IT’S ONLY JUST THE START
“Mostly I’m silent” - Beginnings by Chicago, 1969
Brian pulled the dog out of the bun, dipped it in mustard, and took a bite. It had been a few weeks, and the emotions were dripping out of his subconscious.
* His mind wandered to his childhood *
Vomit — burning acid and hotdog — emitting from the rear-facing seats of the station wagon. A combination of car sickness and undiagnosed gluten intolerance hit hard. It was hot, the summer was unusually warm, but the heater was ever-present. If they turned on the heater, the car would overheat, leaving them stranded in Bellevue. The heat baked the smell into the upholstery, and it lingered for years, no matter how hard they tried to remove it. Perhaps because there had been multiple incidents.
Brian felt better, as he sometimes did after his stomach possessed him. The ride home from the Kirkland Costco was long, about forty minutes. They passed through Issaquah, where the new Costco warehouse was under active construction, on their way back to the east edge of the Snoqualmie Valley. Their 1,100-square-foot starter home sat on a single-loop neighborhood at the edge of the Cascades, “under the shadow of Mount Si.” The mountain towered over the one-stoplight town. As it was considered to be very far from Seattle, in those days you could purchase a home for under $100,000.
They turned into the driveway, gravel that led to concrete. They parked next to the pale green Nova, which had a good engine but often needed fixing. His dad could do it; he was an amateur mechanic.
The warm summer light lingered past bedtime of 8:30, although perhaps it was only 8 because it was a Friday, the mandated and inflexible weekly date night laid down by his dad in the stone tablets of marital sanity. But the morning had delights ahead. The trip to Costco had netted muffins. The multipack had chocolate, blueberry, and poppy seed. That elementary-era summer, he preferred the blueberry.
Harried Sunday morning arrived. Getting ready for church in Issaquah often involved some amount of barking between parents and snapping at children. But there were still muffins that needed to be eaten before they went stale, and that smoothed the morning bustle. Breakfast was easy. He outraced his younger brother and sister to score the last blueberry.
Brian liked church, and also what came after. The service finished, and of course, there were snacks to be had. Quartered Costco danishes awaited. He snagged a cheese and an apple (he came to love cherry the most later) and scampered off into the blackberry bushes. The church’s five acres and surrounding undeveloped plots offered this nine-year-old boy unlimited fort-building potential. He hacked through the vines with the perfect stick, thorns be damned, blindly pushing forward to discover the next spot. The stream, orchard, woods, playground, massive rope swing, expansive field… it couldn’t get any better.
“FweeeeeEEEEEEEE!” His mom blasted off her ear-shattering whistle, made by forming a near-circle with her fingers and emptying her lungs between them. It was her only resource to bring him back, as he was usually out of shouting distance. He rushed back, but his stick bridge across the muddy stream didn’t fully hold up. He arrived with a soaked shoe and a muddy knee. It could have been worse, only a slight scolding.
He felt sick on the way home, but after a refried bean burrito lunch made from the recent Costco haul, he felt better. The afternoon was his for the taking. The backyard was calling. It was only a third of an acre, but it contained just enough brush and trees to feel untamed. Even a tiny wild patch meant freedom. The nature of Washington State can comfort and exhilarate. It incepts the best of ideas to the people who find it so, especially when they are young.
His dad, Mike, cooked dinner that night. Mike was still learning to cook back then, experimenting with flavor. It was mostly good, even then. Experimenting, testing, attempting—it was a science. Self-guided discovery made his dad happy, even if perhaps more efficient learning methodologies were available.
Stories were often retold about Brian’s dad. Mike was all tenacity, opinion, goofiness, and loyalty—a blend that inspires legend and affection. He was tender-hearted and zealous. He was an eccentric. He would get lost in himself, not recognizing his outward quirks for long periods. He was always friendly and ready to chat, though he preferred the company of his oldest friends. He loved to “spew”—a word he and his closest friends used as a verb, a noun, and a nickname. As a verb, it meant “to talk intently about something ad nauseum, exploring a topic in a fiery and nearly meditative debate, often until the early morning hours.”
“Dude, that was some serious spew last night, Spew,” could very well have been a sentence spoken to him by a friend, or vice versa.
The downside: Mike was guileless. Coworkers found him sweet, hard-working yet unambitious, skeptical of the conventional business wisdom of the ‘90s, and weird. He was an independent thinker who associated his integrity with his consistency of thought. It was difficult for him to conceal or hold back to make himself look good.
