Archive for the ‘Where in the World is Uncle Swan?’ category

Comic Art Friday: Let’s make some REAL news

August 11, 2017

I’m just back from my annual junket to the Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA) in Las Vegas, and man, is my brain fried.

I’ve attended every TCONA since the first one in 2011, and it seems as though it’s even more of a blast each successive year. It’s my one opportunity every summer to interface in person with fellow quizzers (including many other former — and some yet future — Jeopardy! champions) from all over the continent (and in a few cases, from other continents), amid the diz-busting, face-melting heat of Vegas in August.

Once again, I managed to keep my six-year medal-winning streak alive, with a bronze in the Team Trivia Championship (shared with five of the nicest and smartest people you’d meet anywhere). When you can’t be the brightest bulb in the room, it’s good to be one of the luckiest.

Best of all, the Pirate Queen joined me as usual at the end of the convention for a few days of Vegas-style R&R, as we are wont to enjoy.

But you’re here for the comic art, aren’t you?

All righty then.

Starman and The Creeper, pencils and inks by Tom Derenick

Today’s featured artwork is this tremendous effort by Tom Derenick, a leading contender in the Why Isn’t This Artist More Famous? sweepstakes. Our latest dip in the Common Elements theme pool matches The Creeper, one of Steve Ditko’s less prominent creations, with the Golden Age hero Starman. What in the wide world of DC Comics might these two have in common, you ask? Perhaps more than you’d think.

When we first encounter the man who would become The Creeper in Showcase #73 (March 1968), he’s Jack Ryder, an obnoxious blowhard TV personality. Starman in civilian life is Ted Knight, who shares his name with an actor (sadly, no longer with us) best known for playing… wait for it… an obnoxious blowhard TV personality. There’s your first common element.

I say “first” because sometimes when I devise a new Common Elements concept, I’m so focused on the idea I have for the project that I miss entirely plausible alternate connections between the characters involved. My good friend and colleague, the legendary commission collector Damon Owens, was quick to point out one here that I didn’t even think about.

The alter egos of these two characters go together to form “Knight Ryder,” a title differing only in spelling from that of a popular action-adventure program from the 1980s. That series, coincidentally, starred David Hasselhoff, a man who also fits the description of… wait for it… an obnoxious blowhard TV personality.

(Incidentally, any additional connection, real or imagined, to an obnoxious blowhard TV personality currently in national public office is 100% serendipitous. *cough*)

So, there’s another common element — one you’d suppose that a self-professed trivia maven such as your Uncle Swan would have picked up on from Jump Street.

Alas, no. Therefore, my thanks to Damon for sweeping the glass and snatching the uncontested rebound.

Back to our spotlight heroes for a moment. As noted previously, The Creeper sprang from the fevered imagination of Steve Ditko — probably best known as the artist co-creator of Marvel’s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, but also the source of such characters as The Question, Hawk and Dove, and Shade the Changing Man.

In his debut adventure, Jack Ryder becomes The Creeper through the most unlikely of circumstances. In his capacity as a security expert for the television network that recently fired him from his talk-show-hosting duties, Ryder hunts down the subversive agents who kidnapped a famous scientist. While tracking the kidnappers, Ryder crashes a high-society masquerade ball wearing a costume he threw together from random items — the costume that later becomes The Creeper’s signature look. When Ryder finds the missing scientist, the man gives him a serum that speeds healing from injury, along with a device that enables Ryder to transform his apparel from his everyday clothes to his Creeper garb in the blink of an eye. The scientist is soon murdered, leading Ryder to devote himself to battling evildoers.

Starman’s history dates back to Adventure Comics #61 (April 1941), wherein astronomer Ted Knight invents a device he dubs a gravity rod. This handheld implement allows Knight to fly and to fire blasts of energy at his opponents. Almost a year later, in All-Star Comics #8 (January 1942 — the same issue in which Wonder Woman makes her debut appearance, although in a separate story), Starman and blind crimefighter Doctor Mid-Nite join the Justice Society of America, the original superhero team.

Starman faded from the scene (like most Golden Age superheroes) in the late 1940s. In the intervening decades, several other DC characters have used the Starman identity — some connected by legacy to the original Ted Knight version, others completely unrelated. A cynic might opine that DC keeps creating new Starman types merely to keep its trademark alive… but we’re not cynics here, are we?

