike Lujan can also be seen in the video. He’s the wild dancing guy wearing the Nirvana shirt and Burger King hat.

I’m well-aware that I will never make a living with my singing or guitar playing, but hey, it’s garage rock. Just give it a listen and enjoy. Let’s get down to Brass Tacks, everyone.

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Pennsylvania Pitstop: The Pittsburgh Prologue

Last winter I went home to the States for five weeks. One of those weeks was spent criss-crossing the great state of Pennsylvania – a series of adventures now collectively referred to as the Pennsylvania Pitstop.

Friday, January 6, 2017: The Roots of the Pennsylvania Pitstop

It was a classic case of one thing leading to another – and then another. In my early teens, shortly after I first discovered heavy metal and rock-n-roll, I got on this kick where I started watching a shit-ton of concert films and assorted rock-related movies: This is Spinal Tap, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Iron Maiden’s Live After Death, Ozzy Osbourne’s Don’t Blame Me, and of course Oliver Stone’s The Doors.

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This will probably be tantamount to blasphemy for some of you, dear readers, but I’ve never been an especially big Doors fan. I mean, yeah, I enjoy “Break on Through” and “People are Strange” as much as the next guy, but for the most part I consider the Doors one of those rare bands whose greatest hits really are their best songs. I was happy to watch the movie, but I didn’t have a lot invested in it…And then something happened.

About 20-30 minutes in, after Jim Morrison (played by Val Kilmer) causes trouble on the Ed Sullivan Show but before he dies in a bathtub in Paris, there’s a scene where the Doors end up at a party in New York filled with models, celebrities, and a motley assortment of degenerates and weirdos. There’s psychedelic music blasting in the background, colored lights spiraling all over the walls, and an overwhelming sense that reality is being dangerously distorted. But forget all that. That’s just standard 1960s bullshit. What makes the scene interesting are all the sycophants floating around saying things like “Andy is not an artist; Andy Warhol is art” and “Does Andy imitate Life, or does Life imitate Andy?”

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When Morrison finally encounters this monumental artist whom Life imitates, it turns out that Warhol (played by Crispin Glover a.k.a. George McFly) is something of a reluctant extrovert who speaks in a lazy monotone and uses phrases like “Oh wow,” “Oh great,” and “Oh hiiiii!” All of this is met with praise from his army of yes-men, who apparently get paid to compliment his existence and laugh at all of his lame attempts at humor. As the scene moves along, there’s an odd exchange where Jim Morrison removes Andy Warhol’s sunglasses and stares at him very seriously, to which Warhol uncomfortably responds by giving him a silver telephone so he can “talk to God with it.”

I believe the idea here is that Morrison is the “deep” artist-poet-guy trying to peek behind Warhol’s shallow plastic exterior – the real artist calling out the phony. And yet, the only thing I wanted to know when the movie was over was, what the hell was that weird scene all about? Who was Andy Warhol? I’d heard his name before, but I knew next to nothing about him at the time.

True to form, I jumped right into my new interest with both feet, reading books, watching documentaries, and looking for other movies that featured Warhol as a character. The more I learned, the more I identified; and before long I was imitating his film techniques in my camcorder movies, hanging his picture on the wall of my freshman college dorm, nicknaming one of my gal-pals “Edie,” and sporting two t-shirts – one that said “Famous” and another that said “Superstar” – that I ordered from the Andy Warhol Museum. I made up my mind that I would visit this museum someday, a decision that put one of America’s major cities near the very top of my bucket list: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

So it worked out really nicely when my old friend/former radio show co-host Keith – now a hotshot airline owner/executive – ended up moving to Pittsburgh for his job. I had five weeks off for my Christmas vacation and Keith knew just how to nab one of them. “Why don’t you let me put you on a plane and have you come up here for a week?” he suggested via Skype. “We can go to the Warhol Museum.” I was there.

On Friday, January 6th, my flight touched down in Pittsburgh, where Keith was waiting at the airport to give me some quick history about the Immaculate Reception –

and take me to dinner at a place called Ritter’s.

It’s interesting to note that driving into Pittsburgh from the airport was a lot like driving into my hometown of Biloxi. Just like Biloxians come off the interstate and get a great view of the city as they drive across the Back Bay Bridge, Pittsburgh natives pass through a long tunnel that ends in a beautiful panoramic view of the city skyline.

We hadn’t even stopped the car and I already felt at home.