Dinner that night was salmon with spiced wild rice, Brussels sprouts, and Orowheat “Wheat Berry” whole wheat sliced bread with butter. For them, in 1994, salmon was rare. His mother made the standard fare of the era for weekday dinners: grocery store pizzas, casseroles, soups, and the like. Aside from a smattering of fast food, eating out was essentially non-existent given their budget. Mike’s cooking on the occasional weekend was a highlight. It often followed a trip to Costco.
THE WORLD IS
NOT FOR YOU
“Your mind is just like new” - Miracles Out of Nowhere by Kansas, 1969
Brian’s mind snapped back to the present as he scarfed the last bite, and slipped through the checkout stands to avoid making the trek back out the exit and through the entrance. He was meeting his family for a much-needed after-work Costco run, and they were already shopping. Two of his four boys were in an “eating phase.” House and home were in peril.
He wandered the warehouse, scanning for his family. He didn’t get far before he bumped into a sample cart of Korean pork jerky. He had inherited a bit of his dad’s oblivion. He tasted the jerky, and, still chewing, grabbed a bag.
“Over here honey,” his wife called.
He pivoted left, grinned, and held up his find. She pulled an identical bag out of her cart. “Hahaha!” He returned his copy and walked to meet his family. Their younger two boys were in the cart, and the older two were skitting through clothing display tables, as children do—as he had done.
He felt free at Costco. When he was a kid, even as finances “loosened” they were still tight. Spending money meant constraints. But money went a long way at Costco and there were choices. Food and clothing were necessities and the purchases felt like quality compared to Mervyn’s, Target, Macy’s (discount racks only), Kmart, JCPenney, or thrift shops. He suspected his parents felt the same way.
He and his kids walked past the electronics section, and Brian noticed the latest Acer Chromebook was $100 off for a total price of $300… tempting. When he was a kid, the family’s first computer was like $3000. He couldn’t exactly remember…
* More memories of his childhood flood his mind *
“BWAHAHA!” he shouted across the room at his dad, relishing that somehow he used his Engineer to take over his dad’s Construction Yard. Their evening game of Command and Conquer, an early 1990s real-time strategy video game, was going as it always did. He pulled out a win, no matter how close he came to losing.
Brian was a nerd. Homeschooled in a single-income household, he was obsessed with computers and early American frontier history, Davy Crockett, the Seahawks, and Command and Conquer. If online gaming communities had existed, he would have been a 99th-percentile C&C champion, at least that’s what his friends told him. His dad went to work later than most dads and came home later too, or so it seemed. But the whole year that Brian was 14, Mike played at least one game of C&C with him every night. Somehow, Brian won every. Single. Game.
That was the year they discovered Mike had cancer.
Mike loved computers, electricity, science, and software. Growing up as a kid in east LA, he would scavenge old electronics parts and car batteries to build radios, interesting circuits, and inventions with various purposes (including shocking neighborhood bullies — as the story goes). In the 1990s, when almost no one had a PC, Mike invested in one. He could barely afford it. Later, he bought components and built computers with his kids, tried to teach them to code, and had a LAN rigged up before anyone else they knew.
That made Brian’s house a destination for his friends. His best friend MP was over a lot, and he was over at MP’s house a lot. Both homeschooled, they’d work on school together and get done as fast as they could. Then, afternoons were heaven—fires with magnifying glasses, football in MP’s yard, half-court games, biking around the neighborhoods. Sometimes they’d ride to the brambles and build forts near Uncle K’s house.
Uncle K was not actually his uncle. He was Mike’s best friend from middle school. He’d moved to the Seattle area after Mike did, and while not related by blood, they were brothers at a spiritual level. They did everything together. They brewed IPA beer way before the craft beer movement, and drank it while they soaked up the sorrow of the pre-Holmgren Seahawks era.
By the late 90s, Mike’s friends and family recognized his progression as a chef. Mike loved to host dinners, and would do his best to invite a familiar family from church over to eat every month or so. More often, it would be Uncle K and his family, or Mike’s sister and her family. His sister lived in eastern Washington but came to the west side of the Cascades for church with the rest of the family. It was perfect, because they had to drive through the Snoqualmie Valley to get home.