Returning to our artwork: Not only does Tom Derenick draw with classic style and razor-sharp precision, but he also employs a brilliant twist of perspective here. If you look closely at the background, you’ll notice that the “bottom” of the scene from a real-world point of view is actually the right-hand side of the frame (in other words, that’s where the “ground” is). Thus, in portrait orientation — which is clearly how Derenick expects the viewer to see the image — it appears that The Creeper is jumping down onto an upwardly rising Starman, in attack mode. But when we adjust the angle, and put the bottom of the frame where it would actually be, we observe that it is in fact Starman who has the upper hand, and The Creeper is leaping (or falling) backward, away from his opponent. (See the rotated image below.)

Starman and The Creeper, pencils and inks by Tom Derenick

It’s a masterful shot, perfectly designed and executed. When Tom sent me his preliminary sketch early on in the project, the background was merely suggested by a handful of lines. Only when I saw the finished piece fully rendered could I understand and appreciate what the artist envisioned. I was completely blown away. You might be too.

As with so many things in this life, it’s all in how you look at it.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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Back to the ‘burbs: a transition

July 22, 2014

All my adult life, I wanted to live in my favorite city. Today, I do.

Now, having realized that dream for less than three years, I’m heading back to the suburbs.

Before you get all distraught, let me assure you that this is a good thing. The Pirate Queen landed an excellent new job earlier this month, and after years of exhausting commuting hither and yon – the last six of which saw her trekking daily between San Francisco and San Jose, which is more of a haul than you non-Bay Areans probably realize – she decided she wanted to live within a few minutes’ drive of her new office.

Given that my commute most days is the several steps from the bedroom to my studio space, I can hardly argue with that desire.

We managed to find a lovely house in the East Bay city of Walnut Creek, a mere stone’s throw from the Pirate Queen’s workplace (assuming that you throw your stones with a howitzer). We both knew that the Kasbah — as I nicknamed it, for its fortress-like frontage and ginormous palm tree — was our new home the moment we first stepped inside.

Following the usual negotiation and paperwork craziness, escrow closed on the property this morning. Our action plan is to move by mid-August, after which we’ll put our San Francisco home on the market and say a bittersweet farewell to this first chapter in our life together.

I have loved living in The City. Its vibrant energy, diverse culture, and unparalleled urban landscape make it a fascinating place to spend one’s days. It’s impossible to place a value on being able to glimpse the Pacific Ocean (a tiny slice of it, anyway) from my living room window. I will miss that view, and the joy it brings me every day. Looking on the positive side, however, as I am wont to do, there are some things I’ll eagerly embrace about our new suburban environs:

A real, full-service supermarket just blocks away. In fact, an impressive shopping complex – complete with a drugstore, a Starbucks, a dry cleaner, and several inexpensive eateries – surrounds the supermarket, all of which is within comfortable walking distance from the new house. One of my ongoing challenges in The City is that many of these types of businesses aren’t conveniently located, at least not where we live. (If you ever want to experience a rush of first-world-problem compassion, just visit the Monterey Boulevard Safeway. Then tell me you don’t feel pity for the neighborhood denizens for whom it’s the primary grocery option.)

Easy parking. I will never underappreciate the blessing of going to a local shop or restaurant secure in the knowledge that ample parking awaits. Few factors frustrate me more about big-city life than the debacle that results every time I have to circle several blocks hunting down a place for my car, or parallel park along San Francisco’s notoriously jam-packed streets. In the suburbs, there’s almost always a big parking lot near where you need to go.

Warm summer weather. Okay, when I say “warm” in regard to the East Bay beyond the Oakland hills, I really mean “hot” for two-thirds of the year. As much as I’m not a fan of blazing heat, I’ll scarcely miss the relentlessly gloomy, blustery, semi-Antarctic climate of our San Francisco hillside neighborhood. Besides, we’ll have air conditioning. And a pool.

East Bay life will also have an advantage over my former digs to the north. Venturing into San Francisco from Sonoma County requires a long, tedious drive in often stupefying traffic, plus the aforementioned parking challenge. By contrast, our Walnut Creek home is convenient to two BART stations – the trains, in fact, pass a few hundred feet from the house – from which we can whisk to and from The City at relative leisure. Heading downtown to dine or catch a play will hardly take more effort than it does for us living in SF.

Our new abode has many features to recommend it.