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Ritter’s turned out to be a greasy spoon similar to the diner in Pulp Fiction or the old Tiffin Inn in New Orleans (R.I.P.). A stand-alone Waffle House. Sitting there, cheeseburger in hand, listening to the waitresses and their regulars talk about the Steelers game on Sunday, I began to get the impression that Pittsburgh was just a very big small town filled with hardworking blue-collar people.

“Something just occurred to me,” I told Keith. “This city is what America looks like on TV.” Keith said he’d made a similar observation when he’d first arrived.

“The bars around here are what I call ‘Dan Conner bars,'” he said. “No joke, the whole city looks like Roseanne. You’re gonna love it.” He then proceeded to lay out our itinerary for the week before telling me all about his brilliant plan to propose to his girlfriend Ashley on Groundhog Day. Cheers to that. L’aventure commence.

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Pennsylvania Pitstop: The Heinz Museum, Bowling, Church Brew Works, and Howlers Metal Bar

Last winter I went home to the States for five weeks. One of those weeks was spent criss-crossing the great state of Pennsylvania – a series of adventures now collectively referred to as the Pennsylvania Pitstop.

Saturday, January 7th, 2017: Mr. Rogers is a Saint, but Betty White is Fucking Metal!

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When I woke up on an air mattress at Keith’s place the next morning (at some point you just have to accept the fact that your habits have become your lifestyle) it slowly began to dawn on me that I hadn’t actually met his girlfriend Ashley the night before. She was sick when I came in and didn’t want to meet one of Keith’s A-list friends while she was all congested and crudded up. (Translation: if you’re friends with Keith and you’ve seen Ashley sick, you’re probably not on the expensive Christmas gift list. You’ll be lucky if you even get a card, loser.) I felt a little strange creeping into the kitchen to introduce myself, especially when I realized that Keith wasn’t there. But, our first meeting went exceptionally well – how Keith landed either of us in his life is a mystery to us both – and Ashley wasted no time introducing me to her dog Presley, easily the coolest dog north of the Mason-Dixon Line.


When Keith got back from some early morning bullshit at the airport, we headed out for lunch at Essie’s Hot Dog Shop, which was basically a ballpark concession stand writ large. Hot dogs, Coke, and french fries in a red plastic basket. It was amazing. And it served as proof of my earlier observation that Pittsburgh was indeed a small town at heart.

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After lunch, we did a little bit of sightseeing before meeting up with Keith’s friend Josh at the Heinz History Museum. I’ve done enough traveling to know that museums are extremely hit and miss, so believe me when I tell you that this one was a definite hit. Honestly, if you ever spend time in Pittsburgh try to visit this museum near the beginning of your trip. It’ll give you a nice overview of the city’s history and culture.

The first few floors were dedicated to Pittsburgh’s NFL team, the Steelers, as well as the industrial history which gave them their name. Among other things, we saw the shoes Franco Harris was wearing when he made the Immaculate Reception:


An exhibit honoring steel/textile tycoon Andrew Carnegie (more on him later):


Elektro and Sparko, a robot man-and-dog team that I first saw in one of my favorite books when I was a kid:


An electric chair that made me blurt out “Oh shit!” when I first saw it, much to the amusement of Keith and Josh.

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A stuffed bear that I did my best impression of:

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Rosie the Riveter:


And, most exciting for a horror movie fan like me, George A. Romero’s director’s chair from the set of The Dark Half.


Then we got to the upper floors, which is where the magic really started to happen. Turns out, the museum has a whole floor showcasing the history of the Heinz Company and its long timeline of products. (I know that’s probably hard to believe with a name like ‘The Heinz History Museum,’ but believe me, it’s true.) I’m a huge fan of food labels, packaging, and marketing – especially for vintage products – so this was like Disney World for me. Old bottles and crates and posters and collectible items galore. (Yes, I’m one of those people who spends an hour in the Cracker Barrel store every time I drop in for chicken ‘n dumplings.)


And then – then! – just when we thought we’d seen it all and were about to leave, Keith wondered aloud, “Hey, I wonder what’s on the next floor.” …To think we’d almost missed our chance to see the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.


The exhibit was set up in such a way that we didn’t see the set as soon as we came off the elevator. First, we had to go around a corner and pass the tree where Mister Rogers’s owl friend used to live.


Then
 we saw the set, complete with the living room where Mister Rogers would always change into his trademark shoes and cardigans, the Land of Make Believe ruled by good King Friday, and the tiny trolley that shuttled viewers back and forth between the two.