With money tight, these dinners started out rudimentary. And it got tougher for a bit. Mike had only missed four days of work through his cancer, but upon recovery, he was laid off — right after they bought a more expensive home. He spent sixteen years at the same employer, but the fallout of 9/11 had decimated the avionics industry. They were sustained by church members, often anonymously, while Brian’s mom went for her realtor’s license.
Then Mike secured a new role as head of IT at a beauty startup, and the miraculous occurred: It was the best financial year of their lives. The realtor move paid off, and with a double income, they took a financial breath for a year. Costco trips were more regular. Steak and salmon were more frequent. Extended family dinners were elevated by Mike’s growing self-education in the world of wine. He had always enjoyed wine, but his financial situation had never matched his interest. His interest compounded when he realized he was allergic to something in beer.
Mike focused on Washington wine. He focused on the low- to mid-tier wines, and he felt he got more from Washington at that price point. Quality-to-price ratio was paramount. He nearly exclusively bought his wine from the local Kroger and Costco.
“I’d rather be a wine-o than a whiner!”
Mike joked with the Issaquah Costco wine buyer, D.
“Ha, that’s for sure,”
D politely responded.
A mediocre joke, which compounded exponentially to many mediocre jokes over many visits.
“Here’s my thirty-nine cents. That Horse Heaven Hills cab isn’t drinking so great this year. Weak. It’s weak.”
(Mike always gave his thirty-nine cents, and never just two. He had a lot to say).
Mike’s jokes transformed into tasting notes.
“It’s one note - leather!”
Mike and D exchanged tasting notes for years. D would often text Mike with his thoughts on wine that he’d just brought in, and Mike would pick up a bottle (or more depending on the price), and share his thoughts in return.
Over the years the Issaquah Costco functioned as a sort of a main street for friends and family. Whenever you went in, you wondered who you might bump into. And whenever Mike bumped into someone, he shared his latest find with them. “You’ll love this, it’s a steal. It’s $13 but it drinks like a $20 bottle!” he’d say, walking them over to D. Mike became friends with D, but also the assistant wine buyer, the pharmacist, and some of the cashiers and other staff as well.
Holidays, parties, Seahawks games were often powered by Costco groceries and recommendations from D.
THERE'LL BE PEACE WHEN YOU ARE DONE
“Nothing equals the splendor” - Carry On My Wayward Son by Kansas, 1976
“Brian, watch where you’re going!”
His daydreaming ended as he accidentally bumped the cart into his wife. The cart was filling up. Kirkland milk, eggs, batteries, butter, a roasted chicken, organic tortilla chips, bottled water, dog food, microwave bacon, chicken stock, refried beans (still a favorite), organic bananas, French brie, and more. This was alongside other favorite brands: Liberte yogurt, Jack’s salsa, Tapatio hot sauce, Prego tomato sauce, and a bottle of Malbec from Argentina. Not to mention new finds like the pork jerky and a $15 pair of English Laundry slacks.
They circled around to checkout and pulled up behind two other carts and a flatbed, stacked high with cases of Gatorade, water, and Fruit by the Foot.
“Can we get ice cream?!” the kids clamored, pulling at parental hands and clothing. The parents smiled. “Maybe.” This inspired much delight. The frozen yogurt was cheap but the portions were huge, so they split two cups between the six of them. Brian remembered how much his dad loved ice cream.
* He continued to muse on the past, just six months back *
Mike scooped heaping bowls of peppermint ice cream for Brian’s four boys.
“You want whipped cream on it?!” The children squealed a chorus of yesses. Mike sprayed the can on the ice cream, and then directly into their open mouths. He scooped the adults Snoqualmie Mukilteo Mudd, chocolate of course. He savored his own portion. A coughing fit followed every fifth bite or so. Fifteen years after he beat lymphoma, his second bout with cancer was upon him, this time lung cancer.
Mike’s 60th birthday was approaching. That night, his kids and their mom had started to plan his party, an Amazing Race simulation around the Seattle area with his best friends. Mike loved movies but disliked the silver screen—except for a few shows, most notably the Amazing Race. Somehow the combination of contrived competition, team dynamics, and worldwide locations tickled his attention.