First, no stairs, no hills. Our San Francisco house, like many single-household residences throughout The City, is what’s termed a “soft-story” building. The primary living space is all on one level, but that level is built on top of the garage. This means that entering and leaving the house – or even going to the garage to do laundry — involves mounting a tall, steep, narrow staircase. The older my knees and back get, the less fond they are of that adventure. Conversely, the Walnut Creek property is a traditional California ranch-style house. (There’s a sunken living room, but seriously, that’s two steps.) It will be wonderful to simply walk through a door to carry the laundry basket out, or heavy bags filled with groceries in. Likewise, the entire neighborhood sits on flat terrain. The views are uninspiring, but it’s a lot more conducive to long walks.

Second, both the Pirate Queen and I will have our own individual office spaces. In our little two-bedroom in The City, the second bedroom does quadruple duty as a two-person office, guest room, pet bedroom, and dressing room (because most of my clothes reside in its closet and dresser). The new house has four bedrooms, one of which will give the Pirate Queen a dedicated home office that she doesn’t have to share with my desk, my clothes, the guest bed, or the Studio Assistant. Another bedroom will convert into my combination office and studio, which will liberate my recording equipment from the corner of the living room where it has resided for the past three years. I’ll be able to do a lot of things with my workspace that I simply didn’t have room to do here, including install a proper, fully contained recording booth.

Third, two bathrooms. The importance of this development cannot be overstated.

Fourth… did I mention the pool?

Make no mistake, the move will be a monumental adjustment. It will be even more so for the Pirate Queen, who has lived in The City for nearly 20 years, than for me, who spent the better part of three decades in North Bay suburbia. But it’s a change we’ve contemplated for some time. Last year, we actually looked at houses in the South Bay, thinking that we might move closer to the location where the Pirate Queen was then working. When her new opportunity emerged, there was no question for either of us that this was the right time to switch sides of the Bay.

I’ll miss being a San Franciscan. In the immortal words often sung by Tony Bennett, I’ll leave a bit of my heart here – a bit that I will return to visit as often as I can.

But if you’re looking for me at the Porthole Palace, look quickly.

My new crib is the Kasbah.

It rocks.

Our Hawaiian honeymoon: Day three

June 29, 2012

[Catch up on what happened on the first day and the second day of our adventure.]

Day three began with breakfast at a joint called Cheeseburger in Paradise. We did not — repeat, not — have cheeseburgers for breakfast. We did, however, have a sweet view of Waikiki Beach through the restaurant’s open window.

Paradise. Cheeseburger not required.

In case you were curious, this outlet is part of a chain that is apparently unrelated to the similarly named chain owned by singer Jimmy Buffett, whose similarly named song clearly inspired both chains. Now you’re not curious, merely confused. Join the club.)

Appropriately stoked with high-protein, high-carbohydrate fuel, we were itching to break in the snorkeling equipment we’d purchased the day before. Thanks to a tip from a guidebook and a recommendation from our Cheeseburger waiter — whose name was not Spicoli, but could well have been — we loaded up our rental car and headed for the north shore of Oahu. Specifically, we aimed for a spot dubbed Shark’s Cove.

Shark's Cove: Just because we didn't see sharks, doesn't mean you won't.

We did not — repeat, not — see any sharks. We did, however, spend a couple of joy-filled hours swimming with a variety of gorgeous tropical sea life, including an array of colorful fish that would do justice to any aquarium. In fact, snorkeling at Shark’s Cove offered a taste of what it might be like to swim in an aquarium, were one thus inclined.

A few tips we’d pass along to other snorkelers who make the trek to Shark’s Cove:

  • Get there early in the day. Parking is limited, and somewhat challenging to negotiate.
  • Leave your flippers in the car, or better yet, at your hotel. The rocky seascape here renders fins useless — or worse, makes them an encumbrance. Unless you’re venturing well out into deep water — which we would heartily advise against — flippers won’t benefit you in this environment.
  • Do, on the other hand, wear water shoes. The reef and rocks at Shark’s Cove are razor-sharp, as the numerous gashes they ruptured in my knees will demonstrate.
  • Currents here can be very powerful. As alluded above, it’s easy to get beaten up here by waves dashing you against the rocks. It’s easy to imagine that if you venture out beyond the relative shelter of the cove, fighting the motion of the ocean could quickly develop into a losing battle. Be careful out there.
  • Take a cheap waterproof camera. We didn’t, and wished we had.
  • As is true anywhere in Hawaii, don’t leave anything of value visible in your car. Predators abound. We didn’t encounter any problems ourselves, but all those signs posted everywhere warning you about thievery are there for good reason.