It’s weird to admit this, dear readers, but the three of us actually fell into a state of reverential awe at the sight of these things. It was like we had all walked back into our kindergarten classrooms 30 years later and found nothing out of place. After all the changes and difficulties and disappointments that have taken place in our lives between childhood and the present day, it was incredible to see that this good, gentle little world where we all grew up still existed. I think we all got a little misty-eyed.

Feel free to poke fun at us about that if you want to, but first I encourage you to watch this video of Mister Rogers at his Hall of Fame induction. Hopefully you’ll understand that it wasn’t an act with this man. Fred Rogers was truly a saint. Get your Kleenex ready, bitches.

It was a nearly impossible act to follow, but there were a few other things worth seeing on the Mister Rogers floor, including some old carnival attractions and religious iconography.

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I imagine these are the kinds of paintings Andy Warhol’s devoutly Catholic mother Julia Warhola had in her home.

After the museum we headed off for a Big Lebowski-style bowling alley.

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Had drinks and bowled a few games with some of Keith’s other friends – all great people who then joined us for dinner at the Church Brew Works.


Now, the Church Brew Works. This might take a little explaining. As its name suggests, it’s a brew pub built inside a deconsecrated Catholic church. This means that people can now eat, drink, have conversations, and take selfies in the very spots where other people once knelt, prayed, and confessed their sins. It’s huge. Clearly, this wasn’t just some little tourist-y church for people in t-shirts and shorts back in the day. This was a church where immigrants and steel workers came for some real-ass CatholicismI’m talkin’ about that serious pre-Vatican II, Baltimore Catechism, Latin mass, women wearing veils, fasting all day on Sunday, burning incense, and side altars kind of stuff.

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Here’s Andy Warhol meeting Pope John Paul II. Warhol attended daily mass throughout his life.

Somehow, even on a Saturday night, we ended up in one of the best seats in the house: a semi-circular booth inside a large alcove that probably housed devotional candles or statues at one time. I had the buffalo meatloaf and a local beer I can’t remember the name of.


After patiently listening to me explain the architecture and purpose of various parts of the building, Keith grinned and asked if I thought we were going to Hell for eating there. “Not yet,” I said…But an hour or so later, we were well on our way.


Most of our party decided to head home after dinner, but, Keith being Keith, he was determined that we should do a little bar-hopping first. Specifically, he wanted to take me to a metal bar called Howlers. He said he’d always wanted to go there, but he needed me to come with him for “cred” (as if my appearance screams “Metal!” any more than his does). Sure enough, though, I was immediately embraced by all the show promoters and musicians, who couldn’t believe that “a guy from fucking South Korea” was in the audience.

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It Is Written.

I caught the second half of a stoner/sludge metal set and then a full show by It Is Written. (Follow the link and check them out, fellow metalheads.)

Keith and Josh, not even remotely interested in the music, passed the time at the bar in the next room where, of all things, The Golden Girls was playing on two large-screen TVs. That’s right. Songs of death and carnage in one room; “Thank You for Being a Friend” in the other.

“You know something?” Keith told me as we staggered out a few hours later. “Betty White is fucking metal!” And just like that, the Pennsylvania Pitstop had its first official catch phrase.

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Pennsylvania Pitstop: Pittsburgh Steelers Football

Last winter I went home to the States for five weeks. One of those weeks was spent criss-crossing the great state of Pennsylvania – a series of adventures now collectively referred to as the Pennsylvania Pitstop.

Sunday, January 8th, 2017: Steelers Football and the Milkshake of Shame

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Having spent the previous night eating dinner in a heavenly church building and jamming to the soundtrack of Hell, it was only fitting that we should end up having lunch at a place called Burgatory the next day.

I’m sure you don’t need this explained to you, but Burgatory serves burgers. Damn good burgers. All kinds of damn good burgers.

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I had the Elk Gone Wild – because, seriously, when’s the next time I’m gonna have a chance to order elk?

We weren’t there just to eat burgers, though. Our main mission was to watch a Pittsburgh Steelers game up close and personal. Burgatory, you see, is only a couple of blocks away from Heinz Field – home of the Steelers. We couldn’t get tickets, so we went to Burgatory and watched the game on television instead. It was pretty cool that we could simultaneously hear the crowd noise on TV and in the air outside the restaurant. It was like a 4-D movie without all the annoying blasts of wind to the face.