Race day arrived. The festivities kicked off with a blind taste test to identify ingredients, most of them purchased from Costco. Then the group pushed east up into the Cascade mountains, where they tromped through deep snow and launched snowballs at a target. A trek from there to Pioneer Square in Seattle, then Whidbey Island on the ferry. When they arrived at the Clinton dock, Mike and his race partner sprinted all the way down the pier in a foot race to beat out his brothers-in-law. Lung cancer or not, he was determined to win. That night, they ate a meal that his sister and brother-in-law had prepared from ingredients purchased at Costco, drinking wine purchased from Costco — likely recommended by D. The next day, the race continued at the historic Fort Casey. Then up to the north tip of Whidbey: Deception Pass.
The Cranberry Lake campground at Deception Pass State Park had been their family’s vacation spot for over twenty years, and the tradition continues. For many of the early years, they secured the secluded group site, complete with a couple of open-air Adirondack shelters, multiple sites to set up camp, and a “private” outhouse. The acres of open forest and campground were perfect for capture the flag, hide and seek, horseshoes, and whatever other play a group of cousins could want.
To Brian, camping meant stocking up on the best and most special snacks and drinks that Costco could offer. He recalled that the best camp food—including steak and wine—was abundant across all the sites of all his extended family and friends, mostly procured from Costco (by all). Then there was the rotation of beaches for long-lingering: Rosario with tidepools and flat rocks for skipping and stacking, Bowman with a massive pier and perfect football/frisbee/Wiffle ball field, Cornet with the marina and dock, North Beach with its stunning sunsets, and more. They’d plop with their food and folding chairs. Then it was off to sandcastles, kayaks, crabbing (both off dock and boat), clamming and mussels, and many invented games that involved accurately thrown objects. The occasional plunge into the icy Puget Sound would invigorate the brave and the brazen among them.
At least one night every year on the trip, there was a shared bounty of seafood. The harvested shellfish would be souped or steamed and spread in heaps across connected picnic tables for the stuffing of eager faces. Wine and seafood in gorgeous proportions, unmatched by any restaurant meal. Mike would pop what he considered his best wine of the trip. “Have a schmackerel of this,” he’d say. “This will blow your mind.”
One year, in a quaint nearby island town, some of the extended crew of family (and like-family members) stumbled upon an international town crier competition. Of course the group was intrigued, and the town crier competition was upon them. Speeches were prepared. Bellowing was practiced. “OYEZ OYEZ” — read: oh yay, oh yay! — “TODAY, IN THIS CAMPGROUND, UNCLE K CONSUMED EXCESSIVE AMOUNTS OF GOOD AND PLENTY.” The headlines fit the times. As Brian remembered it, he did beat out his dad, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends in the two years that he competed.
Mike’s Amazing Race concluded with a short plane ride, and a finish line at an Inn in La Conner, near Washington’s tulip fields. He partied with his friends, jammed along with a blues band, and drank wine which was, yes, primarily purchased from Costco. They told stories late into the night. His cancer was late-stage, and everyone brought their best bottles and memories to what they all expected to be his final party.
They were right. Mike died a few months later. His remembrance included a graveside service for family and a funeral at a local church for a broader set of friends. D the Costco wine buyer was one of those friends who came.
Dinner after was outdoors among the vines of a nearby winery. It was a common meal, shared by his friends and family, with toasts and stories. Common meals shared by friends and family—it made sense, perhaps thirty-nine of them.
As Brian showed his receipt at the exit, a verse struck him with force, and the words fell out of his mouth.
Let us produce together
In duty and in love
Let us consume together
Tastes of things above
The checker looked at him quizzically and retorted her short benediction: “Have a good day.” They trudged back to the minivan.
SOMETHING TELLS ME I'M INTO SOMETHING GOOD
“She's the kind of girl who's not too shy” - Herman’s Hermits, 1971
Just over a year later at the Issaquah Costco, Brian’s mom bumped into an old friend.
“Oh hi J,” she chirped out.
“Hello M.” he was caught off guard, as he was adding Kirkland fresh squeezed orange juice to his cart.
They knew each other from shared time at church, and J and his family had come camping at Deception Pass more than once, but the years had flown by without any contact.
They chatted for a moment but neither really remembered what they said that day at the Issaquah Costco. But other memories were emblazoned on J’s brain forever.
“I look like crap,” he had thought to himself. He was wasting away towards death after his wife died from breast cancer. He knew he had let himself go—that was perhaps his intention. Yet here he was, bending over this metal shopping cart, and something lit.
A widow and widower found hope as they shared a simple meal at the Costco food court. They were married a year later.