We give Shark’s Cove high marks as a snorkeling venue. It’s well worth the drive around the island from Honolulu to check it out.

On our way back into the city, we stopped for lunch at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck in Kahuku. There are probably a couple dozen food trucks and shacks of every description as you drive through Kahuku on the Kamehameha Highway, all specializing in freshly caught local shrimp. (Imagine if Forrest Gump and his pal Bubba had moved to Hawaii and chosen the slacker life, rather than opening that gaudy chain of touristy restaurants.) Of these, Giovanni’s enjoys the most widespread reputation — a reputation we found well deserved.

We shared a plate of the hot and spicy shrimp; they were indeed as volcanic as advertised (a sign cautions that they don’t offer refunds if you find the dish too hot) and quite delicious. Or, to say it local-style, “Da shrimps stay so ono, broke da mout’! Chee!”

Giovanni's hot and spicy shrimp: Local-kine grinds... so ono!

Giovanni’s surrounds its truck with a nice permanent set-up, featuring picnic tables shaded by an open-air roofed structure, sinks for postprandial hand-washing, and indoor restrooms. There’s also a shave ice truck on site in case you need help cooling your mouth after downing the shrimp.

Appetites sated, we continued on to Valley of the Temples Memorial Park in Kahaluu. This multicultural cemetery features a half-scale replica of the ancient Byodo-In Buddhist temple in Uji, Japan. It’s a stunning building nestled in a lush, serene location at the base of the Ko’olau range.

Byodo-In Temple, Valley of the Temples Memorial Park

We spent a blissful hour wandering through the temple and its grounds, soaking in the quiet, admiring the architecture, and watching the fog creep in over the mountains. The Pirate Queen enjoyed seeing the massive Buddha statue inside the temple (she’s seen me shirtless often enough that you’d think this wouldn’t be much of an attraction, but apparently it was) and ringing the colossal bell in the courtyard.

I watched as a black swan scudded along the surface of the pond. I think she and your Uncle Swan shared a bonding moment.

When a swan meets a Swan, coming through the rye...

Our next stop, Nu’uanu Pali, offered a breathtaking view of the windward shore of Oahu from 1200 feet up the side of the dormant volcano. When I say “breathtaking,” I’m not speaking hyperbolically. The wind rips through the mountain pass with gale-like velocity, producing sufficient chill to make you forget for a few minutes that you’re in the tropics. Despite the briskness, the view is nothing short of incredible.

The view from Nu'uanu Pali Lookout

One can see all the way to the offshore island called Mokoli’i (“little lizard” in Hawaiian), also known as Chinaman’s Hat — or, as we might put it in these more ethnically sensitive times, Asian Person of Chinese Extraction’s Hat. We were, however, eager to get back into the cozy, cyclone-free confines of our rented Toyota in fairly short order.

Safely back in Waikiki, we ventured across the street from our hotel for dinner at Sansei. The Waikiki branch of a local chain of upscale sushi restaurants, Sansei serves up an intriguing spectrum of dishes, some of which can best be described as “experiments in seafood.” Some of the experiments work better than others — one or two of the combinations we ordered seemed to be outré for the sake of outré -ness — but on the whole, we enjoyed the dining experience, bizarre flourishes and all. It was pleasant to relax on the restaurant’s third-floor lanai in the relative cool of the evening, tucked around the street corner from the bustle of the main drag. Plus, there were those mediocre Hawaiian-tinged cover tunes wafting across from the tiki bar to serenade us.

Thus ended our third day in the islands. I’ll regale you with tales of Day Four soon.

Our Hawaiian honeymoon: Day two

June 15, 2012

[If you missed what happened on the first day of our adventure, read about it here.]

Our first full day in Hawaii — and all of our days in the Islands proved remarkably full — began with breakfast at LuLu’s Waikiki, conveniently located just around the corner from our hotel. With its spacious open-air dining room and decent food, LuLu’s quickly established itself as our go-to spot for morning fortification. (The popular breakfast choice on the Waikiki strip is a joint called Eggs and Things, centrally located in the hotel district, but we never saw a morning where that place didn’t have a line out the door. We didn’t fly all the way to Oahu to stand in an hour-long queue for an omelette.) LuLu’s is primarily a sports bar — judging by the decor, the owners are major Boston Red Sox fanatics — but they dish up a perfectly acceptable breakfast, and we never had a problem getting seated quickly so we could speed along with our touring.