Equally cool was the overall atmosphere of the game. When I lived in New Orleans I lived among Saints fans, which means I’m accustomed to NFL Game Day being a very loud, drunken, debaucherous sort of event filled with cops, arrests, and the occasional murder. The Steelers game was more like a blue-collar version of Ole Miss football. People (including us) were drinking of course, but no one was belligerent about it. Mostly it was parents lined up with their kids on the subway and outside the stadium. But instead of ties and dresses (customary Ole Miss wear) they were all wearing Steelers jerseys and t-shirts. It was a beautiful thing to see.

The only setback of the day came when I ordered a milkshake after lunch. From the look of Burgatory’s menu they were apparently famous for the damn things, so I thought I’d try one out. After several minutes of careful deliberation and menu research (including an in-depth Q&A with our waitress), I finally settled for the Fluffer Nutter, made with marshmallow fluff and Nutter Butter cookies. Hell. Yeah. I didn’t even care that its name was clearly porn-inspired. Now, maybe was this naive on my part, but I assumed they’d bring it to me in one of those silver milkshake mixing cups so I could inconspicuously sip it while watching the game. No. They brought it out in a huge beer glass piled obnoxiously high with whipped cream and cookie crumbs.

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If I’d had a girl with me, it would have been disgustingly cute. But all I had was Keith, who made no secret that he didn’t want to be seen with me as long as I was drinking that shit. He went outside (“to make a call” – yeah right), and suddenly I found myself all alone, sad, fat, and desperate, as if I’d wandered up from my mom’s basement just long enough to get a milkshake before heading back down to watch more hentai. The only way it could possibly have been more embarrassing is if they’d made me wear some kind of horned cow hat and sung a novelty birthday song. I noticed a couple of guys across the bar motioning to me and laughing. I just shrugged and nodded. Yup, go ahead and laugh, assholes. I’d probably do the same thing if it was the other way around. What else could I do but hide behind a menu and question all my life decisions?

bad decisions
This moment of self-doubt didn’t last long, though. Despite its considerable cost in social currency, the Fluffer Nutter was an undeniable masterpiece of the dairy arts. Given even half a chance, I’d go back to Burgatory, sit at a quiet side table, hide behind a menu, and do it all over again.

Oh, and the Steelers won, so that was good too.


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Pennsylvania Pitstop: The Flight 93 Memorial

Last winter I went home to the States for five weeks. One of those weeks was spent criss-crossing the great state of Pennsylvania – a series of adventures now collectively referred to as the Pennsylvania Pitstop.

Monday, January 9th, 2017: Jewish delis, Islamic terrorism, and Mexican food. 

Food for Thought…

If you’re waiting for me to say something thought-provoking or profound, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. I didn’t mean I was going to give you any food for thought; I was telling you the name of the Jewish deli where Keith and I grabbed an early lunch on Monday before heading out of Pittsburgh.

With the possible exception of New Orleans, none of the cities where I’ve lived have had very visible Jewish communities. I say New Orleans is only a possible exception despite the fact that I used to work for Tulane University, which is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Jew-lane.”

JewlaneI’m sure many of the students there did come from Jewish families, but I never saw anyone so much as wear a yarmulke on campus.

Before Hurricane Katrina there was a synagogue in Biloxi, but it was tucked away in a quiet neighborhood behind a bowling alley. I didn’t even know it was there until I was in sixth or seventh grade. Needless to say, my friends and I were completely unfamiliar with Jewish culture, and, once the synagogue was discovered, we just assumed it was a “devil worshiper church” and the Star of David outside was a pentagram.

Beth Israel
That probably sounds a little crazy or anti-Semitic to anyone reading this now, but you have to remember that this was the era of Satanic Panic. According to the media and popular culture of the time, there were devil worshipers everywhere, drinking the blood of children, sacrificing small animals, and putting hidden messages in heavy metal albums. We heard a lot more about “devil worshipers” than we ever heard about Jews.

My point in mentioning these things is that day-to-day Jewish culture is still very new to me, which is why I’m always excited to end up in a place like Food for Thought. It’s interesting to see people observing traditional dietary laws, kvetching without irony, and speaking in honest-to-Yahweh Yiddish idioms. The owner of the place is a Pittsburgh legend named Bob, a hell of a guy who makes a hell of a corned beef sandwich.

Food for Thought
Bob seemed to know (and be known by) everyone who came through his door.  Here’s hoping I make it back to that door one of these days.