Iolani Palace: Not the actual home of Hawaii Five-O.

Appetites sated, we headed for our first sightseeing stop: Iolani Palace, former residence of the Hawaiian royal family and the only royal palace located on U.S. soil. Iolani was high on the Pirate Queen’s list of must-dos, and she was duly impressed with the spectacle on display. After donning handmade cloth booties that fit over our shoes (to protect the palace’s vintage hardwood floors from thousands of clumsy tourist feet), we joined our docent, Cousin Tino — everybody’s your cousin in Hawaii — for a guided tour. You can’t take photographs inside the palace, but trust me when I tell you that you’ve never seen a house quite like this one.

Iolani Palace: "The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness"

Between the opulent furniture, museum-quality artwork (mostly portraits of the Hawaiian royal family, and other monarchs whom they befriended), and fascinating history, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Cousin Tino made the time both informative and entertaining (we were his last tour of the morning, and a relatively small group, so he treated us to an extended stay with “extra stories”).

Ali'iolani Hale: Also not the actual home of Hawaii Five-O.

Following our stroll around Iolani Palace, we ventured across the street to check out the exterior of Ali’iolani Hale (“House of the Heavenly King”), the building that formerly served as the seat of Hawaiian government and today houses the state’s Supreme Court. It’s most recognized for the familiar statue of King Kamehameha I that decorates its courtyard. If you watch the current version of the TV series Hawaii Five-O, you might also recognize Ali’iolani Hale as the headquarters of Steve McGarrett and company. I regret to inform you that the Five-O team does not actually work here, and in fact, does not exist. Sorry… fiction. (Viewers of a certain age might recall that the original Hawaii Five-O used shots of Iolani Palace as the team’s home base. Sorry… also fiction.)

Kamehameha the Great: Not the original statue.

Ali’iolani Hale’s Kamehameha statue has a rather amusing back-story. Commissioned in 1878 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaii (an arrival that didn’t turn out all that well for the captain), the Kamehameha statue was designed by Thomas Gould, an American sculptor living in Italy at the time, and cast in bronze in Paris. Unfortunately, the ship carrying the statue from France to Hawaii sank off the Falkland Islands, and the statue was thought lost to the Atlantic. The forward-thinking Hawaiian government had taken out a hefty insurance policy, the payout from which paid for a recasting of the statue, which Gould promptly shipped. But wait! Enterprising local Falklanders recovered the original statue and sold it back to the wrecked ship’s captain, who in turn sold it to the Hawaiian government. Finding themselves with two identical statues, the Hawaiians installed the original on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast, near Kamehameha the Great’s birthplace, and mounted the replica — which you’re looking at here — in front of Ali’iolani Hale.

Next, we made a stop at a Wal-Mart to purchase snorkeling gear that we’d use during the trip. We scored complete sets of equipment — snorkels, masks, fins, and water shoes — for a relative pittance. Wal-Mart in Hawaii is pretty much like Wal-Mart on the mainland, only with more aloha shirts and macadamia nuts, and with an L&L Hawaiian Barbecue concession instead of a McDonald’s.

National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater

Our travels next took us up into the hills overlooking downtown Honolulu, to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Puowaina. Lodged in the lush green concavity of an ancient volcanic crater (hence the nickname “Punchbowl”), the cemetery houses the remains of thousands of military veterans. Punchbowl is also home to a group of ten marble memorials to Service personnel from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War whose remains were never recovered — “whose earthly resting place is known only to God.”

Dedication stone, Court of the Missing at Punchbowl Cemetery

It’s a touch ironic, I suppose, that in a place as teeming with tropical life as Oahu so many of the attractions that draw attention are memorials to the deceased. Having grown up in a military family, however, I’m acutely conscious of the sacrifices our Servicemen and Servicewomen are called upon to make. For that reason, it was important to me to take the drive up to Punchbowl with the Pirate Queen, whose father was a sailor during the Second World War.

Statue of Columbia at Punchbowl Cemetery

Overseeing Punchbowl from the head of an enormous staircase is a statue of Columbia, the mythic female figure who personified the young United States in the 18th and 19th centuries — hence the name of the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia. (Moviegoers know her better as the logo of a popular film studio.) Columbia pretty much got shoved aside in American symbology in favor of Lady Liberty around the turn of the 20th century, but when Punchbowl was dedicated in 1949, she received her corner in the limelight.

All aboard for Paradise Cove!

Our day transitioned from reverence to revelry in the late afternoon, when we and a few dozen of our new closest cousins boarded a bus bound for the Paradise Cove Luau. When planning our luau experience, the Pirate Queen and I had debated driving our rental car out to Ko Olina on the far western edge of the island, where Paradise Cove is located. Our decision to take the shuttle instead proved perspicacious, as the slog through Honolulu’s rush-hour gridlock took nearly two hours to traverse. Much better to relax in air-conditioned comfort while letting a professional manage the stress.

Now, you might be thinking, “Isn’t a commercial luau all touristy and whatnot?” Um, hello… we’re tourists.

Paradise Cove's dancing cousins... well, probably not actual cousins.

Never having been to Hawaii before, the Pirate Queen wanted to take in a few of the classic essentials: see the kalua pig rise from the imu (the underground fire pit in which the pig is roasted); taste some poi; get a temporary Polynesian tattoo; watch some hula and a fire knife dance. Paradise Cove delivered on all of her expectations, in fine style. We scored front-row seats for the imu ceremony. The Pirate Queen was chosen as one of the audience participants in the always hilarious poi tasting (a culinary undertaking she will not eagerly repeat). She got a lovely flower drawn on her arm by a handsome, shirtless young Hawaiian gent. (She had mostly perspired through the tattoo by the time we got back to Honolulu.) We had a pretty fair meal and a great view of the entertaining show, complete with the requisite hula and fire knife dancers. We shared our table with a nice young couple from Australia, from whom we learned that Burger King franchises Down Under are called Hungry Jack’s (hey, you never know when trivia like that might come in handy) and whose accents I struggled to commit to memory for future voiceover projects. And, we saw an amazing sunset over the Pacific.

Sunset at Paradise Cove

All in all, we enjoyed a delightful evening of stereotypical aloha.

And that was our second day on Oahu. I’ll regale you with the Day Three doings next time.

Our Hawaiian honeymoon: Day one

June 8, 2012

Some of you have been clamoring for information about our little Hawaiian excursion. Well, for that subset of this rowdy crowd, this is your lucky day. That is, the first of your lucky days. This is going to take a few posts.

Our adventure began in the predawn hours of a chilly San Francisco morning… but I repeat myself. After being ferried to SFO by an upstanding member of the taxi-driving fraternity Hakka Cabba Dei, and thorough cavity searches performed by the ever-charming staff of the Transportation Security Administration, the Pirate Queen and I boarded a spacious Hawaiian Airlines Airbus and winged our way across the Pacific – a third of the way across the Pacific, at any rate – for the Land of Aloha.

With our suitcases crammed into the rear of our rented Toyota, we traversed the traffic-choked streets of Honolulu toward our Waikiki hotel. That’s far less easy than it sounds, because Honolulu currently holds the title of Gridlock Capital of America. Seriously – you can look it up. Driving in Hawaii’s largest city – okay, Hawaii’s only large city – involves navigating excruciatingly narrow roadways laid out with the organizational linearity of a bowl of spaghetti in the company of nearly a million people in no great hurry to get anywhere. Factor in the presence of tens of thousands of clueless tourists buzzing about blindly at the mercy of GPS or wandering blithely across intersections in flagrant violation of traffic signals, and you’ve got a prescription for automotive apocalypse.

But we got there: Waikiki Beach, U.S.A.

Waikiki Beach... you know you want to be there.

Upon our arrival at our hotel, we found ourselves confronted with a conundrum: What to do with our fine rental vehicle? The entrance to what appeared to be the parking area was rendered inaccessible by a massive delivery truck dropping off the day’s linens. We could spot no valet to whom we could hand over the keys. After several circuits of the crazily designed block, complicated both by one-way streets and hordes of fellow visitors, the Pirate Queen bailed out to seek aid in the hotel lobby while I sat in the blazing sun praying that the local gendarmerie didn’t happen by and cite me for double-parking. Eventually, the Pirate Queen returned with two fresh-faced young chaps, one of whom cheerily loaded our belongings onto a cart while his compatriot whisked the Toyota away for safekeeping. (Or joyriding. We didn’t really know at that point.)