After we left I felt a powerful urge to listen to Leonard Cohen and watch Krusty the Clown.


But Leonard and Krusty would have to wait. First, we were hitting the road for the Flight 93 Memorial in Stoystown.

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Flight 93, for those of you drawing a blank, was the “fourth plane” on 9-11. Two hit the World Trade Center, one hit the Pentagon, and one (Flight 93) crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania after the passengers fought back against the hijackers.


Before we arrived, I bet Keith a dollar that there would be at least one 9-11 Truther nut-job standing outside picketing or handing out literature. I lost that dollar. Apart from the front desk lady and security guard at the visitors center, we were the only ones there that afternoon.

The exhibit inside the visitors center was relatively small, starting with a September 11th timeline and then snaking around in an S-pattern to a final panel featuring pictures of all the flowers and gifts left at the crash site. In-between were some of the victims‘ belongings and, most tragically, a phone bank where we could pick up plastic receivers and listen to some of the messages the victims had sent to their families.

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One thing that really grabbed Keith’s attention was a notation on the timeline that said United 93 had been delayed for 20 minutes before taking off that morning. “Just think,” he said solemnly, “if they had taken off on time the passengers never would have found out about the other planes. They would have crashed into the White House or Congress.” Leave it to an airline executive to find an upside to a flight delay. But I had to hand it to him – he was right.

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I’m glad there were boxes of tissue all around the exhibit. I needed one or two.

We got through the visitors center in 15-20 minutes and then headed outside to tour the crash site. The weather was extremely cold that day and the site was 0.7 miles away down a snow-covered trail. That’s why I laughed out loud when I noticed the “No Horses” sign.

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I kept imagining a horse with a bad attitude not wanting to walk across the snow in the freezing cold, saying, “Yeah! No horses! Now get off my back and walk this trail by your damn self!”

About halfway down we came to the observation area where the victims’ friends and family members stood when the wreckage was being cleared. From there we could see a few houses scattered around in the distance, and I began to wonder if the families living there were the same families who lived there on 9-11. I can’t imagine what that must have been like, living in this peaceful Grant Wood painting of a community – the kind of place where dentists still have their offices in their homes – and having it marred by such incredible violence.

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At the end of the trail we came to the memorial plaza where all the victims’ names have been carved into white stone.

When we looked closely we saw shadow writing indicating the pregnant mothers and flight attendants.

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We also paid special attention to Todd Beamer, the passenger famous for asking an Airfone operator to pray the Lord’s Prayer with him before saying “Let’s roll” and leading the charge to overtake the terrorists.

Not far beyond the plaza, after several failed attempts to read our maps correctly, we finally located the crash site behind a short wall. There was nothing especially remarkable about it – no pieces of the plane on display or indentation in the ground or anything like that. Like a Civil War battlefield, its significance came strictly from the memory of what happened there.


The whole experience was unreal in a way, mostly because the location was so remote and the atmosphere was so unbelievably quiet. I told Keith how I had seen the Pentagon when I visited D.C. and assumed I’d eventually make my way to New York and see the footprints of the Twin Towers; but I could honestly say it had never even crossed my mind that I might one day be standing in the field where Flight 93 went down. Life takes strange detours sometimes.

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We stood around and talked for a while, remembering how we’d announced the news of the September 11th attacks during our college radio show at Ole Miss. It was hard to wrap our heads around the idea that fifteen years – a whole decade and a half – have passed since then. Most of today’s high school students probably don’t even remember it. This must be how our grandparents felt about Pearl Harbor, or how our parents feel about the JFK assassination. These massive world-changing events that younger generations can read or watch old news footage about but never really experience.

We were both a little melancholy as we turned around to leave – until we noticed the large parking lot situated directly behind us. I could see the annoyed amusement in Keith’s face when he turned to look at me. “Could we have driven down here?” he asked.

I told him I didn’t know. I wasn’t paying attention to the signs.

It was dark by the time we made it back up the hill and into the warmth of Keith’s car, so we had to read the answer to his question by the light of his headlights. Turning out of the parking lot, we saw a sign pointing the way to a paved road that led straight down to the crash site. Our trek through the freezing cold had been completely unnecessary.

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It would have been easy to bitch, but Keith quickly brought the situation down to Earth with his usual optimism. “Well,” he said, “if they can give their lives, we can walk a mile through the fucking snow.”

I agreed. And as soon as we got back to Pittsburgh, we drank to the memory of Flight 93 over an awesome meal at El Patron.

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