Despite those frustrating first few moments, Hotel Renew turned out to be an excellent choice of lodging for our purposes. Located near the south end of Waikiki Beach, it’s far enough away from the major portion of attractions to be reasonably quiet – except for first thing in the morning, when the garbage trucks come clattering through the block – yet close enough to the beach that one can be sprawled on the world-famous sand after a mere two-minute stroll from the front door.

Hotel Renew... stay here, and get all renewed and stuff.

The Japanese-influenced décor, all straight angles and darkly painted wood, makes a soothing change from the typical chain hotel, and the staff is uniformly friendly and polite, if not always as Johnny-on-the-spot as they might be. The Pirate Queen, who’s known to be fussy about where she sleeps, found the bed and bathroom to her liking, while I was relieved to discover the in-room safe capacious enough for my mammoth laptop as well as all of our other valuables. All in all, we were glad we selected it.

Having settled into our accommodations, we launched ourselves on a leisurely promenade along Kalakaua Avenue, the street that traverses the tourist district. It had been 23 years since my last trip to Waikiki, and as KJ was heavily pregnant at the time, we didn’t do much extended walking. But I remembered traveling this stretch, and I was surprised both at what had changed in three decades and at what remained pretty much the same.

Waikiki Beach... smell the coconut oil on the sunbathing tourists.

What hadn’t changed:

An ABC Store on every corner, and sometimes two or three within a block. For the uninitiated, the ubiquitous ABC Store is Hawaii’s native mash-up of convenience store and touristy gift shop, and they are almost literally everywhere. I kept expecting to walk into a public restroom only to discover that they’d put an ABC Store in one of the toilet stalls.

This weird tree. This ginormous banyan should be transplanted to the grounds of Hogwarts. It’s freakin’ creepy. Albeit in a cool way.

Chinese music under banyan tree, here at the dude ranch across the sea

The crowds. We actually visited during one of Hawaii’s least jam-packed windows – the fallow period between the end of spring break in April and the start of summer travel season on Memorial Day weekend. But even in a traditional down time, Waikiki attracts tons of guests.

The International Marketplace. Imagine every cheesy jewelry, T-shirt, and souvenir shop in every tourist trap in America crammed into a colorful labyrinth of carts, stalls, and stands that winds along seemingly forever, and you’ll get the general picture of the International Marketplace. No wallet is safe.

Tall buildings. Did you know that Honolulu has more skyscrapers than any American city outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago? Just a tidbit of architectural trivia from your Uncle Swan.

This is a tall building. In case that wasn't obvious.

What was new:

Panhandlers. Having lived around, and now in, San Francisco – Mecca for America’s down and out – for 35 years, I’m no stranger to homeless people cadging change on street corners. I was startled, however, to see so many mendicants on the sidewalks of Waikiki. I understand how so many homeless folks get to The City; Greyhound offers a dirt-cheap bus ride from almost anywhere in the contiguous United States. But if you’re flat broke, how the heck do you get to Hawaii? I’ll say this, though — if you have to sleep outdoors, better to do it in balmy Honolulu than in the Arctic chill of San Francisco.

Upscale shopping. The spending experience along Waikiki has always been pricey, but it used to feature much more local flavor. It’s kicked up several notches now with the presence of numerous internationally renowned high-end retail stores. I’m guessing this marketing strategy must be successful, but I question the logic. Does anyone really come to a tropical beach town to buy a Coach bag or a Rolex?

Insane traffic. I mentioned this earlier, but it warrants repeating. Honolulu totally sucks if you’re behind the wheel of a car. I don’t remember it being anywhere nearly this wretched in decades past.

Tiki's Grill and Bar: Be sure to tip your waiter.

We consumed our first Hawaiian repast at a restaurant called Tiki’s Grill and Bar, conveniently located on the third floor of the hotel right next door to ours. The place features an extensive menu of vaguely tropical themed cuisine, most of which was reasonably tasty; a killer view of the Waikiki sunset; live music in the evenings – Honolulu is the universal nexus of lame cover tunes performed on public stages by guys wearing aloha shirts – and yes, oodles and oodles of tikis. A roving photographer snapped our photo (which we were able to purchase for a nominal fee, because there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch in Hawaii) to commemorate the event.

And that was our first day on Oahu. I’ll tell you about our second day in my next post.

Sunset on Waikiki Beach. Just say "ahhhhh."